In the Beginning God Created
Well good morning. This morning we start a new series in Genesis. Over the next few weeks we intend to work out way slowly through the first few chapters of this first book of the bible. Genesis is the first book in order in the bible, and indeed one of the first books in order of importance. Genesis is the book of beginnings and absolutely fundamental to understanding who we are as people; what life, the world and the universe are all about, and not least, who God is and what he is like.
So these next few weeks should be a real highlight for us, and I hope they will be.
And yet, as we start I have to admit I start with just a little trepidation – because Genesis, and especially Genesis 1-3, has been something of a battle ground. Genesis means beginning – Genesis is the book of beginnings – and since the time of Charles Darwin the account of the beginning in the book of Genesis has been under attack from a rival account of the beginning, one that seemingly has no room for God. Indeed in recent years scientific heavy weights have turned their big guns on the church and tried to eliminate faith in God as a dangerous delusion. I'm sure we'll talk more about their opposition as we go on.
But sadly the conflict doesn't stop at the door of the church, but comes right into the seats with us – and there are many Christians today who are in bitter conflict with each other over how to read and understand the bible's account of the beginning – whether it can be reconciled with a scientific account or not, how much outside sources can influence our reading of the bible and so on… We'll come onto plenty of issues as we progress through the book – but before we even start I want to ask that whatever your opinions, however strongly held they are, that you'll be gracious towards your brothers and sisters here.
We need to listen to God's word carefully – as we repeatedly heard in progress last year God declares that the person he esteems is the one who is humble and contrite and trembles at his word (Isaiah 66.2), so we need to be careful how we read… but that doesn't give any of us the right to judge another, and we are called to peace and unity among ourselves. So can I ask that we all exercise grace towards one another as we start out in this journey into the beginning.
So the potential for conflict is one reason for trepidation… but there's another: the danger that runs parallel to the conflict is that we get so caught up in the issues that we miss the deepest significance of the things that we're reading.
The conflict colours what questions we ask of the text. And the problem with that is that if you're asking the wrong questions you end up with nonsense – like if we ask 'what colour is the equator?', or 'what is the melting point of love?' We come to Genesis trying to work out things that we want to know – we want to look behind the curtain and see the mechanism that was used, we want to have the details of the creation process laid out for us in proper scientific format. But I'm not sure that Genesis was written to satisfy our scientific curiosity.
There are bigger and more important questions than 'how was it done' – questions like – 'what are we, what does it mean to be human?' 'What are we here for?' 'Is there meaning and purpose in the universe, or is it all just blind chance?' 'Is the universe ultimately cold and impersonal, or is there a personal agency behind it all?' 'Does anything I do matter to anyone at all in the big scheme of things?' and first of all 'Who's in charge - is there a God, and if so, what is he like?' These are the biggest questions of life, and as we work our way through Genesis I expect us to begin to recognise the Bible's answers to them.
So with those thoughts in mind we're going to proceed very slowly through Genesis one to try and slow right down and grapple with what is actually here before us. Genesis 1.1 – 2.3 forms a unit of it's own at the beginning of the book, quite distinct in all kinds of ways from the rest. And there's so much in this section that we're going to give ourselves a few weeks to work through them, we'll start today with just the first two verses.
And from these first two verses I have two points to make:
First: It all starts with God; and
Second: The spirit and agenda of creation
1. It all starts with God
Have a look down at verse one:
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."
This is the topic sentence, the introduction to Genesis – and especially to Genesis 1:1-2:3.
And it's so stark in it's simplicity that we can easily miss what it says. But look at it again with me.
Firstly notice this is about God: God is the subject of this sentence, he is the actor, it's God who makes things happen. This is a theme we're going to see very clearly in this introductory section – the word God appears 35 times in this section, with a further 10 pronouns referring back to God. Don't miss this: God is the creator, God and not someone else, God and not gods, or the gods; nor blind fate or time and chance. Creation, we're being told, was a deliberate act of a personal God – God made creation happen, he created.
And it's about the beginning, when he created. Before the beginning there was no creation – but God was there. There was a time when there was no material stuff, no heavens and earth, no atoms and electrons and quarks and whatever else; no energy, no time… But there was God. There was a time when mater didn't exist, but there has never been a time when God didn't exist, because he was there at the beginning, it was him who brought everything else into being. But he created the heavens and the earth, he himself was not created.
There was a time when matter was not – but there was never a time when God was not.
And thirdly what God created was the heavens and the earth. That is, everything. The heavens and the earth here form a matched pair that signifies all there is – the whole created order, the things on the earth and the things that are beyond the earth. So the heavens means everything that is beyond the earth – as we stand and look out, it's everything out there. (I'm not sure whether to mention this or not – but there is a strong hint in Colossians 1:15-20 that the heavens extends beyond the earth in another direction too – to include not just the physical heavens that we can see through a telescope, but also the unseen heaven, the realm where God and his angels live, all the powers and principalities etc. We might come back to this if we have time).
So all matter finds its beginning in the mind of God – whether there was a big bang or not is not the most important thing, the most important thing is that God did it, it was his idea, his genius, his work that brought forth something from nothing – and it's only God's work that can bring something from nothing. Thing about that - for everyone less than God matter is a zero sum game – this is what we learn in high school physics and chemistry isn't it? We can't add energy, or matter, to the universe, all we can do is to rearrange how things are put together, it's a zero sum game – we can have the energy stored in the coal, or we can release it by burning, but we can't create new energy. We can't, but God did – but God made it all.
God's not like Dr Frankenstein collecting the bits to make his monster, gathering up materials that he can find around the place. Not at all. God starts with a completely blank slate, and God creates the bits at every level, right up to the greatest star, right down to the smallest sub-atomic particle, it all comes from his creative genius, by his power. The complexity and beauty of the eye – God made that; the glorious majesty of the stars spread out in space – God made that too. The solid ground and the invisible gases, the ice cold and the blistering heat – everything has it's ultimate origin in the mind of the glorious creator, he made it all.
So before we've looked at any of the detail we can begin to see some answers to our biggest questions about the meaning of life, the universe and everything:
1. God made it all, so he owns it all – creation belongs to it's creator
2. We're not lost in the universe – not meaningless specs just products of time and chance, but meaningful and purposeful, because we were made
3. Mater is not eternal – the things that seem so solid to us now are not the things of eternity, but God is
4. Mater is not god – we are not trapped in a universe that is only pitiless vast indifference, there is a personal intelligence behind all that we see and know.
5. Material things are not gods – the ancients worshipped the sun and the moon and the stars, they imagined there were gods of the sea and the sky, gods who brought the wind and the crops. They worshipped sacred trees and sacred cows – but there is only one God and he is not attached to, or limited to any of these things – he is above them all, they are his workmanship, not his being.
6. God isn't material – the things we see are not emanations from God, nor is God like the force, a power formed from the life of living things; no there is a clear distinction between God and the world that he has made.
We'll see more of what these things mean as we continue …
Let's move on to our second point – the spirit and agenda of creation:
2. The Spirit and Agenda of Creation
Here we come to verse two, please have a look at it with me:
"Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters."
What does verse 2 tell us? It sets the context, the agenda from the rest – when God first made it the earth was formless and empty – these two things set the agenda for the following six days of creation – God will give the earth form (days 1-3) and will fill it up (days 4-6).
The world was lacking form, it was unordered, chaotic, like a lump of clay before the potter forms it on the wheel, like a lump of granite before the sculptor shapes it with her chisel. And the world was empty of content – it wouldn't be complete until it was filled up, it invited something to fill it – like an empty canvas calling out for paint, like a class room calling out for students, like house yet to become a home. At this point creation has only just begun and it will not be complete until the world has been shaped by it's creator into the form that he has in mind for it, given shape that is fit for it's purpose. And it won't be complete until it is filled up with the things that the creator has in mind to occupy this creation – until it is being enjoyed by the creatures he made it for.
And in this unfinished state Darkness covered the deep – we get a vivid picture of a world covered in water and surrounded by cloudy darkness (incidentally what physicists imagine a new planet to be like) – but what is this darkness – does the darkness imply wickedness, well that seems unlikely in a new creation made by God; or is this darkness somehow indicative of God's presence. Remember that when Israel met God at Mount Sinai in Exodus 19 God came down and covered the mountain in dense cloud and smoke and fire, could this darkness be positive rather than negative? Maybe, perhaps it's just what a newly formed planet looks like, surrounded in cloud, covered in water, the surface of the water is inky darkness suggesting great depth… either way the very next phrase tells us that God was definitely present over the water – the spirit of God was hovering over the waters – this is the same spirit who appears in the cloud at the mountain and who's glory fills the tabernacle and later the temple to signify God's presence there. The image of the spirit hovering suggests a bird fluttering it's wings over it's nest – in fact Moses uses the very same word for just than in Deuterononmy 32:11. It's an image that suggests the mother bird fluttering her wings over her nest to stir her brood of young. It's as if to say God was watching over his creation in order to bring it forth, to bring that chaos into order, to give it form and to fill it up.
There is a double meaning here too – because the Hebrew word for spirit is the word for breath or wind. The breath of God will shortly be breathed out in words and become speech, the means by which God will create all that is.
God is here pictured as an architect putting all the final drawings together and giving the instructions to the builders. The creation is like the cleared plot ready for the building to go up.
And I want you to notice two particular implications here.
Firstly that the agenda for the rest of the chapter has been set. This is what we are to be looking out for in the next few verses – for God to give form to his formless creation; and for God to fill that creation up with fullness that gives meaning to the whole; creatures who will find the form fit for their dwelling and their enjoyment. There is an implied agenda here that God is going to make his creation fit for purpose, as Isaiah 45.18 says of the creation 'he did not create it to be empty' – no he had plans and purposes in mind and he shapes the creation to fit those plans and purposes. And as we will see people are at the heart of that agenda, the heart of those plans and purposes. For it is people who will form the apex of the creation, the ones best fit to enjoy the wonderful form that God gives his creation, the ones he tasks with filling his creation and giving it order… but that's for next week.
So we understand that the universe did not just happen, it was made with a plan and a purpose – God designed it and then brought his design into being. Creation was formed according to his grand design. And Notice no conflict or force involved – God was not compelled to create, nor did it take effort and struggle from him (unlike other ancient creation myths, creation is separate to God and entirely dependant on him).
The second thing to notice is that there is a strong implication that God is one in these verses – there is one God who creates, not many. This oneness will be emphasised extensively in the pages to come. But there is also an implication even here that this is not a simple oneness, but there is a complexity– God creates, and his spirit hovers over the surface of the world that he has made. This complexity will be hinted at again in 1.26-28 when God makes man – men and women – in his own image; and then it will not come into strong focus again until Jesus comes and makes it plain. But for those with the eyes to see it the ground work has already been laid in these verses.
And when we come to John 1:1 we find the most wonderful claim – that Jesus is this God that we read about – John 1 deliberately apes Gen 1:1, but the subject is not God the Father, but the word, the word who would become flesh and make his dwelling among us. This God, this mighty creator came to earth and became one of us, and in the end gave up his life to save us.
Think about that – the God who set the stars in the sky walked this earth and submitted to death for us his creatures.
God father, son and spirit all involved in creation
Agenda for Genesis 1 is to fill the earth and to give it form, will see this worked out in the rest of the chapter
All in God's hands and by his grand design… all our creativity is but a mere shadow of his great cosmic creation, the world is distinct from God and subject to him, and he is the one who shapes it into what it is, he is the one who gives it meaning and purpose, determines what it will be for and what it will be like…