11 June 2017

Created Good—For Good

Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Matthew 28:16-20

Trinity Sunday

“God saw everything that [God] had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31).  Not bad.  Not corrupt.  Not broken.  Not sinful.  Good.  Not good enough.  Not pretty good.  Good.  Actually, more than good.  Very good.  And not just part of creation.  All of it.  Everything.  The totality of all that is, including, humankind, male and female, created in the image of God—is good.

That’s essentially the sermon, today’s message.  That’s the gospel I want to proclaim today.  Simple, yet profound.  Staggering, really.  I want to lift up this one verse in this story, the first creation story in Genesis.  (There are actually two creation stories in Genesis, not one.)  And I want to draw your attention to one word “good.”

In order to flesh out the wider implications of this verse and this word, we need to step back and consider the book of Genesis.  There are some things that we need to know.  And because growing in knowledge always involves un-knowing or unlearning, there are things about the opening chapters of Genesis that we need to set aside.

The first thing we need to set aside is that the Book of Genesis, particularly the creation stories at the beginning, is not science. Genesis wasn’t written to give a scientific account for the creation of the world. This might sound confusing, since the word “genesis” suggests the beginning of something, and the text itself begins with those famous words, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1).  The creation stories in Genesis, both of them, should not be read as theories of origins. And, they should not be read literally. 

The second thing we need to set aside is the notion that Genesis is a book of history, providing an account of what actually took place.  The earth was not created in seven days.  The earth is old, hundreds of millions of years old.  Last Tuesday, I was in New York City to spend the day with my niece, Katia.  She’s almost four and she loves dinosaurs, like many her age. So we went to see the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History, of course. Walking around and under those dinosaur skeletons, considering their age, makes one feel very small and one’s life a mere blip in the history of the universe. It was a humbling experience, almost a religious experience.  Evolution cannot be denied.

What we need to know is that in the first two chapters of Genesis we find not one, but two contrasting creation stories. They come from two different periods in Israel’s history.  The second creation story begins at Genesis 2:4b, and is older than the one we find in chapter 1.  Chapter 1, the first creation story, was probably written in the sixth century B.C., and was addressed to Israelites during their exile in Babylon—this is essential to know.

You see, the authors of this story were not trying to make scientific claims.  They weren’t trying to refute theories of evolution, obviously—which is why we should not use this text to refute theories of evolution.  Instead—and this can’t be stressed enough—the authors of this story are making theological claims about Yahweh, about the Living God of Israel.  They are not trying to refute theories of evolution, but the alien theories or theological worldview of the Babylonians and their gods.  This story was written to a people in exile, people who had difficulty worshipping Yahweh in this strange land.  Doesn’t the Psalmist cry out, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1-4). How do we worship when we’re in exile?  Where is God?

Actually, scholars have shown that Genesis 1 was probably written as a liturgical text.[1]  It has order, rhythm, repetition that allows it to be used in worship, the worship of Yahweh in an alien land.  And in this liturgy, the worship service is making profound, extraordinary, radical claims about the nature of Yahweh, about Yahweh’s relationship to the world, about the people who believe and trust in Yahweh—all of this is being affirmed in an alien land, in a time of desperation, a time of crisis.  Where is God during this time of exile?  Is Yahweh really in control? Or are we at the mercy of other gods, hostile empires, alien philosophies, unfriendly cultures?  Walter Brueggemann says it so well, “This liturgy cuts underneath the Babylonian experience and grounds the rule of the God of Israel in a more fundamental claim, that of creation.”[2]  This text is addressed to a particular situation and makes this declaration: Yahweh—not the Babylonian gods—can be trusted, even when all the evidence around you might suggest otherwise. All the evidence can include exile, and sickness, poverty, unemployment, loneliness, lack of meaning, lack of purpose, every feeling of alienation and isolation, every human experience of abandonment.  Amid all of this, Yahweh can be trusted because Yahweh is the creator of the world and Yahweh is good and all that Yahweh creates is very good.

This is the bold theological claim that we find right at the beginning of the Bible.  Again, Brueggemann, beautifully captures the essential theme of Genesis, indeed all of scripture: “God and God’s creation are bound together in a distinctive and delicate way.  This is the presupposition for everything else that follows in the Bible.  It is the deepest promise from which good news is possible. God and [God’s] creation are bound together by the powerful, gracious movement of God towards creation. This text announces the deepest mystery: God wills and will have a faithful relationship with earth.  The text invites the listening community to celebrate that reality.”[3]

And the way God binds Godself to creation is through speech.  God speaks the universe into being, God said, ‘Let there be…”  “And there was…”  But the binding is strongest with human beings, created in God’s image.  God speaks only human beings and summons us to be good stewards of God’s good creation.  This is why the care of creation is an obligation for us as people of faith and why the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord is a grievous, disgraceful act for so many, especially people of faith.[4]  All of the good things created by God are given to human beings to extend the purpose of God’s good creation.  God and human beings are partners, creating and then sustaining the goodness of the creation, to ensure that creation fulfills its purpose.

Did you notice there’s no reference to sin or temptation or snakes or apples, mention of trees of different knowledge, no blame, no shame, no nakedness in this creation story, as we find in Genesis 2?  There’s no accounting for evil or the so-called fall.  Genesis 1 provides a very different theological framework for us.  I’m not suggesting that we can forget about Genesis 2 or cut it out of the Bible.  Sin is real, evil is real, our alienation from God, ourselves, from our neighbors is all-too-real in our lives and in the world.  We need to take sin and evil seriously and never underestimate their destructive power. 

But, I wonder, if too much emphasis upon sin, too much preaching about total depravity, too much anxiety about possibly breaking God’s moral commands, too much worry about being good, hinders us from hearing the good new embedded in this text, right at the beginning of the Bible, the “presupposition,” as Brueggemann says, for all that follows in the Bible, including the life and witness of Christ.  Yes, sin is real and each of us have fallen short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23), but we are also created, called into being, in and through the goodness of God.  The world exists because God is good! You are here because God is good!  God is compassionate and full of grace.  All of the pain and suffering and sorrow and challenges of your life, notwithstanding, it is by virtue of God’s goodness that this world exists and our lives within it.  God is good.  God expresses God’s goodness by being trustworthy, faithful.  

And when we know God as faithful, as trustworthy, as good we can relax and dwell and thrive in God’s good creation as the objects and subjects of God’s benevolence. It means we can rest in God’s beneficence, which is what the Sabbath was given for and remains for.  

Sabbath is time set apart to rest and dwell and delight in God’s goodness.  It’s a time to give our anxious worrying about the future a rest.  It’s a time to refrain from grasping and achieving and controlling and managing and struggling and striving and working, in order to rest and abide and take delight in God’s goodness and the goodness of creation.  Indeed, theologian Jürgen Moltmann suggests that the culminating act of the creation story is not the creation of humankind, on the sixth day, but the creation of the Sabbath on the seventh day.  We were created to enjoy the goodness of God on the Sabbath and through Sabbath enjoyment experience the blessing and renewal of our lives, the renewal of all things.[5]

What we have in the opening of Genesis is a theology of blessing.  Three times the term “blessing” is used: of living creatures (v. 22), of human creatures (v. 28), and of the Sabbath (2:3).  By theology of blessing I don’t mean financial or material blessing or the heresies of the so-called prosperity gospel (although our financial resources and material possessions should be viewed as a form of blessing and, better, used to bless others).  This theology of blessing is  distinct from a theology of salvation, often found throughout the history of the Church.  A theology of blessing “refers to the generative power of life, fertility, and well-being that God has ordained within the normal flow and mystery of life.”[6]  Creation, itself, is God’s life-giving act of creating and recreating the world. This act of blessing flows through creation and our lives within it.  God blesses and blesses the creation.  All is given in goodness, in blessing, again and again.  You won’t find a similar theology of blessing in any other text of the ancient Near East.  This understanding of God’s goodness and blessing emerged from Israel’s experience with God.

God’s creative blessing is directly related to the good—and here we step into the world of aesthetics, away from ethics.  Five times God declares his creative work as “good.”  And then in verse 31, God declares the whole creation “very good.” The “good” here does not refer to a moral quality, but an aesthetic quality.  A better translated could be “lovely,” or “pleasing,” or my favorite: “beautiful.”

God saw everything that [God] had made, and indeed, it was very beautiful.”  This shift of meaning toward the aesthetic changes everything.  It moves us away from a moralistic view of God and the Bible toward the aesthetic, toward a celebration of the good as beautiful.  This was central to John Calvin (1509-1563) theology and the Reformed tradition, but it got lost over the last five hundred years, sadly.[7]  

What if we saw our lives as created beautiful, created for beauty, created to make something beautiful of our lives and the world?

A sixth century mystic, Pseudo-Dionysius wrote, “Beauty is the source of all things…. It is the great creating cause which bestirs the world and holds all things in existence by the longing inside them to have beauty…It is the longing for beauty which actually brings them into being.”[8]

Today is Trinity Sunday.  The Revised Common Lectionary intentionally links the first creation account in Genesis 1 and the Great Commission in Matthew. The Triune God, who called everything into being, continues to call and send disciples to embody the gospel.  The good news of God is this: We were created good, for good, to do good works. We were created to bless the world.  We could also say we were created beautiful, created for beauty, created to do beautiful works, created to bless the world through beauty, through the cultivation of the beautiful.  Karl Barth (1886-1968) said, "God is beautiful."[9]  And, we are created in the image of this beautiful God.

Being a disciple, sharing the gospel, then, means striving after the good, striving after, moving toward, the beautiful. Jesus himself said, “I am the good shepherd” (Jn. 10:11, 14).  The Greek in John is kalos, which doesn’t mean “good,” but “beautiful.” “I am the beautiful shepherd,” Jesus said.  To follow him is to follow after beauty.  We are called to follow beauty, to discern where beauty and goodness lead us.  And, didn’t Paul write to the Ephesians, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph. 2:10)? “Good works” here could be translated as God’s “poem,” or created as God’s “work of art.”  We are God's work of art.  And we aren’t we given gifts of the Spirit, according to Paul, for the benefit of the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:17)?

Beauty, like goodness, attracts us, calls to us, lures us in.  Goodness, like beauty, exists.  It comes with creation.  Ann Belford Ulanov, former professor of religion and psychology at Union Seminary (NY), suggests that if we project out upon the world images of goodness and beauty, if we follow after the good and the beautiful, if that’s what we hope for and bring to the world around us, then goodness and beauty will have a way of emerging in our lives.[10]  If our image of God includes goodness, beauty, then our lives will reflect this image of the God we worship and we will discover the goodness, the beauty of our lives.

So, what if we opened ourselves toward the good, the beautiful?  What if we could better trust the good, see the good within us?  What if we decided to strive after the good, the beautiful in every aspect of our lives? What if we were intentional about receiving the good and the beautiful into our lives.  Just imagine how would transform the work of the Church and shape our personal outlook upon the world.  Consider how it would inform our actions, our choices. What if we sought the good and the beautiful for others?  Isn’t this, too, directly related to the gospel? Isn’t this what Jesus embodied in his beautiful life, and why God sent the Spirit, so that we can beautify the world? Isn’t this what we’re sent to do?  

Of course!  

So, you beautiful people, let us goin the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.







[1] Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 29ff.
[2] Brueggemann, 25.
[3] Brueggemann, 22.
[4] Some Christians, however, are more skeptical about climate change, see.
[5] Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God (HarperSanFrancsico, 1991), 276ff.
[6] Brueggemann, 37.  Brueggemann is drawing upon Samuel Terrien’s The Elusive Presence (1979).
[7] Belden C. Lane, Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
[8] Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names, cited in Lane, vii.
[9] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/1 (1970), cited in Lane, vii.
[10] Ann Belford Ulanov, from a talk given to the Jung Society of Washington at American University, Washington, DC, 3th June.

1 comment:

donsands said...

I like how you finally got to Ephesians 2 where Paul does tell us good works are something the regenerated sinner once under God's holy wrath will have in his or her life. The Gospel of good news is Jesus became sin and bore the wrath of God's judgment on sin, for every sinner who trusts in Christ. Wow! And the alternative is being judged by God for all who reject Christ, and Hus judgment is eternal fire and darkness.