January 18, 2015

In the Beginning

Around parts like these where most everybody’s a “from here,” when folks meet someone new there are two primary questions they ask.  Anybody know what these are?  Where are you from and who’s your daddy?  The first question will tell them important things like whether or not you’re a Yankee.  It gives them a sense of what kind of culture you bring to the area with you.  The second question—especially if you’re not a “come here”—gives them more of a sense of who you are.  If your daddy was well-respected in the community, you’ll probably be given the benefit of the doubt in a lot of things.  If your daddy was generally considered a scoundrel, though, you’re going to be treated with at least a bit of suspicion whether you deserve it or not.

But, have you ever thought about what these two questions are really asking?  They’re really asking what your story is.  Where you came from and to whom you belong can tell a lot about you.  They give people a context for understanding you better than they otherwise would.  They can help people understand your story.  Stories are powerful things.  We heard a couple of powerful stories last Sunday from Heather and Ann.  They give us a framework within which we can make sense of the world and of the people around us.  If the only things someone knows about you are a few isolated facts they don’t really know you.  As people learn our stories, however, what they are really learning is what kind of person we are.  Are we kind or mean-spirited?  Are we gracious or miserly?  Are we reliable or worthless?  Will we work hard or fall to laziness when not properly motivated?  Are we the kind of person they want to have around or someone they’d rather avoid if possible?  It can also tell them where they stand in relation to us, how they fit (or not) in our story.  Knowing where we fit in someone else’s story is everything in terms of how we relate to them.  In the big picture, though, where we stand in relation to another person isn’t all that important.  I mean, in an immediate sense it can matter a great deal, but ultimately that’s not what should define us.  But, where we stand in relation to God is another matter entirely.  That does define us.  That does determine the nature and direction of our lives.  Well, in order to know where we stand in relation to God, we need to know where we fit into His story.  In order to know where we fit into His story, though, we have to know His story.

This morning we are starting a brand new series called, “The Big Story.”  In this series we are going to take a look at the story of Scripture, but from 30,000 feet.  You see, I don’t know about you, but most of the time I spend reading Scripture is spent reading details.  I’ll read a chapter or two and spend time reflecting on what God might have to say to me through that piece of text.  This isn’t a bad thing to do by any stretch, but those details have a context.  For most of the Scripture they have a story context.  If you miss the story context the likelihood that you’re going to understand the details properly reduces dramatically.  But, in addition to their story context, all those details and the stories in which they reside have an even bigger context. The thing about the Bible is that while it was written over the course of 1,500 years by as many as 40 different authors it tells a single story from start to finish.  It’s a story that occurs in multiple different movements, but it’s one story all the same.  If all we understand are the details of the story and not the whole thing, we don’t really know the story.  Worse, given that the Scriptures are the primary means by which we know God, if we don’t know the whole story, we don’t really know Him.  We may know some good facts, but those don’t make the whole story and without the larger context firmly within our grasp it is easy to misunderstand the details and miss the point.

With this in mind, for the next four weeks we are going to look at the big story of Scripture.  This story comes in four parts: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.  We are going to explore each of these four parts to understand them, yes, but also to ask an important question: what’s our part in this story?  You see, we all have a part to play because God’s story is big enough to encompass all of us.  But again, this only does anything for us if we understand it.  That’s what I want to change.  I want to help you understand the story because when you do, finding your part is easy.

Well, the best place to begin with any story is at the beginning.  You see, every story has to begin somewhere and the big story of Scripture begins with the creation of everything we see and don’t see.  And so this morning we are going to look at the first major movement of God’s story: creation.  I want to look with you at the story of creation, and then spend a few minutes talking about how our stories fit into this story and why it even matters.

The story itself is found in Genesis 1-2 if you’d like to find a Bible and turn or thumb your way there with me.  Now, the first couple chapters of Genesis have been the source of thousands upon thousands of pages of commentary and interpretation over the years.  We could spend our time this morning going through the details in glorious fashion but while that could be beneficial, it wouldn’t really be a lot of fun so we’ll skip that part.  Instead, I want to focus on the major themes of the creation narrative and unpack the story that way.

First, though, some text.  From Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.  And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.  And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good.  And God separated the light from the darkness.  God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.  And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”

What we see right out of the gate here is the first and, really, most important theme of the creation story: God did it.  This may not seem like such a big deal, but it is absolutely crucial in terms of being a starting point for everything else that follows.  When people have stopped very long to think about the world and all that is in it, one of the questions they have naturally asked is this: where did all this come from?  What is the thing from which everything else came?  How we answer this question goes on to determine everything about what we believe about the world.  Let me be more specific.  Many Eastern religions hold that everything came from some kind of an impersonal force.  As a result, things like right and wrong don’t really exist.  They’re merely illusions that help the unenlightened masses avoid chaos.  You and I don’t really exist.  We are just illusions. On the other hand, many scientists and secularists today hold that everything came from mindless, soulless, matter and energy.  As a result, while the things we see may be real, there’s no purpose to them beyond what we have constructed and that’s ultimately artificial.  Things like right and wrong are merely social constructs and are relative at their core.  You and I exist, but there’s no purpose to our existence.  We can make one up, but such a purpose would be just that: made up.  You can live in a fantasy for a while, but eventually reality moves back in and spoils the party.

But Christians have a different answer to this question.  We believe that God created the world and everything in it.  Everything we see and don’t was created by God.  Now, the mechanics of that are open for debate.  Some folks believe in a young earth.  Some believe it is much, much older.  Some folks believe God created everything uniquely and specific.  Some folks hold that He guided the process along evolutionary lines.  Thankfully, while I don’t think all these different views and others are equally correct, what a follower of Jesus believes about the mechanics of creation does not determine his salvation.  That being said, our belief about the thing from which everything comes does.  The clear claim of Genesis is that whatever the mechanics were, God created the world.  There was a personal mind behind it which means there is a purpose to it, a purpose for you.  It means that the story being told from that point forward is first and foremost God’s story.

Yet while the fact of God being the creator of all we see and don’t is foundationally important to understanding the big story, the nature of the world He created is pretty important to grasp too.  It matters a great deal whether or not He created a world that was orderly or chaotic, beautiful or boring, creative or colorless, good or evil.  Well, as we keep reading in the story a pattern quickly emerges.  God speaks something into creation, it happens, and it is good.  There’s an orderliness to it.  God creates from the big to the small; from the general to the more specific.  He creates light, the sea and sky, and finally the land on days 1-3.  Then He creates specific lights (sun, moon, and stars), the sea creatures and the birds, and finally land animals (including us) on days 4-6.

When it came to the plants and animals God could have created a few things and called it a day.  But He didn’t.  Listen to the language Moses used to describe this starting at v. 11: “And God said, ‘Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.’  And it was so.”  Now this from v. 20: “And God said, ‘Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.’”  And then this from v. 24: “And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.’  And it was so.”  He created a huge variety of creatures, no two exactly alike.  The creativity in the earth’s flora and fauna alone are astounding without even taking in the beauty of the scenery itself.  We are still actively discovering new species of plants and animals that we’ve never seen in the whole of human history.

But there’s more.  This is all the second major theme of God’s creation story.  He created a world that is orderly, creative, beautiful, and ripe for discovery.  Christian astrophysicist, Guillermo Gonzalez argues in his book, The Privileged Planet, that the earth is located in the universe in a place ideally suited for studying and exploring it.  We can see more of the universe from where we’re located than we could from just about anywhere else.  As grand as outer space is, though, we haven’t even explored all the reaches of our own planet.  A great deal of the sea, for example, is a mystery to us and is waiting to be explored.  In a very real sense, God created a world that reflected His character.

Third, creation was designed with us in mind.  It was designed for us.  We were to be the stewards of His creation.  We still are.  Look at this with me in v. 26: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.  And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’  So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.  And God blessed them.  And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’  And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit.  You shall have them for food.  And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’  And it was so.”

The whole story arc of creation builds to the point where we were created.  We were the only creatures explicitly sharing in God’s image—that would be His personal traits, not His divine ones.  We were explicitly given dominion over the rest of creation.  We were put in charge.  In the zoomed in version of the creation story in Genesis 2 God gives us the task of naming all the creatures on the earth.  Naming implies authority.  The standard refrain after God created something new throughout Genesis 1 is that it was good.  It was good, it was good, it was good, we are told.  But when He added us to the picture He declared, “It is very good.”  Everything He did in creation was done with us in mind.  He was creating a beautiful world for us to be able to enjoy.   What all of this means is that you are special, and I don’t mean that in a weak, modern, self-esteem-driven sense.  I mean it in the sense that you were created uniquely by God to bear His image to the world.  The possibilities before you to make an impact on the world around you are without limits if you lean into and act out of His image.  That’s quite a story.  The other two major stories we mentioned—Eastern religions and modern secularism—argue that you’re not special at all.  In fact you don’t really matter whether in the Eastern sense that you are simply part of the universal mind that erases all distinctions, or else in the secular sense that nothing really matters.  The big story of God tells another tale.  You were uniquely created with and for a purpose.  You have value that, while not located in you (it’s located in God and is fully and properly accessed through Him), is inherent to you.  No one can take it away or make it any less than it is.  Furthermore, you were designed to be a steward of creation such that the earth and all that is in it are your responsibility and are available for you to enjoy to your heart’s content.  All of this is no accident, but was the plan of God from the beginning.  That’s a story worth being a part of.

But it’s not the whole story yet.  There’s one more theme running throughout the creation narrative in Genesis: God created a sinless world.  We see this in the refrain throughout chapter 1: “…and it was good.”  We see it in the fact that we were created uniquely in the image of a sinless God.  We see it at the end of the second creation story in Genesis 2 when in v. 25 Moses declares that “the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.”  Now there a couple of ways this can be understood.  The first is very literal.  They didn’t have any clothes on so they were naked.  And, since there wasn’t anybody else with whom they could compare themselves, they didn’t feel any shame.  You and I don’t have that.  If we were standing naked in the middle of the mall we would feel very much ashamed.  Forget that, I suspect most of us here feel at least a little bit of shame when we are standing naked in front of a mirror.  The second way to understand this, though, is more figurative.  What causes shame?  Sin!  The first man and his wife bore no shame because they had no sin.  This is actually something that the origin stories of many worldviews share.  The world was good in the beginning and then it got broken.  The point, though, is that God created the world good in the beginning.  The big story of which you and I are a part begins like all stories used to begin with everything going well.  This is true even in the modern trend of dystopian future stories.  Even when the stories start with everything broken to pieces like in The Hunger Games there is a general sense that things are stable and acceptable until the crisis is revealed.  This is because the stories we tell are echoes of the story of which we’re a part.  And that story is a good one.  You are part of a good story.

There are perhaps more themes within the creation narrative we could highlight this morning, but this is a pretty good list: God created the world (and no one or nothing else), He created a world that reflects His character, creation was designed with us in mind, and in the beginning at least, creation existed in sinless perfection.  Now again, those all sound good, but what does it mean?  What can we take from this?  Why does it matter that these are all themes found within the creation narrative of God’s big story.  Well, for starters, they tell us an awful lot about the character of the God we serve.  From just the creation narrative we can learn a lot about God.  We know that He is good.  Only a good God could create a world that is good and without sin.  We know He is all-powerful and all-knowing.  Given the sheer scope and complexity of our universe and the creatures within it only someone with unlimited power and knowledge could have brought all that we see and don’t into existence.  We know that God is creative, that He loves beauty, and that He is a God of order.  We know that He is a personal God for only a personal God could create personal beings.  We could go on but I think you get the point.

Second, evil doesn’t come from God.  We live in a world wracked by evil.  It’s everywhere we turn.  We see it in the diseases that plague our lives.  We see it in the natural disasters that wreck lives by the tens of thousands.  We see it in the hearts of people such as when members of the Taliban went into a Pakistan school and murdered 133 children in cold blood.  We cannot escape the effects of evil in this world.  But, that’s not how things have always been.  In the beginning, God created a good world.  It was a world unaffected by evil.  Evil came into the world through us, not God.  And here’s why that matters: if it was that way once, it will be that way again.  This is a point of great hope in the story.  When we are being laid low by the evil in this world—the evil within our own hearts—and it feels like there is no escape, no relief, no hope, we can rest assured in the fact that there most definitely is hope.  There is hope because we are part of a story larger than our own and it’s not over.  It began with no evil and if the God who is writing the story is as good and powerful as we said a minute ago, it will end that way too.  The evil of this world is not the end of the story.  You are part of a good story.

Third, we have a part in this story.  Our place was defined in the beginning: to care for creation.  We were created to be the stewards—not owners—of all that God made.  You see, the world may be broken at every point, twisted by sin into a perverted reflection of its original splendor, but the beauty of God’s initial creation isn’t completely gone.  Do you remember the scene from the movie Hook with Robin Williams when the grown up Peter Pan is standing before the skeptical lost boys deciding whether to believe Tinkerbell’s story or tar and feather him?  None of them could see through Peter’s old face until Thud Butt did some smooshing and found him.  Do you remember his line there?  With wonder he exclaimed, “Oh, there you are, Peter!”  In the same way, with only a bit of work and digging we can find God’s fingerprints all over His creation still.  As stewards this is our duty.  Think about that.  If you are a follower of Jesus you don’t ever have to wonder about what your part in this world is.  You are part of a good story and your role in that story is to make sure it is told.  You part is to discover and share the fingerprints of God.  He shaped this world in creation and it still bears His fingerprints.  We can delight in those, we can search for those, we can share those with others.  The world may be broken—and we’ll talk a lot more about that next week—but our original part in the story has not changed since creation.  You are part of a good story.

And yet, like all the stories that have been written since, the unadulterated goodness of creation in those early days did not last.  Creation came to a crisis point—we brought it there.  But, that’s the next part of the story and you’ll have to wait until next week for that part.  For now know with confidence that you are part of a good story.  Not only are you a part of it, but you have a part in it: to serve the good God who made it all and left you and I in charge of it.  You are part of a good story.  Don’t miss it.