Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Book of Genesis has been a source of humor for generations. One of the favorite jokes for second-graders is this. “Where is the first baseball game played in the Bible? In the big inning, when Eve stole first, Adam stole second, Cain struck out Abel, and the Giants and the Angels were rained out. “ For third graders, the humor is only slightly more advanced. What did Adam say on the day before Christmas? It’s Christmas, Eve!
Oddly, the Book of Genesis has been the source of political controversy as well. In 1968, on Christmas Eve, as the grainy image of the earth appeared on television screens across the world, sent from the Apollo 8 space craft as it orbited the moon, the crew had arranged to read a message back to earth. They were aware of the tension across the globe. The Prague Spring in Europe had caused the communist party leaders of the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact members to invade the reformist country of Czechoslovakia. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had both been assassinated in the spring, and in August, the National Democratic Convention had broken out into riots on the streets of Chicago. The war in Viet Nam continued to linger on. So, astronauts Bill Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman, the first humans to travel to the Moon, tried to find a hopeful message from scriptures. Instead of turning to the familiar Christmas story from St. Luke’s gospel, they began their Christmas Eve greeting from space with the following words.
“We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
The astronauts’ Christmas greeting ended with the words, “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”
Madalyn Murray O’Hair, founder of American Atheists, responded quickly by suing the United States government, alleging violations of the First Amendment. The case was passed through the courts for 3 years, until the US Supreme Court finally in 1971 declined to review the case- for the second time. Good people, unintentionally, can get caught up in the strangest fights and debates. This is certainly true of anyone who has ever seriously chosen to discuss and meditate on the Book of Genesis.
For Christians and Jews alike, the Book of Genesis serves as the foundation for our faith in one God. But it also explores the complexity of our own humanity. The Book is filled with stories of greed, violence, deception, betrayal, and forgiveness. And in the midst of it all, a divine being who is at work trying to create and restore a broken world and bringing people back into relationship with himself and their neighbors. You see, the main purpose of the Book of Genesis, with its colorful anthology of stories, is not to serve as a historical, scientific timeline for the world, but rather to explore how one family and its descendants came to play a special role in God’s plans for all of humanity. Today, I would like to begin our summer-long exploration of the Book of Genesis, with a meditation on the book’s first two chapters, the creation story.
For Jews, the first Book of the Hebrew Scripture is known as Bereshit. It is the first word in the Hebrew text meaning, “In the beginning.” The name Genesis, used by Christians, is actually the name given in the Greek translation called the Septuagint of the original Hebrew text and refers to the phrase at the end of the creation story, “the generations of heaven and earth.” If you look closely, at the first two chapters of Genesis, you will discover that there are actually two creation stories and not just one. In the first story, recounting the six day of creation water is the important element. In the story God creates by speaking. In the second story, the essential element is soil, and here God creates humanity by sculpting man out of soil. If you are a stickler for detail, the numbering of the days of creation in the two stories, doesn’t match. But that was never a concern for Jewish rabbis and scholars. Why? Because, the focus of the creation story is not about the process, it is all about the relationship between God and the creation.
In the ancient world of the Near East, there were many creation stories that were shared among the nations,- and they were all polytheistic in nature. There were many gods each having different roles and forms. The god Marduk was associated with water, vegetation, and eventually magic. Assur was the leader of a rival pantheon in northern Mesopotamia. And these deities were fickle. According to the Babylonian myth, Enuma Elish, they created humans, but later regretted the decision and schemed to destroy the human race. These pernicious gods would battle, kill, enslave and retaliate against each other, and humans were often caught in the midst of these disputes. Even in the Roman world, people prayed that the gods would stay far away from them.
Against this cultural backdrop, the creation stories in Genesis present a completely different account of the world’s origins. In the Jewish/ Christian tradition God is fiercely monotheistic. Not only is there only one God active in creation, but this one God is sovereign and powerful above all others. When this God speaks, it happens. As well as creating the vast heavens, the God of the Israelites also creates the animal and vegetation, an important feat for an agricultural society like ancient Israel where the vast majority were farmers and herders. If this wasn’t enough. God also creates “the great sea monsters” thus championing all other powers. Yes, God who creates day and night out of nothing- is all powerful.
Most significantly, the creation story of Genesis provides a unique account of the relationship between humans and divine. Wondrously at the end of the six days of creation, God decides to makes humanity in his own image. As we have read today, “in our image, according to our likeness.” It is an exalted relationship. God loves and adores the creation and crowns the creation with humanity- just a little lower than the angels. As God’s beloved children, we stand as the pinnacle of the creation. After this, God, through his powerful word, blesses humanity and declares all as good.
Interestingly, in the second story of creation in Genesis, God assigns the care of his beloved creation to the work of humanity. It is the familiar image of God sculpting man from the dust and breathing into him the breath of life, or as Michelangelo depicts on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he touches his hand. That is how close the relationship is between God and man. It is as near as human breath and touch. And then God says to the man, “You are to take care of my beloved creation. But who will assist the man in that work?”
One by one, God places the animals before the man and asks, “Is this the one?” The man names all the animals, but not one is found to be a perfect partner for taking care God’s creation with the man. At last God puts a great sleep over the and from his side he took a rib to create the perfect companion. When the man wakes, he sees the woman and exclaims loudly, “This at last is bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.” Remember that. Not only has God brought people together, but he has created them one for another. He did not choose a bone from the foot, so that one person should be lower than the other, nor did he choose the bone from the shoulder so that one person could be over the other. God chose to create the man’s partner from his rib- so that the two should be equal, and worker together in harmony- side by side. That was God’s intent in creation and for all the human family.
Now you may be wondering, so what does this story of creation in the Book of Genesis have to do with our troubled world today? Yes, what does the ancient story of God creating the world in six days and then resting, and the story of man being created from the clay have to do with our battered and fractured city trying to rise up and find life again? I rather suspect that the Book of Genesis offers us the same word of hope that the Apollo 8 astronauts longed to share with the world on that Christmas Eve in 1968. It’s the promise of a God who created the heavens and the earth.
My friends, God has not given up on this old, tired world- not even on the torched and neglected streets of Minneapolis. That is good news. God is looking down on this world and he still sees that his creation is very good. God is still about the business of creating something new out of nothing- even out broken glass and shed tears. And because of his great love for you and his creation, he is calling, encouraging and enlisting you to be a part of his restoration effort. Begin where you are needed- in your own neighborhood, on your own street and in your own home. God has created us in his own image, male and female, he has created us to do the work of his kingdom. Now let us be inspired and moved to do it. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.