We pivot, now. The first half of the Church Year was dominated by feasts connected to the life of Jesus. Now, the second half of the Church Year will move forward from that. The Gospel today enacts that. It is the end of the Gospel of Matthew, and refers to everything that has preceded. Yet next week, we will pick up Matthew not even halfway through. We’ll spend the next 24 weeks pondering today, living into today, trying to make at least temporary sense of today, reading the heart of Matthew from today.
Maybe a way to think about it is that we’re reading Matthew the way grad students read books. We read the conclusion to see what the author thinks she has said, then go back to trace how she got there. It’s how you read your forty books a week. So we read the end today. Cut to the chase. Jesus has all authority, we are to go, make disciples of all nations, oh, baptize them in the triune name (and that on Trinity Sunday, nice touch!), teaching them everything that Jesus has commanded. Aw, man! We’re gonna have to read the whole thing closely, aren’t we? Yeah. That’s what we’ll be doing henceforth.
Fortunately, we can read and study Matthew any time, and while we’ll focus on different sections as we go, we can talk now about it. In Matthew, once Jesus is baptized, he starts his ministry teaching and performing miracles for Hebrews only. He even holds back the disciples who want to go to the gentiles. This doesn’t seem to work, so Jesus shifts his focus, begins talking about a cross. As he heals and teaches he is on the way to Jerusalem, and a cosmic confrontation with the Hebrew authorities, Rome, and sin itself. The confrontation will leave Jesus choosing not to fight his killers but to forgive them, Christ’s saving blood on all people, and death’s hold on the dead broken. God chooses to maintain God’s loving relationships rather than let them die. Really, it’s God choosing relationship with creation, God choosing to be present in the world God made, and God choosing to be consistent with creating as Genesis describes it.
We read part of our creation story today. Many societies have creation stories. Ours has become controversial, as some have tried to oppose it to science or even to teach it as science. As usual, context is helpful if we want to understand what the story says. The creation story of Genesis 1 takes its current form likely during the Exile. The people of Jerusalem lived in Babylon and were not permitted to travel. So, they got a lot of exposure to Babylonian religion and ritual. The Babylonians had a creation myth. According to their story, there was a nasty serpentine ocean goddess named Tiamat, and the gods decided she needed to go. They chose the god Marduk to challenge her, and he won. He tore her body in two, and used one half to make the heavens and the other half to make the earth. A little later on, Marduk decided to kill Tiamat’s husband, Kingu, and used his blood to make people. That’s the creation myth the Hebrews have to listen to all the time.
Scholars continue to research and debate the nature of the relationship between the biblical story and the Babylonian story. It’s clear that there are some major differences. In the Bible, chaotic waters are not defeated in bloody single combat. Rather, they are moved—gently yet firmly—to one side so that there can also be dry land. People come to be not from the blood of a murdered god, but from the simple instruction of a god calm and in control. Where Marduk kills to create life, God makes room for life, separating night and day, wet and dry, sky and land and sea. There’s always room for more creatures in God’s creation. It is true that life often comes from death, and that things have to die so that others may live. I won’t deny that. It’s important to remember that at the start, when God is planting God’s garden, when God wants something new, God just makes room for it. It is in that sense that Christ’s saving actions on the cross are consistent with creation. In the cosmic confrontation, God keeps making room for more, even to the point of forgiving those who are killing him, of resurrecting the dead so they can hang out with God again, and of sanctifying those who have turned their backs on God so that when the day comes that all is again as it was in the Garden, they too can be in relationship with God.
I don’t know about you but I think that’s…frankly beyond my ability to explain or express. God’s profound forgiveness and desire for ongoing relationship with us overwhelms us. Confuses some of us. A lot of us struggle with believing it is true. I’m not sure everyone takes the relationship with God seriously. This isn’t just “God is nice” or “free pass on all discretions”; it’s relationship. In any relationship, partners are accountable to one another. God made promises to us, and yeah, if sins weren’t forgiven, we’d have serious grounds to say, “What gives, Lord?” And we as part of creation are in turn accountable to God.
We’ve heard recently from some of our leaders that God would not allow climate change, or that if climate change is real God will fix it, and that God doesn’t want us to worry about the environment. Well, I agree that God does not want us to worry; God wants us to do something, preferably something helpful. We’ve done an awful lot of unhelpful things, destructive and wasteful things. A quarter century ago the ELCA social statement Caring for Creation named it: Sin. Of course some humans deny climate change: it’s embarrassing. As the statement says, “A disrupted nature is a judgment on our unfaithfulness as stewards.” God holds us accountable for our obvious role in an obvious mess.
We took human dominion, as spelled out in Genesis 1:28 and Psalm 8, but left out the part when God became human and exercised dominion from a cross. That social statement of 1993 declares, “Alienated from God and from creation, and driven to make a name for ourselves, we become captive to demonic powers and unjust institutions. In our captivity, we treat the earth as a boundless warehouse and allow the powerful to exploit its bounties to their own ends.”
Yet even in captivity we have hope. For it was in captivity in Babylon that Genesis 1 took shape, opposing bloodthirsty triumphalism with a God who kept making room for new things and always saw that they were good. That same God sees the goodness in us. God keeps choosing to be in relationship with us, to be present in this world, and to act as God acted in creating it all—making room for more and calling it good. We are captive to sin as Israel was captive to Babylon, yet where our sinful world lauds exploitation and destruction, the creation story opposes it all with a God who with a flap of the wings makes space for everything. That creation story, full of God’s profound love and joy in the goodness of everything, calls us to care for the world as God does.
That means seeing the good in all of creation, including the parts you may think are causing the problem. It’s not about blaming; it is about confessing, being forgiven, and working together. Think of it like your own garden at home, growing up. Mom and Dad have taken pride in building the beds and planting the flowers and vegetables, tending each plant, and one day your little brother rips out some flowers to make a headdress and you ride your bike over some tender sprouts. Mom and Dad, being good parents, aren’t about to replant the garden themselves; they’re gonna make you two do it, and they are not interested in how you think your little brother deserves additional punishment (especially since you always feel that way). They just say, “Get to work, both of you.” So it is with God. God says, “Get to work, all of you.” Go.
Go. Make disciples of all nations. Everyone needs to consider how they make a mess of God’s garden, and, just as importantly, everyone needs to hear how God’s profound love and joy in their existence leads God to forgive and free them to tackle the mess they’ve made. Go, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God relates. Even before there is a creation, God is relating. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three persons. Tell everyone that God chooses relationship. That means we’re accountable to God, and to each other. Go, teaching them everything Jesus has taught us. Forgive. Yeah, we stay in relationship. That means forgiving. God wants relationship with you and everyone else, so God is forgiving everyone and politely requests you do so, too. God’s love for us is not determined by how well we have done. God doesn’t need your good work; the creation and our fellow creatures in it need our good work. Forgiveness is probably the only way we even get close to having everyone on board with it. Even then, not everyone will buy it. And the work will be hard. God’s work usually is. Nonetheless, God says, “Go. And remember, I am with you always.”