Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 7, 2020
Genesis 1:1-2:4a Commentary
As we come to the end of the great celebrations of the church year and begin Ordinary Time, the RCL takes a Sunday to focus on the Trinitarian God who has done these great things.
The readings from the Gospels and from the Epistles are clearly Trinitarian, the first naming the Triune God in connection with baptism, the second using the Trinity as the closing words of a major letter. You might say that the Triune God is named at the beginning of life and at the end, as part of a life launching blessing and as part of a life concluding benediction.
If you choose to use Genesis 1 and 2 as your text for Trinity Sunday, you might say that the Triune God is the source of all life. Then you will offer your listeners not blessing or benediction, but beliefs. That is exactly what so many of your listeners need as they wrestle with the beliefs of scientism.
Please note that I said scientism, not science. The latter is a method of dealing with empirical facts, the former is a set of beliefs about ultimate reality. Science presents no challenge to Christian belief, while scientism erodes the faith of many Christians and prevents non-Christians from even considering the Christian faith. So, you will be doing your church a real service by preaching the Trinitarian Good News of Genesis.
Yes, I know that the doctrine of the Trinity is not explicitly taught here, but there are hints that tantalizing: the One God creates, while the Spirit of God hovers over the waters of chaos, and God creates by speaking a Word. When read in the light of texts like John 1 and Colossians 1 and Hebrews 1, there’s enough here to give us at least a hint that there is a three-ness in the One creating God.
For many people, belief in God’s creation of the cosmos is very personal, because it shapes how we answer the central questions of life—who am I, why am I here, how will I live my life? That’s why, when I preached on Genesis 1 and 2 several years ago, I used one of the old Reformed confessions as a pastoral way into this controversial passage. The Heidelberg Catechism is very personal as it deals with the Trinitarian beginning of the Apostles Creed. “What do you believe when you say, ‘I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth?’ That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth, and everything in them, who still upholds and rules them by his eternal counsel and providence, is my God and Father because of Christ his Son.”
The Catechism doesn’t talk about the scientific debate that swirls around us. Of course, that’s because there was no such debate when the Catechism was written centuries ago. But its emphasis is a very intelligent, helpful and biblical way to deal with that debate today. While it mentions the miracle of divine creation out of nothing, it focuses on relationship, on who God is for me, and ultimately on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It suggests that the whole creation story is really about the redemption story. Using the Catechism as our guide, I’d like to focus our study of Genesis 1 and 2 on the three questions that all of us wrestle with personally—who, why, and how.
“In the beginning God created….” That’s the emphasis in this first chapter of Genesis, and throughout the Bible. God created. The story of creation is not first of all about how, but about who. Just count how often God is mentioned. God created, God said, God called, God saw. The point is that it all came from God. The world did not create itself. The world did not create you. God created the world and God created you.
Now that may sound like a pretty unremarkable statement to those of us who have always believed it, but think of it the way G.K. Chesterton did in his delightful defense of Christianity entitled, Orthodoxy. “The essence of all pantheism, evolutionism and modern cosmic religion is really in this proposition: that Nature is our mother. The main point of Christianity is this: that Nature is not our mother. Nature is our sister.” That’s exactly what Genesis 1 says: the earth is not our mother; the earth is our sister. We did not come from nature; we are a part of nature. We both came from the same Father, my Father for Jesus sake. That’s primarily what Genesis 1 is about—God created– not how, but who.
And why. Now you can talk about “why” in two very different ways. For example, there are two different ways to explain the boiling of water. You could say that it happens because of the rapid vibration of water molecules due to the application of heat. That’s why water boils. Or you could say that it boils because someone wants a cup of tea. That’s why it boils. The first speaks of physical process, the second of personal purpose. Genesis 1 and the rest of the Bible tells us why the world was created in that second sense—not so much the physical process as the personal purpose.
God’s purpose is hinted at in vss. 26-27, where God converses within himself and then creates the human race in his own image. The very pinnacle of God’s creation was a creature who would be like God, someone to whom God could relate as God relates to God in the mystery of the Trinity. Why did God create the world and us? Why are we here? For the love of God, for the sheer love of it—to express his love and to be loved back. “For God so loved the world…” says John 3:16, explaining redemption. That same love explains creation. The God of love wanted a relationship with creatures like himself. That’s why he created.
What Genesis 1 hints at is made clearer in Genesis 2. Some say this is a second creation account, a different, even contradictory account, but I don’t think so. It’s like the Rand McNally Atlas I kept in my trunk for those cross-country trips in the good old days before Google Maps. In that Atlas there was a map of the whole US and of every state showing all the major interstates. But when I got to a strange city, I turned to the inset maps, the maps that will show me the details of that city. That’s what you have in Genesis 2, an inset map, the details of God’s creation of the human race that is broadly sketched out in Genesis 1.
The most important thing is in vs. 4. The God who created everything is Yahweh, the God of Israel, the God who has entered covenant with his people and who will do anything to have a relationship with this people: everything from choosing them out pagan darkness to delivering them from bondage in Egypt to bringing them back from exile to sending his only Son to die for our repeated sins against him. This creative God wants nothing more or less than a relationship with the human race. That’s why he created all of this and all of us. And according to Psalm 33:11, “The plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.” That’s what Genesis 1 stresses—who and why.
When it does talks about the how, it says simply, “He spoke.” Again and again, “God said, and it was so.” Psalm 33 says, “By the Word of the Lord were the heavens made… for he spoke and it came to be; he commanded and it stood firm.” Some take that to be an argument against the theory of evolution, but it is rather an argument against what Chesterton called “evolutionism.” He was talking there about evolution not as a scientific explanation of natural phenomena, but as a quasi religious philosophy that claims to explain everything. The repeated emphasis on the word of God in creation is not against science; it is against religion.
Genesis 1 was written to counter other religious explanations of the world—the religion of the Egyptians from whose clutches Israel had just been delivered, the religion of the Babylonians into whose clutches Israel would one day fall, the religion of the Greeks whose culture permeated the ancient world. Some of those religions taught that the world came into being because many gods fought or had sex or exerted themselves. Other said that there are two equal forces in the universe from which all things came, while still other said that things have always been. As Israel walked through that religiously pluralistic world, God revealed the truth about creation in Genesis 1. “In the beginning God, your God, Yahweh God created the world,” not by struggling, or fighting, or mating, or collaborating with other beings, but simply by speaking. His word is so powerful that all he had to do was speak, and it was so.
This is not a scientific statement. It is a theological statement, a deeply religious statement. Indeed, the New Testament tells us that it is part of the Gospel. In fact, it is a statement about Jesus. “In the beginning was the Word,” says John 1, “and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” Colossians 1 asserts the same. “Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created….” Speaking of the Son who is the ultimate revelation of God, Hebrews 1 says “through him God made the universe.” How did God make the heavens and the earth? By and through his Word who became flesh in the days of Caesar Augustus. When read in the light of the whole Bible, Genesis 1 and 2 is part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Son of God was active in our creation eons before he became the baby Jesus for our redemption.
What does all this mean for us? Two things– one academic, the other personal. First, it means that biblically faithful Christians don’t have to argue with the findings of science. Now, of course, science is a purely human activity and thus as prone to error as anything human. And in fact, many of the assured findings of science in one age have been unceremoniously dumped in the next. So, we must be careful about being swept away by scientific theories, however widely held they are. But there is no reason for Christians to argue with the facts or the methods of science. Genesis 1 doesn’t call us to that.
It does call us to faith in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And that means that we should resist any faith that challenges that Christian faith. We don’t have to argue with the facts of science, but we should argue with the faith of some scientists who move beyond the facts to give their own religious explanations of the facts. Christians are perfectly willing to say, with Heb. 11:3, “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command.” Non-Christian scientists must be equally honest and say, “By faith we understand that physical reality is all there is.” With such faith held by some scientists we ought to argue, not with the facts of science.
The second conclusion we can draw from our study today is deeply personal. As I reflected on it, a sexist song from my youth started running through my head. A guy trying to hook up with a girl sings, “What’s your name, who’s your daddy? Is he rich like me? Has he taken any time to tell you what it is to live?” That’s the question that haunts the hearts of even the most devout believer in Mother Earth. “Who’s your Daddy?” The Christian faith replies, “The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created the heavens and the earth and me, is my God and Father for the sake of his Son, Jesus Christ.”
This is why the creation/evolution debate is such a personal thing. It has to do with who you are, and why you are here, and how you should live your life. Because of the message of Genesis 1 and 2, we don’t have to wander forlornly through the world wondering who, and why, and how. We are not alone in the universe, the victims of hostile or impersonal forces that rule our lives. We are children of God.
You don’t have to reject science in the name of God. And in the name of science, you don’t have to reject God. Come to Jesus, and know your Daddy.
Years ago, I read The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene’s blockbuster book about string theory. I found it both fascinating and faith challenging. So did Jeffery Kluger who interviewed Greene in the March 2-9, 2020 issue of Time.
He writes, “If you’re feeling all dreamy about the universe, here’s a pro tip: don’t tell Brian Greene. That guy can chill your cosmic buzz fast. I recently swung by the office [of Greene] full of happy, giddy questions and came away pretty much empty. Is there such a thing as a natural moral order? I wondered. Not in this universe there isn’t. What about a purpose to the universe, then—the reason the whole 13.8 billion-year-old shebang with its hundreds of billions of galaxies and trillions of planets happened in the first place? Nope, Greene says, no such purpose, adding, ‘And that’s Ok.’ Surely, though, Greene will grant the existence of free will…. Sorry, not a chance. ‘Your particles are just obeying their quantum-mechanical marching orders….’”
Doesn’t such a cold, cruel, mechanical universe depress students? “I’ll be frank. I have some students who come in crying. And they say, ‘This is kind of shaking my world up,’ and I say right back at them, ‘That’s not a bad thing. It’s fine to have your world shook. The pieces may fall back in the end to where they were, and they may not.’”
In the end, says Greene, “My feeling is that the reductionistic, materialist, physicalist approach to the world is the right one. There isn’t anything else; these grand mysteries will evaporate over time.” Note, “my feeling.” Read, “my faith.’
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