God is a poet. This, according to the Nicene Creed. Our English word “poet” comes from the Greek, poietes. And right there in the first line of the Nicene Creed we confess, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker—poietes—of Heaven and Earth.” God is the poet laureate of all creation.
To be sure, we cannot just smuggle our modern concept of poet into the ancient text. But if we can take a little “preacherly license,” what might it mean to regard God as a poet? What does a poet do? A poet uses words to create new worlds, new ways of seeing. At their best, poets make something beautiful out of something mundane, even profane. They turn landfills into landmarks, “graves into gardens” (as a popular Christian song has it). Poets redeem the ordinary and make it extraordinary.
This is what God does. He takes the ugly mess of this world and the ugly mess of our lives and makes of them something beautiful. His name is Redeemer. He is in the business of redeeming what is broken, of restoring what is lost. As it says in Romans 8, “God works all things together for the good of those who love Him.” All things.
The traditional Good Friday reading of John’s Passion offers a marvelous opportunity for preachers to draw attention to the Lord’s poetic ways. It is a small and easily overlooked detail John includes, and not for nothing. John writes this: “Now in the place where Jesus was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid.” A garden.
We are all familiar with the idea of poetic justice. Poetic justice is when someone gets their just desserts in a particularly delicious and fitting way. It is poetic justice when the conman gets swindled or when the trash-talker gets dunked on. Stories going all the way back to the ancient Greek comedies would use poetic justice to bring about a fitting conclusion.
God believes in poetic justice, no doubt. Think of the proud King Nebuchadnezzar, who becomes like an ox and eats grass. Or the tower of Babel, when God makes strange the language of all the people who used language against Him. He is definitely one for seeing the wicked receive their just desserts. But even more than poetic justice, what God so deeply desires to bring about is poetic mercy.
But even more than poetic justice, what God so deeply desires to bring about is poetic mercy.
“Now in the place where Jesus was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid.” We were overcome in a garden. It was in the Garden of Eden that Satan led Adam and Eve astray, and by means of a tree. As John Milton begins his epic poem, Paradise Lost:
Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden…
The bitter fruit of the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” is around us in all we see.
The life-giving garden gave way to death-dealing toil. This is the dread promise God gave Adam, and it is the bad news we delivered to our people 40 days ago: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it this way:
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
We know toil, that bare soil. It is what you and I live with each and every day. The futility of our attempts to live out of our own strength. Like branches trying to bear fruit apart from the vine. Like Sisyphus pushing the stone uphill only to have it roll back down again. We live with the painful justice for our sins every day, and it hardly feels poetic.
This is what know. What we know is comeuppance and the other shoe dropping. What we know is a harvest reaped from what we have sown. What we know is Murphy’s Law. Dust we are, and we spend our lives eating the rotten fruit of our toil, biting the bare soil wrought by our sin. That is what we know.
But that is not what God gives. He is the Redeemer. Out of the bare soil of our paradise lost, He has worked something marvelous. As it says in Isaiah 53, the Old Testament lesson for Good Friday: “Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground.” God takes that ground made into a garbage dump by our sin and turns it once more into a verdant valley.
For He believes in poetic mercy. In the words of the Proper Preface for Holy Week, just as Satan overcame us by the Tree of the Garden, so by the Tree of the Cross is he overcome. Where death arose, there life also rises again. God is a poet. He is the Redeemer who sent His Son into the world in order to clean up the sordid, soiled mess of our lives. Jesus is the ultimate Mr. Clean. Nothing can escape the all-encompassing mercy of our Savior.
On Good Friday, poetic justice is satisfied. Poetic mercy is all which remains. Christ Jesus is in the business of redeeming what is broken, of restoring what is lost. He is in the business of reclaiming us for God and regaining paradise for us all. For “in the place where Christ was crucified there was a garden.”