I was listening to Stu Garrard’s brilliant new album, Beatitudes, last night while driving through beautiful, unspoilt countryside, and reflecting on it again this morning while jogging through more beautiful, unspoilt countryside. My choice of words is intentional. The countryside was beautiful and unspoilt. I recognise of course that there are other parts of the planet that have been spoilt and as a result are not beautiful.
When God created the world he made it very good. Light and darkness, day and night: yes – good! Space and sky: yes – good! Land and sea: yes – good! Seed-bearing (ie, self-replicating) flowers, trees and other plants: yes – good! Sun, moon, stars and planets: yes – good! Birds, fish and sea monsters: yes – good! Animals, domestic and wild, and creepy-crawlies: yes – good! Humankind, male and female, in God’s own image, to care for creation: yes – good! God’s overall verdict: yes, very good!
This world is good! This universe is good! And where we, God’s creation-carers, haven’t messed up we can see the goodness, experience the beauty, sense the divine. God created humankind to care for creation, but that doesn’t mean that God became some kind of ‘absentee landlord’. Wherever there is beauty, wherever there is love, wherever there is compassion and forgiveness, wherever there is hope, joy, mercy, shalom – and there’s a lot of it about: God is there because God is love. God is beauty. God is life. God’s Spirit is all around us.
How long, O Lord, how long?
Yet this is not the world as we know it. We have ransacked the planet. We exploit one another. We build walls of hatred and division. Selfishness and injustice abound. Greed and corruption lurk behind every corner. Lust, pride and self-promotion are rife. Racism and exclusion, inequality and oppression are endemic. And so the cry of our hearts, echoing the psalmist, is How long, O Lord, how long? We know in our heart of hearts that we are made for something higher, bolder, more beautiful than the grime of selfishness and deceit, corruption and exploitation.
Can you imagine this world with all the nasty bits removed? Chris Walley has a go in his trilogy, The Lamb among the Stars. Don’t you long for it? I certainly do. I believe God does. More than that, it is what he promises. In both Old and New Testaments, in the books of Isaiah and Revelation, God promises a new heaven and a new earth. Not new in the sense of brand new, starting all over again, but new in the sense of renewed, continuity as well as discontinuity with the current heaven and earth. God promises judgement and a consuming fire, and in that fire selfishness, injustice, corruption, greed, lust, pride, racism, exploitation and the rest – they will all be consumed.
Injustice and exploitation always have victims. Selfishness, greed and self-promotion are always at the expense of others. It is these, the discards of society, whom Jesus addresses in his Beatitudes: the poor, the hungry, the victim. Jesus gives hope: he addresses the meek (they will inherit the earth), those who hunger and thirst for justice (they will receive it), the merciful (they will receive mercy), the pure in heart (they will see God).
Suffering is an integral part of this creation. Part of the point of it must be to bring out the best in us. Without a tragedy there would not be the same opportunity for expressions of generosity and compassion. Without the bad guy we would not have the same chance to display bravery and selfless love. Without injustice, would we have the same yearning for justice? If we were never wronged, when would we show forgiveness and mercy? What we do know is that when any in his creation suffers, God suffers with them.
You are the light of the world
Straight after the Beatitudes Jesus calls us a light. He has set up his tent in enemy territory so that we, as troublemaking peacemakers (a concept from Garrard’s album), can shine in his name and stand up for justice, show mercy, demonstrate purity of heart, stand alongside the poor, bring God’s comfort to those who mourn, help make the earth make something worth inheriting.
In short, so that we can be the answer to the prayer Jesus taught us to pray: Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.