In the Beginning, God Created
Presbyterian Church of Chestertown – September 1, 2019
John T. Ames
From now until the beginning of Advent much of our preaching is going to be from what is called the “Narrative Lectionary.” This is not the same as the ecumenical lectionary in which the same 3 lessons are used by congregations of many denominations. The “Narrative Lectionary” sticks with a theme for several months. This fall, it is the Old Testament.
We will not use it slavishly. Other events occur and need to be preached about. We have a lot of guest preachers who choose their own topics. Besides, Caitlan, Alison and I are all creatures of whimsy, who are hard to predict and hard to shove into a mold. But mostly our sermons through the fall will be taken from the Old Testament.
The bible is not just a collection of stories. It is one story. It is the story of God’s dealing with the
people of the earth from the creation of the people of Israel through the life, death, and
resurrection of Jesus Christ and the establishment of a world-wide, multi-ethnic church to
take that story to all peoples.
And the story begins with a prologue that sets the story of Israel in the context of the whole story of the world. This prologue was written many centuries after the history of Israel was compiled. The scholars and theologians of Israel took the history of their people and put it in a world-wide context.
They said that their God – the God who had called Abraham and promised to make of him a great nation – the God who had delivered them from slavery and established them in their land – the God who had promised that through them the whole world would be blessed – the scholars and theologians of Israel affirmed that their God was the only God there was. Their God was the God of all peoples – including their enemies. Their God was the, one, God.
This radical monotheism came from prophets in the period just before, during, and just after the exile in Babylon. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Amos – there were others. It was developed through long centuries of experience and faith. It is Israel’s singular contribution to human thought. The one God. And they had the courage and the grace to say that this one God was the creator of the world – the cosmos. The galaxies. The sun and moon and stars. All plants and animals. The creator and Lord of all peoples.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; in other words, it was nothing. And darkness covered the chaos. Their affirmation is that God created ex nihilio – out of nothing.
In the beginning, God created; says the Genesis theologian.
The earth is the Lord’s; and everything in it belongs to God; says the Psalmist.
This is one of the most ancient affirmations of our faith. The ancient Hebrew poet, sitting on the Palestinian hillside watching his sheep, instinctively knew that God had created the world of nature, and that men and women were responsible to God for the use they made of it. In his sermon last week that distinguished lay theologian, Lance Williams, made the same point. The faith that he eloquently affirmed is a faith that is discerned in the natural world – the world which God created.
And we all know that, though not all of us can express ourselves as well. We know it when we sit in our kitchens and watch the snow fall and smell the soup bubbling. We know it as we sit in tee shirts and shorts and watch the sea roar, or the sun set over the harbor, or the geese swimming and playing on the Town dock. We know it, as the professional theologian Alison said in this month’s PCC Newsletter, when we drive in the countryside and see the fields of the Eastern Shore. We know that the world around us is beautiful and that it did not create itself, nor was it created by accident.
And we know – know instinctively, I think – the same thing that the ancient Palestinian shepherds knew as they sat on the hillside, watching the sheep grazing. They instinctively knew that God had created the world of nature and that men and women were responsible to God for the use they make of it.
You would not learn this by studying biology in the 8th grade, or astronomy or geology in graduate school. You would learn that the earth is millions of years old, that the seas and rocks are constantly changing, that animal and plant life is constantly evolving. You may have heard jokes about the quaint idea that the world was created in seven days, a few thousand years ago. You have certainly heard scientists who deride religion as the fictitious refuge of the ignorant; and you certainly have heard religious leaders denounce science as the atheistic refuge of the pagan.
But we are not forced to chose between them. We can affirm the truth of the biblical assertion that “In the beginning, God created” and also affirm the truth of the scientific explanations that describe the solar systems, the formation of the continents, and the evolution of life on earth.
Perhaps we should pause for just a moment and point out that the bible does not say how God created the universe. The poetic language of Genesis, written many centuries before science began to investigate the process, does not pretend to describe it. The bible simply affirms: “God created.”
The poets and theologians of ancient Israel used the commonly accepted scientific world view of their time. If you go outside and look around you in all four directions, the earth appears to be flat; and so they affirmed that it was flat. If you stay outside from sunrise to sunset it looks like the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. So they concluded that the sun revolves around the earth. If you are outside at night and look up at the stars, it appears that light is coming through little holes in a film of some sort. They had no way to know that stars are millions of miles away and that some of them are larger and brighter than out sun.
The rise of modern science has caused a tremendous increase in the knowledge which all of us have about the world around us. There is no need for us to reject that knowledge simply because it was not known to the ancients who described God’s creation in accordance with their understanding of the world.
Truth is never contradictory to the Christian faith, no matter in what field it is found. Natural science, history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology – truth is always godly. And they do a huge disservice to the Christian faith who would equate faithfulness to the biblical witness with ignorance.
The Old Testament affirms basically two things about the world of nature. It says that God made everything and that God continues to rule the creation, and it says that the world of nature gives glory to God. There is a voice of nature, and nature speaks to us. But you and I know that from our own experience. We may not know much about the exodus of Hebrew slaves from Egypt. We may not know much about theology or the doctrines of the early church. Our own personal experience of God may be something we question, or doubt, or don’t understand very well.
But even though we do not understand photo-synthesis, we know what happens in the spring when we plant little seeds in the ground. We have walked in the woods in the spring and smelled the rebirth of nature. We have been on the beach and seen the millions of stars. We have seen the miracle of human birth and the continuing miracle of babies as they grow into children and then into adults.
We may not understand it – we do not – but we know it. We don’t understand how a telephone works either, but we know how to use it – at least we used to, before our telephones became smarter than we are. The dumbest and most ignorant among us, the most cynical secularist among us, cannot possibly maintain that the rose blossoms at its own initiative, or that the cherry trees grow themselves. No parents can seriously think that they create their children through the sexual process. The heavens do declare the glory of God. The world of nature is God’s handiwork.
And it’s on that basis that the psalmist affirms: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it belongs to God.” That’s basically the Old Testament position on the subject. But that’s not all the bible says about the world around us. For if the psalmist proclaims the glory of God in nature, the apostle knows ‑ as we all do ‑ of the tragedy of nature. He knew, as well as we, of hurricanes and floods and earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. He also knew about cancer and heart disease and birth defects, though he didn’t call them that.
Paul says: The creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but because of the will of him who subjected it so..
Yet, he says, always there is hope. For the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and enter upon the glory and splendor of the children of God. We know that up to now, the whole creation has been in pain ‑ pain like that of childbirth. But the creation will be redeemed.
This is pretty heavy stuff for a gorgeous Labor Day weekend. Paul says that the corruption of God’s creation ‑ which is seen in us on account of our sin ‑ is also seen in the world of nature.
Yet he says that the creation will be redeemed. The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay. The salvation of nature is part of the salvation of the world. And the bible makes it very plain that salvation means salvation of the world, not just of human beings alone. The gospel of John tells us that “God loved the world so much that he sent his son.”
Isaiah foretold of a time when lions and sheep, little children and snakes will lie together in peace. Angels and stars, people and animals, all adore the Christ child in the Christmas story. When he died the earth shook and the sun was dark. When he arose, there was a great earthquake, and saints and angels joined in the great heavenly shout: “Hallelujah!”
The prophet of the revelation saw the same vision:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. . . . . And he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God . . . .
And night shall be no more. They need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God shall be their light. And he shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah! Amen.
In powerful images the writer of the Revelation describes the salvation of both people and nature. Needless to say, this is not a description of the future history of the world. This is the symbolic re-creation of Eden. The bible begins with a beautiful and perfect garden. It ends with a poetic vision of earthly perfection. A heavenly city, so beautiful that the very streets are paved with gold. The creation itself will be redeemed.
The earth is the Lord’s. It’s God’s because God made it; it’s God’s because it gives God glory; and it’s God’s because God has promised to redeem it.
And that’s where we come in. For there are few other situations in which it is so obvious that God’s work is to be shared by us. We have the obligation to use the intelligence and scientific skill which God gave us to solve the problems which our civilization has created. We must develop cures for dreadful diseases and solutions to environmental problems.
There is no conclusion for this sermon. Perhaps there never should be for any sermon, for maybe preacher and hearer alike should always write the conclusion ‑ each of us in whatever private and secret way is most appropriate. Today’s challenge is for each one of us to decide how to live as part of the world which God owns. It is to affirm with the faithful of all ages that “In the beginning, God created.” And it is to stand up and affirm that our faith is ill served by those who would equate Christianity with ignorance.
And together we will affirm with joy one of the great truths of our faith: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it belongs to God. And that doesn’t mean simply contemplating the beauty of the fields around us, or the majesty of the sea or even the miracle of modern medicine. To commune with nature is to join with nature in praise of the God who made us. It is to join in a great chorus of men and women and plants and animals and rocks and seas which sings together of the glory and majesty and love of a great God.
For nature sings of the glory of the God who made it. Sometimes it sings sad songs with us in the common bond of our tragedy. But sometimes it joins with us in our “Hallelujahs!” as it shouts with us the indestructible hope of salvation.
Blessing and honor and glory and power be unto him, forever and ever. AMEN