Composed of icy cold dust and gas, comets are sometimes called the “dirty snowballs” of space. More recently, they have been characterized as “icy dirtballs.” Irrespective of monikers, one will occasionally streak into our solar system within view of Earth’s observers, and the show begins. As the comet bears in, the Sun heats its surface and a plume of jettisoned matter spews forth, glowing in the light that has unbound it and leaving a long trail of debris behind. A comet’s head may shine brighter in the sky than planets and stars, and its tail may stretch out for millions of miles behind.
In Genesis 2:7 we read that “God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” Inorganic matter was enlivened to make a man; dust of the earth was infused with an essence from beyond it. Was this man, Adam, a “dusty spirit” or “spiritual dust”? Divinity had interfaced with dirt, and an image of the Trinity had transferred to a creature bearing body, soul, and spirit.
But to be the only creature taking on such grand characteristics of the transcendent Creator must have been too heady a proposition. Mankind found it difficult to believe that the full capacities of God were beyond his reach. Indeed, in a very mortal act of rebellion, something immortal died within. Now, rather than words of creation, words of judgment echoed in Adam’s ears: “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.” (Genesis 3:19). Sent beyond the boundaries of the bounty, dust was ever in sight before him as he trod from Eden with his head hung low.
How Adam wanted once again to sense that sweet breath that had filled, not just his lungs, but his very being from the beginning! For though he still drew breath, a different kind of Life within him was no longer sustained. Surely without it, he was not fully alive. The dust particles that had coalesced now seemed disparate, lacking integration, insufficiently cohering. The gravitas of his identity now seemed to wane as if something ethereal had effused from him. Eternity was in his heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and it was that Life-giving breath that had given weight and substance to everything he had been or ever could have become.
Thousands of years later, David spoke words of comfort befitting all those like Adam:
The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:8-14)
David knew well his substance and pleaded for mercy. But he pleaded as a son. A son of dust.
Redemption would ultimately come through one called the Son of Man. Among many miracles, he gave sight to a man born blind. The same One who had breathed into dry dust now spat to moisten it, and mud applied to staring, blank eyes reconfigured creation gone awry. Light once again penetrated darkness. The imagery evoked by this act was not lost as the man proclaimed to those still spiritually blind that “never since the world began” had such an act been heard of. (John 9:32)
O worship the King, all glorious above,
O gratefully sing His power and His love;
Our Shield and Defender, the Ancient of Days,
Pavilioned in splendor, and girded with praise.
O tell of His might, O sing of His grace,
Whose robe is the light, whose canopy space,
His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
And dark is His path on the wings of the storm.
Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,
In Thee do we trust, nor find Thee to fail;
Thy mercies how tender, how firm to the end,
Our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend.*
Several times in Revelation we read of men who, in the wake of judgment, respond with increasing rebellion. They are subsequently characterized as those who “dwell on the earth.” They embrace their earthiness, and it consumes their identity as they outgas the breath of God within them. But “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” (Romans 8:14) They increasingly jettison their dustiness to become more and more breathy. And they find their citizenship elsewhere (Hebrews 11:16), a place where they must be changed to enter. (Isaiah 35:8, Revelation 21:27)
As the Son makes his face shine upon our substance, may we reflect brightly his glory and leave a heritage of words, works, and worship trailing behind for all to see. For “those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” (Daniel 12:3)
*”O Worship the King.” Original lyrics by Robert Grant, in Christian Psalmody, by Edward H. Bickersteth, 1833, alt. This version is a reworking of lyrics by William Kethe in the Genevan Psalter of 1561.
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