I am Tim Ayers and I am the Teaching Pastor here at Grace. Some of you are familiar with me and my role as the teaching pastor, but others of you may be hearing me for the first time and you may be wondering, ‘What is a Teaching Pastor?’ Well, much of my responsibility is to do ongoing research into things like the historical and cultural settings of the Bible’s stories and to study the ancient languages that the Bible was originally written in. And besides preaching on occasion, I also teach classes and I help others as they teach here at Grace… in other words, it is my job is to look for anything that will help us better understand the Bible. The reason that I am telling you this is that today we are beginning a new 6-week series we are calling ‘Origins,’ a series in which we will be looking at the ‘origins’ of the Story of God… for the next 6 weeks we will be talking about the Bible’s very first stories… the stories we find in the first 11 Chapters of The Bible’s first book, Genesis… stories like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Noah’s flood, and the Tower of Babel. Today we will be talking about the very first passage that we find in Genesis, which is, as I’m sure many of you know, the story of The Creation. And boy, is this a complicated and controversial topic or what? Everyone has an opinion about the creation story and these opinions are all over the map. I know this to be true because I’ve been teaching a weekly, hour-and-a-half long class on the book of Genesis for the last 2 years. Genesis has 50 chapters and after 2 years we are just now in chapter 21. That comes out to no less than 9 hours of teaching per chapter. Needless to say, I’ve gathered a lot of material related to the context, background and original meaning of this first chapter… and there is no way that I’ll be able to cover all that I would like to cover in the 25-30 minutes we’ve set aside for today’s sermon. In fact, I think the time I spent figuring out what to say and what not to say today was as difficult a time of preparation as any in my 26 years here at Grace. Truth is, we’re going to have to fly very high over this chapter today, but my prayer is that as we fly over Genesis 1 we’ll come to a deeper understanding of both who God is and what God wanted to tell us when he first gave us this story, a story that tells us about our ultimate origins. PRAY.
Let’s get right to it. Let’s all turn to Genesis 1:1 (page 3 in the house Bible). But, before we jump into today’s passage there are two things I need to mention. First, Genesis has an author. It didn’t drop out of the sky magically. Someone who had a good reason to do so, sat down and did the hard work of writing Genesis. After much study, and I do mean much study, of the various theories as to who was primarily responsible for this book, we have come to the considered opinion that Moses, the great Jewish patriarch who led the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt, was the primary author of the book of Genesis. The Jewish people have referred to the first 5 books of the Old Testament as ‘Moses’ for centuries and we can find no good reason not to credit Genesis to Moses. And the second important thing I want to mention is that Moses, when he did sit down to write Genesis, was writing to a specific audience. Moses didn’t just happen to write Genesis in his spare time hoping someone might someday read it… no, he was writing his book to a specific group of people and again, after much study, we are confident that he specifically wrote this book for the Jewish people who had just escaped from slavery in Egypt. Think with me for a minute about their situation (you can read all about this in the second book of the Bible, the book of Exodus). The Jewish people that Moses led out of slavery in Egypt had all been slaves their entire lives... everyone one of them. They weren’t really a nation, but a gathering of 12 tribes that, in all honesty, didn’t get along all that well. They had no civic systems of any kind: no government, no police, no army and no religious system. In fact, they really didn’t have any intimate knowledge of the God who had just freed them from slavery. All they knew of their heritage as a people and their history with God were the stories that had been passed down from one generation to another throughout their 400 years of slavery. Plus, they were now on a long journey to a place called ‘The Promised Land,’ a place that God said he’d created for them… but it was a land none of these 1 million former slaves had ever seen! And as the Jewish people began this journey through the wilderness on their way to this Promised Land, we believe that Moses gave them the Book of Genesis. They needed this book because it told them how they came to be God’s chosen people… it told them the truth about their ancestors… it told them that the God who had led them out of slavery and who was now leading them toward the Promised Land was the same God who had made everything… and that he’d made it all with a purpose! Moses’ book also told them that the stories that were circulating throughout the rest of the ancient world about how and why the world came to be were silly fictions. Genesis also told them how the world became such a beautiful, yet broken place. Bottom line: Moses gave the Jews Genesis to separate the facts from fiction. Let me repeat that: Genesis separated God’s facts from fictions of the ancient world… And I believe Genesis still separates the facts of God’s world from our modern world’s fictions... So, Genesis has an author: Moses. He wrote the book to the Jewish people who had just come out of 400 years of slavery… and he wrote it to give them the facts about their lives, their nation, their world and their God.
So, let’s look at the first verses of the first chapter of Genesis. Here is what I am going to do: I am going to read the passage and comment at certain points and then we’ll try to pull the whole thing together at the end.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters. The Hebrew word that gives us ‘In the beginning’ is beresheeth. It is a word that was used to mark the beginning of a specific period of time when someone deals with someone or something. I feel that this first verse could even be translated something like this, ‘When God first began having something to do with mankind, he created the heavens and the earth.’ By the way, beresheeth has an antonym, ‘aherit,’ which means ‘the point in time when someone stops dealing with someone or something.’ Interestingly, we never find that word used in the book of Genesis because there has never been a time that God has stopped dealing with mankind. But the most important aspect of these verses is that the earth was ‘formless and empty’… When Genesis begins, the earth exists, but it has no recognizable form and it contains nothing of value. What the creation story will show us, and this is foundational to the whole story, is God giving form to the earth and then filling it with things of great value. Now, to ancient people the most chaotic, empty, wild and scary space possible was the middle of the ocean. It makes sense that the formless, empty world is called ‘deep waters.’ But, did you notice that Moses adds that even when the earth was in a state of what the ancients would have called utter chaos, God was present… The spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters. The Hebrew words Moses used here paint a picture of a mother eagle hovering over her nest right before she lands. What a beautiful image: during the darkest and chaotic of times, God was present.
3Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good. Two things: ancient people thought of light as some sort of material substance, which in all honesty, I can’t fully explain. But take my word for it, it wouldn’t have been weird for ancient people to hear that God created light before he created the sun and the moon. I know this makes us scratch our heads, but this would have made perfect sense to the first readers. And this business of God declaring things ‘good,’ now this is really important! The Hebrew word for good is tov and it had 5 distinct meanings: it could mean something is practical, that it does what it was created to do; that it is of high quality; that it is beautiful; it is morally upright; it is the very best something can be. Here is something that is really cool: every time that God says something is good he means in all 5 of these ways. So, when we see God saying that the light, or anything else for that matter, was good he meant that it was practical, of high quality, beautiful, without any corruption and it was the best it could be. Then he separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light “day” and the darkness “night.” And evening passed and morning came, marking the first day. Ok, now we get to one of the great controversies connected to this chapter. The Hebrew word for day is ‘yom.’ It can mean anything from a 24-hour day, to a specific period of time, to an era. We have the same thing in English: ‘In grandpa’s day, the days were cooler in the daytime.’ People argue about this ‘day’ business. This is where the ‘Bible verses Science’ battle really heats up. I know this is important to a lot of people, but I want to say something with great care but also with great certainty. This argument over the meaning of the word ‘day’ in this passage wouldn’t have been a concern to the first readers. Here is why: they were not interested in the ‘how’ or the ‘what’ of creation. They were only interested in the ‘why’ of creation. They couldn’t have cared less about how God made the earth or what his processes were for creating things; nor did they care how long it took him. But they would have wanted to know ‘why’ God made the world and more importantly, why he’d made them. You see, every other creation story circulating in the ancient world said that the gods had only made people to do their dirty work. They didn’t care about people; they only needed servants. The first Jewish people to hear this story wouldn’t have cared about how the earth was made but they would have wanted to know why God had put them on it. The truth is that everyone in the ancient world, Jewish and non-Jewish, believed that the earth was a flat plate supported by pillars all surrounded by water that was held back by a big curtain of sorts. And if you look carefully at what the whole of the Bible tells us about the earth’s creation, it describes something that is far closer to the creation of a flat plate, supported on pillars and surrounded by water than it is a description of what we know is real. But, this is all fine because God’s bigger point in telling us this story is to tell us ‘why’ he created the earth... not how or what. And can I add this as an aside, Science tells us how and what; science is good at this! Faith tells us why and our faith is very good at this. I also believe that faith gets into trouble when it tries to tell us how and what and Science fails miserably when it tries to tell us ‘why.’ God is always up to something far more important than telling us how he did something. He’s far more interested in helping us understand why he does what he does because why he does things tells us about his heart and his priorities for his world. 6Then God said, “Let there be a space between the waters, to separate the waters of the heavens from the waters of the earth.” 7And that is what happened. God made this space to separate the waters of the earth from the waters of the heavens. 8God called the space “sky.” And evening passed and morning came, marking the second day. 9Then God said, “Let the waters beneath the sky flow together into one place, so dry ground may appear.” And that is what happened. 10God called the dry ground “land” and the waters “seas.” And God saw that it was good. Okay, things are starting to take form. What once was formless is now beginning to be recognizable as a place where life can happen. This is also an interesting spot in the story for another reason: The first readers of this account had just come out of slavery in Egypt and they had very recently seen God separate water from dry land when they crossed the Red Sea. I’m sure that when they first heard from Moses that God had separated the waters from the dry land when he made the earth they thought, ‘Hey, that’s what he did for us to get us out of Egypt! 11Then God said, “Let the land sprout with vegetation—every sort of seed-bearing plant, and trees that grow seed-bearing fruit. These seeds will then produce the kinds of plants and trees from which they came.” And that is what happened. The reason Moses continually adds this “and that is what happened’ was to let the Jews know that when God says something you can count on it happening. If God says it, it is as good as done. This would have been really important to the Jewish people who were living day-to-day out in the wilderness and all they had that they could count on were God’s promises. 12The land produced vegetation—all sorts of seed-bearing plants, and trees with seed-bearing fruit. Their seeds produced plants and trees of the same kind. And God saw that it was good. 13And evening passed and morning came, marking the third day. Now the filling has started… plants are filling the dry ground. The earth is beginning to be a place that is livable. 14Then God said, “Let lights appear in the sky to separate the day from the night. Let them be signs to mark the seasons, days, and years. 15Let these lights in the sky shine down on the earth.” And that is what happened. 16God made two great lights—the larger one to govern the day, and the smaller one to govern the night. He also made the stars. 17God set these lights in the sky to light the earth, 18to govern the day and night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. Did you notice that Moses never names the ‘lights in the sky?’ There was a good reason for this. The rest of the ancient world worshipped the sun and the moon as gods. Moses didn’t want to give any credibility to this worship by using any names that others might use in their worship. The sun and moon are just lights… and they were simply made to make the ongoing filling of the earth possible. 19And evening passed and morning came, marking the fourth day. 20Then God said, “Let the waters swarm with fish and other life. Let the skies be filled with birds of every kind.” 21So God created great sea creatures and every living thing that scurries and swarms in the water, and every sort of bird—each producing offspring of the same kind. And God saw that it was good. 22Then God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply. Let the fish fill the seas, and let the birds multiply on the earth.” 23And evening passed and morning came, marking the fifth day. 24Then God said, “Let the earth produce every sort of animal, each producing offspring of the same kind—livestock, small animals that scurry along the ground, and wild animals.” And that is what happened. 25God made all sorts of wild animals, livestock, and small animals, each able to produce offspring of the same kind. And God saw that it was good. All of these verses tell us that the earth is now formed and it is filling up. But there is one last, ultimate moment of creation… 26Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.” 27So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. There is a lot of discussion about what it means to be created in the image of God; some say it means we look like God; others say that this means we are thinking, creative creatures like God; others say that this means we represent God in the world. These are all interesting answers and to be honest, the Bible doesn’t tell us exactly what this means…. It could be a bit of all of them. But, whatever it literally means for us to be created in His image of God, one thing is clear: this is an incredible, existential reality! We all, every one of us, every man and every woman is created in God’s image and that alone gives all of mankind infinite dignity. 28Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.” This statement that mankind is to reign over the fish, birds and the animals is often debated. Some see this as a free pass to use the created world for our own advantage, but the way that the Hebrew reads really lends itself to this being a command to mankind to represent God as ambassadors of his values. The command is for us to show the creation the same care that God shows to us. And this command also gives men and women purpose: our calling is to represent God as we care for his world. 29Then God said, “Look! I have given you every seed-bearing plant throughout the earth and all the fruit trees for your food. 30And I have given every green plant as food for all the wild animals, the birds in the sky, and the small animals that scurry along the ground—everything that has life.” And that is what happened. 31Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good! And evening passed and morning came, marking the sixth day. God looked at his vast universe filled with its multitude of stars… he looked over the earth that he had formed and then filled with great beauty and wonder… he looked at the dignified, purposeful, relational men and women he’d created and he said ‘Mehod Tov’… Very good. Very Good.
Earlier I told you about my role as Grace’s Teaching Pastor… but what I really told you about was the teaching half of my role. I didn’t really talk at all about what it means to be a pastor. That is where I want to go now in light of what we have just talked about. I know that there are those of you that put a huge emphasis on the first chapter of Genesis. That your position, no matter where you stand on the issues related to the creation of the world, is foundational to your faith and that it informs the way you look at the world and possibly even the way you relate to others. I understand this. But as your pastor I would ask that you let me share with you what this chapter has meant to me personally now that I have lived in this amazing book for two years. I have had the very core of my being changed by what God has taught me as I have had the privilege of studying this book from just about every angle imaginable. And what I have learned from these verses is that this passage is far more about God revealing himself to us than the things we modern people get worked up about. The first thing that I have realized is that it is no coincidence that the first image of the Bible is the image of God’s Spirit hovering like a mother eagle over the chaos of the world. This is a strong message to me of God’s unending presence; I need to know that he is there when chaos overwhelms my life. I need to know that God’s spirit is right above me, waiting to take me into his protection and show me his love and care. I cannot think of anything more powerful than knowing that God is aware of what is going on, that he is present and that he is working to bring an end the chaos. This is what the creation story tells me and I believe some of you need to hear this today. Secondly, this chapter tells me that the creation… all of it from the billions of stars to the fish, the birds and the animals is a gift… to me! When I read this chapter now and see the amazing purpose behind all that God did in his orchestration of the creation, knowing that his ultimate intension was to have a relationship with me… and that he wanted it to be in the most amazing, bountiful, space possible, I can’t help but be humbled and grateful. You are the culmination of God’s creation and everything, literally everything else in God’s amazing world is simply the backdrop to the relationship that God wants to have with you. This is what the creation story tells me and I believe that some of you need to hear how important you are to God today. And finally, this chapter tells me that none of us are random, purposeless beings. This chapter tells me that you and I have a role… a calling in his world. You and I are God’s ambassador and I cannot think of a greater calling. God, for some reason, sees us as a worthy representatives of his heart and his values to the world. And when I am feeling worthless and without value; when others question my dignity and my worth in the world, God says to me through Genesis one, ‘Tim, you are made my image. You are my chosen regent. I see you and declare that you are Mehod Tov…very good.’ This is the deepest ‘why’ of the creation story for me. It tells me that God is present at all times, that he loves us and wants only the very best and most beautiful for us and that for some reason he wants you and me to be the ambassadors of his heart in his world. This is what the creation story tells me and this is the message that everyone needs to hear today.