On Creation vs. Evolution

Genesis 1.1-5

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; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Controversy Original

Preachers can fall into the rut of preaching on whatever keeps the congregation pleased; keep them happy and they’ll keep coming back, or something like that. This sermon series is different. Instead of falling back to the familiar narratives that keep us smiling on our way out of church, we are confronting some of the greatest controversies facing the church. There is a better than good chance that I will say something from this pulpit during the series that you won’t agree with, and if (and when) that happens I encourage you to stay after worship, join us for lunch, and continue the conversation. We can only grow as Christians in community, and that requires some honesty and humility and dialogue. Today we continue with Creation vs. Evolution.

 

“How old is the earth?” The fifth grader looked up from his homework assignment as if to say, “Well, dude, what’s the answer?” We were sitting inside Forest View Elementary School in Durham, North Carolina, and I was in the middle of a tutoring session. Each week we would sit in the library and go through his homework together. His class was finishing up a unit on earth sciences and his worksheet was filled with questions about the subject.

“How old is the earth?” I, of course, could not remember the answer so I promptly pulled out my cell phone to Google the answer and the young man rolled his eyes and opened up his textbook with dramatic emphasis. We flipped through the pages together looking for key words or pictures that would indicate we were on the right path and then we found it in big bold numbers on the bottom of a page: 4.54 billion years.

I waited patiently for my young tutee to copy the number down into the answer column on his worksheet, but he just kept looking at the textbook with a glazed-over look in his eyes. Then I heard him say, almost as if a whisper, “That can’t be right.”

“Well of course it’s right!” I said, “I mean its in the book, it has to be right.”

            And then he said, “But my pastor told me the earth is only 6,000 years old.”

creation-evolution-possible

In the beginning, the very beginning, there was nothing. All matter was formless. What we now know and see was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, and inky blackness. And in the midst of this nothingness, there was something: God. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Perhaps no words in all of scripture have been more analyzed, prayed over, and interpreted throughout the centuries. Genesis 1 is beginning, and not just a beginning to a story, but the beginning to the story.

And it stands on the battlefield of the fight between Creation and Evolution.

Here’s the controversy: Centuries ago a man named James Ussher set out to date the earth. He dove deep into the Old Testament and, with the help of genealogies, established the exact time and date of God’s creation as 6pm on October 22nd 4004 BC. Therefore, according to Ussher, the earth is approximately 6,000 years old. However, with the advent of modern science and the likes of evolutionary biology and carbon dating, scientists have determined that the earth is 4.5 billion years old.

There is a big difference between 6,000 and 4.5 billion.

For a very long time, we humans considered the earth a relatively recent phenomenon. The Christian church established itself as the predominant leader of information distribution, and when that came into conflict with Science, the battle began.

This has manifested itself throughout the centuries in a number of ways including the fight between the Galileo and the church, Darwin and the church, and even the American Government with the church.

“How old is the earth?” It may seem like a pretty simple question without too many ramifications, but it is a big one, and the way we answer it has a lot of consequences.

A couple of years back, the state of Kansas removed questions about evolution from its standardized tests. This meant that teachers were still allowed to teach evolution, but the children would not be tested on it at the end of the year. Some Christians rejoiced in the victory Creation over Evolution, and others were concerned that children from Kansas would pale in comparison to students from other states by the time they entered college.

It would seem that the church has one answer to the question, and science has another.

I remember learning about the theory of evolution when I was in the 8th grade. With all my hormonal angst, and pimply face, and peach fuzzed mustache, I sat in my science class and learned about how all life can trace its origins back to one single cellular being: That over millions of years that first cell grew and evolved and developed new traits; how life began in the sea, and eventually developed to live on land and in the air; how humanity is one of the last developments in a tremendously long line of evolved species.

I thought it was awesome! The science-fiction nerd within me went into overdrive and I relished in learning about where we came from, how the earth has changed, and how beautifully unique we really are. And the whole time I dove into evolution I saw God’s handiwork all over the place. Who could have brought life into that first being, who could have the imagination to force molecules and atoms together in such a way that life began, who could have moved the development of species to its zenith in humanity?

But at the same time, some of my Christian friends stopped going to youth group and they stopped going to church. In learning about evolution their faith in church diminished. What they heard in the classroom became more important than what they heard in the sanctuary. When they learned that the earth was older than what they heard in church, their faith was crushed. I, however, was fortunate to have pastors and older Christians who helped me to see the similarities between science and faith. But my friends only saw the battle.

2852667_orig

The title of this sermon is Creation vs. Evolution for a reason. I titled it this way precisely because that is the way that many of us see the relationship between the two; Faith and Science represent opposite ends of the spectrum. One is archaic and illogical; the other is scientific and intellectual. One represents backward thinking; the other is forward thinking. One should be left to sanctuaries; the other is for the classroom.

The conflict between science and faith exists because of us; Christians who became defensive when scientists learned more about the world instead of rejoicing in God’s creative majesty. Christians who were quick to jump ship when we discovered there was more to the world than just what we can read about in the bible; Christians who saw scientific discovery as a work of the devil and retreated further away from the world.

But are science and faith really at odds with one another?

Young-Earth Creationists are those who believe (like Ussher) that God created the earth over 6 24 hours days 6,000 years ago. They dismiss scientific discoveries like the Dinosaurs and carbon dating as a way for God to test our faith.

However, there are other ways of looking at the biblical account of creation from Genesis 1 that harmonizes with, rather than battles against, science.

First, the word for “day” in Hebrew is “yom.” And it carries with it a number of definitions and interpretations. Yom is used in the Old Testament as a general term for time, like a time period of finite but unspecified length. We can also read in Psalm 90.4 “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” What we understand the word “day” to mean is different than what it means in scripture. God’s time is not our time.

We could then read Genesis 1 to be that in the beginning God created light, and after light God created air, and after air God created earth and sky and sea. But how long it took God to do this is unknown. One day? One million years? Only God knows.

Genesis, and the rest of the bible, is not meant to be read like a science or history textbook. The bible, over and over again, rejects our desire to master the text and instead calls us to be servants of the Word. We might be concerned with how and when God created, but the bible only tells us who and why God created.

Then we can look at the order of creation itself and the similarities with the theory of evolution. Though it was written thousands of years before Darwin’s On the Origins of Species the order of creation parallels Darwin’s and modern evolutionary scientist’s ideas. The first thing to exist was light and energy. Then matter began to fuse together into celestial beings like stars and planets. Eventually the earth developed an atmosphere and water and land. The first life began in the sea, eventually evolved to fly in the air and crawl on the earth, and the last life to be developed, the zenith of God’s creation, was human life.

            Knowing this, countless Christians are able to hold that evolution is real, but that God set it in motion. They are able to assert that the earth is 4.5 billion years old AND God created it in the way described in Genesis. They are able to hold together science and faith in such a way that it gives glory to God’s glorious creation.

The conflict between science and religion, between creation and evolution, exists because people like us have treated the book just like every other book. We see it as our own historical textbook, or as our scientific journal, or as our genealogical record. We import the ways we read other texts into the way we read God’s great Word.

And then many of us take it up like a weapon against anyone who disagrees with us.

But the bible is fundamentally unlike anything ever written. It is historical, and scientific, and literary, and poetic, and every other form we can think of. It is beyond our ability to fully comprehend, it breaks down and exceeds the expectations we place on it, it is the living Word of the Lord.

In the beginning, the very beginning, there was nothing. All matter was formless. What we now know and see was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, and inky blackness. And in the midst of this nothingness, there was something: God. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

           The bible is far less concerned with explaining how things happened, and is far more concerned with proclaiming God’s handiwork. It comforts us when we are afflicted, and it afflicts us when we are comfortable. It can make us laugh and it can make us cry. It can bring us to our knees and it can propel us to dance on our feet. It identifies God as creator and us as creature. It harmonizes with the marvelous developments in science. It humbles us and exalts us. It is who we are and who we aren’t. It is God Word for us. Amen.

Advertisements

Too Busy For Sabbath – Isaiah 58.9b-14

Isaiah 58.9b-14

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets to live in. If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

sababth

 

Whenever you get a group of pastors together, competition breaks out whether we want it to or not. So much of what we do take place on Sundays and therefore we never get to see our peers at work. So when we gather for a meeting or a conference, we tend to show off in order to make ourselves feel better.

At Annual Conference this year, the time when all of the United Methodists from Virginia get together to talk about the state of the denomination, I had lunch with a few clergy colleagues and the sizing up started almost immediately. We asked questions like, “What’s the best sermon you preached in the last year?” and “How is God blessing your ministry?” which is code for “How many people do you have in worship?” We listened as each person tried to demonstrate how their work was bearing more fruit than the other people at the table. And as the meal came to its conclusion someone asked, “If you could change one thing about your church without any consequences, what would it be?”

What a great question! The table was strangely silent for a few moments while each of us prepared our answers. I immediately pictured all of you sitting in worship and I started whittling down my list to the number one change.

My first thought was practical: If I could change one thing without consequence I would force everyone to tithe. It would demonstrate our trust that the Lord will provide, it would help us bless others in this community through financial support, and it would help remove a lot of stress from my life. But then I realized that was a selfish change, and frankly one that wouldn’t make me sound very pastoral in front of my peers.

My second thought was simple: If I could change one thing without consequence I would force everyone who sits in the back of the sanctuary to move up to the front of the sanctuary! It would make our church closer, it would create a fuller sense of connection, and it would save me from having to yell all the way to the back of the church. But then I realized that was a selfish change, and frankly one that wouldn’t make me sound very Christian in front of my peers.

So I settled for something like: I would help the church to see that we are all in this together. That we have a responsibility to open our eyes to the community around us and believe that its more about serving them, and less about the church serving us.

The group nodded in silent affirmation. And then we listened to the next answer and the next answer. With each successive response we heard more and more ideas that could reshape the entire identity of the local church. Someone said that she would force her congregation to spend time each week serving the poor. Another said that he would require every person to go on at least one mission trip a year. And so on.

But my friend Drew remained silent. Sitting at the edge of the table he listened intently as each pastor put forth his or her opinion, and I could tell that he was really thinking through his response. And when all of us had finally finished, when we had all laid out our best to impress, we all turned our heads to Drew to hear his answer.

He sighed and said, “I would make everyone rest.”

lord-of-the-sabbath

The Lord speaks to Isaiah and is perfectly clear: If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord.

Today, we are a far cry away from the type of Sabbath observance that took place in the time of the Old Testament. We barely even have a conception of what it means to be sabbatical on a regular basis. For Jews, to this day, the Sabbath happens every week, beginning on Friday night. For 24 hours everything changes. They gather together as families and friends. They remember who they are and whose they are. They experience God in time set apart.

For the Jews, Sabbaths are their greatest cathedrals and the holiest of holies is something that no one can take away. Instead of placing their hope and faith in things like buildings and ministry programs, they believe in the power of time that is different. They remember that the Lord created the world in six days and called each day “good.” But when the Lord came to the seventh day, the day of rest, God called it “holy.” In the holiness of the Jewish Sabbath they discover that time, not a place, but a time of difference makes all the difference.

We, on the other hand, don’t know what the Sabbath is any more. For those of us of the more mature-in-faith persuasion can remember a time with blue laws, when Sundays were different than the other days during the week. There was no going to the super market after church. There was no matinee showing of a movie on Sunday afternoon. No little league sports had games scheduled on the Lord’s Day.

But that time is long gone.

Now Sunday is likely the busiest day of the week. We frantically wake up on Sunday morning and get breakfast going, we wrestle with the kids to get out of bed and get dressed. We plead with them to find some article of clothing not covered in wrinkles. We jam into the car and arrive in the parking lot as the first hymn is being offered. We try to pay attention during worship, but whenever the pastor is foolish enough to call for times of contemplative silence, we can’t help ourselves from listing all of the things we need to get done this afternoon in our head. When worship ends we pile up in our cars and head out for lunch or back to the house to finish all the chores we neglected during the week. And before we know it we have to start working on dinner, we have to berate the children to finish their homework, we have to pack the lunches for Monday morning, and (if we’re lucky) we have time to all sit down in front of the television until our eyes dry up and we head to bed.

How hard is it to do anything these days, and in particular on Sunday? With our frantic and overly programmed schedules we find it harder and harder to find the time to do anything. By way of example, it took us months to figure out a time for our revamped youth group to meet. We debated meeting on Sunday evenings but that interfered with homework and family time. Fridays were out because of football games and other sport activities. Mondays were out because of band performances. Tuesdays we out because Scouts. And so on. It took a frightening amount of time to find the right time for our Youth, and even though we identified 7pm on Wednesday nights as the best time, it still prevents some of our Youth from attending on a regular basis.

And this isn’t just about youth. We adults are just as guilty about over-stuffing our daily lives with activities to the point that when the Sabbath arrives, we need to use it to make up for all the time we lost from Monday through Saturday.

We fill our lives with activities and programs because we are so desperate to find meaning in our lives. We assume that we must have something to do in order to make good on the time we’ve got. We use our busyness to feel confident that we are not wasting time. We go and go and go, and without Sabbath we fail to be who God is calling us to be.

sabbath

For six days every week we live under the tyranny of to-dos and the empire of expectations, for six days every week we try to dominate our duties and lasso our lives. Can you imagine what your life would feel like if, on the Sabbath, you gave up the temptation to control every moment? Can you picture how it would look to treat our time as the gift that it really is?

John Wesley was fond of telling a story about a young Christian who was extremely committed to observing the Sabbath. On one Saturday evening, as the sun was preparing to set, the young man sat down at his kitchen table and began shining his shoes for worship the next morning. He shined and shined, but ran out of polish and had to start looking through the house until he found another container. And as he prepared to start polishing the second shoe he looked out the window and discovered that the sun had set and evening had started. So he put his shoes away, one perfectly shined and the other scratched and dirty. And the next morning at church he wore those two seemingly different shoes for everyone to see, because he would not “work” on the Sabbath.

Is that the kind of Sabbath that God calls us to observe? Is it strict obedience to a principle, no matter what, that will make us ride upon the heights of the earth?

Observing the Sabbath is less about avoiding certain behaviors and more about being intentional about what we do with the time God gives us. It is far too easy to fill our Sundays with menial work that was neglected during the week. There is too great a temptation to use the Lord’s Day to serve our own interests. Many of us would consider ourselves too busy for Sabbath.

The Sabbath is supposed to be about joy! It’s not about sitting in a stuffy room listening to a preacher telling you that you’re a sinner and you need to repent. It’s not about neglecting to serve others in need. It’s not a legalistic absolute.

The Sabbath is a time apart, a time of thankfulness and joy. It is the one day a week we are called to break free from the oppression of our stifling work. It is a time to gather with the family of God to give thanks for all that we have. We are called to fill our Sabbaths with the kind of behaviors and activities that give us the strength to face the other days of the week. It is a time of rest. It is a time of holiness. It is a time where we can use recreation for our re-creation.

Creation is not an act that happened once, long ago, in the past. The act of bringing the world into existence is a continuous process. We rest once a week, because every week is a repeat of God’s creative and imaginative work. We rest because God rested. Every Sabbath is an opportunity to be recreated by the Spirit to be who God is calling us to be.

If we refrain from abusing the Sabbath, from using it as another day to get everything done; if we call the Sabbath a joy and if we honor it, not to serve our own interests; then we shall take delight in the Lord. We shall be able to faithfully sing, “it is well with my soul.” We shall be fed with the heritage of all who have come before us, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. Amen.

The Cross in Creation – Karl Barth and Genesis 1.1-2

Genesis 1.1-2

In the beginning when God created the heavens and 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.

barth-bw

While I was in seminary I spent one of my summers helping Bryson City UMC in Bryson City, North Carolina. Bryson City is surround by the Great Smokey Mountains and is easily one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in my entire life. It was an incredible experience that directly shaped the way I do ministry today.

During my time at the church I was invited to participate in a weekly lectionary group with local clergy. Every Monday morning the pastors and priests of Bryson City would get together to talk about the scripture readings for the following Sunday. We met at the large Baptist Church, ordered breakfast to be delivered, and then we would take turns reading from the bible and shared what we thought we would preach about on Sunday.

Week after week I heard from clergy of all different denominations (Presbyterian, Baptists, Catholic, Methodist, etc.) as they wrestled with God’s Word and how to proclaim it from very different pulpits to very different people.

On one hot morning in the middle of July I found myself surrounded by those familiar pastors and priests as we read the texts aloud. The lectionary always had four prepared readings for each Sunday on a three-year cycle: a reading from the Old Testament, the Psalms, an Epistle, and a Gospel. I don’t remember what the other readings were that morning, but I do remember that I was asked to read Genesis 1: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…

When I finished, as was our custom, we waited for individuals to speak up about what they planned to do with the test during worship. Silence filled the room. So I decided to ask the obvious question, “I anyone planning to preach on Genesis 1?” The silence remained. I remember thinking to myself, “How strange is this? We’re talking about the first lines of scripture in the bible and no one is preaching on it in Bryson City this week.” It was obvious that most of the clergy wanted to move on to a different reading, but I felt compelled to ask another question: “Have any of you every preaching on Genesis 1?” One by one they confirmed my suspicion; not one of those pastors, priests, ministers, or preachers had ever proclaimed a sermon on the beginning of creation.

While they moved on to a different reading and a different conversation, I silently began calculating from my chair: In that room we had over 100 years of preaching represented. Over 100 years of preaching, more than 5,200 sermons, and not one of them had ever preached from Genesis 1.

Why do we ignore Genesis 1? What is it about the text that makes us afraid to bring it up in worship or in bible study?

On some level I think it is good to be afraid of God’s Word; that fear reminds us that God is God and we are not. But Genesis 1 is not something to be ignored or forgotten.

557046

Of all the writing I’ve read on Genesis 1, it is Karl Barth’s exegesis of the text that gives me hope for its return to the pulpits and congregations of our churches.

Barth, unlike so many modern theologians and pastors, rejects the fear and presumption that there is dissonance between creation as recorded in scripture and the scientific method. Instead of attempting to rationalize the theory of the Big Bang with the details of Genesis 1, and instead of struggling to line up Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection with the order of creation in scripture, Barth rejoices in the knowledge that the earth was in a hopeless situation of chaos and utter darkness and God chose to transform reality through the Word. The “how?” and “why?” of creation is simply answered with “Word” and “love.”

Writing and reflecting from this vantage point gives Barth the ability to freely respond to the words contained in Genesis 1 with a freshness that is often lost in the church today; his exegesis of Genesis 1 is a worthy read for clergy and laity alike.

In §41.2 “Creation As The External Basis Of The Covenant” (III.1 The Doctrine of Creation in Church Dogmatics) Barth begins his exegesis with the very first words of God from the Word of God.

The first word in the Hebrew Bible is bereshith, which roughly translates to “start” or “beginning.” In English we render this as “In the beginning…” but for Barth the distinction is important. To begin with “beginning” tells us “that this history, and with it the existence and being of the world, had a beginning, i.e., that unlike God Himself it was not without a beginning, but that with this beginning it also looks to an end.”[1] There is no other word that can quite compare with the one that inaugurates God’s holy scripture. From the beginning of all things God created a beginning to have an end. The Lord did not create the world like a watchmaker and then step back to see how it would run. God was intimately involved in the creative act knowing full and well that there was a necessary end, or conclusion, to the creative act. Unlike an author who begins a story without knowing how it will come to close, God created from beginning with an ending.

For years I’ve read the creation account from Genesis 1 and thought of it just like that: an account of creation. The words were there on the page, though they hardly jumped out at me. Like those pastors in Bryson City, Genesis 1 is one of those chapters in the bible that I have not so subtly avoided because of the difficulty of rationalizing it with modern science. And yet Barth writes about the first two verses of scripture with such conviction that it challenges me to re-engage with the text and see the beauty of what God did, and is doing.

Verse 2 (the earth was a formless void…) has been similarly read with haste and overlooked for the richness it holds. Everything else, which is to say everything neutral or against God’s will, ceased to exist when time began with God’s action and accomplishment. The whole of creation was worked into being and order by God in time. In God’s freedom to create was the earth brought into meaning through God’s action and through God’s word to create.

1101620420_400

The challenge of verse 2 has vexed theologians and Christians alike for centuries regarding the chaos, whether or not God created it, and if God willed a reality of chaos into existence. This, I think, has factored into the disappearance of Genesis 1 from pulpits because we are unsure of how to speak about evil in the world, and whether or not God ordained it.

The question of God’s role in the creative act resulting in, or presupposing evil, is usually limited to two answers: God either did create the darkness and evil, or God did not.

Barth totally rejects this dualistic presumption.

Instead, Barth begins by confronting what is actually stated: “In verse 2 there is absolutely nothing as God willed and created and ordained it according to verse 1 and the continuation. There is only “chaos.” … that which is absolutely without basis or future, utter darkness… According to this phrase the situation in which the earth finds itself is the very opposite of promising. It is quite hopeless.”[2]

For Barth the question over evil and whether or not the violent and chaotic state of the world is self-originated or willed by God pales in comparison to the fact the earth was in a hopeless situation of utter darkness and God chose to transform reality through the Word. Verse 2 therefore posits a world in which the Word of God had not been uttered. The “nothingness” of creation is utterly destroyed and rendered impossible by the possibility of God in the creative act.

The ugliness of the existence prior to the Word of God did exist almost like a shadow of the actual creative act of God. And because it was like a shadow, in the freedom of humanity we can look back and return to that past and bring forth the shadow of verse 2. In so doing, by rejecting the Word of God, the past defies its own nature and becomes present and future. However, God totally and utterly rejected and rejects the shadow and speaks forth the Word to shine in the darkness.

The temptation of humanity to return to the shadow is ever present. Whenever we deny mercy to God’s creatures, we are retreating to the moment precisely before the Word of God. It is in our broken and sinful nature that we reject God’s Word and substitute our own. The shadow of darkness is around us whenever we encounter death and destruction. But no shadow can compare with the one of the cross: “This – this moment of darkness in which His own creative Word, His only begotten Son, will cry on the cross of Calvary: ‘My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?’ – will be ‘the small moment’ of His wrath in which all that is indicated in Genesis 1.2 will become real. For all the analogy to other kinds of darkness, there is no other moment such as this.”[3]

In the death of Jesus Christ, in the shadow of the cross, humanity encounters the true and total darkness prior to God’s Word. But it is through Jesus Christ (as the Word) that God will reconcile creation to God’s self. In the one incarnate creature, at that particular moment and time in the cosmos, the Word will again become the Light over all creation. The brilliance of the empty tomb shines like the first light hovering over the darkness in Genesis 1.2.

The “old things” of creation prior to the Word have radically passed away in a dynamic and divine act of the Lord speaking the Word and through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The first two verses of scriptures contain the fullness of all God’s scripture. In beginning we see the ending. In the darkness we see the cross. In the light we see the empty tomb and resurrection. What Barth does with scripture is like what a Jazz musician does with the form of a tune; Barth improvises over the lines and draws connections to melodies that we have scarcely imagined.

To reclaim the brilliance of Genesis 1, to jump into the strange new world of the bible like Barth, will give us the strength to encounter creation and believe that it is worthy to be preached and proclaimed. But more than anything, it will give us the vision to see creation and declare, like the Lord, “it is good.”

 

[1] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics III.1 (Peabody, Massachusets: Hendrickson Publishers), 99.

[2] Ibid., 104.

[3] Ibid., 110.

Devotional – Psalm 19.1

Devotional:

Psalm 19.1

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

Weekly Devotional Image

“Where do you feel God’s presence?” This is one of my favorite questions to ask whenever I gather with fellow Christians, and one that I will be asking the youth on our mission trip to Raleigh, North Carolina this week. “In your daily life, where do you feel the presence of the Lord?”

The good and faithful members of St. John’s are usually quick to say they feel God’s presence in the sanctuary whenever they gather for worship. Whether it be a particular hymn, a stained glass window, or even the rare good sermon, they feel like God is with them when they’re sitting in the pews.

Others will tell me that they experience God’s presence in the silence of the morning right after they wake up, or the moment right before they fall asleep. They can describe feeling comforted by the Lord’s presence in that moment when they are otherwise totally alone.

And still yet others tell me they regularly experience God’s presence in nature. There is something about the sounds of the woods, or the view of a sunset, that is indicative of God’s great majesty and power.

God-s-nature-god-the-creator-18227111-600-468

In the psalms we read about the earth proclaiming the handiwork of the Lord. From the smallest cell in a leaf to the great horizons of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the world around us declares the work of the Lord.

The challenge of discovering the Lord in nature is in not taking nature for granted. How often do we get in the car to drive along I-81 without taking a glance at he mountains in the distance? How often do we sit in our backyards without giving thanks for the light and subtle breeze? How often do we curse the bees flying around our heads without giving thanks for their pollinating practices?

This week, as we continue to take steps in faith, let us look for the presence of the Lord in the pines and the poplars, the plateaus and the prairies, the ponds and the puddles, the wind and the wake, the stars and the sky, the breeze and the bulbs, the fungi and the fireflies.

Devotional – Psalm 5.1

Devotional:

Psalm 5.1

Give ear to my words, O Lord; give heed to my sighing.
Weekly Devotional Image

To breathe is to live. And yet, how often do we actually think about our breathing? Unless we’ve been sick with pneumonia, or have climbed to a high elevation, breathing in and out is something we all take for granted. All day, everyday, we take about 26,000 breaths. It happens naturally without our having to really do anything to make it happen. Yet without it, we cannot live.

A few weeks ago I was in the hospital room when my son took in his first breath. Like the rush of a mighty wind, he filled his lungs for the very first time, his skin began to change color, and the remarkable rhythm of his breathing began. I held my breath waiting for him to breathe knowing full and well how necessary it is for life. And yet, during the last 6 weeks, I have grown accustomed to his breath, and am no longer bending over to place my ear near his mouth in the middle of the night.

We all know that we cannot live without breath. Just ask anyone who has been with someone at the moment of death and they will tell you about the profound change that occurs when someone’s breathing comes to a conclusion. But in addition to breath being a necessity for life, it is also a necessity for prayer.

page_breathe

Every breath is a prayer. As the psalmist cries out, “Give ear to my words, O Lord; give heed to my sighing.” When we sigh, when we breathe, when we fill our lungs with air, we are participating in the great and cosmic birth of creation over and over again. In the beginning of scripture we learn about God breathing life into the first human and for every one of us that has ever lived since, we have received that same gift at the beginning of our lives.

If we are in a time in our lives when we do not know what to pray, if we are at a loss for words, there is comfort in knowing that every breath is a prayer. To breathe is to remember the paradox of our existence; we’ve been created in the image of God with immense beauty, power, and strength while at the same time our lives are incredibly vulnerable and fragile. Our lives hinge on our breath.

So too, our spiritual lives hinge on our breathing in and out, over and over again, remembering that every breath is a gift from God.

Devotional – Psalm 8.4-6

Devotional:

Psalm 8.4-6

What are human being that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.

Weekly Devotional Image

I was sitting on an elevated deck looking out over the Great Smokey Mountains when I read the words: “Dominion is not the same thing as domination.” I had been placed in Bryson City, North Carolina for my first field-education placement during seminary and most of my ministry that summer took place outdoors. Whenever I met with a congregant for counseling I suggested that we take a hike around Deep Creek, we celebrated worship on Sunday mornings on the banks of the Nantahala River near the Appalachian Trail, and I was staying with a couple who lived on the ridge line of a mountain that overlooked Fontana Lake.

241741_1859435776618_6188631_o

During the summer, many of us seminarians stayed in contact through email and phone calls as we found ourselves in remarkably different ministerial settings. My best friend, Josh Luton, had been working on a sermon about the creation from Genesis for his field-placement and asked me to read through his first draft before he proclaimed the words. Right there on my computer screen I saw the words that I will never forget: “Dominion is not the same thing as domination.”

703913_4014919294792_1770045152_o

Josh’s sermon would go on to discuss how far we have fallen from the idea that we have been called to be good stewards of God’s creation, because we feel entitled to dominate that which God has given to us. Domination would imply that we have the right to control and have influence over creation. Instead God called us to have dominion over the works of his hands, “human dominion over the earth should contribute to the preservation and benefit of God’s creation. Dominion seeks to preserve and even benefit all of creation; not just humanity.”

Up until that point of my summer I had truly taken God’s creation for granted. I was constantly surrounded by the majesty and artistry of the created world, but my vision was limited by my selfish expectations. Creation is not just for us, but it is for all things. We have been called to be responsible for the remarkable gift so that all of creation benefits from our dominion, not just ourselves.

So, in the words of Josh Luton, “Let us recognize our own place within the divinely created world and let us take on the responsibility that comes with it so that we, with our Creator, may see that it is truly good.” Take a look around at God’s creation today, be thankful, be mindful, and be responsible; dominion is not the same thing as domination.

Let God Speak – Sermon on Genesis 1.1-5

Genesis 1.1-5

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; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

The20Creation23123

I was sitting in a room full of pastors and priests when I made a promise to myself: Before I finish my first year of ministry I will preach on Genesis 1. Today is the day that I make good on that promise.

I had been helping a church in Bryson City, North Carolina when I was invited to participate in a weekly lectionary group. Every Monday morning the clergy people of Bryson City would get together to talk about the readings for the following Sunday. We met at the large local Baptist Church, ordered breakfast to be delivered, and then we would take turns reading the scriptures and share what we thought we would preach about.

Without a doubt, this was one of the most profoundly rewarding experiences of my life. Week after week I heard from clergy of all different denominations (Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, etc.) as they wrestled with God’s Word and how to proclaim it from very different pulpits to very different people.

0f0f0f-uzz5pn

It came to pass that one hot morning in the middle of July I found myself surrounded by pastors as we read the texts out loud. The lectionary always has four prepared readings for each Sunday on a three year cycle: a reading from the Old Testament, the Psalms, an Epistle, and a Gospel. I don’t remember what the other readings were that morning, but I do remember that I was asked to read Genesis 1. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…

When I finished, as was our custom, we waited for individuals to speak up about what they planned to do with the text during worship. Silence filled the room. So I decided to ask the obvious question, “Is anyone preaching on Genesis 1 this week?” The silence remained. I remember thinking “How strange is this? We’re talking about the first lines of scripture in the bible and no one is preaching on it in Bryson City this week.” It was clear that some of the clergy wanted to move on to a different reading but I felt compelled to ask another question, “Have any of you ever preached on Genesis 1?” One by one they confirmed my suspicion; not one of those pastors, priests, ministers, or preachers had ever delivered a sermon on the beginning of Genesis.

Now I know that they quickly propelled the conversation in another direction but I silently began calculating from my chair. In that room we had over 100 years of preaching represented. Over 100 years of preaching, more than 5,200 sermons, and not one of them had ever proclaimed the beauty of God’s creation from Genesis.

So I made a promise to myself that very morning: Before I finish my first year of ministry I will preach on Genesis 1.

Why do you think they chose to ignore Genesis 1? What makes this text so unappealing to proclaim in church?

557046

The main thrust of the text is contained within these first words: In the beginning God. Here we discover our faith in the foundation of all life, that God and God’s creation are bound together in a distinctive and delicate way. This profoundly simple yet unimaginable claim is the bedrock for everything that follows throughout the rest of the Bible. God and his creation are connected powerfully together for all time.

How does God bind creation together? The text is clear: In the beginning the earth was formless 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; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Notice: with this description of creation we need to see that this text is NOT a scientific description, but instead a theological affirmation. It has been urged for centuries that Genesis 1 is a historically analytical account of what “actually happened.” But that kind of scientific, descriptive, and forever definitive reporting is foreign to the text and to the world of the Bible.

God’s Word is not a textbook. The bonding of creation cannot be explained or analyzed. It can only be affirmed and confessed.

Many who have struggled with their faith want to know the answer to “how?” But, when reading from Genesis, we discover that the convictions expressed in the scripture did not come from sight, recordings, and measurements. Whoever wrote about the creation in Genesis 1 was not standing by when God created. Our Lord is not an object to be perceived and measured like other objects in the world. It is by faith that we affirm this creation, not because we saw it and observed it and measured it, but that our lives and relationships with God affirm that goodness and interconnectedness of our lives with the God who created life.

Perhaps the pastors reluctance toward preaching this text was born out of the fear that comes with reconciling Genesis 1 with scientific claims about the beginning of the universe. Maybe they ignored this text because they were unsure how to explain the way God created. However, the job of preaching is not to explain, but to proclaim

At the heart of Genesis 1 is mystery, and sometimes mysteries cannot be explained. Yet, in proclaiming the mystery, in faithfully acknowledging the text, we can have our eyes and ears opened to the great question not of “how?”, but of “why did God create?”

The words ‘create’ and ‘make’ are used prevalently here in Genesis 1. God created the heavens and the earth, God made the dome and separated the waters, God created the creatures in the water and the birds of every kind, God made the wild animals of earth, God created humankind in the image of God, etc. The actions are important but the dominant mode of creation takes place in speech. God spoke creation into existence. The way of God with his world is the way of language. God speaks something new that never was before. God is the author and orator of life.

God speaking life into existence cannot be explained by the ways of the world, yet we are all here because God spoke life into all of us. Genesis 1 makes the great and wonderful theological claim that a new word has been spoken that transforms reality. The word of the Lord that shaped creation is an action which alters reality forever.

God created all things through God’s word, and his creation did not stop with the creation of humankind. God continues to speak new words into existence every single moment. Every infant child is a word spoken by God, every new blooming flower, every river that flows, every sun rise and sunset are caught up in God’s continued commitment to speak to us, through us, and for us.

God is always speaking something new and fresh into the world, we need only stop and listen to let God speak.

5613583932_e7cb9a3bbc1

276 years ago yesterday, John Wesley’s life was changed forever. Wesley spent most of his young life believing that nothing could save him from God’s wrath other than strict obedience and keeping all of God’s commandments constantly. He read voraciously, served unconditionally, loved immeasurably, and somehow he never felt or experienced God’s love in his own life. He traveled to the British colony of Georgia to serve the needs of the Anglican church and wrote about his experience later saying that after two years of spreading Christianity he still was no closer to discovering the love of God. He wrote: “Why that I went to America to convert others, was never myself converted to God?”

When Wesley returned to England he was no closer to finding what he had been searching for. He continued to fill his life to the brim with service and preaching to the point that he shut out any other influence.

However, on May 24th, 1738 Wesley unwillingly attend a Moravian society meeting in the evening when Martin Luther’s preface to the letter of Romans was being read. While the reader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, John Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed. He experienced for the first time a trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation. An assurance was given to Wesley that Christ had taken away his sins and saved him from death.

Wesley had a difficult time explaining exactly was happened to him that day; it was beyond his ability to describe in such a way that it could be measured and known. But to him, it was as real as life could get. From that moment everything changed in his life and his commitment to the love of God in the world was the seed that blossomed into what we now call the United Methodist Church.

9373

When I was in Boy Scouts I had the opportunity to hike throughout northern New Mexico at a place called Philmont. Toward the end of our 100 mile hiking adventure we gathered one evening in a white pine forrest near the top of Mount Phillips. We spread apart to spend time in silence to reflect on our time in the wilderness. As I sat there with the wind blowing the grass I was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty and wonder of God’s creation. I had already witnessed perfect sunsets and flowing rivers, but for whatever reason that night was the first time that I began to witness the depth of God’s love through his creation. 

Like Wesley, I believe that I was opened to the wonder of God because I had finally stopped trying to fill my life with so many other distractions. It was only when I stopped to let God speak, that I heard God’s calling of creation.

We can fill our lives with distractions and information. We can read all the magazines and books that explain how God created the world, whether in seven literal days or in seven ages of time. We can listen to pastors and preachers explain away the creation of life with simple metaphors and memorable one liners. But the truth of God’s creation can only be discovered in letting God speak.

Creation was not a one time, one moment, event. Creation continues to take place every moment of every day. God’s word is alive and filling all things with glory around us.

In the beginning, God. Can you think of anything more comforting than the fact that God has been at the beginning of all things? Not just the creation of life, but God was there when you came into being, God sits at the very beginning of each and every one of us. At the inception of every relationship, every idea, every belief, every smile, and every laugh God is there.

God is, and because God is, we are.

It took me a long time to learn to let God speak. And frankly, I’m still not very good at it. But until I began to try to quiet myself, to learn to listen, God’s Word was limited to words on paper. Creation came alive for me when I stopped long enough to realize that God’s love for us, in creation, is beyond my ability to fully grasp, comprehend, or explain. There is an immeasurable beauty in standing before something that you cannot fully know. There is wonder in letting God speak something new and fresh into your life. There is peace that comes in hearing the Word become incarnate in the way we live.

Genesis 1 is powerful and beautiful. It is strange and unknowable. It conveys the depth of God’s love in a way that we can never explain. It refuses to be compartmentalized, rationalized, and sterilized. Instead, its delightfully mysterious, curious, and glorious.

In the beginning God spoke life into creation, and God continues to do so every moment.

Amen.