Maybe it’s because I just finished reading The Diamond Age by Neal Stevenson, a 1995 sci-fi classic about nanotechnology, but the title for this post is taken from the quest one of the main characters embarks upon. Alchemist have the power to turn boring, abundant materials into ultra-precious items.
This seems to me the perfect analogy for Book 17 of the City of God where Augustine traces the unpredictable growth of the City of God. To the uninitiated it might appear obvious how this city will be built – those children in the line of the early fathers of faith would be the chosen people and increase in number until they become a nation. But this is far from how things turned out in practice.
Through two examples Augustine shows how the growth of the City of God is far from straightforward. He uses the examples of Eli the priest and King David as hinge points in the history of Israel where significant changes are unveiled in God’s plan. Like the master weaver clipping the spool of wool to attach new thread, God switches the fulfilment of his promises as he sees fit.
Eli was a priest during the period of the judges, before Israel had a king. When he is old an unnamed prophet says his family is effectively cursed due to their unfaithfulness and the priesthood is no longer going to be within his bloodline (1 Samuel 2.27-36). God would rise up those whose hearts, not purely heritage, were right. Much more was at stake here than familial employment. Augustine sees this as:
An event which pointed prophetically to the future…it betokened the change which was to come in the future in respect of the two covenants…and the transformation of the priesthood and monarchy by the new and eternal priest-king, who is Jesus Christ.XVII.4
We see here God establishing one family, the leading family from the priesthood of Levities to be a perpetual devoted tribe, but subsequently being displaced due to unfaithfulness. Instead God raises up Samuel, an outsider, to be his chosen priest. Ultimately in Augustine’s day (400AD), that priesthood had been lost in the sands of time.
Similarly, with the promise of an eternal heir who will reign on David’s throne God is establishing a dynasty that was only partially fulfilled in history. In this case the unfaithfulness of the progeny did not invalidate the promise but served to illustrate how God would take the faithfulness and sins of his people, mixed with divine providence to produce spiritual gold.
It is the house of David because of its descent from him; but it is also the house of God because it is God’s temple, built not of stones, but of human beings, for the people to dwell there for ever with their God and in their God, and for God to dwell there with his people and in his people. Thus God will fill his people and the people will be full of their God.XVII.12
As Augustine draws this section to a close he skips forward to the time of Jesus’ life and ministry, seeing him as the great king of the city. The great ingathering of citizens of the City of God again pivots as now “the people of the Gentiles, whom Christ did not know in his bodily presence…(are) added to those who are true Israelites both by descent and by faith, constitute the City of God”.
Incredibly in the hands of the master alchemist even murder can be redeemed – becoming only slumber for Jesus. “What is a crime in you will be sleep for me”.
Truly God’s ways are beyond ours, his masterful purposes overcoming our weakness, sin and failure. Weaving success and failure into the broad tapestry of his salvation plan. The hands of Jesus taking the worst desires of his enemies and folding them into the curves and creases of the fabric to bring forth something pure and wholesome from something vile. This is the alchemist’s touch, remaking the brokenness into beauty through his own body. He waits for you to bring him your raw and rare material, why wait any longer?