Paradise

Creation Stories


Genesis 1:1-5 (NLT)


In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.

Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. Then he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day” and the darkness “night.”

And evening passed and morning came, marking the first day.

Genesis 2:4-9 (NLT)

This is the account of the creation of the heavens and the earth.

When the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, neither wild plants nor grains were growing on the earth. For the Lord God had not yet sent rain to water the earth, and there were no people to cultivate the soil. Instead, springs came up from the ground and watered all the land. Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.

Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east, and there he placed the man he had made. The Lord God made all sorts of trees grow up from the ground—trees that were beautiful and that produced delicious fruit. In the middle of the garden he placed the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.


“In the beginning.” These are, of course, the opening words of the Great Story we celebrate in our lives, the story in which we participate whenever we gather for worship.

It is the Great Story, the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, that explains who God is, why God matters, and how God relates to his creation, particularly people. We discover that people are central to the Great Story, too—in fact, we matter so much, we are loved so much, that God does some very strange things to maintain the relationship.

Ultimately in the Great Story, there is God in flesh, and a cross, and resurrection. But today, we’re going to re-introduce ourselves to the creation stories, those first two chapters of the Holy Bible that set the tone for everything to come.

Being Biblical

I am going to be as biblical as I can be today; by that, I mean I am going to let the story as it is told shape what I say as much as possible. (God help me, and God forgive me where I fail in this area.) Traditionally, one of the great things about being Methodist is that we let the Bible guide us, trusting that it is God’s inspired word, communicating truths that transcend cultural biases.

That does not mean you will hear what some call a fundamentalist or literalist presentation of the creation stories’ highlights from me. As I understand those explanations of the creation stories, they at times can contradict the purposes of Genesis 1 and 2. Fundamentalists and literalists have been known to take lyrical tellings of who God is and how God relates to humans and reduce them to strange science, missing their larger points.

Ultimately, I want to get to the deeper truths being communicated at the opening of this sacred, wonderful Great Story. For there are great truths, the kind of truths around which we should build our lives. When I say I believe Scripture is true, I’m talking about a mystical kind of truth that underpins and holds together the very cosmos.

The Stories

There are two creation stories before us in Genesis. Most scholars agree the first one runs from Genesis 1:1 through the first statement in Genesis 2:4, where we hear the concluding statement, “This is the account of the creation of the heavens and the earth.” The second story then begins, “When the Lord God made the earth and the heavens …”.

There are, of course, similarities between the two stories. In both cases, we detect the presence of the Holy Spirit, one of three biblical manifestations or persons of God. In the first creation story, God’s Spirit hovers over a dark, watery, formless earth. In the second story, the Spirit is present as God’s breath, entering the human formed from the ground to create life.

There also are significant textual differences between the two stories, including the name used for the Creator. In the first account, God is, in Hebrew, simply ʼElohim, while in the second account we see “Lord God,” YHWH ʼElohim, the addition being the “I Am Who I Am” secret name of God revealed to Moses in the story found in Exodus 3.

The basic purpose of the first creation story seems pretty clear. We see God standing outside all things. God is complete. God is not dependent in any way on creation. Why does God create? It would appear that creativity simply is a key part of God’s character. As God sees things are “good,” he experiences the satisfaction a human writer, painter or sculptor might feel.

We also see how creation is made to be responsive to God. Pay careful attention to the shift in language at Genesis 1:11-12. With God’s power, the land begins to participate in the process of creation, sprouting and producing seed-bearing plants which then beget more life.

The pattern is repeated as animals are created. God gets everything rolling and creation joyfully imitates. Ultimately, humans are made in God’s image, ruling in miniature on behalf of the one who made all things.

I carry this truth away: I am just one of billions of humans who have existed, but I am important. You are important. As responsive bearers of God-given life, made in his image, we have so much potential! Treasure the life you’ve been given.

Yes, the story goes on in chapter 3, and sin introduces horrible encumbrances to weigh us down. But remember that potential, and remember the powerful truth that Christ came to redeem us from sin. Through Christ, we are re-created, restored to that potential.

Deep Love

The second creation story accomplishes another important task. It is, in a way, God’s valentine to us, as he says, “See how much I love you?”

Here, the Lord God is much more personal and relatable, shaping the first human from sod and blowing life into his nostrils. He then carves out a special place in creation, a holy garden where the man can learn pleasurable, fulfilling work alongside his creator. He also is called to learn joyous obedience by following one simple rule: Don’t eat from that tree.

There is to be no sadness or sense of isolation in this place called Eden. We see this as the Lord God fashions animals, and then finally a woman, for the man. We are left with a picture of perfection, man and woman together, relating to one another and God in idyllic peace.

Again, sin mars the picture as the Great Story progresses. But thanks to the work of Christ, we can look at one another, and look to God, and say, “We are loved!” And never forget that the Great Story, the whole story of the Bible, returns us to this Paradise, this perfection of relationships.

It is all true. These stories are not science or history as modern people understand these two fields of study, but these stories are true.

Let these creation stories lead you into the eternal story lived with God.

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Watching God Die

First, a word about Christ the King Sunday. It is one of those special Sundays we mark on the church calendar, the way we mark Easter or Pentecost, but it’s probably not as familiar to most churchgoers.

Denominations that follow a lectionary added Christ the King Sunday in the early 20th century, so it’s a relative newcomer to the church calendar. It also can be called “Reign of Christ Sunday.” It went on the calendar during a time when there was a rise in anti-religious governments in the world, particularly in Mexico and Europe. The idea was to have a Sunday when the church blatantly emphasizes Christ’s rule over all worldly powers, regardless of what form they may take.

Therefore, it is appropriate on this day to emphasize Christ’s glory and divinity. We in particular celebrate Jesus Christ as being enthroned in heaven over all things.

Here’s what’s a little strange about Christ the King Sunday, which was Nov. 24. When we read the gospel text assigned to this day in 2013, we get no glorious image of heaven, no picture of the white-haired, flaming-eyed Christ of Revelation. We don’t even get an Easter-like resurrection story. Instead, we’re sent back to the crucifixion story in Luke. As we celebrate God’s reign, we’re asked to watch God die.

The trick to understanding this text and how it relates to the idea of Christ the King is to not fall into the trap set by those who arranged Jesus’ death on the cross. His execution between two criminals was a public relations move, an attempt to discredit Jesus in the eyes of the people who had watched his miracles and heard his talk of a restoring, forgiving, loving God who was above earthly powers, even superpower Rome. The sign over his head, “This is the King of the Jews,” was in place to mock Jesus and his claims.

Jesus did not counter any of this with worldly power. Quite the opposite; he allowed himself to be led to the slaughter, in the process demonstrating the gentle compassion that ultimately undoes all attempts to exercise power.

Bleeding and impaled—the pain had to be horrible—he never lashed out in anger. Instead, he cried out, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” The murder of the One True Innocent was chalked up to ignorance.

We’re reminded of real power, the gentle compassion that gradually undermines worldly power, like water slowly eroding rock. The world still struggles with this idea today. Even Christ’s church struggles with it. Too many times as a pastor, I’ve heard the words, “I can never forgive that” come out of the mouths of Christians following church conflict. And my heart breaks.

Even as blood poured from Christ’s wounds, grace continued to come forth, too, particularly in the interaction with the criminals crucified alongside Jesus. One criminal was bitter, unwilling to accept what was offered. But the other, despite his terrible suffering, held on to hope, to the idea that there still had to be something right in the world.

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” the criminal asked. It was a request for the future, perhaps rooted in his Jewish understanding of a resurrection to come one day. This good, innocent man next to him would likely stand with God, and perhaps Jesus would allow a criminal to stand near him at that time.

God’s grace is usually even greater than we can imagine, though. Jesus rooted his answer in the present. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

In the statement, Jesus also reasserted his kingship. The word we translate as Paradise is a particular sort of word; it evoked an image of the tended garden outside a king’s throne room. It was the place where a king would walk with his closest friends in comfort and safety.

We worship as Christians today because Christ overcame worldly power with heavenly grace. He exercised a kind of power that lifts up the least rather than propping up the mighty. It is a power accessible to everyone.

It takes a broken and bleeding criminal and transports him into a heavenly garden. It takes tired, broken down sinners like you and me into an experience of grace and love in this life, and into the full, loving presence of God for all eternity in the life to come.

Finally, there is a ruler worth following.