The Colorful Creator
The Colorful Creator
I grew up in a family that never had a color television set. All the ballgames and TV shows—including the "Colorful World of Disney"—were in shades of black and white. As a Christmas gift a few years ago, my kids gave me a set of videos about professional football in the 1960s—the era I grew up in. After I watched one of them, the whole family laughed at my naiveté when I said, "I had no idea football uniforms were so colorful back then. My memories of them are in black and white."
Do you live in color? Or is your existence—especially your spiritual life—a mean and uninteresting acknowledgment of a bad news, black-and-white God? Our concept of the Lord, our salvation, and the message of the gospel may be as dull and unattractive as my memories of football in the '60s. We need to awaken to the colorful reality of our multi-dimensional, breathtaking, unpredictable Creator, who is not vague, but specific, not demeaning, but expansive, truly Good News that changes everything.
One problem common to Christians is the tendency to make the gospel sound decidedly grim, hopeless, and unappealing. This has happened throughout the 2,000-year history of the church. This happens in a lot of well-intentioned sermons—maybe even some of mine—that make it sound as if the burden is entirely on your shoulders, and if you'd just straighten up and do a few impossible things, then God would call you his own.
Fortunately, the Lord in whom we live and move and have our being, who created us and continually sustains us, has revealed himself to us as the beautiful, creative, soul-enriching, transcendent, breathtaking God he really is. In other words, God, the Sovereign Creator, is the colorful Reality in which we receive and live out the gospel. Without trusting the Sovereign Lord and enjoying the Creative Lord, we can neither fully experience nor fully communicate his gospel.
This morning I want to discuss not only that the glorious Lord of all has revealed himself to us, but how. God has revealed himself to everyone through creation (general revelation) and to his people through his Word (special revelation).
God reveals himself in creation.
Before God ever made known the specifics of his character and purposes for his creation, he revealed himself through his creation. We do not begin existence as abstract truths comprehended by disembodied minds. We grow in awareness through physically experiencing the wonders of creation—sound, light, shape, color, motion, smell, and taste. The more we learn about our world, the more wondrous it seems that the planet should sustain life at all. It requires the perfect properties of water and atmosphere in the essential proportions, the exact gravitational pull, the precise speed of the planet's rotation, the ideal distance from the sun, and a host of other necessities for physical life to exist. Change any of these factors and we all die. "The heavens declare the glory of God," the psalmist says in Psalm 19:1–3; "The skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard."
The stars have always mystified us, and the more we know about them, the more expansive is our wonder at their Creator. With all our knowledge of cellular biology, subatomic physics, and the nature of light itself, we are increasingly impressed by the masterful complexity pointing to a super-intelligent Designer. In a culture that has made every effort to reduce the wonders of nature to scientific data, why is it that the unexplainable beauty of a flower, a sunset, or a storm, can still take our breath away?
Two things should be obvious in light of all the artistry around us. First, there is a higher knowledge—a superior reality behind it all. Second, his power is beyond limit.
When Job demanded an explanation from God for what he had suffered, how did the Lord answer? He spread before him the wonders of creation: "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? … Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep? … Have you seen the gates of the shadow of death?" He goes on in magnificent poetry, flashing images of light, snow, hail, lightning, desert, frost, constellations, wild beasts, and even the birthing process. This overwhelming display of the wonders of creation causes Job to reply: I didn't know what I was talking about; I'll shut up and listen. Later Job acknowledges, "I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted … Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know."
Like Job, the psalmists, Prophets, and even Jesus call forth praise for the wonders of creation. It is abundantly evident that such a Creator is in no way my inferior, nor could I reasonably conclude that he is small-minded, petty, or a killjoy.
One summer, my dad, brother, and I took a family history exploration through the American southeast. We had seen Jamestown, where John Shelley arrived in 1622, and we were heading south into North Carolina, where the Shelleys farmed in the 1700s. Dad wanted to head straight for Edenton along the wilderness path that our forefathers would have traveled. But my brother, Marshall, and I wanted to see the barrier islands of near-tropical dunes between the Atlantic Ocean and Albemarle Sound—where the English first attempted to establish American colonies. Marshall and I prevailed, because Marshall was driving and we outnumbered Dad.
When we climbed out of our air-conditioned rental car at a public parking lot in Kitty Hawk, we noticed that every home on the island was built from the second story up. What we would call the first story was a series of 8x8 stilts, constructed as attempts to minimize the damage from storm surges caused by the hurricanes that frequent those islands. So before we ever saw the waves, we saw evidence of the awesome power of nature and of human attempts to deal with that power as a fact of life.
In the 100-degree heat, under an oppressive afternoon sun, we climbed a boardwalk over the twelve-foot dunes, between sea grasses and wind-blown palm trees, and came in sight of that vast horizon of rolling waters we call the Atlantic Ocean. Few sights in life can compare to the humbling effect of gazing across the unknown depths and distances of the ocean. As Dad snapped photos and Marshall and I kicked off our shoes and waded in the first few inches of those awesome, green depths, the salt wind whipped our faces, the sand gave way under our cooling feet, and I thought of the exotic places this ocean could take me. I thought of the multi-shaped masterpieces that swim in its dark world below the surface and the people who walked these shores centuries ago. I thought of the Creator who conceived it all, sustains it all, and still cares specifically about me, a speck on a speck of his universe.
I prayed, "Lord, You grant blessings like this to take my breath away; free me from my chronic proneness to be nearsighted and petty—to treat insignificant things as though they were big and great things as though they were small." Creation overwhelmed me with the awareness of a Master Artist who made all this in awe-inspiring detail—someone so great and powerful that he could sustain every molecule; someone so intimate that he knows me inside and out; someone so unlimited that he cares about a nobody like me, along with every other nobody in his marvelous creation.
Where did I get the imagination to see these invisible realities? I've been to aquariums in Chicago and Monterey and San Diego, so I've seen colorful wonders that inhabit the unseen deep. I've seen the glimpses of Earth brought to us by the Hubbell telescope, so I have an inkling of the colors of the cosmos. I've read captivating stories of people over the millennia, and I've traveled to many of the places where they lived, so I have a connection that transcends time. But I could make these vivid connections with unseen things as I stood on the Outer Banks for two reasons: a wonderful imagination I inherit as a man made in the image of a Creator, and his special revelation. Paul explained it this way in Acts 17:24–28:
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands … From one man he made every nation of men that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being."
Our God is the God of wonders. Don't turn his amazing story into a mere math problem. Don't present the gospel as though God were petty. Instead, proclaim his glory. The Lord whose gospel we proclaim is the source of the beauty and wonder that inspire us. Don't miss the creative wonder of the Artist's masterwork.
Special revelation: God reveals himself in his Word.
It is no minor thing that God has spoken to us in words. The ancients believed that language, both the spoken and written word, was our direct link to the divine element that gives meaning to all of life. The Bible comes from the same perspective. According to John 1:1–3, God made himself known to us by means of his logos, his Word. By his Word God created all things.
Not only are we dependent upon God's Word for existence; we are further dependent upon God's Word for the meaning and purpose in our existence. When we ignore the Word of the Creator, we shut ourselves off from our source and, therefore, from our very purpose in being.
Before I explain what God's Word is, I need to point out what it is not. First, it is not dry, abstract doctrine, disconnected from real life. Every part of Scripture is inseparably rooted in time-and-place situations of actual people. God did not choose to make himself known as a formula conceivable only in abstraction. He's a personal being who calls other personal beings so that they might know him. In other words, you cannot separate doctrine from story. The minute we take the living, active Word of God and filter it through an abstract principle, we risk filtering out the very life the Word brings.
If God's word is not abstract doctrine disconnected from real life, what is it? God's Word is story. It is the record of the actions of God in direct relation to his people. It is the workings of God in the material world, in human history—in meaningful interaction with his creation. That is, God has made himself known to us not only through his material creation (general revelation), but also more specifically through his direct, personal, and verbal communication (special revelation).
Nevertheless, we tend to drift away from reading the Bible as he has given it to us and begin to read it as a reference tool—like a dictionary or a phone book. When you treat God's Word that way, you dissect it and end up taking what you want and ignoring the rest. Perhaps worse, you think of the whole as nothing more than a list of facts or regulations, and you become blind to the overarching work of God through the history of his interaction with his people. That is to say, the form in which God gave us his Word is not accidental. He could have written it more like the DMV handbook, and right and wrong would have seemed easier for us to understand. But then we wouldn't really know what God is like; we would have clear rules, but not a vital relationship. God in his wisdom determined that the whole story was necessary in order for us to know and follow him.
The Bible opens in Genesis with poetry. Every verse begins, "And God said." Each verse ends, "And there was evening and there was morning, the next day." It has rhythm, form, and flow. The content is a tidy summary of the wonders of all creation. The Lord summarizes creation, but he does not trivialize it. On the contrary, we're the ones who tend to take the wonder out of the text by turning it into an argument instead of enjoying the awesome wonder of all that God has made.
The Bible ends with Revelation 21—22, passages full of light and color, sound and action, and beauty beyond description. The Revelation is written in the most intricate of poetic literature to vividly contrast the horrors of our fallen world with the glories of Christ's reign. The opening and closing passages of the Bible emphasize the unending, extravagant wonders of our Creator—whom we risk portraying as a grumpy old man, griping about the irresponsibility of kids these days and threatening to sell the lot of us for dog food if we don't start pulling our weight.
Between Genesis and Revelation, the Lord unfolds a story of real people in real places who learn to deal with real struggles in their relationship with God in a fallen and broken world. In the process, the Lord calls a man named Abraham and establishes a covenant relationship with him. Theirs is not an impersonal, take-it-or-leave-it contract, but a through-thick-and-thin kind of relationship. The thin times show up in vivid drama: Abraham leaves the greatest civilization on the planet to wander in the wilderness; Jacob runs for his life; Joseph is falsely accused and thrown into an Egyptian prison; Salvation is displayed to an enslaved people, who, once led into freedom, gripe and demand to return to slavery.
There are also five books of pure poetry that grapple with the mysteries of suffering, human passion, and practical living. This poetry gives us a language for talking with God. He uses the most artistic of human language to express the deepest of our relational dynamics.
The Psalms call us 36 times to sing. A third of those songs are psalms of complaint dealing with grief, suffering, and the human struggle to understand. The Prophets turn the conversation around. Using the most powerful and colorful poetry, God now pours out his heart to stubborn, self-destructive people. He uses graphic images—a man beaten beyond recognition; a heart of flesh replacing a heart of stone; dry bones brought to life; a faithless harlot brought home as wife again; a refiner's fire—all express with literary passion God's relentless heart for his beloved people.
The gospel is there, over and over again, but it is not delivered like a systematic theology text. It's there in poetic language, beautiful language, heart wrenching, and graphic language. God does not deliver his Word like some secret Da Vinci Code for later generations to decipher; he delivers it in language that cannot be ignored by real people in real and perilous circumstances, facing apathy, idolatry, oppression, and destruction.
Ultimately God spoke his Word not only through human literature, but in human flesh. As John 1:14 explains, "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth."
The four Gospels are called "Gospels" because they record the event of God's entrance onto the human stage. The gospel is not a fantasy with make-believe names and places; nor an allegory of a symbolic messiah figure. Rather, the four Gospel writers went to great pains to demonstrate that the baby Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Judea, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, while Quirinius was governor of Syria. By adulthood he was known as "Joseph the carpenter's son" in Nazareth, Galilee. He lived with, taught, and carried out his actions in relationship with Matthew, Peter, John, and James—people who were still testifying as first-hand witnesses when the Gospels were written.
All four Gospels are full of stories about this man who changed everything—captivating stories that cannot be filed away as philosophical concepts for scholars and mystics. When Jesus of Nazareth spoke to crowds of people, he did not describe mere theoretical concepts, but rather a Kingdom so radically different from the kingdoms of the world that he had to describe it using stories—amazing, demanding, often shocking works of fiction. We call them parables, but they are artistic, literary works given—to those with ears to hear them—as windows into a reality to which we have all become blind.
The story culminates in Jesus' being crucified by Roman soldiers on a hill outside Jerusalem, the righteous dying in place of the unrighteous, to bring us to God (1 Peter 3:18). Jesus was then buried in a local tomb and rose to interact bodily, visibly, vocally, and historically with real people before he ascended before their eyes weeks later.
We dare not lose sight of the fact that God has revealed himself to us in a wonderful story in which he is the main character. Now that character has a face, hands and feet and scars, and a name to be proclaimed again and again. Don't turn this amazing story into a mere formula. Don't present the gospel as if it were unrelated to real life. The Lord, whose gospel we proclaim, captivates and defines us. Don't miss the creative wonder of the Artist's masterwork.
Conversion and indwelling: God reveals himself in relationship.
Robert Culver gives this account in The Living God:
A woman in a tribe that had never heard the gospel listened as a missionary told the wonderful story to her for the first time. She looked at the missionary and said, "I always thought there ought to be a God like that."
The Good News is there is a God like that. He's the source of every beauty and pleasure you've ever dreamed of. He's the main character in whose story your story can find its ultimate meaning. That's why I want you to hear the story and live the story for yourself. It's at this point that everyone runs into a wall: You can't know and live the story alone. By yourself you won't get it—you won't know him until he makes himself known personally in you. Without a personal relationship with the source, you can only believe an abstraction. Abstraction is not the same thing as knowing him personally.
Because of sin, we all start out spiritually dead. Just as physical death is separation of the soul from the body, spiritual death is separation of the soul from God. Until he gives you his Spirit, you don't have the spiritual life that enables you to know him. Dead people can't raise themselves. That's why we need to be raised into the knowledge of God through conversion. Conversion is God's means of transforming our deadness into his spiritual life. His life is then present in us through his indwelling; that is, God brings his Holy Spirit into our dead existence and makes us living bodies.
Through conversion we can know God in a personal, relational way. This is sometimes called subjective revelation, because it refers to God's making himself known to us individually. This kind of subjective revelation will never contradict what God has revealed objectively through his written Word. When God makes himself known to his people relationally, his Spirit then begins to develop in us an awareness of his truth in all areas of life. We don't gain this knowledge mechanistically, as if a switch could be ritually flipped on by our religion. Instead, we grow in this knowledge as a newborn grows in knowledge in relationship to her parents.
God always brings life by his Word. By his Word he spoke creation into being. By his Word he reveals himself as a saving, gracious God. And by his Word he plants new life in spiritually dead souls. We can't give ourselves spiritual life, but he speaks it into us through his Word. We receive his life by hearing his Word, receiving it in faith, and confessing that Jesus is Lord. We call this the relationship of faith. Hebrews 11:6 says faith involves coming to God believing that he exists—something we can discern through general revelation—and that he rewards those who come to him—something we learn through special revelation—and trust him—something we do through his Spirit in us.
Through the special revelation of God's written Word, God effectually calls us into his life. Remarkably, he calls us to call on him. If you respond to his Word by calling on him as your Savior and Lord, you will be saved. But don't imagine the life of faith to be a mere concept or religion. The Lord—whose gospel we proclaim in the Savior—indwells and transforms his people. Don't miss the creative wonder of the Artist's masterwork.
First Peter 2:9 articulates our calling in this way: "You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light." Notice that God's people are formed to declare the praises of the One who brought them from darkness into his wonderful light.
C. S. Lewis offers a wonderful perspective on this in his book Reflections on the Psalms:
All enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise … .The world rings with praise—lovers praising their mistresses, readers praising their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game … .I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious minds, praised most, while the cranks … and malcontents praised least. The good critics found something to praise in many imperfect works; the bad ones continually narrowed the list of books we might be allowed to read. The healthy and unaffected man … could praise a very modest meal; the dyspeptic and the snob found fault with all… Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible. … Praise not merely expresses, but completes the enjoyment. … Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him."
To be creative is to participate in the life-giving, soul-expanding, glory-extending activity of God. Creative in the Biblical sense is not the opposite of practical; creative is the opposite of destructive. You don't have to be biochemists or painters to recognize the glory in creation; but you will miss out on much of God's glory if you cannot see beauty and intricacy where it reflects the supreme Artist. You don't have to be a literature major or Greek scholar to marvel at the masterwork of Scripture; but your own soul will be deformed if you cannot soak up the richly textured Word. You don't have to influence thousands to be a faithful follower of the Lord; but if you don't know him as more than a religious concept, now is the time to call on him to reveal his living presence in your life.
For an outline of this sermon, go to "The Colorful Creator."
David Shelley is the Senior Pastor at the Bethel Baptist Church in Greeley. Colorado.