Required Courses: Zoology 101, 102 and 103
Three of my favorite pictures from the picture bible story book I used to have as a child had animals in them. The first was of Adam naming all the animals in the garden of Eden. They were all there together, peacefully waiting to learn that one was going to get to wear the name “wolf” while another had to suffer the name “lamb” which did not bode well for its future career in the world.
The next picture was Noah on the ark with his floating zoo – of course he had to make a hatch in the roof to allow for the giraffe’s long neck; but again, all the animals were there in peace, living together, at least as long as the flood waters covered the earth.
The third is the picture of the peaceable kingdom from the prophets’ vision of the kingdom of God, when there would be a new creation and wolf and lamb would once again be reconciled and live in peace together just as they did in Eden.
We need these three pictures; they teach us something crucial, so let’s think of the three pictures ans three required courses: Zoology 101, Creation; 102, Noah’s floating zoo; and 103, the wolf, the lamb, and the wild beasts in the peaceable kingdom of God.
Why do we need these pictures? How do they help us today?
Because these are anxious times, and these pictures help us get to the questions that are at the heart of our anxiety: what in the world is God doing, and what does he want from me?
These questions are deeper than the economic crisis we are in, but perhaps they are provoked or even intensified by it. How am I going to get through these times, we wonder?
What does God want? God wants what he has always wanted. What is that? Look at picture number one, Zoology 101: creation. God wants a world in which there is peace, and plenty, where all men and all women, made in his image, share life in harmonious community with each other and in the presence of God himself.
But there have been some complications along the way, and plan A for a perfect world did not last too long. Humans turned out to be pretentious, selfish people who, when given a chance to “be like God, knowing good and evil” would fall for the first apple offered to them.
What should God do with a world gone wrong? If plan A, starting from scratch did not work, how about plan B, start over with only the good guys (and the animals since they are not guilty of anything). Plan B is the story of Noah and the flood; picture 2; Zoology 102.
But people, being what they are – what we are – are simply going to start living the same story over. How many times should God wipe them all out and start again? Obviously that plan has no future either. God understands this. So after trying it once, he announced that plan B was off the table. He put away his weapon, his bow, and hung it up in the sky making sure it was pointed permanently away from the earth, so no one would get hurt that way again. To seal the decision, he made a covenant – with Noah, yes, and (did you notice?) with “every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” Animals included.
So now, if starting from scratch does not work, and starting over with only the good guys does not work either, what will God do?
Teach. He will start with a very small class – in fact just one family, Abraham and Sarah, and he will teach them about himself and what he wants from them. He teaches them that it is his long-range plan to bless the whole world through them.
It’s a long story; the class size grows, and God wants no Hebrew left behind, so he sends Moses who brings a detailed curriculum of instruction down from Mt. Sinai. After him other teachers come too, like the prophets, so the lessons continue. And what do the prophets teach? That God still wants what he wanted since the days of the Garden of Eden. He still wants a kingdom of peace and plenty, of blessing and of community, of restored, reconciled relationships between people and God – and yes, animals too. They picture God’s plan like picture number three; Zoology 103; In Isaiah’s picture, the wolf and the lamb at peace once again. ( Isa 11:6–9)
The prophet Hosea says it like this: I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety. Hos. 2:18
Hosea pictures a future day in which all is restored: a new covenant will be made, peace will be possible, and even nature will be put back to its original condition: the covenant will be “with the wild animals.”
If there came a person who could be “with the wild animals” in perfect peace, would not that signal that the time of that new covenant had come? That the time had in fact been fulfilled; that the kingdom of God had come near?
With those exact words, the Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus went out in to the wilderness for 40 days, and was “with the wild animals”. And at the end of those days, he came proclaiming: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Picture number three is coming true: it has started. The time for the new covenant has been fulfilled: Jesus, God’s beloved Son has come.
What does this have to do with us? Everything.
We know what God wants: he wants what he has always wanted: a kingdom of peace and plenty, of reconciliation and community, of blessing in his presence. But because we are still the same kind of people we were after plan A and plan B, he needs to continue the teaching. His lesson is short and simple. It has has exactly two verbs of action, both in the imperative form: repent! and believe in the good news, the gospel!
Repent: because we are still grasping pretentiously for apples so that we can be like God, determining for ourselves what is good and what we will call evil. It’s always the same story; it goes like this: “I will call me, and my kind good; and I will call those other guys and their kind, evil. They are different, they do not believe the same things I do, they do not want to live like we do, so they are evil. If they are poor, what is that to me? If the don’t have access to health care, is that our problem? If my lifestyle puts them at risk, well, everybody around me lives like me; I can’t change the world.”
That apple is rotten. The kingdom of God is a reconciled kingdom – not that everyone looks and acts alike, but that there is community and mutuality between people; generosity and responsibility that spans vast seas of difference in tastes, languages, and lifestyles.
We carry within us the constant tendency to exclude and condemn; and therefor the constant requirement to “repent!” Change course! Turn around to go a different direction! Verb one is the command: repent!
Verb two of our lesson from the teacher at the end of time is “believe!” Now this is tricky. How do you command belief? Can you command belief any more than you can command enjoyment? “Here: like this!” “But I hate heavy metal music.” “I don’t care: I command you to like it!”
Because commanding belief is futile, what could the command mean? Believing in the gospel is not like believing in the Easter bunny. It is much more like believing your spouse when she says, “OK, I forgive you.”
“Then, you’re not angry with me?”
“Believe me, I forgive you.”
Believe Jesus: God is out to get what he has always wanted: reconciliation, peace. The good news is that God has watched us take the apple, he sees all the horror and pain we have brought on ourselves, our families, our relationships, our whole world, and he is not going to start over from scratch with a new world, he is not going to start over with just the good guys and a flood, he is going to teach us that God wants us back. God wants us to repent from the pretentious apple path, and to come back and believe that his love has overcome our evil.
How do we believe? Just like with our spouse: “You forgive me? Well then, let’s sit down and have supper together and talk.”
What will we find him talking about at supper? He will tell us what he wants; his quest does not stop with a table for two. He wants that third picture; Zoology 103, the wolf and the lamb together. He has come to bring the kingdom of God, the ultimate reconciliation.
He put away his bow after the flood, now we have to put ours away as well. We do not get to choose who is “us” and who is “them,” who is in and who is out, who are “our kind” and who are “those other guys,” who we call kin and care for, and who we call alien and ignore. It’s his garden; no claws, no fangs allowed.
So believing the gospel means acting on the basis of the gospel’s truth. It is another way of saying “follow me” which Jesus says as he meets his disciples. “Do what I do, live like I live, welcome children, heal the sick, touch lepers, share your loaves and fishes, tell sinners, “neither do I condemn you.” Practice hospitality, visit prisoners, and keep on saying “Our Father in Heaven, holy is your name! Your kingdom come! Your will be done in my life, as completely as it is done in heaven.”
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”