God isn’t a God of disorder, but of peace (Genesis 1.1 – 2.4a) [sermon 9-10-2017]

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September 4, 2017 by jmar198013

Manuscript of my sermon for September 10, 2017.

Text is Genesis 1.1 – 2.4a.

So many resources have fed this sermon, including:

Craig A. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding our Place in the Biblical Story. 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 25-43.

***G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: a biblical theology of the dwelling place of God. New Studies in Biblical Theology, ed. D. A. Carson. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004).

Walter Brueggemann, Genesis. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1982), 23-39.

Jerome F. D. Creach, Violence in Scripture. Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2013), 17-26.

***Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredricks. Genesis: A Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 55-78.

***John H. Walton. The Lost World of Genesis 1: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009).

*** = Essential reading.

An audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.


Word and Presence : Series Introduction

Today we heard the story of creation, Gen. 1.1 through the first part of 2.4. If the Bible is the story of God, the text we heard today introduces us to the Author. It tells us who God is by showing us—in glorious, pulsating strokes of light and color—how God created the heavens and the earth. And it also tells us who we are, and our place in God’s creation.

Today’s lesson begins a new series, called Word and Presence. We’re going to see how the Old Testament tells a story of God dwelling with us. And each week, we’ll ask these two questions of the stories we hear:

What did God say?; and,

How is God present in the story?

For today’s lesson, I want to go ahead and answer those questions up front.  Throughout our reading today, God speaks. God speaks everything into being, and he speaks to bring order out of chaos. God says: Let there be light, and light cuts through the darkness. And God sees what comes forth, and calls it good. And when God has created a good creation—brought a living order out of the chaos, teeming with all kinds of life, with humanity to oversee it all—God declares it very good. What do we learn from this? We learn that God takes great delight in creating, and in the creation itself. Creation fills God with joy. So we shouldn’t just hear a frightful, stern thundering voice when we hear the creation story. We should also hear delight and joy. We should hear God smiling, chuckling, almost giddy as God creates.

How is God present in this story? It might seem like God isn’t present. Like God is far off, speaking from some distant dimension. But if you listened closely to the reading, God was actually in the thick of it. God was present in the chaos though the Holy Spirit. Gen. 1.2 says the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. Your Bibles may say a mighty wind, or a wind from God. That’s because in the Bible, the same words mean both wind and Spirit. The point is, God was present through the Holy Spirit, hovering protectively like a mother bird over her nest. Breathing life into it all. Overseeing the process. We also heard in our other reading today that God was present in the Word, who was with God and was God. The Word became flesh—Jesus—and dwelled among us. All three persons of the Trinity were present at creation. The Father created through the Son, by the Holy Spirit. And this is still how God is present with us now. The Father through the Son by the Spirit.

For the rest of our time today, we’re going to be opening a window into the context of the creation story we heard today. We’re going to look at what it meant on its own terms—in its own place and time in the Ancient Near East. Because it has so much to teach us about God, the creation, God’s purposes for creation, and our role as humans in the creation. Who God is, and what God does. Who we are, and what we’ve been created for.

God is a God of order and peace

Too many Christians try to read our text for today like it’s literal history, or a science textbook. But that’s not reading the text on its own terms. The Bible is for us, but it wasn’t written to us. It was written to people living in the Ancient Near East, not to modern Westerners. So if we’re going to understand it correctly, if we’re going to respect the scriptures we actually have, we need to know what it meant to Ancient Near Easterners.

For example, in the Ancient Near East people believed the sky was a dome made of a material substance. A substance strong enough to house the weight of God or other heavenly beings dwelling in it. That’s the worldview reflected in the Bible’s creation story. And God didn’t think it was important to tell them otherwise. They didn’t know that the earth is a sphere, spinning in space. Or that the stars are distant planets and suns.

If you think that’s far-fetched—surely God would want us to know all this—let me point you to something very basic about biblical language. Something you’ve probably never noticed because we still talk this way. Ps. 139.23 says: Examine me, God! Look at my heart! In Matt. 15.19, Jesus says: Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adultery, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and insults. When the Bible talks about your heart, it means the place your thoughts and emotions and feelings and fears come from. And what’s really funny is that word usually translated heart really just refers to internal organs in general—including your liver or kidneys. We know now that it’s our brains, with chemicals and hormones, that regulate our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. But the ancients thought it was your internal organs—your heart and your liver and whatnot—that did all that. It makes sense. You feel strong feelings in your chest, your stomach. You get scared enough, you might wet your pants. But it’s really your brain and the chemicals it releases and the systems attached to it that does all that. Well, God never saw fit to give ancient people a lecture on brain chemistry, adrenaline, or dopamine, either. Scripture spoke to people on their terms. In ways they could understand.

So God didn’t give the people lectures on astronomy, geology, or biology. He wanted them to know God! So God spoke to them on their own terms; in language that was appropriate to their time and their culture.

Ancient Israel was surrounded by other nations and empires: Egypt, Canaan, Assyria, and Babylon. And they all had their own creation stories. In those creation stories, there were many different gods. And those gods went to war. There was chaos and violence in the heavens. And they created the universe from the blood and the carcasses of the defeated gods, who died in battle. In those stories, the sun, moon, and stars were powerful gods to be feared and worshiped. The gods of the nations surrounding Israel were violent, arbitrary, and capricious. They got angry over petty things.

Contrast that with the story we heard today. There’s no war in heaven. One God speaks, and the universe comes to life. The sun and moon and stars aren’t gods to be worshiped and feared. They’re creations of God to serve us—to give us light. To mark our time. To remind us to worship the God who gave them to us. See how different that is from the cultures around them?

Ancient Israel testified to a God of order and peace. Right down to how they told the story of creation. Creation was an intentional, orderly process. We’re about to see how orderly. The six days of creation were intentionally shown as three corresponding, orderly pairs.

On day one, God creates light. On day four, God creates the sun, moon, and stars—light-bearers.

On day two, God creates the sky and the sea.  On day five, God creates the birds to fly in the sky, and the fish to swim in the sea.

On day three, God calls forth the dry land, and makes vegetation spring forth from the earth.  On day six, God brings forth the creatures—including humans—who will dwell on the dry land and eat the vegetation.

So we’ve opened up the window of context. We’ve begun to hear this story on its own terms. The very first thing the Bible teaches us about God is this: God isn’t a God of disorder but of peace (1 Cor. 14.33). Unlike the gods of Israel’s neighbors, the God we meet in the Bible doesn’t create and sustain the world through violence and coercion. Our God doesn’t create chaos, but brings order and beauty and life from chaos.

The creation is God’s temple

Our story today began at the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth. The heavens and the earth is how the Bible describes our world, our universe. It’s a way of saying, everything that is. And God created our world with a plan and purpose in mind for it: to be a temple for God to dwell in. God created the heavens and the earth for fellowship, as a place where we could commune with God.

Every ancient god had a temple. A temple made with human hands. But in the Bible story, Israel says: Our God made the whole world to be his temple. Listen to what God says in Isa. 66.1-2:

The Lord says:

Heaven is my throne,

    and earth is my footstool.

So where could you build a house for me,

    and where could my resting place be?

My hand made all these things

    and brought them into being, says the Lord.

If a temple is where divinity dwells; and God’s throne is in heaven, and God’s feet rest on the earth; then the heavens and the earth are God’s dwelling place. The creation we live in is God’s temple.

We can even hear that in the language the creation story uses. In Isaiah, we just heard God call our universe—our heavens and earth—his resting place. And in Gen. 2.2, we hear that God rested on the seventh day. In other words, God had finished building his dwelling, and sat down in it to rest. And we know from the biblical story that God did dwell among and fellowship with humanity and the rest of the creation. Gen. 3.8 talks about God walking through his garden in the cool of the evening breeze. And it seems to have been a regular occurrence. God enjoying God’s garden in God’s palace—the creation we live in—and communing with the first people.

At creation, heaven and earth were joined together. It was human sin that ruptured the fellowship of heaven and earth. And the rest of the biblical story is really about God working to bring heaven and earth back together.

God fights for God’s creation, because it’s God’s delight, and God’s temple. When we see God unleash the flood in Genesis 6-9; or rain down plagues on Egypt and drown their army in the Sea in Exodus; that’s God fighting for the creation. Fighting against the forces of sin and chaos and violence that have wrecked God’s temple. And the Bible assures us that God will be victorious. Heaven and earth will be reunited, renewed, and restored. The creation will be redeemed, and God will dwell with humans in it. Rev. 21.1-5, tells of a new heaven and a new earth, where God has defeated suffering and death, and dwells among all the peoples. Just like God planned from the beginning. And we hear God say, Look! I’m making all things new. Notice, he doesn’t say, I’m making all new things. It’s heaven and earth made new, renewed, restored to the purpose God intended from the beginning. Everything worth saving is saved—redeemed and renewed. The creation becomes fully God’s temple, as it was in the beginning.

How does that change our perspective on the creation—the world we live in? I think it at the very least suggests we can’t say, Oh we can do whatever we want to the earth, to the waters, the skies, the animals. They’re all going to be destroyed anyway. No, they’re all going to be renewed. And they still belong to God. The oceans and rivers are God’s aquarium. Would you let someone dump garbage and chemicals in your aquarium? So why should God be happy with us polluting his ocean?

And that brings us to our final big idea today. If creation is the temple for our God, who loves order and beauty and peace, what is the role of humanity in that temple? What did God put us here to be and to do?

Humans are priests in God’s temple

Every god in the Ancient Near East had a temple. And every temple had two things in it: An image that represented the god who was supposed to dwell in the temple; and priests to serve in the temple.

And according to the story the Bible tells, it’s the same with our God. All creation is God’s temple. And God has an image in his temple. In Gen. 1.26, God said:

Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.

Being in God’s image means we represent God in his temple—the creation. When God says humanity is supposed to take charge of creation and the creatures who dwell in it, that doesn’t mean we get to do whatever we please. We’re supposed to represent God in his temple. Which means we’ll be good stewards, we’ll take good care of the creation, we’ll show love and proper respect for the land and the waters and the creatures who dwell in them. God loves his creation, it’s his temple, and we’re supposed to treat it as such.

And humans aren’t only God’s living images; we’re also priests serving in God’s temple. The two ideas are actually related. They’re both about representing God in creation. Listen to Gen. 2.15, a few verses after our reading today ended: The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it. The roots of those verbs—to farm and to take care of—mean to serve and to protect. To serve and observe, or guard, or preserve. So you can see that God put humans on the earth to take care of it, to be responsible for it, to manage it in a way that honors God. Okay, here’s where the idea of priestly service comes in. In the rest of the Old Testament, when those two words are used together, it’s referring to the priests serving God in the tabernacle or temple. For example, Numbers 3.7-8 says this about priests working in the tabernacle:

They will perform duties—same verb as to take care of or protect—for [God] and for the entire community before the meeting tent, doing the work—the verb for to serve—of the dwelling. They will be responsible for—to take care of, to protect—all the equipment of the meeting tent and the duties on behalf of the Israelites when they do the work—or service—of the dwelling.

And you find those two words together describing the work of priests in the temple several more times. Okay, those are the same verbs that were used in Gen. 2.15 for the first human working in the garden, taking care of it, being responsible for it. And creation is God’s temple, so God made humans—that’s us—to be priests serving in his temple. Things like growing food and pruning shrubs and planting gardens and taking care of animals and other people are really holy work.

So what does it matter if creation is God’s temple, and we’re supposed to be priests working in God’s temple? That’s not really how we modern Westerners are wired to think. But what it really means for us is, the earth we live on, the universe we inhabit—it all belongs to God. And we’ve been given an incredible amount of responsibility here. The choices we make about how we live, what we do, how we relate to each other and the rest of creation—those all matter a great deal. God has given us responsibility and a great degree of freedom, and our choices can lead to beautiful outcomes, or terrible ones. That’s really what that means.

In fact, when you read Genesis 3, the story of how sin and chaos and death entered the world, you shouldn’t just read it as a story about how our first parents ate some fruit they shouldn’t have and got us all in trouble. It’s really a story about how humans use our free will selfishly. It’s really a story about how we’ve turned our backs on the work God has given us to do. How people tend to choose to grab power and serve ourselves, instead of serving God and finding delight and rest in God. The truth is, sin isn’t just about breaking rules. It’s about damaging our relationship with God, the earth, and each other. It’s about how God’s images went rogue, how God’s priests defiled his temple.

And yet—the rest of the Bible story shows us a God who still loves order and beauty and peace. A God who fights for his creation against sin and chaos and death—even for the humans who have damaged it. A God who is willing even to die for the cracked images and rogue priests who turned our backs on him. Because God still takes delight in his creation and his creatures, and will not let us go. God is working, has been working, and will continue to work to renew his creation; restore his temple; and redeem humanity. And God will continue to fight for us until heaven and earth are reunited, and God is again fellowshipping with us in his temple forever.

And that’s what the rest of the Bible story is all about.

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