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"In the Beginning"

January 3, 2021 Speaker: Pastor Bob Davis

Passage: Genesis 1:1– 2:3

At the beginning of 2021, there is the sense that we are in the midst of a global re-set. We remain in the throws of this pandemic in which all sense of normalcy has been disrupted. Even so we can begin to foresee the day when we will not be subject to all the restrictions and safeguards that we have endured for the last months. Everything is unlikely to resume in a specific moment or on a specific date; rather, it is more likely that things are going to start and stop and gradually resume looking very different than we can even imagine. We are looking forward into a new beginning.

Thus, Genesis is a good place to consider what new beginnings look like.

Our scripture text today has some fairly familiar sounding words, even if you have not spent much time in the Bible. They are among the most heavily studied, commented, argued, and debated verses in the entire Bible. People want to talk about whether the 7 days were 7 24 hour days, what was the order, how does Genesis match up with the scientific evidence, who were the first man and woman, and more. The same kinds of questions come up regarding other chapters we are going to cover. All are good questions and great subjects for Bible studies. However, time limits mean that we cannot cover these verses in exhaustive detail. Though conversations about the relationship between the Bible and history, the Bible and science, the Bible and politics, the Bible and whatever else; though those conversations can be interesting, they are NOT going to be the subject of these sermons. We are not even going to be able to drill down too far into the specific details of these chapters.

Instead, the subject of these sermons will be: what do the texts reveal to us about the nature, character, and purpose of God? This is a very different approach than responding to the other questions. The other questions start with us and try to match God up with our knowledge. The question for this sermon series starts with God. Who is this God who has revealed himself to us? What has God revealed? What does God’s revelation mean for how we understand who we are and how we are to live?

For what it is worth, I want you to pay attention to all the times you say in your own head, “Yeah, but…” as you are listening to me preach. I can almost guarantee you are going to experience that a few times; I have as I have been writing these sermons. The challenge for us is to read these chapters for what they are – what was the writer trying to communicate about God, rather than trying to impose on the writer all the questions we want to ask.

Introduction

I think it is important to put Genesis in context. Genesis is, obviously, the first book of the Bible. More important, though, it is the first book of the Pentateuch; that is, the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. We need to keep in mind that Genesis does not exist separate and distinct from those other books. They are a set.

The reason that is important is because it changes how we read these opening chapters. Taken as a whole, the most important theme in this five-book set is the movement of God to rescue his people from bondage and slavery in Egypt, to the covenant at Sinai, and then delivering them to the Promised land. What we read in the familiar verses of Chapter 1 – and, in fact, Chapters 1-11 – are a preface to that story. They set the stage.

In other words, Chapter 1 was not intended to be a scientific exploration of the origins of the universe. “Yeah, but…” Stop. If you are like me, you had your first stumble. I had to stop myself right there before trying to answer all the questions the world uses to interrupt and distract from what the writer was communicating. Pulling Chapter 1 out of the Bible and trying to impose upon it modern scientific thought, theory, and practice is like using a Monet painting as directions for assembling furniture from Ikea – it is not what it is intended to do.  

Chapter 1 was not a historical report of an on-the-scene witness. As many of you probably know, it has many similarities to origin stories of other cultures in the region; in fact, this was probably not the first written. Does that surprise you? It is likely that Chapters 1 - 11 were part of a preface explaining the difference of the God of Israel from the gods and perspectives of the peoples around them.

What was important to the author of Genesis was to distinguish, clarify, and reveal the character of the true God in contrast to the idols that were well known to the people of the day. The writer was communicating in broad brushes about who was God in order to set the stage for what God did in history.

What do we learn about God?

In the very first sentence we learn some profound things about God. God is real. God is one; that is, there is only one God. God is the creator of all things created. Stick with me now, because I know that the itch is to hear, “What is in it for me? Why should I care?” As we begin this new year, I want to get us in the right mindset from the very start.

God is real

Chapter 1:1 is familiar, “In the beginning when God.” Before we get to anything concrete, before we get to any action, before we get anything at all, God is. God is not in creation, God is not a part of creation, God is not the sun or the moon or the stars or the earth or an animal.

Take a moment to contemplate that reality: God is. God is. God is.

I do not want to rush past that because we so often do. We acknowledge God’s existence and then we move on to the other things, almost taking for granted that there is a God who exists, who is before all things, over all things, and beyond all things. We take for granted that God is, and then fail to marvel that this God has chosen to reveal himself to us that we might know him.

God is one

Some of you may know that the Hebrew word used here is Elohim, which is a plural. However, the verbs that follow describing the action are all singular.  Elohim was not a proper name, it was the generic word for deity. As will be revealed more specifically later – think of the name given Moses at the burning bush and Deuteronomy 6 – God is one. There is one God.

This was an important statement in the ancient world. Instead of having multiple gods who were variously powerful or impotent, the opening line here declared that there is only one God.

It remains an important statement today. There are all sorts of gods – idols – people hold or worship.

Some treat themselves as god: doing everything to preserve their own life and to hold onto everything they can obtain. The world revolves around them. Everything that happens is important insofar as it impacts them. Yet there comes a point – sometimes suddenly and sometimes after a long time – when the realization hits that they cannot avoid death. They are not in charge, they are not in control. Self-worship is idol worship.

Some treat creation as a god. Think of the worship of Mother Nature and/or the environment. Instead of being stewards of the environment for God – which we will cover in a few weeks – people worship the creation itself. Worshiping creation is idol worship. 

Some do spiritual idols, astrology or new age or psychics. They put their trust into something that tells them what they want to hear. Worshiping nature is idol worship.

Some do idols of the age like science and technology. Make no mistake, science and technology have been a benefit and have improved life in many ways. However, science and technology are, at best, derivative and reactive. A year ago, we thought things were normal and did not realize our need for a vaccine to a virus we had not yet encountered. Science and technology could not prevent the virus, nor did they get out in front of it. If the vaccine works, it is a reactive solution. Worshiping human intellect is idol worship.

The same could be shown of those who treat as god their American citizenship and their rights. Or the military. Or finances. Or fame. Or… take your pick. Worshiping anything other than the one true God is idol worship. Our culture and our world is ready to worship a whole lot of things, but the writer of Genesis 1 is absolutely clear, there is one God.

Knowing that there is one and only one God – holding that understanding, living that understanding, trusting that understanding – it takes faith in today’s world. I stopped to dwell here to remind us that we are not the center of everything. Instead all of creation exists in relation to that one God. God is God and we are not. God is one – with or without creation.

God is creator and sovereign over creation

Then we finish the first sentence – don’t worry, the rest of this will go a little quicker – “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, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” God created the heavens and the earth.

The word used translated “earth” could also be translated “land.” Now that may seem like a rather inconsequential detail to mention; until we remember that the movement of this five-book set is from our verses; to the people of Israel being released from bondage and slavery in Egypt; to the covenant God made at Sinai;  to God delivering Israel into the Promised – what? – the Promised land. The same word for “earth” in Genesis 1 is the word for “land” in the Promised land.

Here is the point the writer was foreshadowing: God has a plan and a purpose for creation. God has a plan and a purpose for the things he has made. He has a will. He has a direction. There is a reason why things are: God has willed it. Often it takes generations for the full revealing of what God has willed; but with God “a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.”

Friends, though it may not seem like it at all times – right now, at any given point, or over an extended period – God is always the creator and the sovereign over creation. He is leading us somewhere – where He has willed creation to go. God is sovereign right now in the midst of this pandemic; though we experience this time as disruptive and disorienting, God is not shaken, surprised, or out of sorts. God is in control and creation conforms to God’s will.

            God works in favor of humankind

As we look down through the six days of creation, their phrase “And God saw it was good” is repeated. It was deliberately written this way to communicate what is good and pleasing in God’s sight.

Why does this matter? It matters because it shows God has a purpose for humankind. We were not (and are not) an after-thought. Creation took place to bless humankind. One commenter described the gist of Chapter 1 as tracing the theme of God’s preparation of land as a blessing for humankind.

The description of the land as “formless and empty” in verse 2 plays a central role in the Creation account because it shows the condition of the land before God’s gracious work has prepared it for man’s well being. Deuteronomy 32 draws on the same imagery in depicting Israel’s time of waiting in the wilderness before their entry into the good land. The prophets also have drawn from the same source to depict God’s judgment of exile. When Israel disobeyed God, the land became again “uninhabitable”, and the people were sent into exile: “I looked at the earth, and it was formless and empty and at the heavens and their light was gone…the fruitful land was a desert.” (Jeremiah 4:23-26). The land after the Exile was depicted in its state before God’s gracious preparation of the land in Creation. The description of the land in Genesis 1:2, then, fits well into the prophet’s vision of the future. The land lies empty, dark, and barren, awaiting God’s call to light and life. Just as the light of the sun broke in upon the primeval darkness heralding the dawn of God’s blessing, so also the prophets and the apostles mark the beginning of the new age of salvation with the light that shatters the darkness.[1]

The light shattering the darkness is precisely what John was writing about in the opening of his gospel, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” What were the words we recently heard from Isaiah making this prophecy of God’s blessing, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined. …For unto us a child has been born, a son has been given…” This week in the church calendar, it is Epiphany, which is the celebration of the light dawning on all the families of the earth. God creates and moves to bless humankind. 

In John 8, Immediately following the incident with the woman caught in adultery (“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?...Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again”), Jesus declared, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but have the light of life.”

The heart and character of God is to bless humankind. In this season of darkness, we can bemoan the struggles we are having. We can despair our inability to save ourselves. We can live in fear of all the things going wrong. Or. Or we can look forward in hope to the light dawning. We can live in hope because we know the God who is for us – the God who has blessed us with His salvation.

This opening opus celebrating God’s blessing is an encouragement that God works in favor of humankind. The fulfillment of the promises of a messiah in the incarnation of Jesus Christ is – among other things – an encouragement that God works in favor of humankind. In these days when it feels like the natural world is against us, it is good to know that God works in favor of us. In these days when it feels like our institutions and culture are against us, it is good to know (and share) that God works in favor of us. That good news – that gospel – is a blessing we have to share.

Communion

It is as we come to this table, we realize just how fully God works in favor of us.

“It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. …Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. 1618 Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we need not be downtrodden and fearful. We can view these next days, weeks, and months with hope because we have our eyes set on the pioneer of our salvation. More than that, we can start now preparing to head out to share our joy with others. We know the one who is for us through the struggle. We know the one whose word commands. This table is a celebration of the grace of God in Jesus Christ; and He is our hope assured.

We are in the midst of a global re-set. So, in this new year, let us remember, “in the beginning, God.”

Amen.

 

[1] John H. Sailhamer, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 2, p.25.