Genesis 1:1 – 2:3
Thinking about ultimate beginnings is much like thinking about ultimate endings: it leads you to some boundless places. Once you really go there, mystery moves in.
We adults don’t spend much time thinking about ultimate beginnings. It distracts from what we think of as real life: getting the kids up, driving to work, making the doctor’s appointment, cooking dinner. Children are different.
“Mom, what was before dinosaurs?”
You don’t really know the answer, but you can fudge it. “Different sorts of animals. Time to brush your teeth.”
“What was before those animals?”
Now you have to admit your ignorance. “I don’t know, nature or something. C’mon brush your teeth.”
“What was before nature?”
Maybe a theological answer will end this interrogation. “God.” “What was before God?”
“God was always there.”
“Well, how did God get there?” “Pajamas – now!”
There’s no neat and easy end to this interrogation, except to get them into bed and then lie on the sofa watching TV until the questions about how it all began fade away.
Chapter One of the Book of Genesis does not answer many of our questions about the ultimate beginning. It does not give us what we need to pull together the Big Bang Theory and dinosaurs and the rest of evolutionary science with this story of creation in six days. Genesis doesn’t start the way philosophy and theology often do -- with a discussion about God before creation – God a se , God as Godself.
You might think it would – a paragraph or two about God alone; a reference to God considering the nothingness; a description of God’s nature before creation started muddying everything up.
No – immediately, from the very beginning, God creates.
And creation, by definition, muddies things up. It is not possible to create and yet to remain autonomous or unaffected or dispassionate or alone. From the beginning God acts in a way that binds God to the earth, creating a world and all that is in it, to which God will relate.
Creating ushers in all sorts of possibilities, and not all of it is neat or tidy. We often hear the story of Genesis as if it’s all about God ordering the chaos, straightening up the mess, putting form where there was only formlessness. For those of us who like order, who make lists and schedules to control the chaos of our world, this is a welcome interpretation. First there was chaos – nothing but a formless void – then God straightened things up, put things in order, worked off of a schedule.
So what happened to the chaos? Did it disappear? If so, why does it seem to continue lurking in the doorways of our lives? Violence, death, loss, accidents, illness, unwelcome changes. (Federal shut-downs, political coups, global climate change.)
One of the ways biblical scholars go about understanding our ancient sacred texts is to compare them to the sacred stories of other cultures that existed alongside our ancestors in faith. When you study the creation stories of Genesis you are inevitably taken on a tour of ancient Babylonian culture and its creation story, known as the Enuma Elish. It’s a swashbuckling tale – much better suited to the world of bestsellers and Hollywood than the Hebrew version.
For our purposes, the point of the Enuma Elish is that one of the gods, Marduk, becomes king of all gods when he slays Tiamat, the primeval goddess of chaos.
Marduk fashions the earth and skies from the two halves of Tiamat’s body, and then, according to the myth, he goes about organizing the calendar, the planets and stars, the moon, the sun and the weather.
Parts of that story sound familiar, but there are some important differences. One of them is that Marduk actually kills chaos in order to create life. According to Genesis, God doesn’t kill, destroy or eliminate chaos; instead God pushes it aside, creating room for life. Light, separated from darkness. A dome that holds the waters above away from the waters below. Dry land brought forth and made distinct from the waters below.
Big Question #1. Might there be some reason that God allows the chaos to remain? Is there a relationship – even a necessary relationship -- between chaos and creating? Is messiness somehow connected to creativity? Is disorder part of giving birth to something new?
The great medieval French rabbi, Rashi, the father of Jewish commentary on sacred texts, noticed that in the first creation story in Genesis, everything is created by an act of God’s speech -- except the creation of the human being. “Only man was created with the hands of God.” God did not stand back and think or speak humanity into being. God’s holy hands were all over the dirt, rolling it, spitting on it, wetting it to mold the lips and form the toes.
This is not a scientific description of the origin of humanity. This is theological poetry – a beautiful use of ordinary imagery that points to something larger than the individual words convey on their own. We come from God’s hands. God creates, engages in an activity that splatters mud all over. The relationship of God’s hands to the work of creation is the opposite of something abstract and detached. It is a relationship of intimate involvement, of love. In the beginning, God engages in the muddy, messy, intimate, vulnerable, potentially heart- wrenching process of creation.
“Messy” is the way I might describe the beginnings of our Gateway Small Group program. It started as an idea, something abstract and distant that I learned about at a workshop two years ago. For a long time, more than a year, it waited to be born. Slowly the pieces started coming together.
The value to a congregation of opportunities to study, pray and offer mutual support became clearer;
the need for such opportunities at University Church became more obvious;
our readiness and willingness to devote some time and energy to an
enterprise such as this became more evident;
a staff person to shepherd the program’s birth – a midwife, of sorts --
showed up on our doorstep. (Not a coincidence, I am sure.)
Now we’re in the messy process of giving birth to this idea. As I have admitted to some of you already, I have no idea how this is going to end up. My wish is that it will be a neat, orderly process of developing small groups, facilitating their work, increasing in size and impact every year. My experience tells me it will probably not be that smooth! We will hit bumps along the way, we will make mistakes and learn from them; it will not look like any other church’s small group ministry and it will probably not look like what each of us thinks it might -- just like anything or anyone that is born to new life and grows into fullness.
If you think this is the right time to deepen your spiritual life and your understanding of the Bible, sign-up sheets are waiting for you in the Gathering Space after the service.
If you are one who chooses to join a newly-born Gateway group, or if a group to which you already belong chooses to incorporate the Gateway Bible studies into their existing activity, you might just be giving yourself the chance to ask those Big Questions out loud.
What came before the dinosaurs?
Was the earth made in six days or over millions of years?
How can I believe both science and the Bible?
Rev. Kathryn Johnston writes that “Science and theology answer two different questions. They are not separate truths, but instead are different ways of describing the same truth. The oral history that eventually was written down and became Genesis was not concerned with carbon dating, cell theory or nuclear fusion. As the late theologian Shirley Guthrie wrote, the purpose of the biblical writers was to bear “witness to the God who is the ultimate source and ruler of everything that is... They were not so concerned with the details of how we got here as with why we are here and how we can realize our destiny in the world.”
So here is my last Big Question: What is God beginning in you?
I invite you to consider that question in silence, for about 30 seconds now...and hopefully later on for a lifetime.
Then we will hear another great act of creation, an excerpt from the epic poem based on the Genesis story of creation: “God’s Trombones” by James Weldon Johnson. It is being read by pastor and vocal artist Whintley Phipps.
by James Weldon Johnson (God's Trombones, 1927)
And God stepped out on space, And he looked around and said: I'm lonely -
I'll make me a world.
And far as the eye of God could see Darkness covered everything, Blacker than a hundred midnights Down in a cypress swamp.
Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side, And the light stood shining on the other, And God said: That's good!
Then God reached out and took the light in his hands, And God rolled the light around in his hands
Until he made the sun;
And he set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars. Then down between
The darkness and the light He hurled the world;
And God said: That's good!
Then God himself stepped down -
And the sun was on his right hand,
And the moon was on his left;
The stars were clustered about his head, And the earth was under his feet.
And God walked, and where he trod His footsteps hollowed the valleys out And bulged the mountains up.
Then he stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world And he spat out the seven seas -
He batted his eyes, and the lightnings flashed - He clapped his hands, and the thunders rolled -
And the waters above the earth came down, The cooling waters came down.
Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed,
The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms,
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground, And the rivers ran down to the sea;
And God smiled again,
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around his shoulder.
The God raised his arm and he waved his hand Over the sea and over the land,
And he said: Bring forth! Bring forth!
And quicker than God could drop his hand, Fishes and fowls
And beasts and birds
Swam the rivers and the seas, Roamed the forests and the woods, And split the air with their wings. And God said: That's good!
Then God walked around, And God looked around On all that he had made. He looked at his sun,
And he looked at his moon, And he looked at his little stars; He looked on his world
With all its living things,
And God said: I'm lonely still.
Then God sat down -
On the side of a hill where he could think; By a deep, wide river he sat down;
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I'll make me a man!
Up from the bed of the river God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night, Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in his own image;
Then into it he blew the breath of life, And man became a living soul. Amen. Amen.
From The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Volume Two, Second Edition, 1053-1055.
Debbie Blue. “In the Beginning.” From Stones to Living Word. Brazos Press, 2008. Pp. 63-67
Kathryn Johnston, Narrative Lectionary: In the beginning... (Genesis 1:1-2:4). Posted on September 2, 2013. http://revgalblogpals.org/2013/09/02/narrative- lectionary-in-the-beginning-genesis-11-24
Karla Suomala. Commentary on Genesis 1:1--2:4a. Posted September 08, 2013. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1807
“Enuma Elish - Relationship with the Bible” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/En%C3%BBma_Eli%C5%A1