New resolution? New creation!
by Jonathan F. Grothe
Having long since marked the sidereal cycle, human beings around the world celebrate the start of a “new year,” albeit not at the same time. Jewish communities and the Chinese, to give just two examples, reckon the new year differently from the way most of us do. And even our own “Gregorian” calendar has been standardized only since 1582, and not universally followed for years after that. In many cases these celebrations fill the community’s need for a religious ritual and/or a cultural festival: parades and parties with food, drink, fireworks. Sometimes folks remember fondly (or not so fondly) the past year’s events. And people’s minds and hearts almost always hope and yearn for the “new” in the New Year.
It is likely that in my younger years I made New Year’s Resolutions. To be honest, I cannot remember. At any rate, they did very little good. While there is no reason to be opposed to moral (or any other kind of) self-improvement, the fact is that the exercise does not eventuate in entirely satisfactory results. Relapse happens. Aware of my condition as simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously saint and sinner), I years ago resolved to give up New Year’s Resolutions, for I have long since abandoned trusting the “self” in “self-improvement.”
Of course, the Bible, that large and diverse collection, contains many verses which can be used to enjoin readers and hearers to improve their attitudes and behaviours. The book of Proverbs has many such verses, and so do the Sermon on the Mount and the “Tables of Duties” (Haustafeln) in some of the Epistles. But can you imagine what it would be like to go to church every Sunday and hear sermons based only on those passages? To me it would be depressing. Those who laud the Bible as “God’s Manual for How We Should Behave” interpret it as Law: what happens when God is telling us what to do and what not to do.
But the sweet and comforting message of the Word of God is not Law, but Gospel: the Good News of what God does for us. What God does for us is the antidote to our sinfulness, the answer to our ineffectual resolve. He justifies us ungodly, which is, as Paul intimates in Romans (4:5, 17), nothing less than raising the dead and creating out of nothing. There is, in fact, a thread that runs throughout the Bible which expresses the Gospel in terms of “New Creation.” Permit me to illustrate briefly.
Those who laud the Bible as “God’s Manual for How We Should Behave” interpret it as Law. But the sweet and comforting message of the Word of God is not Law, but Gospel: the Good News of what God does for us. What God does is the antidote to our sinfulness, the answer to our ineffectual resolve.
New Heavens and a New Earth
In the beginning, when tohu wbohu (“confusion and darkness”) covered all the earth, God said: “Let there be light.” And there was light. And he called the light “day” (Genesis 1:2-5). And that was the first day of creation. It all started with light, on the first day of the week. And God pronounced it “good.” After five more days God finished everything; and it was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Humankind, the man and the woman, lived in peace and contentment in the garden. It was Paradise.
But—we know the story: Paradise Lost. The third chapter of Genesis tells of temptation, sin, curses on the ground, toil, and—with a word of promise—the expulsion of the man and woman from the garden. Throughout the Bible, there recurs a way of describing the life of humankind in the world as being “in darkness,” hoping for the dawn of new light and for a “new heaven and a new earth.” Two of the best known such passages are in the book of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah 9:12 gives the promise: “The people who walked in darkness see a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them light shines.” The poetry of Isaiah 35:1 says that “the desert shall rejoice and bloom,” and in Isaiah 65:17 God explicitly declares: “Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth.”
The New Testament speaks of Jesus Christ in a way that connects to the Creation account in Genesis and the prophecies of light and of Paradise restored. He is hailed as the Dayspring from on high (Luke 1:78). Christ restores order (kosmos) to the chaos by stilling the wind and the waves (Mark 4:35-41). He heals diseased persons, reversing the effects of the curse (Matthew 8:1-17). It is in the dark before dawn on the first day of the week (Sunday, the same day as the first day of God’s creating work in Genesis 1) that Jesus was raised from the dead. He is described as the firstborn of creation, the firstborn from the dead, the firstborn among many brothers (Colossians 1:15, 18; Revelation 1:5; Romans 8:29). His realm is the new heaven and the new earth (Revelation 21:1).
Furthermore, Paul tells us explicitly in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 that Jesus is the “Second Adam.” He is everything that the first Adam—humankind—was supposed to be but failed to be. He reveals the glory of God (John 1:14), does not give in to temptation (Matthew 4:1-11), and stays in a relationship of trust and love with the heavenly Father (John 17:11). Therefore, where Christ is, Paradise is not lost; the rule and realm (“kingdom”) of God—as it was so in the garden in the beginning—is present again in our midst (Mark 1:15). Thus it is that Paul declares: “If any in Christ—NEW CREATION!” (2 Corinthians 5:17. These are the only words in the Greek text of the passage. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” is an interpretation which tends to narrow the application to something that happens to individuals.)
“If any in Christ—NEW CREATION!”
The first Easter Sunday was therefore the dawn of the New Creation. New Creation, heaven, paradise—it’s not just off in the future. (Time is not a category that limits God.) “If any in Christ—New Creation.” Now. That means that our celebration of Easter, and our celebrations of the first day of the week every Sunday, and our enjoyment of the dawn every morning are all celebrations of the dawn of the New Creation.
At the beginning of any new year—or new week, or new day!—being mindful of Gospel rather than Law can help to comfort us and give us confidence. It is not our puny efforts that are the Good News. It is the work of the faithful and caring Creator, making things new. It is not a matter of “New Resolution,” but “New Creation.” The Christmas song of the angels carries forward: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace”—pax, shalom: the wholeness, health and prosperity of a renewed humanity in the good creation. That helps me venture into the new year, the new week, the new day, with hope and joy.
A New Day Dawns
Many have undertaken to portray that joy and hope at the beginning of a new day. One of my favourites is in the second-last chapter of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel, Cancer Ward. Its title is “The First Day of Creation.”
On a morning in Spring, the patient Oleg Kostoglotov is to be released from the cancer ward of a hospital in a city on the steppes, in the former Soviet Union. “Early in the morning, when everyone was still asleep, Oleg rose softly ….” (Quotes are from the translation by Rebecca Frank, published by Dell in 1968.) He changed from hospital garb into his own clothes, which gave him “a jaunty and healthy air.”
The nurse lifted the bar of the door and let him out.
He emerged on the veranda and paused. He took a deep breath of the young air, which was not yet disturbed or sullied. This was a young world, turning green. He raised his head. The sky spread out, rosy from the sun rising somewhere behind the horizon. He raised his head higher. A string of feathery clouds—centuries of the finest workmanship had gone into their making—stretched out across the whole sky for only a few moments before they broke up, for the benefit of only the few persons looking up at that moment, perhaps for Oleg Kostoglotov alone in this whole city.
Through the filigree, lace, froth and plumes of these clouds floated the still visible, shining, figured vessel of the waning moon.
This was the morning of Creation! The world was being created anew solely for Oleg’s return: Go! Live!
What Oleg saw and cherished propelled him into his new day and his new lease on life. As he continued on that day, Oleg saw things that filled him with joy: a blossoming apricot tree. At the same time, however, he carried sadness over other things: some mean person had thrown tobacco on the rhesus macaque at the zoo and blinded it.
The new creation is a gift, in Christ, received through faith. What we hear on Easter or on Sunday—and every morning (“thy mercies are new to us”)—encourages us on our journey. But our path, too, leads through both joy and sorrow, each of which is real and each of which must be endured, even embraced.
In the midst of that, what sustains our hope is not “New Resolutions,” but “New Creation.”
Rev. Dr. Jonathan F. Grothe is President Emeritus of Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary (St. Catharines, Ontario).