June 15, 2014
William G. Carter
“I’m lonely. I’ll make me a world…” That’s how the Harlem poet James Weldon Johnson imagined the voice of God. He pictured a Creator who could do anything, a Divine Artist who took delight in every new project and said, “That’s good!” And yet for all God’s joy, there was still a hunger for relationship, to fashion creatures who have the capacity to know God and enjoy him forever. So here we are. That’s how our story with God begins.
The Bible begins at the beginning. Where we there to record it? No. What we have are a few accounts, all faithfully written and inscribed, as a guide for us to understand where we come from, and to teach us what kind of God is the Source of all things.
One of the accounts is Psalm 104, which we sang last Sunday. In Hebrew, there are seven stanzas, one for each day of creation. With creative wisdom, God makes an abundant world. All of it is found by the faithful as a gift. We didn’t make any of it, God did. The primary noun is “You” – You, You, You – “You ride on the wings of the wind, You make streams gush forth in the valleys, You bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the human heart.” Everything comes from the joyful heart of God. In one of his Narnia books, C. S. Lewis imagined that God sang everything into being. I like that; I believe it to be true.
Another account of Creation comes in the second chapter of Genesis. This story portrays God as close at hand, able to walk in the garden on two feet. God creates everything “in a single day.” In a single day! Genesis 2 says, “In the day that the Lord God created the heavens and earth…” It must have been some day, not that the Eternal God ever wears a wristwatch. God is free to define “a single day” however God chooses. No human begin was present to see God punch the time clock.
This second account declares that the earth creature “Adam” is created from the dirt and given the job of taking care of the garden. If you came to church today with potting soil under your fingernails, you know this is noble work. And it seems Adam was only the rough draft for Eve; as a second earth creature, she is created as helper and partner, the two of them to live in harmony without shame. As you know, that’s just the beginning of the story. Adam and Eve mess up the Garden, and their children don’t turn out so well either.
As the Jewish sage Elie Wiesel said about this second story, “God created people because God loves good stories.” Again, here we are.
But it is this opening account in Genesis One that finds its way into our ears this morning. We read it as a litany because that is how it is put together. There are lines repeated, stanzas enlarged, words like “TOV!” (“good”) which echo again and again. This cannot be a scientific account of the world’s beginning. It is a worship account, a declaration of purpose and intent. Everything begins in God’s creativity. The world and everything in it proceeds from God, who is present but mostly stays hidden.
I have a good friend who calls himself a burned-out Methodist. He doesn’t go to church any more. We were talking one night, and he trusted me enough to confess some doubts about God. “I don’t believe there is a God,” he said. I pushed him a little bit and said, “Where do you think all this came from?” He smiled and said, “It’s just a happy accident, I suppose.”
Well, I knew enough about him that I wasn’t going to push. A hard-edged Sunday School teacher had turned him off in grade school. His mother told him he had to go anyway. Along the way, he ran into people who wielded the Bible as a club, insisting he was wrong and they were right. They told him that he shouldn't think, that he shouldn't honor God with his mind. And now I thought, you know, it takes a lot of courage for someone to tell a Presbyterian preacher that he thought the whole God-thing was manufactured by uptight people who wanted to control others so they could get money out of them.
So I told him about my experiences in biology class. It was during my brief college career in pre-med. We were dissecting lab animals, learning how all the parts worked, memorizing all the terminology, observing all the delicate systems that work together. It was amazing, and I couldn’t believe any of it was an accident. There was such an elaborate design behind it all. It was far above anything I or anybody else could imagine.
But that wasn’t all. During one lab period, a wisecracking classmate pointed at our lab specimen and said, “That little bugger didn’t have much of a life, did he?” It was like I was smacked awake. I mean, what’s the purpose of it all? We could analyze deceased animals and determine how they functioned – but what fascinated me, then and now, is what happens to creatures when they are alive. How is it that they live and flourish? What are they here for? These weren’t the kinds of questions anybody could answer in biology class. Thus began my stirrings to a call to ministry.
I had no interest in convincing my friend of what he didn’t want to believe. But I guess I could invite him to pay a little more attention to world and all its splendor. In fact, I just talked to him the other day. He’s getting ready to head off for a week in the mountains. “There’s a place where the hawks circle,” he said. “I can sit and watch them for hours.”
What’s behind all of this? Genesis says it’s not a What but a Who. God creates it all. Genesis does not try to prove this; it simply starts with God, because everything starts with God.
One of the interesting details about this text is when it may have been written down. It could not have been an eye-witness account, of course. Some scholars listen to the syntax and vocabulary, and suggest it was composed during the Babylonian Exile. That was one of the most disruptive seasons in Israel’s history. The temple of God had been smashed and torn down, the brightest and best of the nation had been deported and enslaved. The faith of the faithful had been splintered.
And a group of Jewish priests countered all the spiritual chaos by stating in a litany, “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light, and God saw it was good. There was evening and morning, the first day. And God separated the sky from the water, and it was so. There was evening and morning, the second day.” And so on. They countered the chaos by worshiping a God who created everything in an orderly way.
What a remarkable thing to say! Behind all the Babylonian gods was the real God, the God of Israel, the Creator of the whole world and all the worlds we cannot even see. Beyond the disruption of every institution that the Jewish people counted on for hundreds of years, or the shattering of every human relationship that mattered to them, there is the Lord God who rules over everything that he made. Even when the world seems turned upside down, it is still God’s world; it always has been, it always will be.
It all comes from God. The Spirit of God was brooding over the waters, ready to bring everything to life. As the Gospel of John will add, it is Christ the Word of God who is the means through which everything is made. The Word speaks holy wisdom – and it creates the very thing that is spoken.
And the Word keeps creating. It is not finished. There is a Lutheran theologian named Ann Pederson who teaches at a college in South Dakota. She says it is tempting to think like Aristotle that once the world is made, it really is fixed, kind of like a classical composer who writes down a symphony. All the black dots are fixed on paper, right where they need to be, never to be changed. But contemporary physics suggests that this is not quite how the world really is. Dr. Pederson says God is more like a jazz musician, able to create something out of nothing, so it can live and breathe and grow and change. Not so much fixed, as alive!
Creation has a past: the world was created. But the creation has a present: the world is alive. And I’ve noticed the people who speak of creation only in the past tense seem very concerned with control. They want everything fixed and settled. There are rules to follow and standard operating procedures to observe. I know such matters give great comfort to many, many people.
I will simply counter by saying there was a black bear cub loose in Clarks Summit the other day. It was two blocks down the street at the Abington Heights office building, trying to enroll in kindergarten, I think. A living creation doesn’t always stay where people want it to stay - - because it’s alive.
So I’m suggesting that perhaps we Christians lighten up, let the Spirit refresh us, and that we not take this ancient creation litany as a science textbook. It is not a statement to be defended as it is an invitation to praise our Creator, and to pay closer attention to diversity and vitality of life. It’s an invitation to go outside and admire God’s handiwork, as opposed to staying inside and fussing about what gets taught in biology class.
I confess my weariness at good-hearted Christians who fear that they have to defend God from his detractors. God is going to outlive us all, so God is perfectly capable of self-defense. When I hear fearful Christian people insisting that God had to make everything in six twenty-four days, or that dinosaurs and humans co-existed, it saddens me. It is Science and Faith that can co-exist, and they can keep one another honest. Science can observe the “how” while Faith speaks of “why” and “Who.” And all of it really ought to point us to a God who is a lot greater than any one of us can imagine.
To set that in context, I think of a little joke that has made the rounds:
A man prays and says, “God, what is a billion dollars to you?” God says, “To me, a billion dollars is but a penny.”
The man thinks for a minute, and says, “God, what is a billion years to you?” God replies, “To me, a billion years is but a second.”
The man smiles and says, “Lord, can I have a penny?” God says, “Sure, just a second.”
For my money, it is really arrogant to reduce God to our size, to presume to dictate only how God works, to once again, perhaps inadvertently, put ourselves on the throne at the center of the universe. Sorry, but we really haven’t evolved that much.
No, what we have here in Genesis One is that God chooses to make a world. Perhaps the Creator wants our friendship, perhaps God likes good stories, perhaps God is just really, really generous -- joyfully generous! This is the God who claps the hands and says, “Tov! Tov! Good! Good!” For that is how everything is made, and how it is initially assessed. “Tov! Tov! Good! Good!”
And this is also the God who is so secure, so settled in his own sovereignty, that God doesn’t need to hover over everything and control it – but rather God is free to spend a day in rest, enjoying the beauty, the intricacy, the interplay. If God can lean back and take a Sabbath, so can we. We can rest in the assurance that this weary world is God’s, that God has loved it since the beginning, and that God is still working to make all things new through Jesus Christ, our Savior.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.
 Ann Pederson, God, Creation, and All That Jazz: A Process of Composition and Improvisation (St. Louis, Chalice Press, 2001).