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August 6th, 2017

Where to Start

You are so used to being human that you forget to marvel at it. 

Genesis 1:1-31

 

Screwtape, Revelation, and Genesis

My teaching this summer has included three connected areas. Last week’s sermon completed Revelation, the last book in the Bible. Today we start Genesis, the first book. In Sunday School, I’ve been teaching C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters this summer. Screwtape is a senior devil writing letters to his nephew Wormwood about how to redirect a new Christian toward hell. Lewis wrote the book to help Christians grasp, to borrow a phrase from the Apostle Paul, “the schemes of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11). Satan and his fiends constantly work to devour, distract, deceive, divide, defeat, disrupt.

According to Screwtape, hell is surprisingly neutral toward activities and events we might think critical in spiritual life. Screwtape doesn’t care if the patient goes to church. Inside the church as well as out, the devil can make a man arrogant and critical. Screwtape also cautions Wormwood not to delight in war. Suffering may be entertaining, but war can also turn complacent humans toward thoughts of eternity. Screwtape says, “In wartime not even a human can believe that he is going to live forever” (Letter 5).

God specializes in turning evil to good, while the devil’s passion is turning good into evil. This is the connection to Revelation and Genesis. Revelation is about final destiny – not only for the believer but for the devil and all who join his side. It’s a grand book about God, who is on the throne and who will destroy all evil in the lake of fire. The devil has had a field day making Revelation not about destiny but about division in the church among those who interpret it differently.

In the same way, Genesis is about identity. The only thing more important than knowing where you are going is knowing where you came from. Genesis means “beginning.” Genesis addresses core questions by balancing faith and knowledge. Satan hates that balance. He wants to deceive and divide and distract when it comes to Genesis. He has done so with tragic success in one of two ways.

To some, faith doesn’t matter. To many modern minds, Genesis is a set of legends and stories concocted by a pre-scientific, pre-historical people that is no more helpful or important than pagan myths where gods emerge from a primordial soup, battle one another, and eventually reproduce gods who form the world. Genesis 1 is just as ridiculous to many people.

Satan loves it when people inside and outside the church attempt to explain the world and humanity without reference to God – that everything came from a tiny ball of dense matter with unknown origin and exploded into a universe including one ball of elements and energy that just happened to have the perfect conditions to evolve increasingly complex life, including humans, over hundreds of millions of years. We are nothing but a random collection of particles without meaning or destiny.

In reaction to that view, many believers have said or implied that knowledge doesn’t matter.  Park your brains at the door of the church; all we want is your heart.  Don’t investigate history or geology or biology or physics.  If you find evidence in a fossil record or a living species or a distant galaxy that suggests the universe must be billions of years old or dinosaurs lived on the earth 200 million years ago, well, ignore it or somehow force fuse it into what you’ve been taught about the Bible.

The devil loves it if he can undermine faith or knowledge precisely because God loves the blend of both. Genesis balances faith and knowledge.

God’s spectacle

I love the opening verses of Genesis, in part because it’s the only part of the Bible I can quote in the original language from memory. My Hebrew teacher made us memorize Genesis 1:1-2 because he said it would help us remember at least a little Hebrew grammar. He was right. In addition to being a helpful language learning tool, the seven Hebrew words of Genesis 1:1 form the first building block of a biblical world view.

First. In ancient times, it was the custom to name a book by its first word. I suppose authors knew that, so they chose the first word carefully. The first word of the first book of the Bible in Hebrew is bereshith. When Greek scholars translated the Bible in Alexandria, Egypt about 300 years before Christ, the first word was Genesis. That one stuck when translated into English. I’d hate for us to call Genesis “In,” its first word in English. It could be translated “First” – that’s a good title.

Already in the first word we have a theme that runs throughout the Bible right to the end when God says, “I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 21:6). This apparently marks the beginning of time, but the Bible consistently points back before time. Wisdom declares in Proverbs 8:23, “I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began.” Jesus speaks of the glory and love he shared with the Father before creation (John 17:5,24). If you can stretch your mind to before anything existed – humans, plants, water, stars, matter itself – there was God.

Created. The Hebrew word bara occurs 48 times in the Old Testament, and the subject of the verb is always God. As we’ll see shortly, part of God’s image in us is the capacity to create, but this word always implies God either creating from nothing (ex nihilo) or God doing something new that only God can do.

God. Although it comes third in the sentence, Elohim is the most important word in Genesis 1:1. God is the subject of the first sentence in the Bible. It’s a plural word in Hebrew, but that doesn’t necessarily imply the Trinity – not yet, anyway. This is a common word for deity in the Bible – sometimes translated “the gods” instead of “God.” Here the plural word takes a singular verb, so it indicates one God. He encompasses everything you can possibly imagine as “God” – omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient.

The heavens and the earth. This is an idiom meaning “everything.” We could translate Genesis 1:1 simply as “First, God created everything.”

What follows in the rest of the chapter is the well-known account of the “days” of creation. These verses have become the devil’s playground for wreaking havoc, stirring conflict, missing the main point.

It starts with verse 2 – “Now the earth was formless and empty….” Or should it be “And the earth became formless and empty?” How much time was involved in this “formless and empty” stage of creation? Thousands of years? Millions? Billions?

The six “days” that followed – are they 24-hour days? Or are they eras in the development of the cosmos? Among Christians, there seem to be three views. One is that the earth is very young, perhaps about 10,000 years old, because there’s no other way to read Genesis 1 authoritatively. If the earth and the stars look older than that, it’s because God gave them the appearance of age. A second view is that we have to take scientific knowledge seriously. The earth must be five billion years old, and we can calculate the age of the ever-expanding universe back to a point in time about 13 billion years ago. I fall in a third category – those who believe Genesis 1 is not designed to answer the question of how old the earth is – or many other 21st century questions.

It doesn’t take a scholar to notice the difference between Genesis 1 and 2. While some use this as evidence of inconsistency or contradiction, it’s so much truer just to see it as two different ways of expressing the same fundamental truth. Genesis 2 is a story. Genesis 1 is a poem. Tim Keller goes further and calls it “The Song of Creation.” Listen to the repeated refrains:  “God said, and it was so.” “God created and it was good.”

From the beginning, we learn that only God creates out of nothing. Only God brings order out of chaos. Only God turns darkness out of light. Only God functions is unbound by time and space. Genesis 1 is a display of order, of sequence, of creativity, of power, of intentionality. Why? Because Genesis 1 is a spectacle of God, a parade of his glory.

What’s your favorite part of creation? Grant Jeffrey’s book Creation marvels over wonder after wonder in the created order – from water lilies to hummingbirds to Saturn’s rings to far off nebula that Hubble has brought into view. Why are we able to see anything? Because of the human eye, far more complex than any human camera.

According to Jeffrey, the eye develops a million nerve endings from both the eyeball and the brain in the womb. All million have to find their exact partner coming the opposite direction in order for eyesight to be normal. The eye has an astounding ability to view millions of pixels as light enters the pupil, cornea, and lens, passes through the vitreous fluid, and lands on the 137 million cells of the retina, which has the capacity for 10 billion calculations every second. These are sent through the optic nerve at a rate of 300 miles per hour where the brain recreates a picture.

All we see is God’s song of creation, the spectacle of creation, but that’s not the best part of Genesis 1.

God’s replica

The Hebrew word bara (create) from verse 1 is repeated in verse 21 and 27. Verse 21 is the first appearance of animal life. Sea creatures and winged creatures are created on the fifth day, with land creatures following on the sixth. This is a significant step forward in the created order from plant life to animal life. Verse 27 is the final and grand step of creation, when God creates the likes of you and me.

You’re probably so used to being human that you forget to marvel at it. I talked about the human eye, but there are millions of things about us that are miracles. Over the years as a pastor, I’ve heard about so many people having things go wrong with them that I didn’t even know had to go right. The biological balances that are needed to keep everything running are beyond my capacity to understand. But that’s not the best thing about us. Most of those processes, or some variant of them, happen in other animals.

For example, the human brain includes 100 billion cells, which start developing in the womb at a rate of 250,000 every minute. There are trillions of synapses connecting these cells, allowing you and me to think 70,000 thoughts a day. There are certain differences between human brains and those of other animals, but not enough to account for all the ways we operate differently than animals.

In Genesis 1:26 God says, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” Verse 27 continues, emphasizing the point through Hebrew parallelism –

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

Notice the change from the third person, “And God made,” to the first, “Let us make.” Notice also the plural. To whom is God speaking? All sorts of theories appear in commentaries, and we Christians certainly believe this is at least a preview of what will later become the doctrine of the Trinity. What we immediately see, however, is that God is interpersonal. As Francis Schaeffer said, “Love and thought and communication existed prior to the creation of the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis in Space and Time, 21).

The most important aspect of God’s image in us is that we are created for relationships – to love and be loved. Christian psychiatrist Curt Thompson says the deepest desire of the human being is to be known. God reproduced his own interpersonal nature in us. Do you wonder why you bond with your children or your parents or your siblings, even to the point that they more than any others can drive you crazy? You’re hard-wired for interpersonal connection. That’s God’s image in you. When you bond with that one special someone in marriage and express in body and soul that intimacy which defies words, that’s God’s image in you. Not the sex part – animals can copulate – it’s the person-to-person union.

When a relationship is torn by betrayal or neglect or abuse or death, and you feel that deep pain of loss and grief, and you’re quite sure that it wouldn’t hurt worse if someone had literally ripped your arm from your shoulder socket, that’s God’s image in you. He gives you the capacity to love like that.

It’s all tied up in other aspects of your personality that are only there because you are created in his image – the capacity to reason, to choose, to feel. Did you know that you only laugh because you’re human? Laughter requires the ability to think. You speak because God spoke first. You create because God created first. And create you do – whenever you have a new idea, or cook up a meal, or solve a problem, or initiate an idea – you’re putting the image of God on display. Don’t ever take it for granted.

Where to Start

Where does Genesis 1 tell us to start as we think about God and us and our world?

First, tear down that wall! I’m talking about the wall between faith and knowledge – meaning science, history, education. All truth is God’s truth, and I don’t necessarily even need to harmonize all of it myself.

Some great books have been written by authors who passionately believe in God and in Jesus Christ, but also pursue science.

  • The Case for a Creator, Lee Strobel. Like Strobel’s other “case” books, this one includes a series of interviews with experts in their field.
  • The Science of God, Gerald Schroeder. Schroeder shows how the six “days” of creation parallel what science tells us about origins.
  • The Language of God, Francis Collins. Collins, who mapped the human genome, came to faith in Christ from atheism/agnosticism. He believes evolution is compatible with the Christian faith.
  • Creation, Grant Jeffrey. Jeffrey says evolution is incompatible with the biblical view of origins, but nevertheless uses what we’ve learned in science to deepen faith.

Second, hug a tree. Of all people, Christians should be most concerned about the environment. God’s first command to humans is to rule over his creation, to care for it and use it properly as God’s gift. If it’s not his greatest gift (that would be himself on the cross), creation is certainly God’s largest, most pervasive gift. Because of the power that comes with being the only creatures made in his image, we have great responsibility.

Third, choose life. You probably recognize that as a pro-life motto, but I mean it even broader than that. If humans are created in God’s image, this is our deepest reason for valuing human life from the womb to the tomb. That doesn’t just mean being against abortion or euthanasia, but being for the poor and disadvantaged, as God is. It also means protecting and caring for and showing profound respect toward every variation among humans. Being human is sufficient reason for our care. At times the hardest people to value as being God’s image are those closest to us.

Finally, search the Scriptures. Genesis 1 is so fundamental that the rest of the Bible is saturated with references back to creation. So much of our world view starts here.

  • When Job wants to know why he’s suffering, God’s number one answer is, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” (Job 38:2). Trust starts with creation.
  • When Moses reflects on the brevity of life, he says, “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Psalm 90:2). Humility starts with creation.
  • When Jesus explains marriage, he says “at the beginning the Creator made them male and female” (Matthew 19:4). Family starts with creation.
  • When Paul declares God’s wrath against sin, he says, “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen” (Romans 1:18). Worship starts with creation.
  • When the writer of Hebrews wants to exalt Jesus, he says, “through him (God) made the universe” (Hebrews 1:2). Theology starts with creation.
  • When the book of Revelation wants you to know that Jesus’ death was no Plan B, it says “the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). Salvation starts with creation.

This is Genesis 1 – knowing first where you come from, why you matter, and ultimately, who God is. Amen.

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