Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash.

For God so loved the cosmos

Rev. John Zehring

April 22, 2020

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17).

Earth Day prompts me to remember how, as a child in Church School, I was taught to paraphrase one of the most beloved verses in the gospels, like this: “For God so loved Johnny Zehring that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Each student in our class went around in turn and recited the verse, inserting his or her own name as the subject of God’s love. The exercise made John 3:16 uniquely personal to reassure that it was each child whom God loved.

Then the teaching shifted to the word “world” as the church school children encountered a wonderful worldview that God so loves the whole world. We sang “Jesus Loves the Little Children”:

Jesus loves the little children

All the children of the world

Red, brown, yellow

Black and white

They are precious in His sight

Jesus loves the little children

Of the world.

Now the verse is not just about us, but about all the people of the world. Without knowing it, we were adopting a global vision. It is God’s world and Jesus loves all the children of the world, in all lands and of all colors. While others may favor erecting walls to keep people out or creating human-made boundaries and borders, Christians held to a global view that all men and women, girls and boys, are loved by God. Christian love is love without borders, we learned. Years later when I went to work, I pasted this credo on my desk to view many times a day: “Each girl and boy and each woman and man is a unique wonder, never to be repeated in all of history, and should be treated as God’s most sacred creation.” No exceptions. No boundaries. That changes how you people watch.

Then the teaching of my church school class leaped into space as we considered a cosmic view of God’s creation, beginning with the first verse in the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Now God’s love extended not just to Johnny Zehring and not just to all the children of the world, but to the universe. We were introduced to cosmology and joined people of all times and places, back to the most ancient civilizations, who have gazed at the stars moving across the sky and wondered about their place in the universe. “For God so loved the world…” In Greek, the word for world is cosmos. For God so loved the cosmos… beyond each child in the class, beyond each child on the planet, God’s love encompasses all that God created.

Earth Day reminds me that in Greek, the word for world is cosmos. For God so loved the cosmos…beyond each person on the planet, God’s love encompasses all that God created.

God’s role in the cosmos is captured in metaphor when God spoke to Job (38:4-7): “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” This poetic account of creation affirms that God is the one who did the creating, back when “the morning stars sang together,” which is interesting because scientists have found that each star emits a radio signal that identifies it from all other stars. It is like the stars really do sing. NASA’s Elizabeth Landau writes, “We can’t hear it with our ears, but the stars in the sky are performing a concert, one that never stops. The biggest stars make the lowest, deepest sounds, like tubas and double basses. Small stars have high-pitched voices, like celestial flutes. These virtuosos don’t just play one ‘note’ at a time, either — our own Sun has thousands of different sound waves bouncing around inside it at any given moment.” 

The Christian classic by J. B. Phillips, “Your God is Too Small,” detailed the many small conceptions people have of the Divine. Sometimes we can hardly get by our image of God as an overworked customer service representative and wonder how God can possibly handle all of the requests and needs. And yet, from the church basement Sunday School class emerged an understanding of God which is personal, global, and cosmic. 

New York clergyman Maltbie Babcock, in the late 1800s, would tell his wife before going on walks that he was “going out to see the Father’s world.” His sensing God’s presence in the beauty of God’s creation led him to write the hymn “This Is My Father’s World.”

This is my Father’s world,

And to my listening ears

All nature sings, and round me rings

The music of the spheres.

This is my Father’s world:

I rest me in the thought

Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas—

His hand the wonders wrought.

Earth Day’s verse, for people of faith, is Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s…” With just five words, the Psalmist captured the entire theology of environmental stewardship. This phrase contains the most important apostrophe on the Bible. Lord’s. Possessive case. The earth belongs to God. God possesses it. God possessed it in the past, possesses it now and will possess the earth in the future. It is God’s. Not ours. We are its managers. We manage the earth on behalf of the one who entrusted it to us. This is my Father’s world. Or, this is my Mother’s world. God is spirit, Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:24), and spirit does not have gender, so either understanding is appropriate. The world is God’s and God is in control. Even if humankind does evil or wrecks the earth through harmful practices, it remains God’s world. As Babcock wrote in “This Is My Father’s World,” The Lord is King: let the heavens ring! God reigns; let earth be glad! Thanks be to God for Church Schools that teach that God so loves all the children of the world, God so loves the world, and God so loves the cosmos. So, therefore, shall we who aspire to imitate a God-like life.

The Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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