Creation Poetry

A sermon preached today, in a series on the Apostles’ Creed.

 

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I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.  

 

Creator of heaven and earth.

 

Genesis 1:1    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…

 

God said, let there be lights in the sky to give light upon the earth, and it was so…

God said, let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth, and it was so…

God said, let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind, and it was so.

 

That God created the heavens and the earth is foundational to the faith we confess.

 

Where once there was nothing, there is something, by God’s grace and power.

 

Foundational to our faith is the conviction that God created the world ex nihilo. A lovely little Latin phrase that means – from nothing. By God’s grace and power, where once there was nothing, there is something. From nothing, God creates our world.

 

Where once there was silence, there is now the sound of birds singing.

Where once there was emptiness, there are now galaxies, stars, planets.

Where once there was absence, there is now the presence of animals.

Where once there was darkness, there is light.

Where once there was stillness, there are children running about.

 

As we think for a moment about the creation narrative we read this morning from Genesis chapter 1, we should know that when it was written there were other ancient creation accounts circulating. And the Genesis account narrative is related to those other narratives – in some instances the ancient Israelites borrowed from other ancient creation accounts and in other instances they refused what is said in other creation accounts.

 

When it comes to borrowing, we could point out that ancient Egyptian city of Memphis, two thousand years before the Israelite creation account was written, honoured the god Ptah, who was said to have created the world by a simple word. Of course this sounds much like the view articulated in Genesis. God creates the world simply by speaking a word. It seems that on this point the ancient Israelites may have borrowed from this ancient Egyptian account of creation because it resonated with what they knew to be true of the God they worshipped – Yahweh.

 

But aside from possibly borrowing from more ancient creation accounts, it’s important to see that the ancient Israelites also refused parts of these competing narratives. One of the most common features of ancient creation stories was the idea that God and the creation are essentially made of the same stuff – that God and creation are so closely related that they cannot be separated out from each other. For example, many ancient creation narratives see the universe as filled with a variety of gods, and these gods are associated with different parts of the world. So some people worshiped the sun, and others bowed down to trees, and some honoured the spirits of the rivers, while others adored the god of the mountains. In these accounts of the world and of creation, the god is essentially a part of the created world and the created world is a part of the god.

 

But the creation account given in Genesis chapter 1 refuses this idea that creation and creator are of the same stuff. For the ancient Israelites, the world isn’t a part of God, and God is not a part of the world. Rather, God is superior to every part of the created order. All of it comes from God. The ancient Israelite account of creation is saying:

            The light is not God, for God created the light.

            The sun and moon are not God, for God created the sun and moon.

            The earth is not God, for God created the earth.

            The plants and animals are not God, for God created the plants and animals.

 

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

 

God above creation.

                    God before creation.

                                        God the giver of creation.

 

Perhaps we should clarify that God is not simply active at the beginning of the world, at the outset of time – it’s not as if God sets things in motion and then lets them run their course. Both the Old and New Testaments bear witness to God as intimately related to the creation at every moment – God as upholding and sustaining the creation in every moment. In every moment it depends on God.

 

In Psalm 104 we read: “You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart…you have made the moon to mark the seasons…the young lions roar for their prey, seeking there food from God…when you send forth your spirit, all creatures are formed and you renew the face of the ground.”

 

The God of the ancient Israelites, the God we worship, is a God who creates and who sustains all things. This God is not a part of the creation – this God is above and before and apart from creation. All things in our world, animate and inanimate, owe their ongoing existence to the creativity, the wisdom, and the strength of God.

 

Above all, what we must say this morning is that the creation of God is good. Many ancient creation accounts, for example the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish, see the creation as arising out of conflict between many gods. From this point of view, conflict and violence are necessary to the creation of the world – the creation of the world is bound up with the presence of evil. But again, what we see in the creation account of Genesis a refusal of this idea. We recall the repetition of that phrase is repeated again and again.

God created, and saw that it was good.

God created, and saw that it was good.

God created, and saw that it was very good.

Evil is not part and parcel of God’s creation – rather evil enters into the creation at a later time – contrary to God’s intention. The creation itself is the good gift of God, in which we delight and for which we give thanks – we honour and care for this good creation.

I believe in God the father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

 

I’d like to change gears for a moment now, and spend a few minutes exploring the fact that in our society there seems to be a conflict between science and religion – there is a conflict about the possibility that God actually created the world. We can’t say a lot about this today, but we also don’t want to ignore the question – so we say a few things about the relation between science and faith, or between science and Christian religion.

 

Perhaps a first thing to say is that the Bible is not a scientific textbook – the creation narrative of Genesis 1 is not intended as any kind of scientific description of how the world came into existence. The creation story is not intended as a moment by moment description of what happened at the beginning. In fact as a scientific account it makes no sense since three days pass before the sun is created – which just leaves you wondering how you could have the first three days since the existence of a day depends on the existence of the sun. In fact, the creation account of Genesis chapter is nothing more or less than a poetic description of the origins of our world.  It is intended as a poetic and mythical affirmation that God created the world – it is a poetic and mythical statement of our God’s creative power and of the beauty of the world God has made.

 

The bible is not a scientific text – and we leave the science to the scientists. In terms of scientific study of the origins of the world, of the first moments of the existence of the universe, the most widely held theory today is the theory of the big bang. As worshippers of God, we have no need to question this widely held point of view. According to this theory, before time and space and the universe existed, there was a singularity the size of a dime, within which was contained all of the energy and possibility of our universe. From that singularity exploded or expanded the space time we inhabit – from that singularity arose the galaxies and solar systems and planets. From most measures, our universe has been in existence for about 13 billion years – through those billions of years our universe has expanded, galaxies and solar systems and planets have come into existence.

 

The sciences, which study the world we inhabit, provide important answers about the forces and energies and laws that govern the development and progress of our universe.

 

The sciences also teach us a good deal about the development of human life on earth. This past week Tuesday marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory. Some Christians today speak the name of Darwin with trembling – they worry that the findings of Darwin and of evolutionary biology somehow prevent us from believing that God created the world, or that God is the source of life, or that God has created us in his image. But evolutionary biology isn’t capable of such grand theological conclusions. In fact, evolutionary biologists badly overreach when they come to such conclusions.

 

Pope John Paul II, speaking to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996, acknowledged that the evolution of humans from lower to higher life forms is more than a hypothesis – he points out that it is a theory consistent with the findings of researchers in a variety of disciplines. But John Paul the second was not threatened by the theory of evolution because he has no reason to think that this theory conflicts with belief in the God we worship.

 

The God we worship, the God who came to us in Jesus Christ, alone provides the possibility for the emergence of life. This God is before, above, and beyond the natural order. This God sees the natural order, sees the universe, in ways that are beyond the theorizing and study of sciences (who can only study the creation, the natural order itself, from within). This God participates in that order in ways that are equally beyond the theorizing and study of the sciences.

 

Today we live, unfortunately, in the midst of what sometimes seems to be a war between science and religion. But the reason for this war is that some on each side are insufficiently modest in their claims. Today there are some Christian thinkers who presume to rule out the well-founded findings of scientists about the natural world. But there are also many scientists who are insufficiently modest about the limits of their own research – scientists who leap from particular findings and particular theories to conclusions about God that simply aren’t supported by their findings or theories. 

 

This week the Montreal Gazette reprinted an opinion piece from the Washington Post in which the writer points out that Charles Darwin himself displayed genuine humility in the face of insufficient evidence. We read in that article: “Darwin had a slamdunk in his explanation of the evolution of species, including humans, but he also knew there is plenty of room for God at the top, upstream of the business of biology.” Too many scientists, particularly those writing popular books today attacking religion (though not only these) are insufficiently humble or modest about what may be said on the basis of their research. 

 

As the theologian Avery Dulles puts it: “Science should not try to become religion, nor should religion seek to take the place of science. Science can purify religion from error and superstition, while religion purifies science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each discipline should therefore retain its integrity and yet be open to the insights and discoveries of the other.” Science and theology each need to be reminded of their limits – and they should be reminded when they have transgressed those limits. The conclusion to that article in the Gazette is relatively well put: “Soldiers in today’s culture wars, whether in white collars (the clergy) or white lab coats (the scientists), could take a tip from Darwin on his birthday bicentennial. He loved the natural world, most beautiful and most wonderful. And he knew enough to not pick fights over what he did not know.”

 

I believe in God the father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

 

This is our confession – it is not a confession we make simply on the basis of observation of the world, or study of the natural order – our confession of God as creator is rooted in our encounter with the living God. We make the confession that God created our world only because the creating God has shown his face to us – decisively so in Jesus Christ.

 

The God who has encountered us has revealed himself as a God of immense power and creativity. A God of radical love and mercy. A God who is before creation and above creation. A God who has the power to interrupt what we take to be laws of nature – as he does in the resurrection of his son Jesus Christ.

 

This God is worthy to receive our worship and praise. This God is worthy to be confessed as we stand together in his presence.

 

I believe in God the father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

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