This is a version of the sermon I preached for worship at BBUMC for Sunday, June 14, 2020, the Second Sunday after Pentecost. This week begins a summer-long series of sermons from the Book of Genesis, often using texts from the Revised Common Lectionary.
This sermon is based on Genesis 1:1-2:4.
In last week’s sermon, Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. spoke of the power of a great gap story based on Acts 1. He spoke of how the stories we tell shape and form us for faithful living. Picking up on this theme, I’m going to be preaching throughout the summer from the Book of Genesis. Genesis provides many of the origin stories for us as the people of God, reminding us of who and whose we are, and how God calls us to live. Let’s pray.
Since we’re beginning a summer of reading Genesis, today we’re setting up a foundation for how to read and understand Genesis. First, as you may know, the word genesis means origin. In the Hebrew Bible, the book is called “Bereshit” – meaning, “In the beginning” – its first lines. From these titles, we see that the Book of Genesis is about the beginnings, of not just the world, but of God’s relationship with a particular people – the people of Israel.
But here’s where things start to get interesting. Think about last time you told an origin story to someone – like how you met your spouse, or what your grand- or great-grandparents were like, or who brought your people to this land? We often tell our origin stories to help us remember who we are, and to make sense of the world and our lives. This is especially important when events of life shake our foundations, when we feel lost, or when life’s meaning and purpose seem hidden. This is how it was for the people of Israel as God inspired them to write the stories.
The Bible, and biblical scholars, do not agree on who wrote the Book of Genesis, or when, but each theory reveals a people struggling with who they are and how they’re called to live. Traditionally, we say that Moses wrote the entire Pentateuch, including Genesis, which would have been around 1500 BC. At that time, the people with Moses were struggling as they neared the end of their wilderness wandering. They were uncertain of who they were, or who this God they were following was. And sometimes, they felt like the whole journey was pointless – even questioning if it were better to be slaves in Egypt.
Based on the language and form of the text of Genesis, biblical scholars as early as St. Jerome in the 4th Century, have suggested some alternative theories about Genesis. Some believe God inspired people to write Genesis during the reign of King David (around 1000 BC). At this point, the people were again struggling with their identity. Could they be more than a loosely connected group of clans? Could they become a great nation, as God had promised them? Some may have felt like the political upheaval between Saul and David’s leadership was pointless, devoid of all purpose. Finally, other scholars suggest that God inspired a writer or writers during Israel’s exile in Babylon (around the 5th Century BC) or just after it, to collect the oral and written traditions into the Book of Genesis, because again, the people were struggling with a sense of meaningless, purposelessness, and despair. At that time, everything they’d known and loved – their homeland, their Temple, their religious and cultural practices – had been cast into chaos.
Whichever theory of Genesis’ origin seems best to us, the opening chapter of Genesis provides a soothing balm to people sorely in need of comfort, guidance, and assurance. To a people facing a chaotic, questionably meaningless world, the creation poem of Genesis 1 speaks a word of hope:
“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. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.”Genesis 1:1-4, NRSV
From Genesis’ opening lines, God sweeps over the chaos and speaks goodness into existence. Each day of the poem is like another proof that God, their God, interrupts chaos, brings order, and speaks goodness into existence, so that life can thrive.
To a formerly enslaved people whose lives held only as much meaning as the number of bricks they could make for Pharaoh, Genesis proclaims that they follow a God who shatters chaos with a creative word and empowers meaningful, faithful living as reflections of God. To a people struggling to make sense of shifting politics and national identity, God hovers over the chaos and speaks goodness and unity into creation, empowering a people of promise. To a people whose whole existence had been thrust into chaos, God speaks goodness and hope into creation, so that they can rebuild anew for faithful witness. The origin poem of Genesis proclaims, at every step, that God is creator, God is present, and God is speaking good that triumphs over the chaos of life. God speaks hope over chaos, empowering people to live with purpose: they are God’s people reflecting God’s image.
We may not experience the same things as Israel at the times of Moses, David, the exile, or post-exile, but we still know, all too well, the experiences of chaos, meaninglessness, and frustration. I don’t know about you, but lately, I have been struggling with our news cycles and all the things going on in the world. It’s enough to sometimes make me want to throw my hands in the air and cry out, “What is the point? What’s the meaning of all this?!” Have you felt similarly? Have you wondered if the world is more chaos than order?
Similarly, many in our area work hard, day in and day out, to produce, make, or sell things. But because of many complicated factors, the point, the bottom line, seems to be dropping out from under us – for some more than others. At times, this may make us think that what we do, how hard we work, is all meaningless and useless. Further, when we experience tragedy, when a loved one dies, or another dear one is diagnosed with cancer, it can surely feel like the formless void of chaos is sweeping into our lives.
Yes, there may be many ways in which the formless void of chaos is sweeping into our lives right now, but in Genesis, that’s all the stuff that happens before the first day of creation. For Genesis 1 reminds us that, in the beginning, and whenever the formless, nothingness of chaos seems to rise up, God hovers over it speaking good into the world, empowering us to live in relationship with God, revealing God’s image. God, who created, God who creates, God, who speaks, gives us hope to live beyond the chaos of our lives as reflections of God.
Above all, Genesis 1 especially reminds the people of God in every age of who and whose we are. We are part of God’s good creation, spoken into existence over and against all that is meaningless and chaotic in our lives. We are God’s story- and image-bearers, the way God reveals God’s creativity, care, and life for creation and each other. We are the people whom God created as partners in God’s mission of caring for all that is. We are God’s beloved. God speaks over every chaotic space of our lives giving us hope, meaning, and purpose. So may we remember, and so may we live.
- This sermon seeks to place Genesis within its context of origin, the time at which God inspired someone to write the book. (This sometimes called the “documentary hypothesis.”) What about this idea is new, challenging, and/or helpful to you as you read and consider what God is saying to us, today, through Genesis 1?
- While I find the documentary hypothesis interesting and sometimes helpful, I implicitly collapsed it in this sermon (this might be somewhat related to the idea of “canonical interpretation of scripture“): by saying that, regardless of the time in which Genesis 1 was written, God’s acts revealed in the text are equally good news in each context. The idea here is that no matter when, how, or through whom God inspired the text to be written, the text is the God-breathed, written word of God through which we see, hear, and know God. What does this sermon reveal about God that is meaningful to you? What else does Genesis 1 reveal to you about God that is important in your journey with Christ?
- Sometimes biblical texts carry baggage of past interpretations. How does the interpretation in this sermon relate to, build on, or depart from your previous interpretations of this well-known passage?
- There are many details in the Genesis text that this sermon does not deal with (mostly for the sake of time – it’s a sermon, not a Bible study or lecture). What details of the text stand out to you in your reading of the text? What ways does God speak to you through these other areas of the text?
- Genesis 1 is truly an origin story, to which Jews and Christians link a great many theological and ethical ideas. Some may be more or less important to you in your faith journey. Here are a few: creation care (stewardship of the earth), marriage, vocation or work, sabbath. In your reading of Genesis 1, what message do you hear about any of these topics or others?
A Couple Songs
Here are a couple songs that lift up different characteristics of God as creator. Each emphasize different characteristics of whom we believe God to be as creator. Each also includes different ideas about what it means to be part of God’s creation. Consider these ideas as you listen to each song.