Sunday, June 15, 2014

Bringing Order Out of Choas (A sermon on Creation - Gen. 1:1-2:4a)

If you have learned anything from me about interpreting Scripture over the years, I hope you have learned that you can take the stories in the early chapters of Genesis seriously without taking them literally. One does not have to deny science or evolution to take these creation stories seriously. And you don’t even have to be a liberal or a progressive like me to do that, you can be an evangelical, though the statistics don’t fair well for evangelicals.

According to a recent survey by the Associated Press, 77% of people who claim to be born again or evangelical say they have little or no confidence that the universe began 13.8 years ago with a big bang. And 76% of evangelicals doubt that life on earth, including human beings, evolved through a process of natural selection.

Now, the interesting thing, or rather the sad thing is that evangelical professors in evangelical universities and seminaries know better. Darrel Falk, a biology professor at Point Loma Nazarene University told the Religion News Service that many biblical [evangelical] scholars do not see a conflict between religion and science. He said, “The story of the cosmos and the Big Bang of creation is not inconsistent with the message of Genesis 1.”

Those are the words of an evangelical professor. I suspect that many(if not most) evangelical biblical scholars who subscribe to some form of biblical inerrancy (and sign faith statements testifying to that fact) believe what professor Falk believes.

They know there are different kinds of biblical literature that call for different approaches to the text. They know that the creation stories are parabolic in nature — that they are spiritual, metaphorical, and theological stories that teach truth about God and God’s relationship to the world without being literally true or factual. They know that these creation stories are not historical chronicles or scientific reports.

Harvard theologian Harvey Cox tells about the time the student leader of Harvard’s atheist group on campus took one of his theology classes. This otherwise bright student wrote a very weak paper in which he sought to discredit the God of the Christian and Jewish faiths by attacking and dismantling a literal interpretation of the Genesis Flood Story. He thought that by proving the story could not have happened the way the story says it happened, he would thus disprove the reality of God.

Dr. Cox said to the student, “Don’t you know a story when you read one.” Evangelical biblical scholars know what kind of stories these are.

--They know that the claims made by Ken Ham over at the Creation Museum are really far-fetched.
--They know that 99% of all earth and life scientists accept some form of evolution.
--They know that the story of evolution and the biblical story are not mutually exclusive, and that a healthy faith welcomes and is informed by science.

Evangelical university professors know this, so why does 77% of all evangelicals still deny science and refuse to accept evolution? Why do so many evangelicals insist on a literal interpretation of the creation stories? What evangelical professors know is obviously not getting down to the people in the pew

Are the professors not teaching their students these things? Are they afraid of rocking the evangelical boat? Are pastors afraid of causing conflict in their churches? I don’t know why three-fourths of all people claiming to be evangelicals still deny science; but I do know that evangelical professors in universities and seminaries know better.

I love this story we just read and the truth about God and God’s relationship to the world it conveys. We can only scratch the surface this morning.

One thing this story highlights is the dance between God’s oversight and creaturely freedom. What God causes to be, God’s let’s be. For example, in v. 11 God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation; plants yielding seed,” and so forth. And then in v. 12: “The earth brought forth vegetation” and so for. It’s as if God invests creation with creative power.

There is always this mystery in God’s relationship to the planet between God’s oversight and creaturely freedom. This freedom extends to creation itself and all universal processes. God does not coerce or manipulate or override creaturely and earthly life.

In our own lives in relationship to God there is this mysterious dance between God’s engagement/involvement and the exercise of our freedom and responsibility. God guides, but does not overwhelm or overpower. Grace sustains our very existence, and yet there are things we must do that God cannot do for us.

The creation story bears witness to this interplay between God’s creative involvement in our lives and our planet and our creative response and engagement.

Second, this story highlights the direction or purpose of God’s involvement: God wants to bring order out chaos. The story begins, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.”

The waters that are mentioned in v. 2 were undoubtedly thought of as turbulent waters in light of the Psalms that mention the chaotic waters in connection with creation. So we begin with darkness and chaos. And these texts (Genesis and the Psalms) are behind the Gospel text of Jesus calming the chaotic sea. A lot of symbolism there.

Scholars tell us that this story probably emerged during the time of Israel’s exile in the sixth century BCE. Maybe that’s what the community of exiles was feeling. Is this not how we feel at our lowest point, when the darkness is so think we can see no form or shape to our lives.

Our exile could be brought on by an illness, or feelings of loneliness, feelings of rejection and abandonment, betrayal, or unemployment. I suspect those in poverty and under oppressive powers that beat them down day after day feel this sense of exile more than the rest of us.

The message for us is that God is present in the darkness and the chaos: The story says: “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Wind can also be rendered Spirit. Wind is often a symbol for the Spirit – remember John 3 – “the wind blows where it will.”

The terms “darkness” and “chaos” make me think about a piece written by Garrison Keillor. Keillor read where Bill Gates had said in an interview with Time that he had better things to do on Sunday morning that go to church. Keillor started playing around with the idea of what would it take to get Gates attention. He wrote:

Bill Gates was the richest person in America, and after he gained a good deal of the world’s resources, God sent Gates an e-mail: “Bill, I saw how you allocated your time last Sunday morning, and frankly, I was unimpressed. Riding a stationary bike while watching people on the Men’s Channel talk about triglycerides and PSA counts isn’t very satisfying. Bill, let me give you three words of advice: Love your neighbor. Ever hear what happened to the rich man who stiff-armed the beggar Lazarus? It caused a general protection fall and he’s been offline for centuries. If there’s anything you’d like to talk about, I’m here. Your Creator, God.”

Gates typed back a reply: “Dear God, Wow. Omniscience—cool. But how do I know you’re omnipotent too? Gates.” The moment Gates clicked on “send,” the entire Microsoft campus in Redding, Washington, went into a great darkness. The air conditioning shuttered to a halt.  Gates’ office was filled with creeping things and birds of the air. His websites were burning after a multitude of hits by Hittites. A herd of crazed swine trotted down the hall by his office, their little pink eyes aglow. Out in the hall a beggar began begging for alms. When Gates gave him a nickel, the power went back on.

Back in his office, Gates found a message on his computer screen, which said, “Hey Bill, that was only the screen savor. There’s more where that come from. Obey my commandments or the information age could come to a halt through a virus in the system. I did a flood once, and behold, I can do viruses. Once people tried to reach heaven by building a tower, so I made their formats incompatible. I can do this again. P.S.: Gates, it’s your move.”

Obviously, I don’t believe that God creates the darkness and the chaos – life does that, people do that, sometimes we are responsible for own chaos, other times it just happens, but what we can do is respond creatively and allow the Spirit of God to hover over us. We can allow the wind of the Spirit to blow over us and we can be attentive to the way the Spirit leads us. Because God wants to bring order out of chaos.

Does that mean God overrides the bad circumstances? No. Sometimes circumstances change sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the sick find healing, sometimes the unemployed find work, sometimes things turn for the better, sometimes they don’t. No one knows why. It’s not about having enough faith or will power or saying the right kind of prayers. This is the great mystery I was talking about earlier. But whatever the circumstances, God can bring order out of the chaos going on within us. There can be peace in the storm.

A third truth this story shines light on is the dignity and value of human beings as divine image bearers. In v. 27 there is a clustering of the word “create” that focuses special attention on the creation of humankind: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” God then speaks directly to the human creatures, which clearly suggests that human beings have a different, more intimate and direct relationship with God than the rest of the earthly creation.

Pages and pages have been written by competent theologians and spiritually astute interpreters concerning “the image of God.” What does it mean to be an image bearer of the divine? Like all other creatures the human creatures have the capacity to procreate, but in the story God bestows on them a special authority. They are told to “fill the earth” and to exercise “dominion” over the earth.

We have successfully “filled” the earth – in fact, we now have to be concerned about overpopulation. We have not successfully exercised authority. What does the text mean when it says, “Let them (the human couple) have dominion over the earth?” (By the way, this is surprisingly, a very egalitarian text. When you consider how patriarchy dominated the ancient world, this is quite amazing. The man and woman are to share in exercising authority.) But what does this mean?

Let me tell you first what it doesn’t mean? It doesn’t mean humans are to exploit or abuse the earth. We have to interpret this in light of what it means for the human creature to be a divine image bearer — to bear the image of God.

If Jesus is the quintessential image bearer then we get our cue from him. What did he tell his disciples when they wanted to be great in his kingdom and sit on his left and right? What did he say to them when they aspired to exercise dominion (authority) over others?

Jesus said, “this is how the people of this age behave, but not so with you. Like me, you are to be servants of others, not lords.”

We exercise dominion by being servants of the creation, by being faithful stewards and managers of the creation — all for the good of the creation. Remember that in Romans 8 when Paul envisioned the future redemption of the world he imagined that redemption extended to all creation.

This creation account says that creation is good and is a blessing. And the human creatures, who enjoy a particularly close relationship to the Creator, are given the responsibility of ensuring the good of the rest of creation. To bear the image of God means that we are stewards and servants of the creation.

Bearing the image of God also means that we have the capacity to hold together both the human and the divine. Our true self is nothing less than God — the Spirit — indwelling us.

When Jesus says, “I and my Father are one” he wasn’t making some extraordinary claim unavailable for the rest of us. He was telling us what is possible for all human beings who bear God’s image. To be united with the divine is our calling. Richard Rohr puts it this way: “We are tabernacles of God, and what happened in the Christ is what is happening in all of us. The putting together of the human and the divine within ourselves is clearly our task and our supreme vocation.”

Jesus invited us to abide in him and his Abba, just the way he dwelt in his Abba. We are invited in. That relationship is available to us, because the Spirit resides in us. We need to consciously nurture that connection. That’s how valuable we are. We who know this are called to make this known to the rest of the world, first and foremost by living it out, by actually loving one another with the love of God and by working for the common good of all people and all creation.

Our universe is still expanding. God is still creating. And one of the things God so much wants to do in my life and your life is pour out God’s love in us so that it flows through us to create a just world. Love is the creative power for good. God wants us to all be creative instruments for the good of the whole creation.


Gracious God, help us realize how important the earth is to you and how we, as divine image bearers, have been given such an important role in creatively working for creation’s good. May we not ignore or excuse ourselves from this high calling, but rather, awaken to our responsibility. Help us to discover our true self – your power and grace at work in our lives so that we will have the wisdom and compassion and love to faithfully bear your image and work for the good all people and all creation. Amen. 

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