Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
June 30, 2019
Scripture Reading: Genesis 1:1-2:4a
(Note: this is the first week of a Summer Sermon Series where we will be taking a second look at some beloved stories we remember from Sunday School. This week and next, we are beginning at the beginning with the two creation stories found in Genesis.)
Did you know that there are two different and complete stories of God’s initial creation in scripture? We read one of them this morning, and we’ll be reading the other one next week.
Was there anything that stood out for you in this morning’s reading? Any words or phrases that caught your eye or your ear? Anything about the style of the reading?
(Wait for answers)
Now some background to this story. This story about creation was written down when the Ancient Israelite people were living in exile in Babylon. The Babylonian army had surrounded the place where they were living, had ransacked the city of Jerusalem, and had destroyed the temple, the home of God, literally the place where they believed that God lived. Leaders, along with much of the population were carried away from the devastated city, and they were kept in Babylon for 70-some-odd years.
Can you imagine what they must have been feeling? Cut off from the land that they love; cut off from their families and their communities; cut off from their religious structures and practices; abandoned by God. And God had spoken to them through the prophets, especially the prophet Jeremiah, telling them to get comfortable in Babylon because they were going to be there for a while. Generations passed while they waited for the time when they could return home.
And yes, there was despair. Psalms of lament, like Psalm 137, were written:
“By the rivers of Babylon –
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?”
And yet, rising out of the ashes of lament came a new direction, a new promise. There, when the whole world had seemed to crumble around them, the Ancient Israelite people began to redefine themselves, began to consider afresh who they were and how they related to God. A renewed sense of identity was developing.
The story of creation that we read together this morning was developed partly in response to the world around them. The style and structure of mythical epics was retained, but where the Babylonian creation story had the world arising out of violence and battle; the creation story of the Ancient Israelites had God speaking creation in to being. Where the Babylonian creation story had a multitude of gods working together to create; the creation story of the Israelite people had a singular God, the God who had been with their ancestors, responsible for creation. The Babylonian creation story has humans created as slaves of the gods; the Israelite creation story has humans created to act on God’s behalf within the rest of creation. The Babylonian creation story has all of creation arising out of the bloody corpse of one of the goddesses; the Israelite creation story has God looking at creation and naming it as “good.”
It is as if the people in exile were trying to say, “This is who we are. This is the sort of God that we follow – a God who doesn’t need to resort to violence but who can speak creation in to being; a God who desires a creation that is intrinsically good.
Did you also catch on to some of the rhythm or repetition in the reading? This was also intentional. It was likely written so that it could be recited when the people gathered together to worship this Creator God. The repetition and rhythm give the reading the possibility to be read as we did this morning, with responses and participation. The repetition and rhythm make the reading easier to learn by heart, to take in to your heart, and once it is in your heart, it becomes part of your identity. This is who we are, and this is the sort of God that we follow.
Finally, did you notice the culmination, the pinnacle of God’s creation? Some people would say that it is the creation of humans, since that was the last act of creation on the sixth day. But what about the seventh day? I would suggest that the seventh day, the day when God rested, is actually the high point of creation. The practice of Sabbath might have been a practice that those Ancient Israelite people used to define themselves against their neighbours. We follow a God who wants us to rest for one day out of seven. We follow a God who is more focused on relationship and on being than on productivity and doing. This is who we are, and this is the sort of God that we follow.
So can you see how a creation story like the one that we read this morning, might have evolved out of this developing identity for a people in exile?
Which is all very well if you are looking for a history lesson, but what good is the story to us today, living millennia away from the Babylonian empire?
Last Tuesday at our final Doctrine session, we were talking about the world that we live in, our current context in New Brunswick in 2019, and what it was like to live as followers of Jesus Christ in the world in which we find ourselves. We agreed that the world is changing quickly; we agreed that as followers of Jesus Christ, we have a different way of being in the world, a way that others might see as “strange”; we agreed that it is sometimes difficult to figure out what to do, and that we needed each other for support.
So maybe we do have a bit in common with those ancient people. Sometimes we need to define ourselves against the rest of the world – this is who we are, and this is the sort of God that we follow. And maybe there are some lessons from this ancient story that is part of our sacred text that apply today, 2700 years later.
God looked at everything that God had created, and saw that it was good. What might the world be like if we saw all of creation as good – good because God created it, and good because God says so, not because of what it can do for us humans? It is easy to look at something like a tree and say that it is good because it gives us shade in the summer, a beautiful display of colour in the autumn, and we can burn it for fuel if we need to. That is a utilitarian definition of good – the tree is good because of what it can do for us. But what if we were to look at a tree and say that this tree is good because God created it and God said so.
It is easy to say that creation is good when we are talking about something like a tree or a flower or a bird or a friend. It is harder to say that creation is good when we are talking about a mosquito or a skunk or a groundhog or a dangerous bacterium. But this story calls us to turn away from utilitarian thinking. The mosquito is good, not because it gives food to the songbirds which we like; but the mosquito is good because God created it, and because God said so.
It becomes even more ambiguous if we take things and practices that are beneficial to humans but harmful to the rest of creation. One example might be mining – the things that we take out of the ground are beneficial to humans and our way of living; but at what cost? It is not beneficial to the trees that are ripped from the ground to make way for the mine; it’s not beneficial to the bodies of water that are poisoned by arsenic and other chemicals needed for the mining process; it’s not even always beneficial for the miners who risk their health and their life to work in the mines.
Taking a Genesis 1 view of the world calls us to pay attention to the rest of creation. When humans were created on the 6th day, God gave us a responsibility to rule over the rest of creation on God’s behalf. I think that this responsibility includes the responsibility to view all of creation in the same way that God views it – as good. When we abuse the responsibility, and see humans, or some humans, as more important or “more good” than the rest of creation, are we really living in to God’s vision of the world?
Like the Ancient Israelite people, sometimes we struggle to define ourselves against the rest of the world. As followers of Jesus Christ, this is who we are, and this is the God that we follow. Even though we aren’t in literal exile, sometimes it might feel that way when our values are at odds with the values of the world around us. But we can be confident when we say that the God whom we follow sees all of creation, and calls all of creation “good.” Creation is good, not because of what it can do for us, but because God says so.
And on the seventh day, God rested, and God enjoyed all of the good creation.
May we do likewise!
A part of creation that it is easy to name as "good."
Tall Trees, near Kilvert Lake (between Kenora and Sioux Narrows)