Sunday, June 19, 2011

What is Your Creation Story?

A sermon based on Genesis 1:1-5
June 19, 2011

I find creation stories fascinating. The way that the story is told tells you a lot about the people who wrote it and their view of the world and god (or gods as the case may be). What a person or group of people believe matters, because it effects the way they live their lives, the way they view the world and their place in it.

 There are two creation stories in Genesis, part of the 1st story is our Old Testament reading today. The story introduces God without any description of God’s origin or past history. As monotheists who believe that one God created everything, the beginning of Genesis does not seem shocking the way it would have to the Hebrew’s neighbors. Most near Eastern deities had parents and complicated biographies. The God of the Old Testament just is.

The creation story in the 1st chapter of Genesis tells us about a God who is cosmic and makes order from chaos. We learn that “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” For the Hebrews, water was often a sign of chaos. The deep was something to fear, no human being could predict or control the ocean waters. We have all learned from the book of Genesis that God created by speaking “Let there be…” but God also created by separating and making boundaries. Light and darkness were separated, the sky was created to separate the waters above and the waters below, dry land was separated from water.

 We learn from this creation story many truths but it should not be confused with a step-by-step instruction on creation that could be replicated the way cookbook recipes can be or science experiments can be. Genesis is not a history book like a modern day book about the civil war is a history book - we can understand more or less what went on the civil war, we cannot begin to understand creation but must use words and images to share what truths we can know. What we learn from this creation story is that there is one God who is and this God is responsible in an orderly way for the creation of all that we can see, and that God considered what God created to be good.

 One imperfect but helpful way to describe part of God’s creative process is to say that God creates by imposing order onto chaos, by separating thing from thing and making boundaries.

 As human beings, we are always trying to make sense out of things – I suppose it is our own way of trying to impose order onto chaos. In a small way we imitate God’s creative power – yes, we do create more of ourselves, but we also create new ideas and technologies that impose order onto the chaos of our lives. Perhaps this is a part of what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God – to seek to make order from chaos by creating.

 The deep waters would have been terrifying to the early Hebrews, and so are a great image for chaos. Today, we have largely overcome that fear. We have created huge ships that can circumnavigate the globe, and we have sent vessels and cameras to the ocean depths to examine what bizarre and amazing creatures live there. We are capable of making helpful predictions about the paths of hurricanes – but we cannot make a prediction very far in advance and we cannot control hurricanes and tsunamis. Water is still chaotic and yet life-giving.

 In Genesis, God’s spirit hovered over the waters and God spoke life and order into existence. Water is still the most basic building block of our bodies, and it is the most pressing need that we have. It is highly appropriate that something as chaotic and fundamental as water became the symbol for baptism.

 Immersion was the popular way of baptizing in the early church, but for safety and practicality most Christians now baptize by sprinkling water from small fonts. We have a beautiful baptismal font at the front of the church that is far safer and more practical than throwing people into the Potomac River in the dead of winter. I’m sure young Landon, his family, and Rev. Shepherd are very thankful for that today. I don’t want to do away with fonts and sprinkling, but I think it is helpful to imagine what immersion is like because it is easier to see the symbolism that is deeply embedded in the sacrament of baptism.

 When we are baptized, we are being immersed into the deep and chaos and being brought out into life and order. The water is often described as being symbolic for Jesus death, and so when you enter the water you join with Jesus in his death and when you exit the water you join Jesus in his resurrection and new life.

 Jesus’ resurrection is a new way that God chose to impose order onto chaos. All human beings, plants, animals die – all created things die, even stars and galaxies die. We decline and decay. But God has chosen a new way, a new order that we can only imagine and speculate about.

 water, baptism, creation - We have lived with all these symbols and stories from the Old and New Testaments for so long that we sometimes forget how powerful they truly are. We live in a world that values facts so strongly, yet the line between what is real and what isn't gets blurred all the time in the internet, in advertisements, in news stories, in photo-shopped images. It is easy to become cynical when a picture is no longer proof or when conflicting stories abound. It is good to remember that symbols and stories are more than just decoration or entertainment – symbols and stories are one of God’s ways of leading us towards the deepest truths that we can only begin to barely understand.

 At the beginning of my sermon I said that creation stories fascinate me because you can learn a lot about the people who wrote it, their view of the world, and the god or gods that they believed in. This is not only true about people from the ancient past but it is still true of people today. What is your creation story? Genesis 1 and 2 contain the two creation stories that Jews and Christians hold sacred – but the way that people interpret these are very different. 

On the one hand you have people who believe that each word in Genesis is 100% literally true, and they find comfort and meaning in their belief that the text is a historical account. On the other hand you have people who believe it is all superstitious nonsense of people who didn't know any better, and they find no meaning or comfort in this text for people today. And in the middle you have people (like me) who believe that symbols and stories are the best we can do at trying to explore the deepest truths that we cannot fully explain and understand by any other means.

 My creation story tells of a God who created a good world in an orderly fashion – it acknowledges the creativeness of God but it doesn't limit God to my tiny capability to understand God’s creative power. In Jesus I see this creative power anew, ready to transform us and the world around us in new and life-giving ways if we open ourselves up to God’s spirit working in and through us. My creation story tells you that I’m the type of person who would like to understand but realizes there is a limit to my understanding, that I do not believe we necessarily have to choose between faith and science, that I believe in a powerful, life-giving and creative God, and that I believe God’s creative works didn't end in Genesis – or even in Jesus, but continues in us today.

 I encourage you to think about the creation story you believe, what symbols hold deep meaning for you – and what this tells you about yourself and the world around you. I also encourage you to talk about these things with other people. Yes, you won’t come up with a complete answer to what really happened, but that isn't the point. The point is to discover and articulate what you believe and how that has any effect on your view of the world and the way that you live your life.