May 6, 2007 - Fifth Sunday of Easter
God speaks to us. Jesus Christ is called “the Word.” Everything He says to us begins and ends with His Son Jesus. God speaks His Word to us and we call it “revelation.” God tells us about Himself. What goes on in our hearts and minds is a mystery to others unless we speak, unless we reveal ourselves in words or actions. Likewise, unless God speaks, unless He reveals Himself, His nature and even existence would be a mystery to us.
So the Word of God in Jesus Christ speaks to reveal God’s own self to us. We find that revelation now primarily in the words of the Bible. However, the Bible has not always existed, nor can everyone read it, even now in this day of multiple translations. So God has always spoken in ways that everyone can hear and understand.
In several places the Bible points to the fact that God speaks to us, reveals Himself to us through His creation, through the natural world. Theology calls this natural revelation. We “read” or “hear” this revelation by observing the world around us and discovering how it speaks of its Creator.
The very existence of the universe speaks to us of the existence of God. We ask how it could have come to be on its own and realize that there must be a powerful cause for what exists. The kindly order of our own planet speaks to us of the intelligence and goodness of God. Our distance from the sun, the axial tilt causing changes in season, even the presence of a large moon all work together in close harmony to produce a place where plant, animal and human life can flourish. And the beauty and complexity of our world, the cosmos, and life itself has consistently spoken of the wisdom and design of God.
So Psalm 19 begins, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands,” and goes on to picture how the skies above speak to us, even though they use no language or voice. “Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.” That knowledge is what we learn of God by His natural revelation, the Word of God speaking to us through what He has made.
Psalm 19 leads directly from speaking of the wonder of the sun in its course across the sky in verse 6 to a delight in the written Word of God in His law in verse 7. Natural revelation is meant to lead us to special revelation, the specific, direct, spoken Word of God revealed in Scripture and ultimately in Jesus Christ.
We may learn much about God from nature, but He still remains mysterious until He finally speaks to us through His Son in the Scriptures. Paul explains in Romans 1 that we learn from nature that God is powerful and good and that we are not. We constantly sin against His goodness. So in the end, having learned this through the book of nature, we turn and open the book of grace that comes to through Jesus Christ.
She walked along looking at the wall. One after the other she passed by cute crayon drawings full of brightly colored lollipop trees, stick figures and houses with smoke curling out the chimneys. Finally, she spotted the one she was after. But instead of trees and flowers and smiling faces, she saw a helter-skelter scribble of stars and rocket fins and figures with bubbles around their heads. My mother knew my work without being told, even without the painfully crooked “Stephen” scrawled in the corner. “What is it?” she asked my kindergarten teacher. “He told me it was a ‘Space Junkyard,’” was the answer.
In the way that mothers do, she treasured that ridiculous drawing. We may still have it buried in a box of her things somewhere. She knew it was mine just by looking. It had my mark all over it. Without a word it displayed all my fascination with planets and space travel. That crayon creation revealed her son. The things we make say something about who we are.
Here at the beginning of his letter to the Romans, Paul tells us the same is true of God. His creation reveals Him. Verse 20 says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.”
Creations reveal their creators. You know an artist by his art. My wife can hear just a few notes and, without even being able to identify the piece, say, “That’s Wagner,” or “That’s Verdi.” You might be able to do the same for Bach or Bob Dylan or Bono. You know a Picasso painting when you see it, a Frank Lloyd Wright house, a Steven Spielberg film, a Tommy Hilfiger shoe. And you know the creations of God. As we read this morning in Psalm 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God.”
As my friend Stuart Hackett wrote, we all engage in revelation. It’s what people do. Mostly we talk to each other, revealing our thoughts and feelings in words. But you know we also reveal ourselves in non-verbal ways, without talking or writing. You say something about yourself by the way you dress, by the way you sit in a chair, by the way you twist your hair or smile or frown or yawn. And, as I’ve said, we reveal ourselves by what we make. A garden. A mess in the kitchen sink. Straight As. A load of credit card debt. What we do and what we create says who we are, even without words.
God is a person. He speaks to those who can hear in Jesus and in the Bible. But He speaks to everyone in what He has done, in what He’s made. The written Word is now the clearest revelation, but God’s Word is also in the world we see around us. As Acts 14:17 says, even for people without the Bible, who haven’t heard of Jesus, “he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.”
Throughout history people have been moved to acknowledge something spiritual when they look at the world. Asian people recognized an order and force behind the world and called it Tao. Africans and Native Americans felt the presence of a Great Spirit beyond the little spirits they saw in animals and trees. Greeks and Romans worshipped a whole host of gods who they thought controlled their lives. Almost all people believe in some form of spiritual reality lying behind the universe. But they all have different ideas about it.
Paul says here in verse 18 that “what may be know about God is plain to them,” but it doesn’t seem plain. Why so many different pictures of God if it really is plain? Why so much confusion and so much hatred between religions if all you need is to look at a sunset or a flower and see God in them?
Some Christians have wanted to leave natural revelation out of Christian theology. Awhile back I suggested that theology is like a porch to get us into the house of God. These folks would say natural revelation is a rotten board in that porch. If you try to stand on it, your foot will go through. You might get a vague idea of God from creation, but to learn anything that really matters you have to turn to the Word, to Jesus and the Bible.
One of the most famous theologians who didn’t like natural theology was Karl Barth. He discussed it in 1934 with another German named Emil Brunner. Can you learn about God from nature? Is a “natural theology” possible? Barth’s response is famous: an article with a one word title, Nein!, “No!” There is no common ground, he said, between a Christian person reading the Bible and someone trying to read only the book of nature.
It’s easy to see why Barth gave this answer. In 1934 some German Christians justified the ideas of the Nazis on the basis of what they thought they learned from nature. Evolution. Survival of the fittest. Development of a master race. They saw it in nature and so they supposed it was God’s plan. They believed you could be a Christian and a Nazi too. It frightened Barth so much that he said “No,” no to any kind of natural theology.
The problem for Barth was the same problem Paul addresses here—sin. Revelation comes to us, but out of sin we ignore it. And we get into all kinds of trouble. You see your wife’s expression when you say you’re going golfing instead of spending time at home. You see it and you even know what it means. But you ignore it. You go off to play and forget about it. You even start to imagine it’s all OK. Paul says the same is true of human beings looking at God’s creation. Verse 21 says, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” We see God’s power and love in creation. We realize we have obligations to Him, but we ignore them.
Years ago when Rosa Parks was still alive I read a newspaper story about her. You remember that Rosa Parks is one of the great symbols of the civil rights movement, the black woman who began the Montgomery boycott of segregated buses by refusing to yield her seat to a white person. At the time of the newspaper story, she was an old woman. A man broke into her home and found her sitting there. He recognized her and said, “Aren’t you Rosa Parks?” She said yes. It was a moment of revelation, of recognition. The thief knew whose home he was in. He had now every opportunity to do the right thing, to honor her and walk away, maybe even change his life. But instead he went ahead and robbed her anyway. What he wanted took precedence over what he knew was right.
That’s the way we are. That’s the problem Paul is pointing to here in this whole first chapter of Romans. We know about God. As he will argue you in chapter 2, we know what’s right and wrong. But we turn away from it. We turn from God to our own ideas and our own ways. Verses 25 says, “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” As you can see from verse 23, Paul was thinking of pagans making idols, shaped like birds and beasts and human beings, out of wood and stone and silver and gold. But what he says applies just as much to people like you and me worrying about our cars and houses and bank accounts. Worrying about our clothes and our waistlines and our medical plans. Worshipping and serving created things instead of the Creator.
What Paul says here is that in creation we should not be looking for our own needs and wants, but the “power and divine nature” of God. It’s so plain that he can say in verse 20 that we are “without excuse” if we don’t see it. If we live in this awesome, beautiful, world and enjoy even a little of its pleasures, we have no excuse for ignoring God. No more excuse than that burglar had for ignoring Rosa Parks. He knew her. We know God. There’s no excuse.
The natural revelation is there. You’ve seen it. The Milky Way on a clear night in the mountains. The waves crashing on a rocky beach. Rhododendrons opening in your garden. Geese honking along in perfect V formation. A newborn baby opening her eyes at you. It all wears the imprint of the One who made it. As the Psalm says, “no speech or words are used,” but “their message reaches the ends of the earth.”
But natural revelation only takes us so far. And far too often we take it and go the wrong way. If we were perfect, if we always thought and did what was right, then natural revelation would be fine by itself. But God allows us our free will. He allows us to seek what we want. As verse 24 says, God allows us, gives us over to our desires, even our desires for what hurts us and hurts others. God lets us be sinners, lets us, it says in verse 25, give up the truth we know and buy into lies.
God lets us do as we please because He wants us to love Him. That love is not coerced, not forced. God comes gently, in the beauty of sunsets and cool breezes and fresh mown grass. He reveals His power in the terrible beauty of lightning and earthquakes and tornados, but does not force anyone to believe or to do what’s right. Finally, God reveals Himself in the beauty of a baby who was His own Son. In the beauty of one good Man’s life. In the beauty of love that gave itself up for us on the Cross.
The book of nature leads us into this book, into the Scriptures which reveal Jesus Christ. That’s what happening in Psalm 19. One moment David is singing about God’s glory revealed in the heavens. In verses 5 and 6 he’s picturing the glory of the sunrise as like a bridegroom arising beaming from his wedding night, or like an athlete running a course triumphantly across the sky. And then in verse 7, he turns from the heavens to say, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.” He turns from the heavenly Word to the written Word, because they say the same thing. They both reveal the glory of God.
Yet the written Word adds something we desperately need. Psalm 19:11 says that by the written words “your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward.” He goes on to pray for forgiveness of his sins, for protection from his sins. That is the great gift we find revealed in Scripture that we cannot read from the book of nature. In Jesus Christ the God who made us will also redeem us, save us from our sins, and make us new.
That’s why Paul wrote this at the beginning of Romans. He says to both Gentiles who are reading the book of nature and to Hebrews who have the book of God’s Law that they both need to hear one, true living Word. We see God’s power and goodness, whether in nature or in His law, and know we are sinners. That knowledge leads us then to Romans 3 where Paul writes, “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
The Word of God we most need to hear is that Word of grace in Jesus. That’s why God speaks to us, both in nature and in the Bible. He speaks to tell us of grace, of love. He speaks through this world to tell us this world is not the end of our lives.
We’ve just come through Oregon winter. It’s cold and dark and wet. But then came a few days of sunshine. The buds opened up, the flowers come back, the trees turned green. The world blooms in new life as Easter Scriptures remind us of the new life of Jesus, our dying and rising Lord. He’s the true Word who brings life to the world, Jesus who died on a cross under a dark sky and rose in the sunshine on a Sunday morning. Once you’ve read it in the Bible, you can see that message too in the world He has made.
Jesus gave us another lesson from creation. As we come to the table here this morning, bread from the fields and fruit from the vine speak to us again of what He has done for us, His body broken and His blood shed so we may be forgiven. Once more, nature reveals our Lord to us. Heaven and earth tell the story.
So Paul says there’s no excuse. There’s no excuse not to know God. There’s no excuse for sin against Him. But the good thing is, there’s no excuse for you and I not to accept His grace and forgiveness for that sin. God revealed Himself. He revealed Himself in the shining face of the sky, but He also revealed Himself in the blessed, loving face of Jesus. There’s no excuse for not accepting that love, for not enjoying new life in Him. No excuse.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj