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Starting at the Beginning (and Ending There)

(September 28, 2008; The Creation and Flood Accounts)

In our culture we have historically had a preference for the facts. Truth is the

right observation of the facts of nature around us. This is essentially the scientific

method of observation and hypothesis. If a + b = c; then b = c – a. It was this thinking

that led to breakthroughs in medicine, astronomy, and the social sciences. In these areas

people began discarding what they considered to be the superstitions of the dark ages or

medieval period. This was a wonderful thing as people could see for instance that illness

was related to germs and not divine wrath. Theologians, however, were not at such a

liberty to discard their origins. You cannot easily discard something like the Bible that is

considered divine. And so many theologians began to consciously or unconsciously

adopt the emerging scientific worldview in their reading of scripture. To them the Bible

became a collection of facts. This led many to interpret the creation account as giving

historical facts about the physical origins of the universe. If Adam is the first human and

the world was created in seven days; then the lineage of Adam will tell us how old the

world is. No matter how we understand the relationship between the Bible and science

this emphasis was not helpful because it neglected the way in which the creation account

was used throughout the Bible.

There is not just one creation account in the Bible. During the time when science

seemed to have control over our understanding of the Bible there were people called

Deists who believed that God started the universe but then let it run on its own. It was

said that God was a watch-maker who wound up the world and then left it to let it run its

course. This is not a biblical view of reality. In the Bible the creation account functions

as a living and ongoing reality that was not a one time event but the continuous work of

God in the world. The reason why I had the Flood account read alongside Genesis

chapter 1 is because the Flood story is also a creation account. In both accounts waters

cover the earth. At creation the Spirit of God hovers over the water while at the Flood a

dove is sent out to find land. In both accounts the water recedes and dry land appears. In

both accounts God calls the people to multiply and be fruitful. And in both accounts

God’s work and promise was established for the whole world. This is important to

remember. It can be easy, or perhaps desirable, to forget that God’s plan has always been

all encompassing. In God’s vision there is no separate public and private sphere, no

political or economic boundaries. There is nothing that is out of bounds for God. It is

easy to forget God’s vision for the world because as the story unfolds God begins

working through particular individuals and particular people but within these stories there

is always the understanding that God’s work is for the whole world.

Also much of this message is subtle to us because while we were only looking for

scientific or historical evidence about the past the writers of the Bible were placing

theologically significant statements. In Genesis chapter ten after the flood account we are

giving a list of the descendents of Noah which according to the Bible make up the whole

world’s population. The number of Noah’s descendents adds up to 70 in all. At the end

of Genesis 70 is also the number of descendents of Jacob that enter Egypt. It is seventy

people, the symbolic number for the whole world, who represent the people of God’s

promise that enter Egypt. The people then enter slavery in Egypt and after God delivers

them they are lead into wilderness where God calls Moses up to Mt. Sinai. But it is not

only Moses who goes up the mountain. When the covenant relationship between God

and the people is made God also calls up the seventy elders of Israel. In this gesture God

is making the covenant with all of creation. The people of God’s promise always carry

with them a call that is for all people and all the world. This is the message that flows out

from the creation.

And so if the Hebrew people in Egypt represent the whole world then shouldn’t

they also have a creation story like Adam and Noah? The Exodus is their creation

account. When God delivers them from the hands of Pharaoh the people flee Egypt only

to find that the Egyptian army is chasing them. In this chase the Hebrews soon found

themselves flanked by the Red Sea. Their fate seems to set as they are going to be driven

into the sea which is an expression of chaos and de-creation (as we saw in the Flood and

at Creation). But what happens? As in Creation and the Flood the waters part and dry

ground appears. This too is a creation account. It is the creation of the people of Israel

who continue carry the promise and instructions of God to be a blessing to all people.

So what exactly does the creation account, this stone or marker in God’s story

tells us? What does it mean that our God is one who is always at the work of creation?

What these stories tell us is that alongside and perhaps before the work of creation is the

reality of destruction and chaos. The first story for Christians and Jews begins with

darkness and deep waters. The sea or water in the Bible is often used to represent chaos

and destruction. At that time in history the sea was a place of overwhelming power where

mysterious and unknown beasts dwelled. Sometimes the threat of chaos was forced on

people like the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. Sometimes the Bible speaks of beasts that

emerge from the sea like what overtakes Jonah but in other places in the Bible these

beasts can also represent world leaders who are violent and corrupt like William Blake’s

unnerving depiction of the beast that rises from the sea in the book of Revelation.

Other times however chaos comes upon people because they have been unfaithful.

Listen to the words of the prophet Jeremiah who is bringing God’s judgment on the

people of Judah. Jeremiah begins by pleading with the people to turn away from their

rebellion but as he describes the state of the people he makes this observation,

23 I looked at the earth,

and it was formless and empty;
and at the heavens,
and their light was gone.
24 I looked at the mountains,
and they were quaking;
all the hills were swaying.
25 I looked, and there were no people;
every bird in the sky had flown away.
26 I looked, and the fruitful land was a desert;
all its towns lay in ruins
before the LORD, before his fierce anger.

The people are on verge of de-creation. Their life and everything around it is about to

become undone. These are the words against those who try to establish their own

creation, their own worlds.

That the reality of chaos is so prevalent throughout the Bible should dispel any

illusions we might have about the irrelevance of our faith and tradition. The Bible and

Christianity are not for those who have it all together. The Bible is not for those who

have created their own perfect world and sit in control over it. The Bible was not shaped

by those who sat positions of world power and influence. If the creation account is at

least in some way central to how the Bible unfolds then it is a message from those and for

those who face the threat of chaos, those who face the beasts that rise up in their lives.

The creation account that runs through the Bible is for those whose families are

falling apart. It is for those struggling in debt. It is for those who feel at times that they

are losing their grip on reality. It is for those who suffer because of the selfishness of

others. It is for those who are bound and limited because of their race or gender. It is for

those in the unending cycle of addiction. For many of us and many more around us the

world is not a stable place. We can feel the real threat as though at any moment a beast is

about to rise from the sea of chaos and devour us.

Those who face the forces of chaos are often the victims of our culture’s own

creation story. Our culture tells a creation story in which order is established by force

and stability maintained by wealth. This is the story of the beasts that we find in the

Bible. The Bible did not create this alternative creation story as straw man in opposition

to its own. This sort of creation story is nothing new. In fact it appears as though the

final form of the creation story in Genesis directly opposes at least one of the stories that

it’s surrounding cultures told. The Babylonians also had a creation story and it began

very close to the way Genesis began. [image] The Babylonian story the Enuma Elish

begins like this,

When in the height heaven was not named,

And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
And the primeval Apsu, who begat them,
And chaos, Tiamut, the mother of them both
Their waters were mingled together,
And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen;
When of the gods none had been called into being,
And none bore a name, and no destinies were ordained.

The two stories both depict how the waters were divided and how heaven and earth were

separated. However, they differ drastically in how creation was established. In Genesis

God hovers over the water of chaos and from it brings life and order. In Genesis there is

no threat or competition for God. God alone acts with control over the earth. In the

Enuma Elish the heavens and earth are formed out the violent conflict between the gods

Marduk and Tiamat. [image] The story depicts them locked in battle when at one point it

says that Tiamat opened her mouth and,

Marduk drove in the Evil Wind . . .

As the terrible winds filled her belly,
He released the arrow,[and] it tore her belly,
It cut through her insides, splitting the heart.
Having thus subdued her, he extinguished her life.
He cast down her carcass to stand upon it. (IV, 93-104)
Then Marduk stomped on the legs of Tiamat,
With his unsparing mace he crushed her skull.
When the arteries of her blood he had severed,
On seeing this, the gods were joyful and jubilant,
They brought gifts of homage to him.
Then the lord paused to view her dead body,
[and thought] That he might divide the form and do artful works.
[and so he] He split her like a shellfish into two parts:
[and with] Half of her he set up a covering for heaven.
[with the other half still beneath his feet as the earth]

This is how the world was created according to one Babylonian belief. This may as well

be the depiction of the violence of one country conquering another or the image of hostile

corporate takeover or even the scene of domestic violence between a husband and wife.

This is how the world establishes order. These are our creation stories. There is no peace

or rest when you cannot trust that violence and chaos will not suddenly erupt around you.

This is life that is founded on violence. This is seen so clearly in young children who

grow up volatile homes. They so often lack in the ability to form relationships and focus

on work because the world is an unstable place that they cannot trust. It is place that

could erupt at any time.

In response to these creation stories we are called to re-tell and perhaps more

importantly reenact God’s creation in the world around us. Our creation story has two

sides to it. First God comes to those who are experiencing their threat of chaos around

them. God comes to those who suffer under the violence of those who are creating their

own worlds around them. In the Bible God is never absent from those who suffer in

darkness and chaos. The opening lines of the Bible tell us that God was present in the

darkness that hovered over the waters of creation. And then in coming alongside those

who suffer under the power of the world’s creation stories, under the beasts that rise from

the sea, God overturns those stories because their power comes only in being able to

subject those who are weak under them and control their circumstances. God calls them

out of that world to create a new life in which there is no need to fear.

There is no place too dark and too chaotic that Christ cannot be present. Our

creation story extends into Jesus own life. The beginning and end of Jesus’ ministry are

marked by acts of creation. At Jesus’ baptism we have the scene of the waters at the

Jordan River which is so important in the creation accounts. It does not talk about Jesus

entering into the water only his emerging up out of the water as the dry land does. And

what is more the heavens part and the Spirit of God descends as a dove. I would like to

go out on a limb here and say that the dove that descends is an allusion to the dove that is

sent out by Noah in the Flood story. This is the beginning, the new creation of Christ’s

ministry. And with the resurrection of Jesus we of course find the beginning of the new

creation over death. At baptism Jesus shows that his ministry is to enter into the deep

waters of life, of the chaos that humanity can experience. And Christ goes even deeper as

he is willing to enter even into death in order that ultimately the creation of God will

prevail over any other claims that are established apart from God.

We have is a story that is greater than the beasts of creation that have created

order through violent means. In many ways it was this ongoing creation story that

sustained the early Anabaptists, the forerunners to the Mennonites. In a course that I am

taking at Conrad Grebel we are looking at one of the earliest texts of the Anabaptist

movements which was a hymnal written by a group that were imprisoned in Passau

Germany from 1535 to 1540. These imprisoned people believed in the God of creation,

the God who formed the heaven and the earth. But they also had to live in the face the

reality of imprisonment and possible execution. They faced the destruction powers of a

world established apart from God’s peace. In one of the hymns the writer is trying to

understand the meaning and purpose of their suffering and the absence of joy. The first

stanza begins with a difficult refrain,

I would like to sing

and likewise be happy,
but I shall not succeed,
nor will my heart find expression.
So, I must give it up,
accept sorrow,
get hold of my soul with patience,
until my Comforter comes.

As the writer works through his spiritual and physical struggles he comes finally to the

climax and writes a stanza as though coming from the voice of God. It reads,

Now I say to you also,

in Christ my Son,
if you want to have joy
and be raised with him,
you must first die with him
and become like him in suffering.
You will then inherit with him
my joy and eternal kingdom.

Early Anabaptists were an extreme example of what it meant live solely by the Christian

creation story of peace. They rejected the creation stories that were enforced through

violence and in so doing they suffered under it. But they knew that Christ also rejected

the Roman creation story and suffered for it and so they maintained faith and hope

because they knew that God’s creation was greater and that even if they suffered death,

and perhaps especially if they did, then they would all the more be participating in how

Jesus enacted a new creation which was to enter into death so that its acts of de-creation

would be undone and overcome forever.

So separate yourselves from the creation stories that surround us. There is no

lasting world that can be established through selfish action. As we pile stone markers

here so also mark your lives by God’s creation. And as we pull out of the world’s stories

may we find each other and anyone else who is suffering that we might walk together in

the Spirit of Christ; with the one who is coming to establish a new heaven and a new

earth [image]. As the Bible begins with creation so also it ends in creation. But this time

our world does not come up out of the chaos. Rather the new heaven and new earth are

established directly by God. And listen to these words which could easily go unnoticed.

John says in Revelation,

I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed
away, and there was no longer any sea.

In light of what we have heard this morning those should come as beautiful words. There

is no longer any threat of chaos. There is no longer any place where the beast of violence

can threaten you. Our creation story speaks ultimately of the Kingdom of Peace.

Separate yourselves from the stories of power, coercion, violence, and greed and help me

to separate from them. For so long as we are a part of them we are a part of the beast.

Set up a stone, a marker, in your life so that when your children, you relatives, or your

friends ask then tell them of the story of creation, which is also the story of the

resurrection, which is also the story of peace on earth, for the whole earth and for all

people. Amen.