Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
August 23, 2015
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
If I showed you a picture of three rectangles drawn differently and asked you to choose the most beautiful rectangle, or the one that most closely exemplified what it meant to be a rectangle, you’d likely choose the one that was drawn most closely to the golden ratio. The golden ratio is when the ratio of the smaller to the larger equals the ratio of the larger to the sum of the two.
The ancient Greeks had a word for this: kalos. Kalos is normally translated simply as “good” or “well,” but it has a depth to it that’s just not captured by simply saying, “good.” Something that’s kalos is a thing of beauty. For the Greeks, beauty derived from order and symmetry—the golden ratio was an expression of beauty precisely because of its order and symmetry (even when you lay it out in a mathematical equation, it just looks pretty).
In the realm of ethics, beauty is virtue and moral uprightness. In a person it derives from education, good natural instincts, and faithfully putting these into practice. It describes a higher class of human, someone who elevates himself above the common man. Some people are just born that way. Others lift themselves out of poor circumstances to achieve a beautiful life.
When Jesus heals the deaf-mute man, the crowds are astonished and respond, “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the speechless speak” (v 37 AAT). Only the Holy Spirit does not inspire the word that simply means, “good,” or, “well.” He uses the word kalos. They respond, He has done all things beautifully (v 37). It is certainly a good work that Jesus does, but there is a depth to it that exceeds just being good. It’s a beautiful thing.
But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, they say, and maybe you’re one of those people who would’ve picked another rectangle that deviates from the golden ratio. Perhaps you find beauty precisely in the deviation from order and symmetry. In our contemporary culture, the higher virtue is standing out from the crowd, deviating from the norm, asserting your individuality.
But at what point does beauty turn to ugly? The lines get blurred. The Greek philosophers had their ideas about beauty, but do they hold for all times and all places?
Greek philosophy defined beauty by observing nature. The golden ratio isn’t just a geometrist’s tool. It’s woven into nature itself. Look at the arrangement of a seeds in a sunflower or the shell of a mollusk and you’ll see things arranged according to this ratio. Even your own body shows this order and symmetry; the bones in your fingers grow to the same ratio.
Goodness and beauty are part of creation, and while the Greek philosophers could observe the goodness and beauty of nature, they weren’t able to say why it’s beautiful. The beauty of nature isn’t just an accident of the cosmos. It’s good and beautiful because God calls it good and beautiful.
It goes back to the beginning. What God creates, He calls it good. This isn’t God patting Himself on the back for a job well done. It is His Word of blessing on His creation. He doesn’t simply call things into existence, but He speaks His blessing upon it. This is its goodness, its beauty.
But the goodness and beauty of creation was marred by our own ugliness. What God called good man called bad, and what God called bad man called good. The first sin was to depart from the beauty of God’s creation for the ugliness of man’s creation.
Now, in these ugly days, we of the human race judge beauty only according to outward appearance. If it looks good to our eyes, we call it good even if God has called it evil. This is what Martin Luther called a theology of glory—ignoring what God calls good and evil and creating our own definitions.
It’s a significant thing that Jesus didn’t spend much of His time with the beautiful people. He didn’t navigate through high society, spend time with nobility, or land in kings’ courts. He went in among the poor, the injured, the sick, the demon-oppressed. He didn’t spend much time with the virtuous, but received sinners and ate with them. He befriended tax collectors and prostitutes. It’s like He made a beeline to the ugly.
And these are the things that He calls good. Not that they are good in and of themselves—by nature these people are wrecks of sin and marred beauty. But He goes to the ugly, to the wrecked, to the tainted and there is where He puts His Word of blessing. He recreates and restores the beauty that existed before sin.
Today’s Gospel is but one example of Jesus’ restoration. A man is brought to Him who was deaf and had a speech impediment. Not the beauty of God’s creation. God created man uniquely among the rest of creation. Man has the ability to hear and to speak, created in the likeness of God Himself who is the speaking God. But the beauty of speech was denied this man until Jesus happens upon him. One word—Mark puts it in Aramaic so there’s no doubt it was the Word—Ephphatha. It means, “Let them be opened.” And they were opened. And behold, it was very good.
This is the particular beauty recognized and confessed by the crowds who were astonished at this work. “He has done all things beautifully,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the speechless speak.” The beauty is in creation restored.
I came across a note in my Large Catechism the other day in the teaching on the First Commandment. I wrote in the margin: “The First Commandment is learning to call “good” what God calls “good.” The crowds who witnessed this healing saw the truth of Jesus’ Word manifested in an outward way. The man heard and spoke. But most often the goodness and the beauty of God’s creation restored is a hidden reality. All outward appearances may be ugly, but when God calls something good—when He puts His Word to something—it is what He says it is in spite of outward appearances. That’s faith: learning to call “good” what God calls “good.”
There is yet a third dimension to beauty, to the kalos, something that is revealed particularly in Jesus. In John’s Gospel, Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd, or the Kalos Shepherd. Here He defines His goodness precisely in the fact that He lays down His life. There is a nobility in what He does. He gives of Himself for the sake of others.
When I was thinking about the beauty of the golden ratio for the beginning of this sermon, I was looking around my office for an example, and my eyes settled on the crucifix. Interestingly, this particular crucifix is made according to the golden ratio. But the beauty isn’t in its order and symmetry. Its beauty is in the nobility of the One who hangs upon it, who willingly laid down His life in the place of those who should have been pinned up there.
Outwardly, it’s an ugly thing. Many were amazed at Him, for His appearance was more disfigured than any man and His form more than any person (Is 52:14 AAT). But faith is learning to call “good” what God calls “good” in spite of outward appearances. This is what Martin Luther called the theology of the cross: learning to find the goodness and beauty of God hidden under suffering and the cross.
Because following the cross, just a few short days later, is the resurrection. There Jesus doesn’t just restore ears and tongues, but all of creation begins anew with Him as the firstborn of the dead. The ugliness of our sin is now just an outward thing. In the absolution, that forgiveness of sins, Jesus calls “good” what we made evil. He restores the beauty of creation—though hidden for a time. But the revelation will come one day, when our outward appearance will finally catch up with the inner reality.
There is a beauty that yet awaits us because of the beautiful work of our Savior. Creation will be restored, and it will be very good. Beautiful. Because,
Jesus Christ Has Done All Things Beautifully on the Cross
In the name of + Jesus.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard
Featured image courtesy of Flickr user chanc.