In the Image of the Gardener

By Simon Mason

I’ve been passing my herb garden now for the last couple of month with a growing sense of helplessness.

The basil was the first to die out, swiftly followed by the mint, the rosemary and the dill.

From where I’m standing it looks like my much loved Kaffir lime tree will survive, but I’m not giving the rest very good odds of survival. Sometimes, life is cruel. Admittedly, I’m not a very good gardener.

Yet I’m coming to realise that the Father is calling us all to be gardeners in His Kingdom. Perhaps not literally, but let me explain.

Too often it seems parts of the church have not only adopted a narrative that sometimes ignores environmental destruction but also occasionally (and terrifyingly) encourages it. This reasoning seems to rest on the belief that if God will ultimately destroy the earth then in the meantime we can either assist Him by contributing or at least make a comfortable profit until He does. On the face of it, this belief seems to sit uneasily with the Genesis commission, and going even deeper, reflects an image of God that doesn't look like a loving Father.

Fortunately, the framework of heaven invading earth is growing in acceptance and highlighting the tragic inconsistencies in this theological paradigm. There is a new way of thinking about the earth emerging that not only restores the inherent value of God's creation but sees restoring and protecting earth's ecology as a part of our heaven-to-earth mandate.

And in my view it can’t emerge quickly enough.

So let me do my bit in hurrying the demise of the idea that God is waiting to destroy the earth. It is a belief at the root of every unhealthy view of our stewardship and dismissal of value for the environment. As we dream about building businesses and social justice organisations, we should dream about building in a way that honors God's creation.

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It’s clear right from the start that God intended mankind to garden the earth. The point of the garden of Eden was that although creation was “good”, it was through man that God was going to bring and maintain order in creation. The garden of Eden was a bit like the page corner of the colouring-in book that you begin to prompt a child. "Expand and multiply" said God and you can almost picture Him pointing to the disorder outside the garden and saying, “See, I’ve started a bit for you.”

Then sin happened, suddenly and catastrophically, and the narrative of earth was thrust into an extended period of disinheritance, involving the re-inheritance of Israel, then variously, Israel’s cycles between trust and distrust, obedience and rebellion, until the coming of the Messiah and the re-inheritance of the nations once again. It got pretty complex and it’s easy to get a bit lost. The key point is that when Jesus shows up, mankind's original mandate to bring heaven to earth is re-established. 

No matter how you interpret Genesis you can’t avoid the conclusion that we were originally created to collaboratively garden the earth with God. In fact, I’d suggest that representing God’s likeness to the earth by tending and caring for it is what means to be an "image bearer" of God. It has little to do with appearance and everything to do with treating creation as God would treat it. What is sometimes called the "dominion mandate" is simply the mandate to treat creation in the same way that God would act. I don't know if you've ever dominated a garden, but believe me, that's not how garden's grow.

We bear God’s image when we act towards creation as God would act.

If Adam was put on the earth to represent God by tending a garden, then God clearly has value for maintaining and restoring His creation.

And that is a brilliant starting point for dismantling the idea that God could ever, possibly, even in the utterly distant future, destroy this creation.

Time and again the narrative of scripture reminds us that He is a God who restores.

In Revelation, John records God as speaking from heaven saying "Behold, I make all things new". (Whenever we see the word 'Behold', it's an invitation to engage our prophetic imagination and envision the world to come.)

Yet "I make all things new" can't simply be read as a declaration of intent, as John is working on a much broader palette than divine objective. All through Revelation he is weaving together all the loose strands of Jewish prophecy and equipping us with symbols and images that illustrate the character of God as unveiled through Christ.

So, "I make all things new" does not merely signal intention but is a declaration of the character of God.

He is the God who restores.

This is the God who Christ reveals.

He is the God who sent His son not only with a gospel of salvation, but a gospel of healing the heart, of healing relationships and of healing broken bodies.

Jesus, right from the start of His ministry, was in the business of restoring broken things. From Lazarus to the thief on the cross every person who encountered Christ experienced restoration. He was about His Father’s business. “If you’ve seen me”, said Jesus, “then you’ve seen the Father.”

You could say that Jesus' work on earth was about providing a model and a demonstration of grace in action. The whole purpose of this new covenant of grace is that broken things are restored. Starting with our relationship with God, then spreading out to include our hearts, our relationships, our bodies, our cities and ultimately, if John is to be believed, the earth.

Grace itself cannot be separated from the image of God revealed through Christ. Grace is a divine substance that flows out of the God who restores and is a substance exclusively directed towards empowering restoration. If God is the God who restores, Christ is his agent of restoration and grace is the expression of His power.

Grace has a target: All things.

Grace has a purpose: Restoration.

So what's most mysterious about the idea that God will destroy that earth is that it's implicitly suggesting that grace may suddenly come to an end. That God's grace, perhaps defeated by the extent or depth of human brokenness, may not be sufficient to "restore all things" or "make all things new".

Alternatively and even more worryingly, it suggests that God may be suddenly about to have a mood change, implying that if God's grace is endless, perhaps His goodness isn't, and someday shortly everything that hasn't been restored will simply be disposed of.

Yet eternal grace and transcendent goodness are central pillars in Christian thought and in concert lead us to the clear and unavoidable conclusion that by His grace and because of His goodness, God will restore the earth. And not a future, alternate earth. This one. In all its extravagant and varied brokenness.

This is the Hope of salvation. Anything less suggests either the cross was ineffective or that Christ was wrong about the Father.

So it’s no wonder that when Mary ran to the tomb of the newly resurrected Christ, she mistook Him for a gardener.

It was a mistake.

But it was a mistake that the disciples would've instantly seen the significance of (hence its inclusion).

​It was a prophetic mistake.

The theological point couldn't be clearer. Adam, the first gardener, fell and we lost our relationship with God and by extension our vocation. Christ, the second gardener, has restored us to relationship with the Father and, in perfect logical symmetry, restored our original calling.

The narrative arc has been brought full circle. Sin has been defeated. Mankind has been restored to the Father. The dominion mandate of Genesis 1:28 (“Fill the earth and subdue it…”) has been expanded to include the Kingdom mandate of Matthew 28:19-20 (“Go and make disciples…”). We are called to become image bearers once again.

With this in mind, the Kingdom commission of restoring sons to the Father is the obvious precondition to fulfilling the commission mandate to tend and order the earth. This is why the earth groans awaiting the unveiling of the “sons of glory”, because sons treat the earth with the value and honor that the Father treats it with.

It’s easy to conclude that when Mary mistook Jesus as a gardener, it was quite simply because He was gardening.

Sometimes I can almost see Him in my mind’s eye, tenderly leaning over a flowerbed planting new seeds in anticipation of the new earth He had begun. Rembrandt perceived Him with a floppy hat and a shovel, but I imagine that He was surrounded like St Francis with birds and animals. Freshly resurrected as the firstborn Son of glory, all creation was crowding around Him eager to see what He would do first.

And in the moment that Mary saw him gardening; Jesus wasn't wasting time, He was fulfilling the love of the Father, the God that so loved the world, by tending to his new creation.

So we shouldn't be surprised then in journeying into the heart of Jesus that we also pick up the Father’s love for the world. Not "the world" in terms of the broken systems and principles that are passing away. But the world that is "good", covered in the fingerprints of a loving creator, still awaiting gardeners.

John Wesley agrees: “I believe in my heart that faith in Jesus Christ can and will lead us beyond an exclusive concern for the well-being of other human beings to the broader concern for the well-being of birds in our backyards, the fish in our rivers, and every living creature on the face of the earth.”

In fact, it’s almost expected that we would carry that love. “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” In this, you can hear the heart of God; deeply yearning for mediators through whom he could release healing.

In the clear absence of mediators, the Father even went a step further and arranged for Christ to dwell within us. He is the one who gives us desire for the Father and through whom we cry “Abba”. Why? Because God still desires to respond to us and heal our land.

We may have met Jesus as “Our Personal Lord and Saviour” and we may have met Him as “Christ the Man” or “Christ the Comforter”, but there is an imperative to meet Him as the Gardener.

He is the one that give us an appetite and desire to see all things restored. He is the source of all value and honor for creation. Without the grace that flows through the Gardener, we’re just orphans re-writing the biblical narrative to excuse our environmental messes.

* * * * *

This thread of theological reasoning is like a speaker in the sound system that has been weirdly silent, although in recent time we’ve begun to recognise that environmental injustices are beginning to perpetuate social injustices. If ecological problems aren't solved, the result will be another generation of problems that our future sons and daughters will have to face.

Building green businesses and green justice movements means we can solve problems without contributing to new ones.

So let's build in a way that not only heals social problems; but also heals creation.

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