We had some tech trouble this morning and there’s no audio until about minute 24. Michael Newcomb is talking about our “doing justice” in the next several months by supporting the newest “apostles’ build” with Habitat for Humanity.
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep. The Spirit/Breath/Wind of God was brooding 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.”Genesis 1:1-3
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
This morning we begin again at the beginning. Every autumn, after Labor Day, here at Zion we start over in the book of Genesis and spend the autumn season exploring the stories of the Old Testament. I grew up in church and it wasn’t until I got to seminary that I really understood what was happening in the Old Testament. Which is unfortunate, because it is the stories of the Old Testament that pave the way for Jesus. These are the stories that shaped Jesus and his people, and they shape us.
In fact, I submit to you this morning that the point of the Bible is to allow these stories to shape us, to find ourselves in these stories, to find ourselves in God’s grand story. I submit to you this morning that the point of the Bible is to form our identities as followers of Christ. I submit to you this morning that the Bible is both past and present, that the point of reading stories from back then is to give us insight to our lives right now.
To which you might say, “Duh, Pastor Beth. I already believe that.” And if so, that’s great. But let me push back a little because when I say that the point of the Bible is to form our identities, that means that when we read these Bible stories, I’m going to be focused on how the story shapes our identity, which means I am not going to be focused on defending the specific facts of the stories.
Because the Bible is so old and because it is so sacred, there are many different ways of approaching it. There has never been a time in the history of the world when all followers of Jesus read the same Bible. We have not always agreed on which books should be in the Bible, and we still don’t. Our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters include different books in the Bible than we Protestants do. We have not always read the Bible in the same language and we still don’t. In fact the languages that the Bible was first written in are not even languages anybody speaks anymore. We have different ideas about what it means for the Bible to be inspired or for the Bible to be authoritative. And each of us individually has our own personal list of verses we take literally and others that we don’t. You know it’s true. Nobody takes it all literally. It’s impossible. But everyone takes some of it literally. You take literally the parts you like, and/or the parts you are most afraid of being wrong about.
Which means, that as we study this sacred text in community, we are going to disagree. You are going to disagree with me. In fact, I actually hope you disagree with me at some point. Because friends, as much as you might want to abdicate your spiritual responsibility to some authority, I won’t be that authority. As your pastor, it is not my job to tell you what to believe. It is not my job to tell you what to believe. It is my job to teach you how to think theologically. I would rather you think and study and pray and talk to each other and come to a different conclusion than just swallow whole whatever I dish out. We each have spiritual agency. We each hear from the Holy Spirit in precious and sacred ways. We have access to this holy book and to millions of resources. So use them, please. Read and think and study and pray and talk to each other. You are capable of it. And it is your privilege and your responsibility to walk humbly with God.
Now all that being said, I’m gonna come teach every week. Because that’s what God has called me to do and what you as a community have said that you want and need me to do. I do a whole lot of reading and praying and studying and I come on Sunday mornings hoping that by the grace of God I can share something that comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable. Because as much as I want you to read and think and pray, these texts were not written to be consumed and digested all by yourself. Which is why you should also talk to each other about what you hear on Sundays. These texts are written for community. When I say that the point of the Bible is to form our identity, I mean “our”— all of us and each of us.
And so we start in Genesis. With a story that you all know. An origin story. But like every good superhero fan knows, an origin story is not just about where you’ve been. An origin story is about where you are. An origin story is not a factual recitation of the events of your life. We tell origin stories in an attempt to make sense of what’s happening to us right now. When we look at these stories from Genesis and Exodus especially, they are not just stories about the past, they are stories that help us understand the present. And what I think is so brilliant and so *inspired* about these stories is that they have been helping God’s people understand the present for more than 3,000 years! These origin stories help us understand our present, and they helped our Medieval ancestors understand their present, and they helped the ancient Israelites in exile understand their present.
To the best of our knowledge, the creation story in Genesis chapter 1 verse 1 through chapter 2 verse 4a, the story of the six days of creation and one day of rest, to the best of our knowledge that story was recorded in form we have in our Bibles while the ancient Israelites were in exile in Babylon. The story itself is probably much older than that. But we think it was recorded in this way by a group of people who were trying to make sense of their present experience of being in exile, who were resisting having their identities formed by the religions of the culture they lived in, who were telling this story as an act of resistance and hope.
The other creation stories that we know from the ancient Afro-Asiatic world are very different than our creation story. They are filled with conflict and violence, with multiple gods who fight with each other and dominate humans. Creation happens accidentally, as a result of battles and death, a king is appointed to rule over his subjects, and chaos is always threatening to reassert its dominance. Those were the creation stories the ancient Israelites heard while they were in exile in the land of Babylon.
Compare that to this story. It begins with one God who already exists, no origin story of God here. And this God takes the chaos that already exists and reshapes it into something good. God orders the chaos. And God does this not through violence or even any kind of tangible force at all but just through speaking a word. God tames and separates and orders and creates organisms that will keep creating. God endows creative power on created beings. God orders the chaos. And at the end, God intentionally creates humans first for the sheer delight of having them exist, but then God gives them a purpose: This is Genesis 1 verse 28: ‘God blessed the earthlings and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.”’ In this story, all humans are called to be stewards of creation. All humans represent God. All humans, not just one king, have dignity and power and responsibility. All humans are created in the divine image.
This is a story that we need to hear again in our present time. We need to have our identity formed by this story and not by the stories told in the culture around us. In our time and our place, we need to hear the word that God makes order out of the chaos, that God is endlessly non-violently creative, that all humans have equal dignity and equal responsibility, that the earth has been entrusted to us as a gift to be cared for, not a resource to be ravaged. We want to tell this story in a way that helps us make sense of where we are and helps us know how to move forward. This is not a scientific treatise. This is a reminder of who we are and who we want to be. This story shapes our identity. The point of the Bible is to shape our identity. We embrace ancient stories to help us make sense of our present reality.
And so I invite you this fall to let these Old Testament stories become new for you. Regardless of how literally you take them, I invite you to take them seriously. I invite you to resist the modern American temptation to get fixated on facts and instead let your spirit be captivated by meaning. I invite you to find yourself in the stories, to let these stories from the past help you make sense of your present, help us make sense of our present.
Friends, we need this. We need to be able to tell a story that’s different from the stories being told by our culture. I want to close by sharing with you a thought from the great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel about how we can use these ancient stories in our present reality. He says,
“This is an age of spiritual blackout, a blackout of God. We have entered not only the dark night of the soul, but also the dark night of society. … Opportunism prevails, callousness expands, the sense of the holy is melting away. We no longer know how to resist the vulgar, how to say no in the name of a higher yes. Our roots are in a state of decay. We must seek out ways of preserving the strong and deep truth of a living God theology in the midst of the blackout.
“For the darkness is neither final nor complete. Our power is first in waiting for the end of the darkness, for the defeat of evil; and our power is in coming upon single sparks of and occasional rays, upon moments full of God’s grace and radiance.
“We are called to bring together the sparks to preserve single moments of radiance and keep them alive in our lives, to defy absurdity and despair, and to wait for God to say again: Let there be light.
“And there will be light.”