Trinity Sunday sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.
The text is Genesis 1:1-2:4a.
We read this morning from the story of creation in the book of Genesis. This is one of the most familiar (and controversial) texts in the entire Bible. It’s often used as a wedge and a weapon by those who would try to set up science and faith as mutually exclusive categories of knowledge.
Some say that this is a literal and historical account of what actually happened during the first week of existence for the universe (which they take to have happened about six thousand years ago). These folks often have witty bumper stickers that say things like, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it” or “The Big Bang Theory: God spoke and BANG, it happened”.
On the other hand, there are those who say that this story is nothing more than an ancient legend made up by people who didn’t have the benefit of modern science at their disposal. These days, they say, this story is useful only as a cultural artifact. It should be studied in the same way that Greek mythology is studied: without regard for its truth or relevance to contemporary life.
So then, are these our only two options for understanding this text? Do we reject, on the one hand, the findings of the scientific community as the deceptions of Satan or the product of secular humanist conspiracy? Or, on the other hand, do we throw out the Bible as an ancient relic, abandoning it to be used and abused by ignorant bigots, like those who once believed that the earth is flat?
Or is there a third option? Is there some way for us to lower our mental buckets into this well and bring up gallons of living water? Can this text serve as a source of divine truth for us, even if we don’t accept it as literally and historically factual? I think there is.
Let’s start by looking at the text itself. You’ll notice that there is a lot of repetition going on. “And God said, ‘Let there be… and God saw that it was good… and there was evening and there was morning, the [#] day.” This happens over and over again, so much that you start to expect it. There is a kind of natural rhythm to this passage. Tell me, where else do you find rhythm and repetition in language? In poetry! This text reads like a poem.
What’s even more interesting is how the ideas and images in this poem develop as we read on. Let’s look at the first six days of creation and the creatures that emerge on each day. To make it easier to understand, we’re going to divide the days into two groups that stand side by side: days 1-3 and days 4-6.
On the first day, God creates light and darkness itself. Parallel this with the fourth day, when God creates the sun, moon, and stars (i.e. those objects (beings) that dwell in the light and darkness of day and night). On the second day, God separates the sky and the water. Then look at the fifth day, when God creates birds and fish (i.e. the life-forms that live in the sky and water). On the third day, God calls forth the land and vegetation from the sea. Match this up with the sixth day, when God makes land animals and humans, whose job it is to care for the rest of creation.
On days 1-3, God creates a particular environment and then fills each environment with inhabitants on days 4-6, leaving human beings in charge of the whole thing. Then, on the seventh day, God takes a break. For this reason, the text tells us, every seventh day is set apart as sacred. On this day, people are called to rest from their work and reflect on the goodness of God’s creation.
“Okay Barrett,” you might say, “it’s a nice poem, but what does it mean? Why are these words and ideas laid out in the way they are?” In order to answer that question, it would make sense to look at who wrote this poem, where and when it was written, and why they wrote it.
The problem is that we don’t exactly know the who, where, when, and why of this poem’s author. Unlike modern writers, authors in the ancient world didn’t exactly sign and date their material. And, as any teacher will tell you, it’s almost impossible to figure out who wrote a nameless and dateless paper, even when you know it was written in the last week! Imagine trying to do it with a paper that’s several thousand years old! Forget about it!
Biblical scholars have spent years trying to solve this mystery. Their best guess is that this poem was probably written by a Jewish person sometime during the sixth century B.C. Jews at that time were living in exile, working as slaves in the country of Babylon. The Babylonians had conquered the holy land and dragged many of the people off to work for them elsewhere. Removing people from their land was a common strategy used by the Babylonians to break people’s spirits and keep them submissive. The Jews living and working in Babylon huddled together in sorrow for their lost home. All around them, their Babylonian bosses made them feel like they were less than human. They treated God’s people like machines or property. They made fun of Jewish culture and religion.
“You God is so weak,” they said, “our god, Marduk, was able to beat yours in battle. That’s why you’re our slaves now. Why don’t you give up worshiping your pitiful little God and worship ours instead?”
Well, the Jews didn’t listen to that talk. They got together and, once a week, these Jewish slaves went on strike. They refused to work. They huddled together to sing, pray, and tell stories. They celebrated their faith and culture. This is the Sabbath day.
On the Sabbath the Jews said to the Babylonians, “You might be in charge (for now) but you don’t own us. We belong to our God, who made heaven and earth.” That’s where scholars think this poem came from. The sun, moon, and animals were all different gods to the Babylonians. They worshiped them and made all kinds of sacrifices, but the Jews said, “Those aren’t gods! The sun and moon are just lights in the sky. The animals were made by our God and given to us to care for.” Rather than bowing down, the Jewish people stood up to preserve their dignity and celebrate their faith that, one day, their one true God would free them from slavery and bring them home again, just like God once did with Moses in Egypt. In the meantime, the Jews kept going on strike once a week. They kept meeting together to worship. “We’re not your property,” they said, “We’re God’s people.”
So this poem becomes a celebration of faith, hope, and human dignity in the face of chaos, destruction, and oppression. The poem opens with the image of a dark and stormy ocean. Nothing but a “formless void”, but God is there. God is speaking. And God is making something good out of this mess!
In the same way, you and I live in a dark and chaotic world. The society around us laughs at our faith. It would be so easy to become frightened or cynical. Maybe we’re not exactly slaves, like the Jews were under the Babylonians, but we often get treated like we’re less than human. Government bureaucracy treats us like cattle, shuffling us around and identifying us by our Social Security Number. Corporate advertising calls us “consumers” and tells us that our only value as human beings comes from how much money we have to spend.
“It’s a dog-eat-dog world,” they say, “you’ve got to take whatever you can get or somebody else will!”
Can we, as people of faith, find the courage to stand up and say no to that?
Like the ancient Jews, you and I already gather here once a week to sing, pray, and tell stories like this one. When you come here, you’re reminding yourself that you are more than just a consumer or constituent. You are a child of God. You have inherent dignity as a human being. You matter.
That’s a message that the world around you will try to drown out, if it can. It will try to swallow up your soul in that ocean of darkness and chaos.
The power of faith is the power to resist that fear and cynicism. It’s the power of hope. It’s the power of human dignity. It’s the power to celebrate the goodness of creation. It’s the power to say that our God is more real than the false gods of consumerism and ideology. The power of faith is the power to say, “God is making something good out of this mess!”
Do you believe that? Can you see in your life what the ancient Jews saw in this passage? The truth in this text has little to do with how the universe began, whether it was thousands or billions of years ago. It has everything to do with how you look at the universe today. Are you a faith-full or a faith-less person? My prayer is that God would open your heart in the midst of this life’s “formless void”, so full of darkness and chaos, and that you would somehow sense the mystery of God’s presence saying to you, “Let there be light.”