Creation - St Bride's: Reflection

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St Bride's: Sermons


Genesis 1: 1-2:3

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1 In the beginning when God created[a] 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.

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 that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. 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. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 11 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. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

14 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, 15 and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17 God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

20 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.” 21 So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

24 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. 25 God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

26 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.”

27 So God created humankind in his image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

28 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.” 29 God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

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I don't know whether it has ever struck you as interesting that the Bible begins with not one story of the Creation of the world, but with two.

In our Old Testament reading this morning we heard the first of them: the famous story of the six days of Creation.  In the beginning there was nothing but darkness and a formless void; and at the sound of God's voice light was created.  On subsequent days God commanded into being the sky, the dry land and the seas; vegetation; the sun and the moon; birds, fish, and animals; culminating, on the sixth day, with the creation of human beings: male and female, to whom God gave dominion over all living creatures; he blessed them, charged them to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.  After which he needed some time off, so he rested on the seventh day.

Immediately after that, without comment or explanation, we are presented with another, completely different story of Creation: the story of Adam and Eve, which will be equally familiar to you.  In this account, the first thing that God does, before he has created anything else, is to create a man from the dust of the earth.  He then creates a garden to put him in; after which God creates the animals, which he brings to the man, Adam, to name.  And finally, because God recognises that it is not good for the man to be alone, he creates a companion for Adam from one of his ribs; and so the first woman comes into being.  And they live together in that wonderful garden, totally at one with nature - until, that is, it all goes horribly wrong as the result of a rather regrettable incident involving a reptile and a piece of fruit.

So why do we have two Creation accounts?  In origin, they are clearly quite separate stories, which, in terms of their details are incompatible: most obviously they present us with completely different versions of the order in which things were created.  I have seen Biblical fundamentalists, who are convinced that it all has to be historically and literally true, tie themselves in the most extraordinary knots trying to prove that there is no inherent contradiction between the two accounts, because I am afraid there is.  I am not quite sure which Biblical text they are reading, but it certainly doesn't appear to be any version that I have ever come across.  But more importantly, they are completely missing the point.

You see, it seems to me to be very significant that we are presented with two contradictory stories at the very beginning of scripture, precisely because of the two completely different accounts that they give us of the essential nature of human life.  In the first story, human beings are the high point; the supreme achievement of God's wonderful acts of Creation: they are made in the very image of God and entrusted with his delegated authority over the rest of the living world. 

By contrast, in the second story, far from being the glorious culmination of God's Creation, Adam is not only made first, but he is made out of mud.  It is hard to think of a lowlier substance.  (Well, actually, I can think of one, but let's not go there ...)  He is then given a task to do: to till the soil in the garden; and from the very outset clear limits are set upon both the scope of his understanding, and his freedom of action: he is charged not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil - although of course, unfortunately, he does precisely that, and as a result loses everything he has, and condemns himself and the whole human race descended from him to a life of struggle and grief.

Each of these two stories nails a very important and timeless truth about the nature of human beings - but they are different truths, and the important point is that we need both of them.  The first story taken alone, stressing as it does the fact that we are made in the image of God and have divinely sanctioned authority over Creation, could easily seduce us into holding far too elevated a view of humankind and our role in the world, with catastrophic consequences.

I once attended a seminar on Creation and ecology at which the speaker made reference to the first of our Creation stories.  One of those present, a passionate animal rights activist, exploded with rage, ranting that it was all the fault of Jewish and Christian tradition that human beings have desecrated and plundered the earth of its resources, and abused the animal kingdom.  In his view this one biblical text, charging humankind with dominion over the earth and authorising them to subdue it, was the whole reason why the world was in the state that it is in.

Conversely, if the only account you had of the origins of human life was the story of Adam and Eve, which not only describes us as being made of dirt, but goes on to give an account of our innate fallenness and depravity - you would be left with a pretty bleak and pessimistic understanding of human life.  During my lecturing days I once had two very enthusiastic Methodist students, who were husband and wife, who were Very Big On Sin.  By which, I don't mean that they were keen on committing it (which I once overheard a colleague mutter he almost regretted, because they might have been better company if they had).  Rather, they were so obsessed with the total and unremitting sinfulness and depravity of all human beings, that after a short time in their presence you started to wonder what on earth there was in their Christian faith that gave them anything at all to be cheerful about.

But you see, this is where the Bible gets it right by giving us both Creation stories, both truths, one immediately after the other.  Because taken together they give us the whole picture and, in the process, provide us with a lens though which to understand and engage with a fundamental tension that is inherent in all human life, which is this:

On the one hand, human beings are created by God and made in the image of God.  We are blessed with extraordinary gifts of creativity, and wisdom, and insight; we have the capacity to create things of great beauty; wonderful music; works of art that can enable us to glimpse and even touch the divine.  Yet at the same time we are capable not only of unbelievable folly, selfishness, and destructiveness, but acts of wanton cruelty, even radical evil.  As a species, we are at one and the same time marked by our intrinsic closeness to God, and our profound distance from God.  We have the capacity for aspirations that have something of the divine in them; and yet, ultimately, we are made of dirt, the dust of the earth.  All of us.

Martin Luther King once observed the simple but profound truth that: 'there is some good in the worst of us, and some evil in the best of us.'  A variation on the same theme, of which I am particularly fond, is the saying: 'Every saint has a past; every sinner has a future.'  And Amen to that.

As we go through life, each of us walks a path between these two ways of being; every single day our lives present us with opportunities for us to choose between them.  Do we respond as one who is in the image of God?  Or as one who is of dust?  Because those choices have consequences: that which is of God is timeless and everlasting; that which is of dust is destined to return to dust.  Our actions and our lives reveal which of the two predominates within us at any one time.

And our relationship with God, our Creator, is inextricably linked with all of this.  Because we need all the help we can get in finding our bearings: we need the love of God; the guidance of the Holy Spirit; and the saving forgiveness of Christ to restore us to the right path when we go astray.  And what matters in this context is the here and now.  Dwelling too much on the failures of the past; stressing too much about our anxieties for the future, can distort our perspective on the present.  Which is the bit that really matters.

In our gospel reading this morning Jesus reminds us not only of the unnecessary waste of emotional energy that is caused when we worry about the future; but he also urges us to focus on today: to consider the lilies of the field; to receive the gift of each day as it comes, its own challenges are enough for us to deal with. And above all he reminds us to seek the Kingdom of God, and God's righteousness.  Because we can make a difference.  In the people we are, and in the choices we make.  Given that Creation is very much the theme of this address, I was very struck by a quotation posted by a friend of mine on FaceBook yesterday, with which I shall close.  It said this:

You can argue all day about whether one person not using straws or going vegan makes a global difference.  The point is the mindset.  We need to change our thinking away from the idea that the earth is a bottomless pit of resources and start acting as if what we do matters.  Changing the philosophy of culture and societies starts with individuals changing their own hearts and minds.  It is not that my composting will empty landfills of food waste, but rather that my changed mind and heart may influence others - and that could spread and change the world.

And Amen to that.

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