John Chrysostom’s overall perspective on the goodness of God’s creation—even in its wilder aspects—and the overarching goodness of God’s providential care, is reflected in a series of sermons he preached in response to tax riots that broke out against the Roman emperor Theophilus in Antioch in AD 388. For days, the citizens of Antioch rioted against new tax regulations enacted by the Theophilus, overturning statues of the Emperor in the process. When the riots died down and the citizens regained their collective mind, they realized the grave jeopardy they were in. To attack the emperor’s statue was to attack the emperor, a capital offense. The entire city was in grave peril and the citizens knew it. What should they do?  In a series of sermons preached fifteen years before he experienced his own exile in Cucusus, Chrysostom employs this situation of grave peril as an opportunity to preach about God’s providence, and somewhat surprisingly, he turns to many of the themes we’ve been discussing in this series of blogs.

In the 10th homily, Chrysostom turns to the goodness of creation, describing it as a functional goodness, one that reflects God’s infinite love for humanity and God’s desire to create an environment purposely designed to nurture a human being’s awareness of God’s love. The natural world is given to God’s image-bearers as a gift, filled with God’s graceful provision. This world is the ideal natural environment for humans to grow, develop and exercise the responsibilities given to them by God. Chrysostom links this principle to the situation in Antioch, terribly precarious because of the rebellion of its citizens. Their circumstances are actually the providential environment God is using to hone and shape their character, if only they have eyes to see.  

Chrysostom preaches that God’s creation, in both its tame and wild aspects, is a learning space for God’s image-bearers. For instance, we learn of God’s providential love from reptiles, birds, various forms of plant life, domesticated animals, and the seasons of the year. Even the most ordinary creatures point to a wise and loving Creator. “For what,” Chrysostom asks, “is smaller … than the bee? And what is more ordinary than ants and cicadas? Nevertheless, even these emit a clear voice concerning the providence, power, and wisdom of God.”

The wilder side of creation is also a tool God uses to form human character and to bridle disordered passions that distract God’s image-bearers from the true purpose of life: love for God and neighbor. These passions were on display in the rebellion in Antioch. In a nutshell, Chrysostom teaches that God sometimes employs pain and suffering, occasionally caused by the operations of nature itself, to help us refocus our attention and rearrange priorities. Harsh, fearful situations, such as the situation in Antioch, demonstrate the loving providence of God in its disciplinary mode. Imminent execution, he exhorts these Roman citizens, wondrously clarifies the mind.

Chrysostom was a tough old bird and firmly believed that God sometimes shouts to catch the attention of his beloved image-bearers. He also knew that God’s shout was never divorced from God’s love. When God turns up the volume level in our lives, he is lovingly doing so for a reason. Yes, Chrysostom would say, sometimes it’s screamingly difficult to discern what that reason is. Chrysostom died in exile on the Roman empress’s orders and frequently struggled to discern why God was allowing his life to end in such a seemingly unexpected way.

Circumstances had gone bad—strikingly awful—yet God still existed. Christ continued to reign at the right hand of the Father, and the Holy Spirit still filled John’s mind, heart, and body. It was as though John had trained all his life for this moment; now the opportunity—unexpected, sudden, and difficult though it was—offered itself to him to think and act like a Christian as his life drew to a close. His thoughts on creation helped him in this response of faith. Just as when a younger man, he hoped and prayed these thoughts would help the citizens of Antioch.

Now Underway: The 2018-19 Renovaré Book Club

How do we read for transformation, not just information? First, choose books that stir the soul and have an enduring quality. Then read with God and others at an unhurried pace, attentive to what the Holy Spirit wants to teach. The Renovaré Book Club is designed for transformative reading. It runs October 2018—May 2019.

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