Today we begin our year 2 journey through the Narrative Lectionary, and this year we start at the very beginning. The word “Genesis” means beginning or origin. The first 11 chapters are filled with stories of origin which attempt to help us understand who we are and where we live and what our circumstances are.
When you are asked to tell your story, how do you begin? A common way is to say, “I grew up in such and such town, went to this college, got married and started working for this company.” But the truth is that our origin goes back to a time shrouded in mystery, to an act of creation which led to our miraculously being formed in our mothers’ wombs and being born into this world. We remember nothing of that, and even knowing some of the science makes it no less of a wondrous miracle to be accepted by faith.
From this story of origins we remember other things which have indelibly shaped our lives. Were we born into abundance or poverty? A stable family or one shattered by alcoholism or abuse? A home where parents loved and read to us and took us to church, or a home where our value and existence was always in question and God was never mentioned? Before we ever began doing anything to shape our own lives we were shaped by many things over which we had no control.
The creation account we heard this morning undoubtedly had a long oral tradition before assuming written form. It was one of many stories of origin which were told around campfires under the stars and passed on from one generation to the next. In time it attained a pattern and a lyrical quality which made it very memorable. I hope you were able to hear the almost liturgical character in the way we read it this morning. You can imagine the children around the campfire chiming in at the appropriate points in the story, “And it was so!”
The account does what we do when we look back at our own origins. It remembers that before we existed, a loving and intentional act of creation took place which made all the difference for us. Our loving God created a world in which life could exist and thrive. There was air to breathe and water to drink and food to eat. There was dry land to live on and gathered waters to use. There were creatures that walked, that crawled, that flew, that swam; they lived on the earth, in the earth, in the trees, in the waters; they sang, they growled, they hissed, they buzzed, and they were silent. There were stars and sun and moon for light, and there was darkness at night for sleeping. And God made people who could enjoy this creation, take care of it, and have a special relationship with him. The story even affirms that we are made in God’s image, though that should not be understood to mean that God looks like us. It means there is something different about human beings from the rest of the created order, which is clear when God says the humans are to have “dominion” over the rest of the creatures. God provides the blessings of creation for people to enjoy, and expects us to take care of those blessings and serve the creation.
So in this account we have a beautiful, liturgical hymn of praise for the God who has lovingly created a universe where everything is thought out and provided for. It is orderly – day follows night follows day religiously; waters go in certain places and dry land in certain places; breathable air is provided up to a certain level, which the ancient Hebrews understood to be a dome. The dome kept the oxygen in and the waters of the heavens out, except when it was time for rain. The account is intended to give great peace of mind and confidence in this powerful Creator God and his good intentions towards people.
But how are we to read this account with a hurricane bearing down on us? Having seen all the pictures of monstrous flooding in Houston, devastation in Texas and the Caribbean, horrible floods in Asia, devastating wildfires out west, earthquake and tsunami in Mexico, how can we not decide that chaos now rules creation instead of a loving, orderly God?
Well, there is another part of the story that is important to know. It seems that the Scriptures of the Old Testament began to be compiled in an orderly, written form during the time of the Babylonian exile. Those who did this work had several old sources to work from and weave together. They had lots of choices about how to begin telling the story of God and his people. They could have started with Abraham and Sarah and the miraculous birth of a child of promise. They could have started with Moses and the burning bush and the freedom from slavery in Egypt. They could have started with David and the period of Israel’s greatest prosperity.
The exile was, after all, a catastrophe for the people of Israel. Crushed by the Babylonians, the Temple demolished, carried off into exile away from their homes and subservient to the Babylonians. Given that they believed God lived in the Temple and would never allow it to be destroyed, they had to wonder if God had been defeated by the Babylonian gods and was never going to be able to help them again. The forces of chaos must have appeared to be in control.
When we are in crisis, the crisis is all we can see and the panic can blind us to everything that has gone before. By making this creation account the beginning point, the compilers of Scripture were saying to their people: Look, before any of us were around God created everything you see in all of its beauty and complexity. Then God created people to enjoy it and take care of it. God is the one who did this.
This was not the first time any of these people had heard this story, they had heard it all their lives. It was a story of origins. When you are reminded of this story you feel foolish for having wondered whether God has been defeated by Babylonian gods. You feel foolish for having wondered whether chaos is in charge and God is now powerless to help us. In days like those, and on a day like today it is important to be reminded: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth…” This is an important beginning point for being able to continue trusting God when a hurricane is bearing down on you. Otherwise we may decide that God deserves the blame for the hurricane or God is not as powerful as the hurricane.
This is not the only story of origins included by the compilers of Scripture, but it is the foundational one, the beginning point, the backdrop against which everything else should be seen. Creation is good, it is purposeful, it is gift and blessing, it is accomplished by the creating word of God.
Stories which follow give us theological understandings for how the perfection of creation has been marred. Humans are not content with being creatures and caretakers, but cross boundaries in attempts to usurp God’s role and bring harm to themselves and creation in the process. Adam and Eve eat from the forbidden tree; Cain kills Abel; the more people there are the more wickedness appears, leading to Noah and the flood; people try to build a tower all the way to heaven.
Even when we come to the historical people and places and events in the Old Testament beginning with Abraham, the compilers of Scripture don’t try to whitewash Israel’s history by just telling the good things and the heroic acts. The failures and shortcomings and the consequences are fully detailed as well. Jacob’s deceptions, Joseph’s brothers’ treachery, Sampson’s arrogance, David’s adultery – it’s all right there. All of these stories have something to do with who we are and why we are the way we are.
Each of our lives has these stories which played profound roles in how our lives have played out. A child is put up for adoption; parents divorce; a sibling dies or has a serious illness; we come to a fork in the road, a major decision, and we experience great blessings or hard learnings as a result of the choice. Frequently the mistakes and the hurtful experience make the biggest difference of all in leading us in a good direction, we later come to see. But if we ever lose sight of a belief that at its origin our lives are a miraculous, loving gift, and that we are given this gift for a purpose, then we are in serious trouble. The forces of chaos have the power to overwhelm us and lead us to despair if we allow them to.
Like the exiles, it is important for us to come to understand that storms in our lives, whether literal or figurative, do not mean that God has lost his grip on things. One of the symbols of the church through the years has been a boat, with the idea that we come together to weather the storms of life.
A Korean hymn describes the ordeal of the storm very well. The first stanza says, “Lonely the boat, sailing at sea, tossed on a cold, stormy night; cruel the sea which seemed so wide, with waves so high. This single ship sailed the deep sea, straight into the gale; O Lord, great is the peril; dangers do all assail.” Other stanzas touch on despair and hopelessness, followed by remembering God’s presence and praying for help. The final stanza says, “Storms in our lives, cruel and cold, surely will arise again, threatening lives, threatening us on life’s wild sea. Powerful and great, God’s hand is there, firmly in control. O Lord, calm peace comes from you, peace comes to my lone soul.”
Peace in the storm. It comes from remembering our foundations, from remembering the One who creates and sustains and redeems. In the beginning, God created… and it was good.
Hopefully you received the handout, “Sharing God’s Story at home,” this morning. If not, you can find one in the narthex on your way out. It also has been emailed to you if you are on the email list for the church. It contains daily Bible readings, and if you read those leading up to next Sunday you will be better prepared to engage the sermon next week. It includes tips for home worship and prayer, including children, and engaging in service. It should not be difficult finding things to pray about together this week.
As we are faced with chaos in the weather, in government, in world affairs, let’s be comforted in knowing that God has been dealing with this a lot longer than we have. When we look at the big picture and the long view it is clear that God has provided blessing upon blessing upon blessing. Even in the midst of struggles we are called to gratitude and trust, and we are invited to pray and shelter in God.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
September 10, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church