In the beginning…

We shifted gears at Bethany this morning. With the start of fall we move into a four week celebration of God as Creator. We call it the Season of Creation. Today we began with the words of Genesis 1. The part that goes, In the beginning, God created… It was fun to think about and wrestle with the text. We talked some about how to read a text like this (is it science? is it art?), and then wondered about what difference it might make in our lives. Thoughts are after the jump.

Our reading today stops on the sixth day, mid-day. Next week, you’ll finish the sixth day, and then comes the seventh, the day of rest. And then on the eighth day people started fighting about this text.

This is one of the most contested scriptural passages of our time. It is ground zero in debates about creationism, evolution, how to read scripture, and its authority.

It seems like too beautiful a text to be such a battlefield.

But so it goes, and as we start our season of creation here today we need to spend some time on what this passage is and is not. How do we read this passage as intelligent, grown-up people of faith?

Let’s start with what this passage is not: it is not an eye-witness account. It is not direct observation. It is not empirical.

Both within the passage we read today, and in its wider context, there are several clues that remind us that this passage is not reporting information empirically. I’ll offer just two this morning. Both of these examples can lead us to ask not just what this text is not doing, but also what it is doing, what is the word of God for us here today.

First, this story narrates the creation of plants before the creation of the sun. Plants can’t live without the sun. I know that. You know that. And even without a detailed understanding of photosynthesis, our ancestors knew that. The earliest people to recite this story of creation weren’t trying to give a blow by blow account. They were crafting a doxology of praise. The writer or reciter looks up and describes the sky. God made that. It’s good. Their eyes sweep down and take in the plants and abundant green earth. God made those. They are good. And then back up—the sun and moon. God made those. They are good. Whose eyes can sit still when we are confronted with the beauty of the world? Praise is not a linear affair. This is a doxology of praise.

But perhaps that’s not the best example as we sort out the genre of this scripture. After all, maybe the plants were thriving with ambient light. God had made light and dark, just not sun and moon. I want to offer one more clue as we sort out whether this is intended to be a literal report or not.

You’ll have to go home to check me on this one. The order of creation in this story doesn’t line up with the order of creation in the next chapter. Our Bible decided creation is too big of a deal to just tell one way. First, we have today’s text that runs from Genesis 1:1 through 2:3. Then, in Genesis 2:4 a second story starts. The two stories use different words for God, tell of different attributes of God, and narrate creation differently. In this first account creation starts from the top down—waters are pulled back from the earth. In the second—water rises from the earth as a mist. In the first plants are made, and then animals, and then humans. In the second story, a human is made first. And then God makes a garden as a home and animals as companions. The differences between these two stories are irreconcilable.

The authors and compilers of the Bible knew that. They were not dumb. It’s not that they just forgot to proofread. This is not a mistake that we need to cover up in our Bible. Our ancestors in the faith, the brilliant minds and souls who first told these stories, were not interested in a linear, empirical accounting of the facts of what happened at the beginning of it all. If they had been, they could have at least told one consistent story, or in editing, chosen just one.

I want to make sure that this point is clear. These inconsistencies do not mean that the Bible has nothing to say to us in our modern world. They lead us to ask more carefully—if the faithful, bright people who compiled these stories chose to include two stories that are different from each other, what does that tell us about God?

One thing it might tell us is that they believed that the really big stuff overflows the bounds of a linear, empirical accounting.

Think of how we tell a story of falling in love. Both people have a different spin on it, even remember things differently. Love is more than the sum of its parts.

It’s something similar at work here. The differences in these two stories, and the surprising elements of the first story, these wrinkles in the narrative, are holy indicators of the endless complexity, wisdom, and creativity of God.

When we take these stories and try to smush them into our categories of observable data we are making a mistake. God has given us minds. We are to use those minds to love God. Science is a great way in which to seek truth and love God. But it is not the only way to love God. Prayer, contemplation, story, and poetry are also ways to love God and to search for truth.

This passage is like that. It is poetry, or maybe liturgy. It is an origin story. It is a statement of faith. And it has incredible insight to offer us. Take the very beginning for example.

God created the heavens and the earth. This right here is a radical statement that I’m not sure we all trust all the time.

God created… that seems clear enough, or as clear as it’s going to get. God created the heavens and the earth. Do we believe that? And what difference does it make if we do?

God created the earth. The next twenty-odd verses describe the earth in increasing detail. All this stuff we can see and touch, all the material stuff of this world—God made it.

So often we imagine that God is concerned with and revealed in holy, spiritual things—the intangible, the ethereal, the transcendent. But here we read that God didn’t just make spiritual feelings, but also earthly stuff, like dirt, and dust, and fruit flies, and weeds, and our bodies.

The extended faith claim here is that God cares about the material world. God is God not only of our religious lives, but also our “secular” lives.

As Christians we double down on this claim in the Incarnation. Not only did God create the world, but God came and inhabited it, and was willing to be made known in the flesh.

If we take this seriously, then we’re being asked to care about what we eat, what we drink, and what other people have to eat and drink, where we live, what clothes we wear, how we get around, how we use our money, what we do with our bodies, how other people’s bodies are treated, the land around us, and how it is used—all of that is part of God’s good world. God made it all. God cares about it all. And to the extent that we seek God, we are asked to care about all of this as well. If sometimes religion is too esoteric for you, then settle in here, and look for God on earth.

Of course, God also made the heavens—the great beyond, the eternal. God made more than we can understand. God made things that are beyond us. In the face of this, the spiritual habits of humility and reverence are appropriate. If you often look at the world and think, Wow… you are well on your way. The reverence and humility that come with recognizing God has made so much, so very much, can also lead us to respond to each other with more love, more care, more compassion.

Here at the beginning of our Bible, the word rings out loud and clear: what we can see and taste and touch and smell is not the extent of it all. God is not only the God of the empirical reality. God is also God of mystery and transcendence and things we will never know. God is creator of both the here and now, and the beyond and forever.

We tend to give one of these two poles more weight than the other. Some of us are prone to declare that the daily, the tangible is sacred. And others of us are prone to say that the transcendent, the intangible is the really holy stuff. Our faith, however, is that God is God of it all.

Both the poetry and the prose, the science and the liturgy, heaven and earth. As the author of Ephesians will write thousands of years later, God is over all, and in all and through all.

That’s the claim that stands here at the very beginning of our Bible. God made it, all of it, and it is good.

Our great gift, and our responsibility, is to be part of this great good earth, to give thanks for and enjoy the land and the trees and the birds, to look for God in the depths of our hearts and the highest heavens and in the fruit flies and slugs. To look for God in heaven and on earth, and to hold it all as holy—both the things that make us catch our breath, and the people or things we’re prone to overlook or discount or ignore. God made this earth and these heavens as our home, and set us here to cherish and enjoy and give praise.  Everything else we proclaim flows from here. We are called, yes, to analyze and dissect, to seek to understand and explain, and also to step back in wonder and awe, exclaiming with the author of this story—God made it. And it is so very good.

by Sarah W. Wiles
September 9, 2012
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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