Read it Again: In the Beginning, God … saw that it was good!
July 23, 2023
Gen 1, selected verses
Introduction to the Text
We’re wrapping up our summer series Read it Again today by going back to the beginning and re-reading the opening chapter of the Bible. Most of my ministry I’ve worked with high school and college students that are starting to explore the bigger questions of faith and life as they press harder into the depths of good theology and of origin and purpose questions. Frankly, I’m energized by their breakthroughs into deeper understandings. It’s part of why I love doing what I get to do at PCM!
Lots of times when a student discovers a deeper truth of our faith, or they are led into a more advanced understanding of Scripture – a common response is anger that what they learned in 3rd grade Sunday school or even 8th grade confirmation isn’t the whole truth. It’s like “My 3rd grade Sunday school teacher lied to me!” It’s an understandable response … I had the same response multiple times in college and seminary: “Well that’s not how I originally learned this story!”
While trying not to defend the confirmation curriculum too quickly, I think this can be a helpful way to frame what’s happening. When a child begins to learn the concepts of math – they must start with whole numbers and simple addition. It’s not that the teacher is lying to them by not including fractions and negative numbers. It’s that you have to get the basics of addition before you can move on to calculus.
The same is true in 8th grade, or even college – the basics of calculus must be mastered before one can move to quantum physics. (so they tell me – thankfully neither quantum physics nor calculus are required in my profession).
Well, the same is true of Scripture and Theology. One must start SOMEWHERE and then as maturity develops, additional learning can be layered on, deeper insight can be mined, and spiritual growth happens.
So no, your 3rd grade Sunday school teacher didn’t lie to you. Neither did your 8th grade geometry teacher. Thank God for both of those teachers! Hopefully, the information you got was age appropriate. They were laying the groundwork for you to BUILD on.
The problem comes when we stay stagnant in our 8th grade understanding of Scripture or Theology. A 25-year-old, or a 65-year-old trying to cram a mature, lived-experience world view into an 8th grade confirmation theology is never going to work. Given those ingredients, something is going to explode – and most often it will be the 25-year-old’s faith.
What I hope we can do more and more is to EXPAND that 8th grade theology into college-age-appropriate theology and then a mid-life age-appropriate theology, and then an older-adult age-appropriate theology.
Transformation has always been essential to the spiritual journey. My hope is today’s look again at one of the Bible’s creation narratives can allow us to EXPAND our understanding of God and Scripture so that we’re not left with the only two options being hold on to our 3rd grade theology or let go of Scripture all together.
OK, that was a lot before even reading Scripture. We’re almost there, but one more thing. As we turn to the first of two distinct creation stories given to us in Genesis, I want to invite you to listen to this text as it was intended and as it was understood for first several thousand years in its written form – as a theological statement about God as Creator and God’s relationship with humanity.
It has not been until very recently in human history that we have begun to ask questions of Genesis as if it were a historically descriptive account of what happened. Biblical Scholar Walter Brueggemann says, “that kind of scientific, descriptive reporting is alien to the text and the world of the Bible.”
We are about to encounter sacred Hebrew poetry translated best we can into English that teaches theology and God’s activity in the world. The first chapter of Genesis is not and never claimed to be a scientific or historical document. It’s poetic theology that helps us understand God and our relationship with God.
Before we hear Scripture, let us turn to the Almighty in prayer:
Infinite God, as we turn to your Word, may the words of Scripture meet us afresh and continue to transform us into the people you desire us to be. Open our ears, our minds, and our hearts, and through your mysterious Spirit enter in. Amen.
Text (Gen 1 from NRSV)
We will be reading most of the first chapter of Genesis. It’s in the beginning of your pew bible if you want to follow along, but we’ll skip over a sentence here and there. I want to thank Campbell Owen and Lillie Chilton for helping to read our Scripture today. Lillie is God’s voice – so definitely listen to her. And Campbell voice is especially important in this text so listen well to the Scripture in her voice.
Let us listen to the opening poetry of the Scripture shared by Jews and Christians from Genesis chapter 1:
[Note: Berry – narrator; Lillie Chilton – God’s voice; Campbell Owen – “And God saw that it was good”]
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. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so.
And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so.
And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, and every winged bird of every kind.
And God saw that it was good.
God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so.
And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
And it was so.
God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was VERY good.
And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
And God saw that it was Good! Campbell reminds us … over and over again God saw that the created world was good.
Unfortunately, much of modern American Christianity seems to be obsessed with original sin. Catholic Priest and mystic Richard Rohr helpfully points out that the words “original sin” are never mentioned in the Bible. Rohr reminds us that what is in the opening chapter of the Bible is “Good, good, good, very good, and blessings!”
When we start at the beginning what is clear is there is an original blessing from God … and these blessings are meant to be a blessing to the whole earth – for the common good.
Now there is nearly endless theology to mine from this ancient sacred text, but on this time of reading it again our focus will be the goodness of creation and goodness of us as created creatures, and the responsibility God gives us through that original blessing.
Because it’s how God chose to do it, we are God’s created creatures: God has named us good and God has blessed us. And the great news is that God has done that for humanity! You can’t earn it, I can’t earn it, no one can earn it – it’s gift, it’s grace. And it’s right here in the very beginning. God creates the world. God is pleased with the work of his hand, and God pronounces creation GOOD at every turn! And the culmination of this good creation is humanity – created in God’s image.
YOU and I are created as good, as very good! God loves you as God’s creation. God said of humanity from the very beginning: This is very good.
You are very good.
You, and I, and all of us are LOVED.
That is our primary identity: Created and Loved by God. End of story.
Ok, I’ll say a little more. But remember that part – say it to yourself:
“I am created and loved by God. I am enough! I bear the image of the Divine!”
If we all agree to remember that, I’ll move on a bit deeper into this “imago Dei.”
On the fifth day God created the animals of the sea and air … And God again saw that it was good. And this time, God blessed them, saying “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters.” And on the sixth day, after God created the land animals and named them good the story moves to the culmination of creation: God creates humanity in God’s own image.
And God blesses us and says to us, to all of humanity: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” There’s more to that blessing, but I’ll stop to point out that so far it’s the exact same blessings as previously given to the animals. The blessing to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.
But there is more … for us creatures who uniquely bear God’s image, there is additional blessing and responsibility. We are blessed to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth AND subdue it; and have dominion over the fish and the birds and the animals.
One of my favorite seminary professors helped unpack these verses in his Genesis commentary. Dr. Sibley Towner says that while our bibles often translate verse 26 “Let us make humanity in our image AND let them have dominion over the fish and the birds and the cattle,” it’s equally valid and possibly truer to translate the original Hebrew, “Let us make humanity in our image SO THAT THEY may have dominion over the fish of the sea …”
It’s not that the world is ours to use as we wish, or destroy as we wish. God’s original blessings doesn’t say for the sake of your own personal comfort do what you will with the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. We are created in God’s image SO THAT we might be stewards of the animals and the earth!
Sibley suggest this dominion is more about stewardship and nurturing, and a sense of responsibility towards the things that God loves. It’s not just me and Sibley who translate the original Hebrew this way. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says that dominion here “is that of a shepherd who cares for, tends, and feeds the animals.” “It has to do with securing the well-being of every other creation” Brueggemann say.
The way I’d say is – though this is not a direct word-for-word translation from the Hebrew – is that as bearers of the image of God we are called to be care-takers of the rest of creation. We, as humans, have been blessed with that responsibility as the ones with unique “imago Dei.”
Desmond Tutu in his Children of God storybook paraphrases it: Then God said, “I will make people, and I’ll make them like me, SO they can enjoy the earth and take care of it.”
The blessing as image-bearers carries with it the responsibility to be care-takers, nurturers, protectors.
The question you may be asking is: “In the face of capitalism and greed and climate crisis and species extinction and rainforests being destroyed … what are we to with this blessing-filled-with-responsibility?” I can’t say exactly what you should do, what we should. As you know, it’s complicated. Thank God there are more and more committed people called to creation care-taking that are helping us think about this locally and globally.
Some trailblazers started thinking and praying and working on this generations ago, and God has raised up more and more folks passionate about taking care of our earth.
Our family just spent a few weeks out west exploring some of our national parks: Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, and Glacier. Thankfully forward-thinking care-takers worked through our government to set that land aside and preserve it and millions more acres of American land for future generations to explore and fall in love with and be awe-struck by and hopefully develop a love and respect for nature and it’s place in the world.
For those National Parks to exist took the combined effort of countless artists and poets; photographers and naturalists. It also took schoolteachers and parents and preachers, business owners and politicians. The history of each park is unique, but each of them was created as a culmination of literally thousands of decisions to lean towards caretaking by hundreds and hundreds of people.
While I can’t say exactly what you should do, I can say that it will take concerted effort from all of us to turn the tide on becoming caretakers of Creation. For a place to start, it’s hard to beat: reduce, reuse, recycle. They made it simple for us.
Care-taking means doing things in our own homes and individual lives – mainly reducing. I think recycling is letting us get off the hook to easily – stop buying in the first place!
-Reduce our purchasing!
-Reduce our consumption.
-Reduce our waste.
-Reduce the thermostat and live a little warmer in the summer to reduce our dependance on electricity.
-Reduce the single-use plastics that are just so convenient.
-Reduce the fossil fuels we use.
-Reduce plastic bags at the grocery store.
-Reduce our own personal comfort.
Those are places to start this month. Start or continue composting at home and bringing your compost to church … that’ll help reduce what goes into our landfills. Tell UPC’s earth care team “Thank you” for their work. Join them if you’re ready to take a further step in caring for the earth.
This summer while at Grand Tetons and Yellowstone, my children really got into the Junior Ranger programs that our national parks offer. I don’t know who started that program, but likely some group of forward-thinking educators who wanted to move the ball on care-taking of the land and animals … maybe one of them grew up in an earth care congregation!
When Aubry and Will completed the Junior Ranger workbooks with all kids of facts they’d learned about the Parks and actives they’d completed to increase knowledge and love of nature, a US Park Service Ranger swore them in as Junior Rangers. It was a serious raise your right hand and repeat after me – swearing in. They got to wear a real ranger hat for one of them.
“I am proud to be a National Park Service Junior Ranger. I promise to appreciate, respect, and protect all national parks. I also promise to continue learning about the landscape, plants, animals, and history of these special places. I will share what I learn with my friends and family.”
It was effective. It’s a great program and it puts teeth to what it means to be care-takers. I’m not going to make us do it together, but I edited the Junior Ranger swearing in for us Divine image-bearers who have been blessed with the responsibility to nurture God’s good creation:
I am proud to be created by God, and to bear God’s divine image! I promise to appreciate, respect and protect Creation – the sky, the water, the earth, the animals. I will share what I learn with my friends and family. I might add – “so help us God!”
Bonus! (This wasn’t in the sermon, but if you’re interested:)
Because the story of Genesis is so powerful on it’s own, and our series is about Reading it Again. Here’s Nadia Bolz-Webber’s paraphrase of Genesis 1; she titles it “The First Blessing”:
IN OUR BEGINNING, God was maybe bored and a lonely, so God created a terrifyingly vast universe, which included the earth. The earth, our speck of life, was just a void, and this great nothingness was super dark. Before creation, all there was was God, so in order to bring the world into being, God had to kind of scoot over. To bring the world into being, God chose to take up less space–you know, to make room.
So before God spoke the world into being, God scooted over. God wanted to share. Like the kind-faced woman on the subway who takes her handbag onto her lap so that there’s room for you to sit next to her. She didn’t have to do it, but that’s just who she is; the kind-faced subway lady’s nature is that she makes room for others.
And the kind-faced subway lady could have made this universe in any manner she chose–she could have brought universe into existence fully formed–but she’s a gardener by nature, so she grew it from seed, knowing it was going to be a process. And the first seeds came in the form of four words from the mouth of God.
Let there be light.
God’s words do what they say. So, from the breath of God world came into being. Bang! Oceans, land, heavens, sun, moon, stars, plants, and things called sea monsters.
It all took some time. It was a process, and a strangely collaborative one at that. Rather than God doing everything, God shared the work with creation. Calling the earth to bring forth vegetation and the seas to bring forth sea monsters. God was obsessed with the idea of seeds, and made a self-sustaining system inside of the life God was creating. Like Russian nesting dolls of life. Inside of life makes more life.
Then God had an absolute explosion of creativity and made animals. Amoebas. Chickens. Crickets. Orangutans. And God blessed them by saying “Be fruitful and multiply.” …
Then God said, “Let us create humans in our own image and likeness.” … God the community, God the family, God the friend group, God the opposite of isolation, said, “Let’s do this together. Let’s create humanity in our image and likeness. Let there be us and
them in one being.
God created every one of us in the male and female image of God. God gave us something so holy that it could never be harmed, never be taken from us: God’s image. A source code of grace. A never-aloneness. Our origin and destination: God.