Genesis 1:1-5 (The Schocken Bible)
1 At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth
2 When the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of the Ocean, Rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters –
3 God said: Let there be light! And there was light.
4 God saw the light: that it was good.
5 God called the light: Day! And the darkness he called: Night! There was setting, there was dawning: one day.
I want you to imagine the most beautiful photograph you’ve ever seen. What do you see? Maybe it’s a beautiful nature scene. Maybe it’s architecture. Maybe it’s a person, someone you know, a loved one. Or maybe it’s someone you don’t know, but the way the photo is taken makes you feel like you might know them or something about them. Keep that picture in your head. What do you like about it? Is it the way that the object is imagined, the way they are positioned, the way that light hits them or doesn’t, the movement or the stillness– when you imagine a beautiful moment or object captured, you quickly find that you are captured by it.
Now I want you to imagine you are standing in a gallery, and the picture you’re imagining is in a big frame on the wall. You’re trying to look at this picture, and two people are standing in front of you. And they’re arguing. The first one says, “Clearly this picture was taken with a Canon DSLR 28mm lens.” The other responds, “You fool! That is clearly a Nikon wide-angle lens, 70mm with a low aperture!” And before you know it, everyone else who was standing in the gallery has taken a side and joined the argument, and you can barely see the photograph through the crowd. You ask them if you can see it, and they say, “Only if you tell us what camera lens you think they used!”
I believe that when we come to this story in Genesis, the creation story, we face a similar predicament. What we have before us is a beautiful picture of God at the beginning of all things. It’s the type of picture that deserves to be stared at, awed after, meditated on. It’s a picture of God creating and moving and redeeming and delighting. Like a photograph, light shines in a particular way, movement and stillness are captured and charged with meaning, vast landscapes and small moments of intimacy are brought before our eyes; and yet somewhere along the way we’ve lost the privilege of looking at this breath-taking picture without choosing a side – creation or science? Literal days or figurative days? Is this a poem or is it a narrative? Which camera lens do you think they used? If we actually take time to look at this picture again, we are given such a profound look at who God is and how God sees the world. But we are somehow lost arguing about how or when it happened, when the picture is begging us to see why and who. So I ask you tonight to look at this text with me with fresh eyes, the same eyes that imagined the most beautiful photograph you’ve ever seen, to suspend the debate, and let this Genesis story capture you, so that we can reclaim creation, or better yet, let creation reclaim us.
We begin at the beginning, where before anything else God is a creator, working from outside and inside creation to make all new things and to make all things new. The sad irony of trying to step away from the creation/science debate is that even within our own camps, we can’t agree about anything in this passage. One of the biggest debates is whether or not God creates out of nothing or whether God creates out of the formlessness void mess that was already present. You may have heard the term creation ex nihilo, meaning “Creation form nothingness”. And while most Christians would affirm this as a theological truth, many still wonder if that is what this text is saying. The problem is that the text kind of says a little bit of both. Another problem is how God works in creation: does God come from outside the creation or from within it? God speaks into creation, but it also says that the spirit of God hovered over the face of the Ocean. Many churches, denominations, and believers have divisively split over issues like this one. Even in our own camps, we quarrel over form instead of substance. And maybe the reason that the text leaves so much wiggle room is because these are all ways that God truly does work.
Sometimes we need a God who is completely outside of a situation to come in and make a difference. When things are confusing or people need a mediator, we believe in a God who is outside of our own biases and shortcomings who can enter in to a situation and bring healing. At other times we need a God who has been hovering on the surface all along to make the spirit known to us and act for the sake of the world. Most obviously we see that characteristic of God in Jesus, the incarnation, that sometimes we need God to show up within the world to save it. And whether God creates out of nothing or out of wild and waste, I think we can all imagine times in our lives where we have come to God with absolutely nothing and asked, “God, can you make something new?”. A transition in life, a new job or relationship, where we come to God with a blank slate and hope that God can make something wonderful. And then there are other times where we come to God with a huge mess, wild and waste like our text says, and wonder, “God, can even you make something new out of this?” Relationships become broken, systems become broken, and beautiful things turn into messes, and we hope that God can do something with that, too. The picture of God in Genesis is that God can make all new things, and make all things new, from outside with power and from the inside with compassion.
And when God creates, God speaks into the world an invitation, and responds with intimacy and affirmation. The pattern of creation reads like a call and response. God said let there be…. And it was… God called it… and saw that it was good. If you think about it, God doesn’t have to speak to create, nor does God have to use language like, “let us” or “let there be”, which sound inviting and inclusive, but God does. The story depicts a God who speaks instead of simply willing it to happen, and uses particular words that sound like calls for response. God also does not have to name things. God calls the light “day” and the darkness “night”. And God doesn’t have to evaluate each day. Who’s going to argue with God? But God calls each creation good. God is passionately involved in this project, and has a stake in the outcome. This is unlike so many other ancient stories of the beginning of the world. In most other ancient civilizations, the earth comes about because of wars between gods who create out of spite or out of boredom or by accident. This God creates on purpose, out of fascination and participation, and even takes delight in it! I think it’s easy to miss when we read this story that God seems to really enjoy creating the world! God names everything that is made, and I know that any would suggest that has to do with taking ownership of it – that if God gets to name it then it belongs to God. And while I don’t doubt God’s dominion over creation, I wonder if there’s more to it than that.
I have a three-year-old nephew who lives in Phoenix with his sister and mom. I only get to see them once or twice a year, so being a good uncle I try to bring gifts when I do. On the drive out to Phoenix there’s a rest stop that we usually stop at that has one of those claw-machines where you can get a stuffed-animal, and of all the possible skills that God could have chosen to bless me with, I have the odd fortune of being really, really good at claw machines. It’s become something of a tradition to get a stuffed animal for my nephew at this rest stop and give it to him when I get home. So this year when I brought him a stuffed animal, the first thing he screamed, because he’s a three year old, was, “Mine!” And he snatched it up before he even knew what it was. Now, that was taking ownership. However, once he knew that nobody was going to take it from him, and he began to play with it, I bet you can imagine one of the first things he did. He named it. He took ownership of it right from the get-go, but he finally named it once he knew that he liked it. Now I’m not trying to say that God is just like my three-year-old nephew. (We’re all in trouble if that’s true.) But I do think that maybe when God names the different parts of creation, it’s because God likes them. And when God calls them good, we truly see the intimacy and attachment that God has with this world.
And as the first day of creation ends and the second begins, we are invited to believe in a world that is always moving toward hope, toward redemption, and toward a new day. Many scholars have run their pens dry wondering why each day ends with this phrasing, “there was setting, and there was dawning”, or many translations read “there was evening, and there was morning”. Didn’t they know they have it backwards? Morning comes first, evening comes second. Some have even tried to argue that maybe for the Hebrews, a day actually went from evening to morning, but the rest of the Old Testament doesn’t really support that theory. So why does this picture have evenings moving towards mornings instead of the other way around? Why would a photographer take a picture like that? Why does any evening look forward towards a morning? Maybe because an evening is particularly difficult – sometimes a morning feels like a fresh start, like pushing the reset button. I know I’ve said many times, “I just want to go to bed and start again in the morning.” Maybe another reason we look forward to a morning is out of anticipation – like a child on Christmas Eve who can’t sleep because she knows what tomorrow brings. Either way, in God’s good world, every dark evening looks forward to a bright new morning. Every end leads to a beginning, not the other way around. You’ve heard the saying, “All good things must come to an end.” But Genesis says it’s the opposite. After evening comes morning. All bad things must come to an end. And that is really good news, because I don’t know if you felt this as hard as I did, but 2014 was a really long, hard evening for the world. Ebola, ISIS, Ferguson, torture-reports, mid-term elections… So many dark evenings. But Genesis insists that out of darkness there is light, and for every evening there is a new morning, a new day, where God will be creator and Lord.
I want to be a creationist. I want to look at this story and declare its truth to a disbelieving world. But I think it means something different than what we’ve taken it to mean. To be a “creationist” is to believe that God has called the world good; that God is intimately involved with creation, inviting and naming from the inside out, bringing new days out of dark evenings, creating new things out of nothing and beautiful things out of ugly things. Sadly, I know many who call themselves “creationists” who don’t share these commitments, and yet they are the beauty of the creation story they defend. True “creationism” might lead you to believe that God is always creating, that God is first and foremost The Creator, who cares about the created world and wants to see it flourish, which is the foundation for all the good news of the gospel. And really, to believe THAT… is so much more profound, so much more counter-cultural and so much more controversial than to believe that the world was created in six days. It is truly the message we need to hear and need to believe in our lives and in our world. Being a creationist doesn’t mean you believe the literal words on a page, but that you believe into what the words are trying to teach you. That’s what it means to believe that this text isn’t just data but it is the inspired WORD OF GOD. The hope for any of us and all of us begins at the beginning, where God first acted in love and excitement to make new things and to make things new; and any good news or gospel is only possible because of what God started here. May we never forget to let the stories of God capture us and overwhelm us like they once did. May we learn once more to see the beauty before our eyes. And may we reclaim creationism and announce to the world that however the world was made, we know who made it, and we have a glimpse of why, and both of those answers are really good news. Amen.