Text: Gen 1:1-25. Preached 1/8/04 at Werribee Church of Christ.
Suppose you were walking down Watton St, or through the Plaza, and you found a handwritten letter lying on the ground .. picked it up & noticed that it had pink pastel hearts printed on it, a fragrant odour wafting from it, and crosses and circles drawn all over it .. Well you’d just know that it wasn’t a business letter someone had written to the tax office (unless the writer had a rather uncommon relationship with the Commissioner for Taxation).
There’s something about the form and style of a piece of writing that tells you what kind of document it is, even before you get into the details of it. We do that instinctively with magazines, newspapers, comics & soapies. Christians who honour the Bible as God’s word, find it harder to approach Scripture that way .. but we still do it. e.g. If you read Isa 55:12 For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. – you’d know instinctively that you’re not reading something like one of David’s battles with the Philistines in 1 Kgs. You wouldn’t conclude that when God finally fulfills his promises to his people, that the caves in the hills are going to turn into mouths and start singing the National Anthem, and the branches of the gum trees are going to turn into hands and start clapping. You’d know that you’re reading metaphorical language, picture language .. designed to tell you in a powerful way that the the world will be full of joy when the Lord comes with power. And you’d miss the wonderful message of Isa 55, if you tried to read it any other way.
Now I want to suggest to you this morning, friends, that that’s just the mindset we need when we approach the opening chapter of the Bible. Let me explain .. If you read carefully through Gen 1 (2 or 3 times) one thing you notice is that there’s a repetitive kind of rhythm or pattern about it – phrases and words come up over and over in roughly the same order: God said .. let there be .. and there was .. and God saw .. and God made .. God said .. and God saw .. and God said .. evening and morning .. and God made .. and God saw .. Notice that style? It’s not exactly poetry, but it’s certainly more poetic than reading the newspaper or a history book.
Scripture often uses poetic or picture language. And very often it’s used when what’s being described or referred to is something that’s beyond the limits of human language to describe and beyond the capacity of human minds to understand. We saw that, if you remember, last year when we looked at a few chapters in Revelation.
Now why have I started with this stuff? It’s because there’s a danger that modern day Christians in a scientific age like ours are especially prone to. If we pour over the details of Gen 1 looking for details of exactly how the world came to be, when it happened, how long .. then there’s a risk that we’ll miss the big picture – the wonder and the grandeur and the majesty of God and his purpose for us and our world. And it’s that big picture that I’m convinced is the purpose behind this chapter.
This may unsettle some of you – and if it does, please come and chat with me after the service or some other time – but it’s my strong conviction as a student of the Bible that if you try to read and use the Genesis account of creation as if it were a blow-by-blow scientific description of how the world came to have the form it has, then there is a terrible danger that you’ll miss the power of what God’s word tells us about what’s ultimately real. And that would be a tragedy .. which is why I’m prepared to risk a bit of controversy here. This chapter is a statement of faith – almost a song – about the creative and loving power of God; a song intended not to fill our minds with knowledge, but to fill our hearts with praise and worship of the majesty of God. And so that’s where I’d like to proceed from here.
The Bible’s opening passage tells us I think two key liberating truths about the world we live in: 1. God planned it; 2. God rules it.
God planned the world
Or in other words, the world and life are no random accident. There are times in reading Scripture where it’s like listening to one half of a phone conversation. e.g. Paul to Corinth… It’s that much more challenging to grasp accurately the meaning of something we read or hear if we don’t know what the person speaking or writing was responding to.
Most of the OT was written in a world full of all kinds of religious systems and philosophies and cults, all with their own elaborate theories and myths about the world. That was the world the people of Israel were living in. When you read some of the creation myths that were around in the ancient world of that time, and compare them with Gen 1 & 2, two observations come to mind: 1. the writer of Gen was familiar with those myths; 2. he wants his readers to know that the truth about God, the world and people is nothing like what those myths claim.
I don’t have time – and nor do I think this is really the place – to talk about the details of what some of the pagan creation myths taught. But briefly, what most of them have in common is a picture of political chaos and violent struggle between a host of “gods”, all vying for supremacy – sort of a cosmic version of Yes PM and Days of our Lives all rolled into one. If you think that sounds like your worst nightmare, you’re on the right track. And to try to sum it up, what most of those myths end up saying is that the universe came about as a sort of accidental outcome of one of these spiritual punch-ups. So the world is an accident, life is an accident, you are an accident .. and it was all brought about through violence and death. .. And friends, if that’s life, who wants to live it?!
Now it’s into that world that the book of Genesis speaks with liberating power! And if you have a bible, please turn to the opening verses: 1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void [formless and empty] and darkness covered the face of the deep … So what was the state of existence before God spoke his words? Nothing .. a blank screen, like when you you turn on a computer that has absolutely no software loaded – not even an operating system .. formless and empty ..
And into that empty, formless darkness, God speaks “Let there be light”.. And then begins a series of six creative acts: 1. darkness overcome with light (1-5); 2. God divides the waters and creates the sky (6-8); 3. brings earth out of the waters (9-13) .. so light, sky and earth .. the earth was formless, now it has form, the stage has been set
Days 1 – 3 form to the formless; then 4. sun, moon, stars (14-19); 5. birds in the sky, fish in waters (20-23); 6. animals on earth, man the pinnacle of creation (24-31) ..
So let’s recap: At the beginning – formless and empty .. then in three creative acts, God brings form to the formless .. then in another 3 acts, God fills the emptiness with life!! .. Now that’s a powerful enough picture on it’s own .. Even on it’s own it says that life & your life has meaning behind it, purpose behind it .. But just consider how much more powerful it would be, if the only version of how the world came to be that you had ever heard told you that all of life was simply the random, accidental result of a struggle between rival spiritual powers – sort of a cosmic version of the occupation of Iraq! If you thought it was all just a meaningless accident, what joyous news this would be! This world .. this life .. my life .. your life .. is all the result of the plan and intention of God! Not an accident .. not some random outcome .. It’s all part of an orderly plan put into effect by God .. and the human race is the climax of it all!
And just to make sure we know it’s no random fluke, we’re told at each creative stage in the chapter, that God saw that it was good. .. No chaotic accident .. not just the muck that was left after the gods had finished slaughtering eachother .. Ps 104 is a longish psalm devoted to praising God for his creation; and verse 31 says “the Lord rejoiced in his works.” It was all his work .. and it was all good.
Formless, empty, random and totally meaningless .. and so it would still be .. but for God’s loving, creative and purposeful act in giving form to the formless and filling the emptiness with life and purpose.
God rules the world
When the early Israelites spoke with the people’s around them, their neighbours would have told them that there was a cosmos full of gods, some good ones, some nasty ones, competing for the upper hand. They believed that if you wanted the favour of the good gods, to help your crops grow etc, you needed to offer various sacrifices, perform various rituals, engage in sexual acts with temple prostitutes – and then you might enjoy the favour of the nicer gods .. Or you might not .. if the sun, moon and stars (which the pagans believed were actually gods themselves) – if they weren’t in the right alignment, then frankly anything could happen .. your life was at the mercy of whatever god happened to be boss cocky at the time…
But Genesis offers knowledge of one, supreme, unique, unrivalled, all-powerful God who rules over the whole cosmos simply by speaking a word .. And when he merely speaks a word .. what he says happens .. Formless, empty darkness .. and then God said “Let there be light”; and there was light. .. then God said “Let there be a dome … And it was so. .. then God said “Let the waters … be gathered together … and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. .. and God said, and it was so .. and God said, and it was so … Despite what you’ve been told, Israel; someone is in charge .. and it’s God .. and he’s a speaking God .. and when he speaks, his word is obeyed in all the cosmos .. what he determines to do, he does .. and there is nothing his word cannot do .. no stand-offs with rival deities, no duels to be fought, no other god to compete with for supremacy .. He speaks, and it is so!
Some of the ancient civilisations believed that the equilibrium of the world stands under constant threat from a chaos monster, a dragon that lives in the deepest ocean – but v21 tells us that the sea monster just another one of God’s creations .. Others believed that the sun, moon and stars were the source of light, and if you didn’t worship them the world could plunge into chaos all over again – but v3 says God made the light before anything else, and then down the track v16 says he made the sun & the moon (but without bothering to name them) .. and that he decided the bounds of their function .. and then as a kind of “P.S.” Oh, by the way, he also made the stars (all of them)
A planned, ordered world .. ordered and ruled by God, the one who stands alone, and whom Israel worships.
Imagine: A primitive tribesman finds a watch on a road. He’s never seen one, no idea what it is or what it’s for, what it’s purpose is. What can he do with it? Well with a lot of patience and the right tools, he can look it over .. if still ticking he may hear it’s rhythm .. pull it apart and marvel at it’s intricacy and the way it all fits together .. if he has writing he may be able to record his knowledge and tell others in his tribe what he’s observed about this extraordinary device .. But unless there’s someone who can tell him what it’s for .. it will ultimately have no meaning for him, and he’ll be left guessing in the dark as to its purpose.
The writer of this book called Genesis hasn’t told us a lot of science about the world. He hasn’t given us a scientific monograph describing how all the parts fit together. That’s not his interest. He knows nothing about atoms, molecules, DNA .. What is his passion, is to tell us why it’s there .. what it’s purpose is .. a plan behind it all .. a single divine person behind the plan .. that in that plan the universe is ordered and has meaning .. and that you and I are part of that order and a central pillar in its meaning.
I’ll devote next week to unpacking the glory of man in the plan of God in creation. But just as a foretaste today, let there be no doubt about this: The world is not an accident .. life .. your life .. Whoever you are .. you are not an accident ..
This artistic description of the beginnings of creation has been recorded by a writer who wants to capture minds and hearts with awe at the majesty of God. And his implicit invitation to us who read this piece, and reflect on what it says, is that we would worship that God, stand in awe of him. What else could you do? ..
Actually there is something else. Something that goes along with worship – that in fact according to Paul in Rom 12:1 is the very essence of worship anyway. .. If this unique description of the world’s beginnings convinces you that there is a being called God .. behind everything .. sovereign over everything .. with a purpose to everything .. whose spoken word is the source of all life .. who presents himself as the source of your life .. then isn’t it time you acknowledged that your life has no meaning, no purpose apart from him .. isn’t it time you seriously searched much further into his word to know more of that purpose .. and submitted your life to his rule?