Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 4, 2023
Genesis 1:1-2:4a Commentary
Science has long been fascinated with both the cosmic beginning and its ending. Both involve a certain amount of speculation, though at least with the universe’s beginning there is real evidence to look at. But since the end has not yet come, there is no data to examine, and so theory and speculation are all science can offer. Scientist Fred Hoyle is the man who is credited with coining the phrase “the Big Bang.” He did so because over the last century or two there has been mounting evidence that at some point long about 13.7 billion years ago (give or take a bit) all that we now know burst into being in a super-hot explosion of unfathomable power. So amazing was the shockwave of that explosion that its effects have yet to die out. Indeed, some new evidence suggests that this shockwave of energy essentially never will die out.
The universe continues to expand, hurtling ever-deeper into the far reaches of space. For a long time it was an open question as to whether that expansion outward from the Big Bang would continue to push the cosmos outward or whether the universe would reach an outer limit and then, rubber band-like, snap back in on itself. Then all that we know would hurtle back together in one huge and dense mass the way an entire skyscraper can pancake down into a single heap of rubble after some demolition crew blows it up.
But a few years back evidence was discovered that indicates that such a re-collapse of the cosmos may never happen. Instead the tremendous power of that original explosion will continue to drive matter outward. Eventually, however, the universe’s energy will become too diffuse to sustain life. Suns will flatten and wink out, space will grow colder and colder until finally the ultimate result of that first Big Bang will be a cosmos spread too thin. If so, then the seeds of the universe’s end were sown already at its explosive beginning. The fire, heat, and energy that gave birth to all we know will end up becoming too much of a good thing as that same outward rush of power that brought us to this current moment in galactic history will push the universe to extinction.
Of course, even if this scenario were ever to prove true, it is something like a trillion years away, so I wouldn’t lose much sleep over it. But how curious that science would now say that something of the universe’s end could be contained in its beginning. Truth is, the Bible has said the same thing pretty much all along, except that from our faith-informed perspective this is good news.
Listen: “In the beginning God.”
In the beginning God.
You don’t need to read much farther than that in the Genesis text to discern how the cosmic end is contained in the cosmic origin. “In the beginning God.” So simple, yet so majestic. Because if that is true, then it’s very close to being all we need to know. Because contained in that little statement is the keynote of faith: namely, God has something to do with everything. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In the beginning God created everything.
Throughout Genesis 1 we have a majestic series of repeated phrases: God commands, and it is done; God sees, and it is good; there is evening, there is morning, and so another day. The order and regularity of this narrative–as predictable as sunrise and sunset each day–is a mirror image of the larger cosmic order and regularity that has been in place since the beginning because of God’s work alone.
There is something soothing about Genesis 1’s rhythm and predictability. Authors of children’s books know that and so construct stories which can have a similar effect on young children. A classic example is the story of the Three Bears wherein first Goldilocks, and then later upon their return also the three bears, methodically move through the house. They proceed from porridge bowls to chairs to bed and each time from too hot to too cold, too hard to too soft, until finally something is “just right.” Similarly in the wonderful book Goodnight, Moon young readers systematically work their way through a young boy’s bedroom, noting each item and then, after each set, saying “Goodnight” to one of the items.
Genesis 1 is like that, though on a much more sophisticated level. But there is predictability here—you as a reader know what’s coming because it will echo what came before. And you always know that at the end of the day, no matter how wildly diverse that day’s creative activities were, it’s going to turn out just right. God is going to see that it is good–and in the end he will see that the whole kit-n-kaboodle is “very good.” How profoundly comforting it is to know this as you move along.
In the beginning God.
But there are other, more subtle features to this text which are striking once you see them. The Genesis 1 creation account has a bit of an axe to grind. The author was well aware that this was not the only creation story available in the world. Myths on how the universe began were a dime a dozen in the ancient world: the Egyptians had their story about the sun god Re and his creating of all life. The Babylonians had their grand epic of Enuma Elish in which the goddess Tiamet is responsible for birthing many gods, out of whose warfare eventually the earth was born. The universe is filled with gods in most such tales, and some of these gods could be identified with certain portions of this world: so some people worshiped the sun even as others bowed down before trees, some sought to honor the spirits of the rivers while others adored the god of the mountain.
Genesis 1 was written, in part at least, to counteract these alternative narratives of creation and the view of the world which those stories supported. Over and over the true God of Israel is shown as superior to any portion of the natural world by virtue of God’s being the one not just to make all things but to move them around so they would do precisely what he alone desired. God is shown here as being so grand that he can accomplish great wonders well beyond the “normal” operation of things. Many in the ancient world worshiped the sun and/or the moon as a god in its own right. So Genesis 1 quite literally puts the sun in its place by having God create light–just pure and stunning light–three whole creation “days” before the sun and moon. Why worship the sun when the true God doesn’t even need it to make the purest of all light!?
As if that were not an amazing enough feat, God even creates green plants on day three also before the sun was made. This is not an example of ignorant science on the part of this author–although ancient people lacked a knowledge of photosynthesis and its relation to the production of chlorophyll, they nevertheless were well aware that without the sun, plants just don’t grow. But Genesis 1 shows the whole earth sprouting with every kind of green plant imaginable even before a sun was in place. God alone, and not the sun, is to be worshiped. God alone, and not any supposed spirit living inside a plant, is to be honored.
In the beginning God.
(Image above: A recent photo from the Webb Telescope. The flared blue lights are closer stars in our own Milky Way galaxy but all the other objects are themselves whole galaxies with upwards of 1 billion stars each! No matter which direction Webb is pointed, this is what it sees!)
Then comes the wonderful dramatic understatement in verse 16 where, in an almost casual manner, this author just happens to mention “He also made the stars.” Amazing! Like God just tossed it off casually! Untold billions of nuclear furnaces pierce the darkness of space, spewing forth the heat, radiation, radio waves, and blazing light that result from their hydrogen-helium fission. The ancients maybe didn’t know what the stars were precisely, but we now are staggered to know how many of them there are and how great a variety there is, too: yellow suns, red giants, blue stars and binary systems. Yet God created them all without breaking a sweat, it seems. “Oh yes, and he made the stars, too” verse 16 mentions in passing. Indeed as in the photo above, God made billions of whole galaxies! Billions of them each with a billion or so starts. It staggers the imagination.
But that’s part of the nature of Genesis 1: to show the enormous power which allowed God to do it all. God is not reserved in his act of creation but wildly lavish. He is profuse, filling the oceans with vast schools of fish, blackening the skies with vast flocks of birds, setting the very ground of the earth in motion with “swarming swarms” of insects and every kind of land animal.
The last animal in Genesis 1 is a very special one: human beings. The wonder of the man and woman’s creation is the divine image in which they were fashioned. That image potentially means so very much–it may even define the essence of who we are. There is a procreative component to this image, as Genesis 1:28 indicates. There is a relationship component to the image as humanity is the only creature not only made by God but spoken to by God. There is a divine command to take care of the earth in a way reminiscent of how God himself would tend it. All of that has something to do with being made in the image of God.
But as part of this whirlwind tour of Genesis 1, perhaps one last item to highlight is how being made in God’s image allows humanity to take note of and deepen our understanding of everything else God made. Unlike other creatures, we humans busy ourselves not merely with our own kind and with what it takes to ensure our own survival. Instead we seem unable to resist the urge to snap pictures of distant stars, to catalog the different kinds of grass found on prairies, to fill up libraries with guide books detailing the vast array of fish species, bird species, ant species. It is the spark of God in us that leads us to do the same thing God did at the dawn of time: namely, to look at all God made and to recognize once more that it is good, so very, very good.
Eugene Peterson once noted that according to Genesis 1, Adam and Eve were created on the sixth day. But that means that the first full day of their existence was the next day, which was the Sabbath. Adam and Eve kicked off the human race by getting a day off, a day of rest! That fact sounds the cosmic keynote for what life is all about finally. It is about glorifying God and enjoying God and his works forever. There is a lesson in that for our busy lives.
In the beginning God.
That’s good news. Very good. And when we see this text paired in the Common Lectionary with the Great Commission in Matthew 28, we are reminded that the Creator God has not abandoned his creation despite all the bad things that have happened to it. God cared enough to salvage all that he made in the beginning and it is now our glad opportunity to be commissioned by God to tell this very good news.
In the beginning God.
God was the universal all in all then. So it was then, so it shall be, so it shall always be.
Some while back I read Stephen Ambrose’s book Undaunted Courage that details the voyage westward of explorers Lewis and Clark. Again and again as they pushed west in the early 1800s, these two explorers and their comrades were stunned to see prairies literally black with herds of buffalo, the thunder of whose hoof beats reverberated for miles. Some days the sunshine would be blocked from view for long periods due to passing flocks of passenger pigeons. One day the river on which they were traveling became clotted with some white, fluffy substance. Upon rounding a bend in the river they discovered the source: a mind-numbing rookery of white pelicans who were molting.
Something like that is what Genesis 1 shows us as God’s original intent: to fill the world up to the brim with swarms of creatures. But no matter how amazing their variety, no matter how huge their flocks, herds, rookeries, or schools, again and again the point comes through loud and clear: the Lord God made them every one. All that oft-repeated talk about the various “kinds” is a none-too-subtle way to head off anyone who would say, “Well, maybe your God got things rolling in the universe, but he didn’t make this, did he? Maybe he made some generic cow but the specifics of Holsteins, Herefords, and such developed without God’s help, right?”
Genesis 1 is designed to say to such people, “You’re not going to win this one! God has all the bases covered: he made all that there is and their every kind and variety, too.”
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