21 Apr Genesis: Cosmic Elation
Genesis: Cosmic Elation
Genesis 1 – 2:4a
April 19, 2020
Calvary Presbyterian Church
Click HERE to view the video of this service.
This morning we are beginning a new sermon series on the book of Genesis. There are a number of reasons to study the first book of the Bible. For starters, it is the foundation upon which the rest of scripture is built. Without a robust theology of creation and an equally robust understanding of God’s covenant with Abraham, we are doomed to grossly misread the other 65 books of the Bible. Second, as has been brought home with an abundance of clarity in recent months, we are a global community, connected in ways we often ignore or take for granted. COVID-19 has served as a huge wake-up call to pay more attention to the myriad ways in which humanity everywhere and all of creation are interconnected. Finally, there’s the simple reason that humans have always been curious about the origin of the universe. We want to know where we came from, how it happened, and whether it was just a happy accident or the result of an Intelligent Designer. A lot of ink has been spilled debating the “how” and “when” of creation, but these arguments sometimes forget to ask about the “who” and “why.” The book of Genesis reveals a creation designed to be “good”—the result of God’s “cosmic elation.”
If you’re thinking of a comfortable place to ponder the origins of the universe, the South Pole would probably be pretty far down on your list. The highest temperature ever recorded there was just 9.9 degrees Fahrenheit, while the lowest was -117 degrees—not exactly the kind of place to put one in a garden-of-Eden frame of mind.
Yet, the South Pole is the perfect place for cosmic contemplation because it’s the one place on Earth that you can get closest to space and still be on the ground. It’s also one of the driest and clearest locations for observing things like faint microwaves in space—which scientists think are linked to the “Big Bang” theory of creation. Needless to say, science people love the South Pole.
As we are all too aware, since the Enlightenment science and religion have often been at odds over the origins of life and the universe, and there’s a lot at stake in the debate. Some people wonder if they have to check their brains at the door when they come to church or conversely, check their faith at the door when they go to class or the workplace. Some Christians are afraid that if creation didn’t happen exactly how and when the Bible says, then perhaps the other 1,187 chapters of scripture aren’t true either, while some scientists struggle to hold their faith in tension with the evidence of cosmic observation, fossils and geologic time.
But is this debate between science and faith really necessary? Is there a way to understand the creation stories of Genesis as authoritative while making room for scientific discoveries like those happening at the South Pole?
Old Testament scholar and Wheaton College professor John Walton thinks so. In his books The Lost World of Genesis One and The Lost World of Adam and Eve, Walton suggests that science and Scripture observe the same universe through two different but equally valid lenses—similar to the difference between viewing Van Gogh’s painting “Starry Night” and looking at a picture of deep space from the Hubble Telescope. They are both true in the sense that they describe an actual thing: the night sky. But Van Gogh wasn’t describing it scientifically; that’s the function of the telescope. Van Gogh instead painted an artistic rendering of the reality he saw. It’s a picture made to tell a story in ways beyond systematic description—it makes you feel something. Photos from the Hubble can do that as well, of course, but the telescope is intended for a particular scientific purpose.
There is, in other words, a way to tell a story that transcends our post-Enlightenment categories of true versus false, science versus myth which are categories the writers of Genesis would not have recognized. They lived in a world of oral tradition where people arranged their lives around a particular story set in a particular time and place. For them, story was neither pure history or science, nor pure myth or fiction. It was the story they found themselves in—the story of two central characters, God and humanity, and the joy of a creating God, a God who creates all things “good.”
So, what does Genesis mean when it says that God “created”? Dr. Walton concludes that Genesis 1 is not describing the material origins of the universe, but rather the functional origins of the world. Genesis is less about how God made the world than about how God made it to function. And when it is functioning well, as God intended, it is “good,” and God delights in it. The result? Cosmic elation!
“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 waters” (vv. 1-2). God starts creation with a formless void, darkness and “the deep.” An ancient person would have understood that these are all indicators of chaos and non-order. The Hebrew word for “formless” is tohu which means to lack worth or purpose.
God’s response to this chaos is to “create.” When we think of the word “create,” we normally think of “making something.” We “create” a piece of art or a building, or a course curriculum, but we can also “create” a committee, a family, or dinner. We use that word for a lot of things. The Hebrew word for “create” is a little more specific. Bara is the Hebrew word for “create” and it is used some 50 times throughout the Old Testament. In most cases, the direct object of the verb has to do with creating something for a particular role or function. God doesn’t create something just to enjoy the creative process; God creates it for a specific purpose. And that’s exactly what we see in God’s creating work in Genesis 1.
During the first day, God creates “light” but calls it “day.” God is not merely creating light, but rather the function of time. On the second day, God “separates” the waters, and in doing so, creates the function of weather. On the third day God creates vegetation in order to provide food. God begins, then, by creating the functions of time, weather and food—all the things that are necessary for human existence (and the things we talk about the most).
The fourth and fifth days, God installs the sun and moon—notice that they are created after night and day—and the animals that are to be fruitful and multiply. On the sixth day is the creation of humankind, whose function is to care for the creation, have “dominion” over it and reflect the image of God within it (1:26-27). Everything is created for a purpose, and at the end of the sixth day, God looks at it all and calls it “very good”, that is, it is all functioning as God intended.
But then there is this curious description of the seventh day: “And on the seventh day, God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work he had done in creation” (2:2-3). So, here’s a question for you: why does God need to rest?
It evokes the image of a weary God, feet propped up, sitting back in a Lazy Boy with a tall glass of iced tea. But isn’t God a Spirit, omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent? Why would God need a nap after this creative work? This description of the seventh day is actually the key to understanding all of Genesis 1 and, indeed, the whole biblical narrative. The ancient people who heard this text would have immediately understood what this was: a temple-building story.
In the ancient world people believed that gods “rested” in temples. Temples were the residences for the gods, the places from which the gods controlled the cosmos. When a god is at rest, it means that there is security and stability within an ordered system because that god is in control. This is not rest in the sense of relaxation, but rest in the sense of peaceful rule and order.
Different from the other pagan cultures of the Ancient Near East, in the Genesis narrative, there is only one God who “rests,” and the ancient Hebrews would have known that this was the point of the first six days of creation. God sets things in their proper order and function. Creation is now prepared and ready as a temple in which God will dwell with his people.
Another way to say it is that the seventh day is an “Emmanuel” moment, a moment when God moves into creation in order to dwell with us. The first six days are about God building a house. On the seventh day, it becomes a home.
This is a Creator who delights in creation enough to want to come in and be present. This is the God who is cosmically elated with the results of his handiwork and finds the creative outcome so congenial that he “rests,” or moves in, settles down, as it were, and takes up residence among us.
This is really the point of the creation story: God at rest, dwelling with God’s people. The Biblical creation account was never intended as an itemized account of the material things that were scientifically or supernaturally formed at such and such a time and in such and such a manner. That misses the point entirely. Genesis is about the creation where God lives and in which God delights.
Of course, as the story continues, God will be disappointed with the choices his creatures make. God wanted there to be morning conversations over a non-fat latte cappuccino at the Eden Starbucks, and evenings walks followed by convivial chats at Job’s Corner Bar and Grill. But no! We had to go and mess things up.
But even after humans make a mess, God does not abandon them. God walks with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God will dwell with Israel in tabernacle and temple. And then, in the most stunning evidence of cosmic elation, God will become the “Word made flesh” and dwell among us in Jesus Christ. And throughout it all, the promise remains for the future. At the end of the Bible, just like at the beginning, the main point is that God will dwell with his people again in a new heaven and new earth.
This is the stunning glory of the creation story. It’s not so much about the how but about the who. In Genesis a God is revealed who creates for the purpose of relationship.
This shouldn’t surprise us, given that God’s very nature is communal. Witness the three Persons of the Trinity. It’s natural that this unity in community would seek to bring others into relationship as well. God made the whole universe and dwells within it with the cosmic elation of love.
When we understand creation in this way, we better understand our place in it. We’re not merely the product of cosmic dust and eons of evolution. The earth is not merely a happy accident, but God’s dwelling place. We are the priests in God’s temple, the creation, and our vocation is to care for it in God’s name. We are not merely animals who will die, but people beloved by God and made in God’s image. We are humans about whom God cared enough to send Jesus Christ to redeem us from our sin and brokenness.
Sabbath reminds us of this reality. Sabbath invites us to cease our frenetic worry and activity and our attempts to control the world around us, and to simply worship. To enjoy God dwelling with us. As the prophet Habakkuk reminded Israel, “God is in his holy temple; let all earth keep silence before him” (2:20). Perhaps this is one of the hidden graces in this horrible pandemic. We have been forced to simplify our lives and in doing so, there is less noise, less clutter to obscure the promise of Scripture that God is with us now and will rest with us forever. Where creation has been gives way to where it is headed—to the glory of God who makes all things new.
The South Pole may be the one place on Earth that is closest to space and the expanse of the universe. But Genesis 1 tells us that we don’t have to go that far to touch the face of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.