And God said, “Let there be life!”: Sermon for June 4, 2023

We begin a journey today through the marvelously rich stories of the Bible’s first book of stories. Since Muslims, Jews and Christians all lay claim to some of these same stories, they become the meeting ground to stir within us and among us about how we can know ourselves and our faith stories better. These are the stories that continue to speak and there is the distinct possibility we might share a conversation about them that speaks to us at a very deep, personal level. Welcome this morning to the first story of the first book of the Bible.

Beginning with near-nothingness, God had a blank canvas upon which to paint and what a masterpiece God spoke into existence! “Out of nothing, something,” we say. All those creative impulses were joined with God’s mysterious purposes and energized into a sweeping creative flurry words cannot contain.

How do we hear this story of creation meant to submit God to literal interpretations that puts God into a box? How do we, in the world you and I live, embrace the mystery of this story that while we are created in God’s image, God is decidedly Other, not like us, or a creation of ours that makes God in our image?[1] The story of creation is simple, but it’s not everything.

Here’s an example …

Writer Annie Dillard reports it was on a dry plain in northern Tanzania, anthropologist Mary Leakey found a set of hominid footprints left on a trail 3.6 million years ago. They were a barefoot threesome, likely a primitive man, woman and child walking closely together along a trail. They walked on moist volcanic tuff and ash. Thus, we have a physical record of a few moments of existence before hominids even chipped stone tools. More volcanic ash fell and covered their hardened footprints for all this time until they were uncovered in our time. Even the raindrops were left as evidence of a moment in time before time was even measured. Leakey uncovered nearly 90 feet of the ancient trio’s footprints. We do not know where they were going or why.

We do not know why the woman paused and turned to the left, briefly, before continuing with the other two. “Perhaps,” Leakey thinks, “(this) remote ancestor experienced a moment of doubt.” Possibly they watched in horror at the explosion of the nearby Sadiman volcano as it erupted spewing ash and fire. Perhaps they took one last look before they fled for their lives. What seems certain is that none of us will leave a residue so permanent as those three nameless ancestors walking barefoot across the African plain. No doubt, nothing we might ever do will last a second on the clock that measures this story.[2]

The problem with holding to a literal interpretation is that there’s not just one story of creation to describe what God did; there are two in Genesis’ first pages. Not surprising to the ever-whimsical nature of God, the Bible doesn’t flinch about laying them alongside one another, even with all their differences.

The first story is an experience of hearing God speak the world into being. God’s words shoot off into the darkness and the nothingness and the nothing becomes something. The second story isn’t auditory; there are no verbal commands speaking the world into existence. Instead, the story is more like a drama. God is less a preacher and more a sculptor, bending down to scoop up a lump of clay shaping a new being into creation. God is in God’s studio doing whatever God wishes according to the mystery of God’s creativity. And then God picked up the sculpture and “breathed into its nostrils the breath of life, and humans came to life.”

Thus, while Genesis 1 and 2 tell two vivid stories of creation, the mischief doesn’t take long to begin. Like a pendulum swinging to and fro, we marvel at the exaltation of God and the mystery of creation and we humbly accept the divine gift of the imprint of God’s image on our souls. We accept both the dignity and the dust and hear God whisper in our ears, “It is good … It is very good.”

How is it then that we read the first few chapters of Genesis and come away overtaken in domination language? Even with the affirmation of God echoing in our ears, we take our freedom as an excuse to hold others in bondage. We’re just a singular part of God’s creation; we’re not the one who brought it all into being.

But over the ages since, these words have been used to endorse the notion that men are dominant over women and that humans are dominant over creation. We’ve spun the stories of beginnings into convenient truths that have suppressed women as beings who are “less than.” We’ve built a whole way of living and thinking that suppresses others from other tribes as slaves, or blocking women from finding their true voices in living out their gifts in the image of the One who made them. Likewise, we’ve lived as though the creation was meant to be used, spoiled, abused, and exploited until it’s used up and tossed aside. The challenge of the reading of the creation is to see it in a way that builds our faith and help us avoid seeing it as a means of certainty and control.

In his book, Understanding the Bible, Unitarian minister and scholar, John Buehrens, tells of the man at a cocktail party, a known rationalist, who approached a woman at the party who was both a poet and a theologian. In his inebriated state, the man thundered loudly, “Why did God make so much of everything? There’s just too much! Too many stars, too many species, too many people, too many languages and religions! Wouldn’t just one language and one religion have been enough?”

“Perhaps God was a little drunk,” the woman calmly replied.

“Drunk?” said the rationalist. “What could get the creator of the universe inebriated?”

“Perhaps it was love,” she wondered curiously.

Why did the world come into being and why were we created? To stir us even further, we are left to ponder it all and the happy assurance God added the word of divine blessing that, “it was good.”[3] Admittedly, the story of the creation is beyond the words that describe it. Even in the indescribable, we cannot help ourselves in trying to paint on an enormous canvas using mere words.

Before the questions of beginnings ever had voice to raise them, before there were mystics who pondered the world’s beginnings, the proclamation of Genesis spoke forth answers. Minister and Professor Margaret Guenther wisely confessed, “The sight of the night sky makes mystics of us all.” Anytime we pause long enough to turn our eyes to the heavens to pay attention to the wonder of the creation, we involuntarily call out God’s name. We cannot help doing so.


©  Dr. Keith D. Herron 2023

[1] Adapted from Ron Ruthruff, “In the Lectionary,” Christian Century, June, 2023, 24

[2] Annie Dillard, For the Time Being, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999, 157-158

[3] John Buehrens, Understanding the Bible, An Introduction for Skeptics, Seekers, and Religious Liberals, Boston MA: Beacon Press, 2003, 52-53