Paradise Lost? Genesis 1-2, 1/12/14

 Sermons  Comments Off on Paradise Lost? Genesis 1-2, 1/12/14
Jan 132014

Rev. Jeff Chapman, Faith Presbyterian Church

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, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.  God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”… And it was so.  God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. . . . And God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation”. . . . And it was so. . . . And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night”…. And it was so.  God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. . . . And God saw that it was good.  And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.”  So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves. . . . And God saw that it was good.  God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.”  And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. . . . And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them:
male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it”. . . . God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.” . . . And it was so.  God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.


Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.  And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.  So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. (Genesis 1:1-2:4, selected verses, NRSV)


Great stories always begin with great opening lines.  In fact, I have to imagine that no line in a story commands as much attention from an author as does the first line.  When they are well written, those opening words set the stage for everything that is to follow.


Just for fun, listen to a few opening lines from some of the greatest stories ever told and see if you can tell me the name of the story that follows.


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”


“Call me Ishmael.”


“To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.”


“Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we lay our scene.”


“‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”


“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”


“The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail.”


“I am Sam.  Sam I am.  That Sam I Am, that Sam I Am, I do not like that Sam I Am.”[1]

Here’s one more: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  Taking nothing away from Dr. Seuss and the others, there has never been an opening line written which leaves the reader as full of anticipation as does the opening line of the Old Testament.  Most stories begin “once upon a time.”  This story begins “once before time.”


The main character of the story of the Bible is introduced to us in the very first line.  This is a story about God, the one who existed before time itself.[2]  Our lives each had a fixed beginning.  Not so with God.  God is eternal.  God has no beginning.  God has no ending.  If my life is a line, God’s life is a circle.  Where does it begin?  Where does it end?  It doesn’t.  In the beginning, before the beginning, God.


So who is this God?  Well, the word for God here in the original Hebrew text is the word Elohim.  Though the name refers to the one true God, the word itself is not singular but plural.  It does not refer to many gods, however.  Ancient Jews would have told you that the name was plural because no singular word could ever be broad enough to capture the immensity and supremacy of God.  As Christians, however, the New Testament has given us lenses to understand that even in these very first words of the Old Testament we are given hints that there is plurality within the very nature of God.  God is one God, a single God who mysteriously exists in plurality, in the triune community of Father, and Son and Holy Spirit.  In the beginning was the Father.  In the beginning was the Son.[3]  In the beginning was the Holy Spirit.  In the beginning was a God who has existed for all eternity in community, community which is defined by love.


This is immensely important because it clues us in to the very reason God decided to create in the first place.  You see, I do not believe that God created the universe because God was bored, or lonely, or had something to prove.  For all of eternity God had existed in a perfect community of self-giving love.  And love, if it is truly self-giving, never contracts or consumes but, instead, always expands and creates.  And so I believe that creation is, in fact, the direct result of the overflow, the fruit if you will, of God’s love.


Amazingly, we see this truth reflected in human procreation.  When a husband and wife are deeply in love, they express that love to one another in many ways.  The deepest physical expression of love between a husband and wife is, of course, sexual intercourse which often leads to the creation of new life, to a baby.  What would you say about a couple who decided to have a child because they were bored, or because they were lonely, or because they had something to prove?  It happens, I know, but how much healthier it is when a child comes into the world as a direct result of the overflow of love between a man and a woman who have been united as one.  In this sense, human procreation imitates divine creation.


So in the beginning the loving community of God overflowed into the creation of the heavens and the earth.  But how?  How did God create?  Well, that is a question that has been debated to death.  There are some people, even in our church, who believe the verses we just read are a literal account of the way God created, that God formed everything in the universe in six twenty-four hour days in the order in which we have it recorded.  However, there are other people, even in our church, who believe that the author of Genesis was not trying to write history but was, instead, using metaphor to teach us some truth about God and about the way the world originated.


This debate is complicated by the fact that the scriptures are full of both sorts of writings.  For instance, when the Bible tells us that the Babylonians captured Jerusalem and burned it to the ground, or that Jesus died on the cross and was raised from the dead three days later, the Bible is speaking literally and historically about events that actually happened and those who reject the historical claims of scripture reject the very faith itself. [4]


At the same time, when Isaiah writes that the trees clap their hands in praise of God,[5] or when Jesus tells a parable about a Good Samaritan,[6] neither of them are expecting us to believe that trees literally have hands or that there actually was such a man from Samaria who helped a Jew in trouble on the road to Jericho one day.  But just because these parts of scripture are not literally or historically true does not mean that they are not full of truth.  They are.  For those who have eyes to see it, a towering redwood tree brings glory to God by its very existence.  The parable of the Good Samaritan, though a made-up story, is packed full of truth about God and about us.


If God wanted to, could God have created the universe in six twenty-four hour days in exactly the order we see listed here?  Of course.  If God is all-powerful and sovereign, God could have created the universe in six seconds if he wanted to.  But did he?  Well, that’s another question altogether, and also a debate worth having as long as it remains respectful.  As biblical scholar N.T. Wright put it, we ought to debate the question but as we do we must also understand that the person who reads the text literally is not necessarily an uneducated simpleton who hasn’t learned to see things from a modern point of view, and the person who reads the text metaphorically isn’t necessarily a dangerous anti-literalist who has given up on the authority of scripture or the truth of Christianity.[7]


In the end, I would suggest to you that when it comes to creation the question of “How?”, though important, is secondary.  How God did it is not nearly as important as the fact that it was God who did it.  Both the literal and the metaphorical readings of this text arrive at this and other truths in the end.  God is eternal.  In the beginning it was God alone.  Everything that does exist was made by God.  Everything that God made was good.  Whether you read the text literally or metaphorically, these are the truths to which it leads you.


Though we may never know exactly how it happened, when God began the work of creation the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the earth.  Everything was wilderness and wasteland.  But then, the scripture tells us, a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  The Hebrew word here is ruach, a word which means wind, but which also means breath, and also means spirit.  As the writer uses it here, could it not mean all three?  The wind of God, the breath of God, the very Spirit of God, went sweeping over the wasteland of existence.



Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson once imagined creation in this way.

Funny, but perhaps not quite the way it happened.  God does not create with hands.  God does not create with tools or machines.  God does not create with raw materials.  God does not create with permission.  God does not create with assistance.  God simply breathes and creation comes into existence.  God speaks and the material universe bursts forth.


C.S. Lewis, in The Chronicles of Narnia, takes it step further when he imagines that God didn’t simply speak but, instead, sung creation into being.  In The Magician’s Nephew he describes creation this way: “


A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and [it was] hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes [it seemed as if it were] coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself.  There were no words.  It was hardly a tune.  But it was beyond comparison, the most beautiful sound [that] had ever [been] heard.” [8]


There’s no way to know if he’s right, but somehow I hope he is.   If words can paint a picture, it’s music that fills the picture up with color.


If the voice of God at creation was a song, the song began with these words.  “Let there be light!”  And there was light.  Before there was sun and the moon, before there were stars, there was light.  God never works in the dark and so, of course, light must have come first.  All creation comes to life in the light of God.  And the light was good.  The first day.[9]


“Let there be sea and let there be sky!”  All at once a great space opened up, wide and deep and high.  God saw that it was good, exactly the way it was supposed to be.  The second day.


“Let there be dry land, and let the land be full of grass, and flowers, and trees of every size and shape and color.”  And it was so.  And God saw that all was still good.  The third day.


“Let there be lights to fill the heavens.”  The sun was born, and the planets, and the moon, and the stars, and the suns and stars and planets and moons of countless galaxies we will never know.  But God knew them, and called them good.  The fourth day.


“Let the waters and the skies be filled with life!”  And with a darting and dashing and wriggling and splashing, fish filled the seas.  And with a fluttering and flapping and chirping and singing, birds filled the skies.  God called all of them good.  They were good.  The fifth day.


“Now let the land as well be filled with life!”  And it was.  Baboons.  Caterpillars.  Donkeys.  Elephants.  French bulldogs and glowworms.  Howler monkeys and iguanas.  Anteaters and Zebras.  And for reasons known only to God, even mosquitos, and leaches and housecats.  (I’m kidding!  Settle down.  I’ve got nothing against mosquitos and leaches.)  And God looked at all that he had made – even cats! – and God called all of it good.


But the sixth day was not over for God was not done.  In fact, God had saved the best for last.  Before the end of that day God declared, “Let us (notice the plural here) make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let us give them dominion over every other life on the earth.”  People were made in the image of God.  Not just some people, all people.  You.  Me.  The person next to you.  The people you love.  The people you hate.  All humans are created in God’s image, something which cannot be said of anything else in creation.  The skies and the mountains, the trees and the animals, all of nature reflects God in many ways, God’s power, God’s creativity, God’s love, God’s sense of humor.  But we alone are made in God’s image.  People alone are made in the very likeness of God.


But what does that mean?  Well, it means many things, but the first thing it means is made plain to us right here in the text.  God loves and cares for creation and when God made us in his image it means that he made us and set us over the rest of creation so that we can love and care for creation alongside him.  The trees do not have this calling.  Nor do the birds or the fish or the animals.  People do.  We alone were created to join God in this work of taking what is formless and void and lovingly shaping it into something of beauty and purpose.  God did not put you on this planet so that you could go around consuming creation for your own purposes.  God put you here to oversee, to protect, to cultivate, to love.


And so when people turn fields of weeds into fields of corn, or patches of dirt into flower gardens, they demonstrate their likeness to God.  The same is true when we turn a harsh wilderness into a thriving city, a blank canvas into a masterpiece, musical notes into a symphony, a raw piece of hickory into a Louisville Slugger.  We join God in cultivating creation when we work to transform strangers into a community, or enemies into friends, or warring nations into peaceful allies, or impoverished children into prosperous adults, or isolated men and women into a loving marriages, or loving marriages into growing families.


Creation came into being as a direct result of the love which overflowed from the self-giving community of God.  Creation thrives when humans, made in the image of God, reflect God in this same love.  Creation thrives when humans love God, love one another, and love even the natural order.


If the writer of Genesis aims to do nothing else, I believe he aims to give us here a picture of the world God once intended.  At the end of six days, having put the final touches on the universe with the creation of humanity, God steps back from everything he has made and declares that, indeed, all of it is good.  It is very good.  Every single relationship in existence, between God and people and all the created order, was absolutely characterized by love, and peace and joy.  This is a world pictured here that knows nothing of hatred, or loneliness, or sadness, or violence, or sickness, or poverty or death.  And for this reason, on the seventh day God rested.


The word for rest here in the original Hebrew is Shabbat, or Sabbath.  Literally, it means “to cease” or “to stop”.


There are times in your life when you stop working.  Friday afternoon at 5:00, lots of people stop working.  Maybe you stop pick up a Papa John’s pizza and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s on the way home and you sit down in front of the television in your pajamas to enjoy the latest Netflix offering.  In doing so, you stop working.  That does not mean, however, that you are experiencing Sabbath rest.  The movie has only distracted you momentarily from the worries, the fears, the stress, the brokenness that are so imbedded in your heart and mind that they never take a day off.  Now, if it’s a happy movie, for two hours you might just feel better about the world, but the feeling quickly subsides when the credits roll and you are soon reminded that in reality there is so much that is still wrong with the world.  In this sense, can you see that though you and I may know times when we get to stop working, we do not know times when we experience true and lasting rest.


God did not rest from the work of creation because he was tired, as if God could ever be tired.  God rested, and all of creation with him, because everything was as it should be.  Everything was right.  Everything was good.  Everything was at peace.  And when we get a glimpse of this picture which is painted for us by these opening verses in Genesis, we get a picture of a world and a life which we soon realize we have never known, but for which we have always longed.  There is something deep within you telling you that this is the world and the life for which you were made, the home you have never seen but in which you were always intended to live and rest.


Though we didn’t read it, Genesis 2 paints another stunning account of creation, this one giving us more details about God’s design of humans and his intentions for us to be deeply united with one other, the man to the woman, in marriage as one flesh for his glory.  The end of chapter 2 closes with a verse which, in different words, captures this same beautiful picture of Sabbath rest given to us at the end of chapter 1.  Genesis 2:25 reads, “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.”


Now, I believe the text is telling us here that in the world God created men and women were meant to stand before one another and God naked without feeling any shame.  I do not believe, however, that this nakedness is only physical.  Instead, I believe it has always been God’s intention that we would be able to stand before him and before one another, completely exposed, in body, yes, but also in mind and in heart without even a hint of shame.


Trust me, I would not want to stand before you today without any clothes on.  I don’t think you would want that either.  Given the choice, however, I would much prefer to have my body exposed to you today than to have the thoughts of my mind and the intentions of my heart laid bare before you.  I’m certain you would make the same choice.  As ashamed as you may be of your physical nakedness, imagine if everybody in this room could see every thought that has ever crossed your mind and every intention and motive that has ever dwelt in your heart.  The thought that God does see these things is almost too much for us to bear.  Our deep shame alone tells us that there is so much that is wrong with the world and much that is wrong with us as a part of it.  We were made to do what we can never imagine doing, to stand before God and before one another absolutely exposed and, at the same time, absolutely unashamed.


If you take nothing else away from our reflections this morning on the opening words of this story of the Old Testament, I hope you at least have come to see that the world and the life we now know is so far removed from the world and the life God initially intended, a world and life we all somehow sense we were made to enjoy.


So does that mean all hope is lost?  Are things irreversibly beyond repair?


Or, is there some way that we can be saved, some One who might come, or has come, to rescue us and restore us, and take us back again, home again, to the world and the life where everything is good in the eyes of God and there is finally and forever not even a hint of shame among us?


Of course, to answer that question we have to read the rest of the story.






The Next Step

A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application


Read Luke Genesis 1:1-2:4 (or all the way to 2:25 if you like).  Though you’ve likely read this many times before, what stood out to you this time through?


If all we had left of the Bible was the very first verse, Genesis 1:1, what would we still know to be true?


Can the person who believes that Genesis 1 is literal and the person that believes Genesis 1 is metaphor still agree that either way it points us to the very same truths in the end?


Why did God create the universe?  Is this a question we can even answer?


What does it mean to you that humans are the only thing in creation which is made in the image of God?


What is the single greatest difference you see between the world that is described here and the world in which we now live?


Do you think you could ever come to a place in life where you could stand totally exposed before God and before others, even your thoughts and your motives, and stand there without shame?


What does this story of creation have to do with Jesus?  How does he fit in here?

[1] Answers:

  1. A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens
  2. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
  3. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
  4. Romeo & Juliet, by William Shakespeare
  5. Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White
  6. Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling
  7. Jaws, by Peter Benchley
  8. Green Eggs & Ham, by Dr. Seuss

[2] The scriptures, then, don’t tell the whole story of God.  We don’t know anything about what God was up to before the beginning of time.  What the scriptures do tell us is the story of God’s creation and his relationship with that creation from that time forward.

[3] John 1:1-18 describes this beautifully.

[4] See Paul’s comments on this in I Corinthians 15:12-19.

[5] Isaiah 55:12.

[6] Luke 10:25-37.

[7] Paraphrased from N.T. Wright, Simply Christian, (San Francisco: Harper, 2006), 194.

[8] C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew, (New York: Collier Books, 1955), 98-99.

[9] I’ve borrowed some language in this re-telling from Sally Lloyd-Jones, The Jesus Storybook Bible, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007).