In these days barren fields will sprout trees
The deaf and blind will hear and see
The dead will raise and begin to breathe
The earth will groan in pain to see
The sons of God declare to be
His full and glorious family
The beautiful, perfect bride of Thee (Wash Me Clean, Page CXVI)
I am a city girl through and through — I’ve never lived outside of an urban context. Although my family lived in Queens (represent!), our church and community were in the dense and often treeless “ghetto” of Alphabet City, a neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My experiences of nature have mostly consisted of front and back yards, parks, and occasional trips to the beach or camping. And because I grew up in and spent most of my life in communities of the poor and marginalized, most of my experiences of God have centered around what Divine mercy, justice, healing, liberation, and restoration look like in the human heart.
In other words, it’s very easy for me to grasp the idea of a “New Jerusalem” or “a city whose architect and builder is God.” It’s easy for me to see the human component of God’s kingdom and what it means for people. It’s not so easy for me to imagine trees “clapping their hands” or even fully to appreciate the majesty of God’s handiwork in the stars ... because I’ve rarely seen a night sky free from light pollution. It’s not easy for me to imagine what a renewed creation would look like apart from new hearts and restored people.
Yet one can’t read their Bible without loads of creation-centric imagery busting out, like June, all over. It seems that nature while displaying God’s handiwork and ingenuity, is also a classroom full of lessons that illustrate what the kingdom of God is like. God works in seasons and has particular timing. Times of suffering are compared to valleys or the wilderness. Streams represent life and hope — particularly when they appear in places that shouldn’t have any water (see wilderness). Human beings are compared to grass, flowers, and trees — beautiful and alive, yet temporal — and our hearts to types of soil. God is even described as a “sun and shield,” “a vine,” and when it comes to the Holy Spirit, both wind and fire.
N.T. Wright, in his book, Simply Jesus, writes:
“Again and again the prophets and psalms hint at what we might conceivably have guessed from the story of creation itself: the material world was made to be filled with God’s glory. ‘The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of YHWH, as the waters cover the sea’ (Hab. 2:14) Suppose that isn’t just an extravagant way of speaking? Suppose it means what it says?” (p.139)
One of the most powerful Biblical images of God redeeming the earth and filling it with Divine glory is evident in the song, “Wash Me Clean” by Page CXVI. A barren field comes to life with verdant trees. The entire song celebrates the glory of God revealed — when the deaf hear and the blind see and the dead are raised. It joins with creation in groaning, waiting for the children of God to be revealed, when it too will be liberated from death and decay.
What I most appreciate about the song is the way that it emphasizes the commonality between humanity and creation — we are all in need of redemption and rebirth, we all long for the consummation of the kingdom that is here both now and “not yet.” I first heard the song during my long season of unemployment, a time when I first understood what it meant to feel barren and fruitless. It was as though I could see my life stretched out before me like a land survey — the spiritual and relational aspects of my life were lush and green, but my professional life seemed like a vast wasteland. And I hoped that one day that dead place would come to life again.
I also see my heart this way. There are parts of my heart that seem like rainforests compared to places that have been ravaged by sin and are in need of restoration. That the Holy Spirit is a well of Living Water, a River of Life, the Breath of God and is making me a new creation is a source of hope even when it seems like I will never change.
There are so many barren fields in this life — not just spiritually, but socially and politically. How could they yield anything good, any life? And there are actual barren and ravaged parts of this earth that are desperately in need of healing, broken from the sinful way we’ve handled God’s creation.
But when Christians talk about God’s kingdom, it’s usually done with a human focus. Yes, the blind will see, the lame will walk, the sick are healed, the deaf will hear, and the poor will receive good news. And honestly, we need to see more of that.
Maybe we sometimes forget that the entire world will one day be renewed. In the new heavens and the new earth, in God’s new city, Eden will be restored. The tree of life will bear fruit and its leaves will provide healing for the world.
I can understand how this world groans and waits to be set free from bondage to decay, because I do too.
I can understand how this earth longs for God’s children to be revealed, because when it comes to the way we treat God’s creation, we’ve often acted more like children of the evil one.
I can understand why, when the crowds celebrated Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem as king and the Pharisees asked him to quiet his followers, he replied ‘if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” Together, creation — all of it — cries out for Christ to make all things new. It reminds me of another hymn that proclaims “come, for creation groans, impatient of thy stay, worn out with these long years of woe, these ages of delay.”
Thankfully, the one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.’”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
Juliet Vedral is Press Secretary for Sojourners.
Image: Nature illustration, LYphoto / Shutterstock.com