Putting down paganism - Genesis 1

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 7th September 2008.

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Let me introduce you to Dr Pedant of Hull University. He is a physicist by training and is so absorbed in his subject that everything has to be seen through the lens of his beloved science. To be frank, this makes Dr Pedant something of a nerd, a bit of an ‘anorak’ really. How so? Well, let me tell you what happened to him one day. He received through the post a letter from Burstwick. It was a rather affectionate letter written by a young lady who had admired Dr Pedant from afar. Her heart had been captured by the young scientist. How handsome he looked in his white laboratory coat. His horn rimed glasses sent her into a swoon. The high forehead was obviously a sign of super intelligence and she liked that in a man. All these things she set forth in her letter, wearing her heart on her sleeve in the hope that Dr Pedant might feel the same way about her. You had to hand it to Ethel, she was not backward coming forward. How did Dr Pedant respond? Well, as any scientist of his ilk would. He became so excited when he opened the letter and noticed the quality of the paper which was used. And so he took it along to the laboratory to examine the cellulose and water content of the epistle. Yes, he was right; this was a most interesting chemical composition indeed, he might right an article on it for the next issue of ‘Scientist’s Weekly’. Then there was the ink. This sent him into raptures. So he subjected it to chromatographical analysis, separating out the different pigments which together made up the ink and the results were fed into a computer which produced some very interesting figures. But then a friend says to Dr Pedant. "I see you received a letter today, who was it from and what did it say?" And being the nerd he is, replied, "Don’t ask me, I am a scientist, take it to the linguistics department if you want to ask those sort of questions. As far as I am concerned they are just random marks on a page"

I would like to suggest to you, that in the same way scientists can offer their views about the origin of the universe, the beginnings of mankind, the biological nature of man analysing these things in scientific terms using scientific methods, and still not be able to answer the most vital questions of all which are to do with the meaning and purpose of mankind. Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? How are we meant to behave? Is there a mind behind this universe? And when scientists do attempt to answer such questions, they can no more give an answer as scientists than Dr Pedant could about the meaning of his letter in terms of chemical composition and so miss out on the most important thing –that someone was trying to establish a relationship. If they do speak about such things-as the famous Professor Dawkins is doing at length- they are speculating and philosophising and their views are not necessarily any better or worse than anyone else’s. No, in order to find out answers to these more basic questions about the meaning of life, not the origin of life-the meaning of life- we need another source of knowledge, one which cannot be gained by looking through a microscope or peering through a telescope. We need something akin to a letter, a form of correspondence from the Maker. And that is exactly what the Bible claims to be, especially the first few chapters of Genesis. It deals with the ‘why?’ questions –what is the purpose of this world, rather than the ‘how’ questions- how it came into being- and more to the point, the ‘who’ question- who is the one who brought this universe into existence by whatever means he saw fit? How are we to relate to him? What does he expect of us and what can we expect of him?

So let’s turn to the first chapter in Genesis to hear what God himself, says about himself.

The first thing is that he is the exclusive God: verse 1 ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’ Now that verse may not have blown you away but it would have caused anyone in the surrounding nations of early Israel to reach for the smelling salts. Let me explain why. You see, what is surprising about this statement is that in a book all about beginnings and ‘begattings’ God has no beginning, he has no family tree. Now that was not the view of the other nations steeped in paganism. For example in Mesopotamia where Abraham came from, what is now Iraq, you had a mythical account of creation called, Enuma Elish, and here you had the original divine couple who were stuck in some sort of matter, the male god called Apsu and the female god Tiamat and from these came their little godlets like Marduk and Nebo and the like. And so you had a whole divine family tree. Not so in Genesis. God is the self-existent one. God exists contented and fulfilled within his own being of love as Father, Son (the Word) through which he created all things-3 ‘and God said’, and the Spirit or ‘breath’ which in verse 2 we are told was instrumental in bringing the universe into existence, hovering like a bird, which shows that God is intimately involved and close to his creation. Like a mother hen brooding over her chicks the true God is not locked into some sort of cosmic stuff from which he has to struggle in order to break free as with the Babylonians. There is no ‘Mrs’ god with whom he has to have sex to produce offspring. God is just there! He has always been there and he will always be there. So the Bible begins with God- the infinite one, the transcendent one, the holy one, the self-existent one, the personal God who is to be worshipped, trusted and adored. Only to see the universe and to analyse it without recognising the God who made it is as sad as Dr Pedant failing to recognise a love letter when it drops on his door mat.

Now our writer makes this same point about the exclusivity of God in several different ways throughout the chapter.

Just take a look down at verse 16 which speaks of God creating two great lights, the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. Why not simply call them the sun and the moon? That is what they are. Well, for the very good reason that the Semitic languages, of which Hebrew was one, had names for the sun and the moon which were also the names of gods and people worshipped them. So by speaking of the sun and the moon in this way, the writer is attacking idolatry. He is saying that is nonsense, the sun and the moon and not gods, they are nothing more than functional lights provided by the Creator, giant lamps which on a smaller scale you might use to light up your house- no more and no less. That is all they are to him.

Then notice that the term create ‘bara’ occurs only three times-v1, v21 and v27. It occurs at the beginning as a statement that God is the ultimate Creator of everything- ‘God created (bara) the heavens and the earth’. Well, that makes sense. Then in v 27 to describe the pinnacle of his creation –mankind- ‘so God created ‘bara’ man.’ that too would make sense-emphasising the special place of human beings. But why does it appear in v21 and the creation of giant sea monsters? ‘ So God created (bara) the great creatures of the sea.’ Well, in the Babylonian myth I mentioned earlier it goes on to describe how the world was brought into being. It was by one of the offspring, Marduk battling against his mother, Tiamat who was also a sea monster-the leviathan -and with a flat sword he killed her and from her two halves he made the earth and the sky. That is not the kind of son a mother would want is it? Not so, says Genesis, whatever sea creatures there are, that is all they are- big fish- not gods- and the true God doesn’t have to do battle with anything to bring about his creation- he just speaks and it is so. He is in total control!

‘But’ you say, ‘that is all very interesting but not terribly relevant. No one today believes in such myths involving the gods struggling with matter to bring things into being.’ Not in that form, I grant you, but myths are being presented today in books and on the TV as an alternative to the biblical account. For example, here is the atheist biologist G.G. Simpson, ‘Man is the result of a purposeless and materialistic process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned.’ Of course we have heard similar things from Professor Dawkins. What do we make of such sweeping statements which seek to put Christians in their place? For a start there is confusion between technical evolutionary theory-which many Christians who are scientists accept- and evolutionism- a philosophy which Christians can’t accept. Scientific fact can say nothing either for or against the supernatural, for or against the existence of God, but what is being put forward by Dawkins and the like is as much wishful thinking as that of any pagan religion about gods with flat swords making the earth out of a giant fish. The claim of Genesis is straightforward- the whole universe, seen and unseen, was conceived from all eternity in the mind of the one true God and was brought into being by whatever means he saw fit and is kept in being by him. Which brings us to the second point, that he is the creator God.

The very structure of Genesis 1 speaks of harmony and order-the crafting of a cosmos and not some random chaos. It began with emptiness and shapelessness waiting to be filled and formed with the creative activity of God. And the rest of the chapter shows how this structuring and filling takes place. The first three days deal with its shape, the second three days with the filling up with creatures suitable for its different parts. So the two series of days parallel each other perfectly as you see on the hand-outs.

Notice too how the pronouncement ‘good’ appears at the end of each stage-v 18 ‘ And God saw that it was good’, v 31 ‘And God saw all that he had made and it was very good.’ The word ‘good’ can mean ‘beautiful’, or it can mean ‘just right’ for the purposes for which it is designed, like when a designer comes onto the workshop floor to observe the new engine he designed and says to the workman ,’That is good’. And so God presents himself as the master craftsman, the consummate artist if you like, and what greater work of art can you have than this kaleidoscope of glory which we call the universe? The seventh day, you will notice at the beginning of chapter 2 is not a day of active creation, rather the picture is that of a craftsman standing back in satisfaction to observe his work and so it becomes a day of celebration and blessing. The author of Genesis is using his literary genius to construct a narrative whose very form reflects that of the Creator-and draws attention to the ultimate goal of creation which is brought together in the description of the seventh day. As the theologian John Calvin put it, the world is a theatre which displays the glory of God with everything rightly related to him- this is the meaning of the ‘Sabbath’, the day of harmony, wholeness and peace. Let me also say that this too another one in the eye for paganism. You see the Babylonians and others were very superstitious people, as folk are today. And they were particularly big on unlucky numbers. For them the unlucky number – you had to avoid like the plague was ‘seven’ and multiples of seven. So they always got nervous when it was the seventh day or the 14th day or the 28th day, they were just waiting for something bad to happen and for the gods to throw a wobbly and come down hard on people. But do you see what Genesis does? It says, ‘No’ in fact 7 is a wonderful number. The seventh day is meant to be kept special because it reminds us that we are to work in order to live, not live in order to work. We too need to slow down and rest and remember the God who has made us; that everything depends upon him and not us. So to keep on working and working, not taking a break and especially on the Sabbath day, is in fact a sign of unbelief. Let me ask: when you go out onto the Yorkshire Moors, or gaze up at a star studded evening or hold a little baby in your arms. What is your immediate thought? Is it, ‘This is a fine product of Chance?’ I hope not; that is what you say when some crazy paving has been delivered in a heap outside your door and you have to try and put it together. Surely, from deep within you exclaim, ‘Isn’t this wonderful? Isn’t this beautiful?’ And if you are a Christian your mind will also gravitate to the greater mind that conceived it, designed it and made it and say, ‘I worship you. I love you. I thank you’.

And what we have here is a dazzling display of vibrant creativity. Even the use of understatement has the effect of magnifying the overwhelming imagination of the divine mind- v 15, ‘He also made the stars.’ This almost throw away line is yet another one in the eye for the pagans who believed the stars were gods and therefore to be worshipped. Like people today who read their horoscopes. No, they are artefacts, requiring no greater effort from God to make them than from an artist who when painting simply flicks paint from his brush onto the canvas. Of course we are in a better position to appreciate what this means than the original writer. Our sun is a star, a million times larger than the Earth. Yet it is only one star in 100 billion stars which make up the Milky Way galaxy which is only one galaxy in the 100 billion galaxies in the universe. And with no struggle our God brought them all into being by his divine say- so, his Word- ‘Let there be’ and here it is.

But why such a universe? Why 100 billion galaxies when we are never going to get to the bottom of our own galaxy? Well, we might as well ask why should Leonardo Da Vinci not have stuck to drawing sketches, why bother with the Mona Lisa? Does this not tell us something about the nature of God, as the great works of art tell us something about Da Vinci? It tells us that not only is he is an all powerful God so that he is able to do this, but that he is an all generous God and delights in doing this. God is the supreme artist who creates on a vast canvas with huge brush strokes the diversity and magnificence of the universe, shimmering with colour, exploding with activity- he is extravagant in his creativity. He just loves doing it, enjoying it if you will- that is why the universe is so huge and diverse and wonderful. The same idea is there in verse 20 which speaks of the waters ‘teeming with living creatures’- this is what Augustine spoke of when he referred to the ‘plenitude’ of God’s creation- from the smallest cell, to the super nova, the orderly, the richness of God’s creativity is displayed for all to see and marvel and actually enjoy- going ‘wow’.

And this leads on to the next point he is the purposeful God :v26:’Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." You see, contrary to the pronouncements of men like Simpson and Dawkins that we are mere accidents unplanned and unwanted, thrown up by a cold impersonal universe like a child might vomit up undigested milk, we are actually placed in a very special and privileged position. I am sure that you will have noticed that when it comes to the bringing into being mankind there is a break in the pattern. With all the other things and creatures there is simply the declaration of God, ‘Let there be’ and there was. But here God pauses and consults with himself as it were, there is this little dialogue going on within the Trinity, ‘Let us make man in our image.’ Indicating something very special is about to happen. What is more, God actually addresses man, he doesn’t do that with anything else- v 28, ‘God blessed them and said to them,’ Be fruitful and increase in number.’ The writer speaks of us being made in ‘God’s image’. We shall be looking in more detail next week as to what this means, but suffice to say that at the very least it carries with it the notion of being God’s representatives, acting responsibly for God, doing things his way. That is, we are creatures who not only have rights but responsibilities. We are meant to be in a personal relationship with God and, as with any such relationship, communication is meant to take place- God speaks to us, we are to listen and obey; we speak to him offering him our praises and telling him of our needs and so reflecting the fact that we are dependent creatures made and kept by a loving Creator.

Now we have seen that amongst other things, Genesis 1 is a tract attacking paganism. It says that view is wrong and this is right. If you start to think that the world has come from nowhere and is going nowhere, sooner or later that is going to be translated into how you behave- ‘eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.’ There is a certain logic in that and we see all around us people who are taking that view seriously with disastrous results-our society is falling apart. The other aspect of paganism is that the world, the universe and everything is really all about us. We are centre stage and Chance or the gods are just off stage occasionally interfering with our lives and so we have to placate them once and a while so we can get on with enjoying ourselves. But here we see that it is God who is centre stage, not man The universe is the theatre of his glory not ours. And when we turn to the New Testament we discover how this is so. We saw in verse 3 that God relates to his world by his Word. That Word is God the Son, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.’ Then do you remember how John goes on? ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling amongst us’. Who is that Word? - the Lord Jesus Christ of course. He is ‘the image of the invisible God’. In other words, the universe was made by him and for him. He is the one who holds it all together. God made the universe for the glory of his Son. And it is as we come to him, as we bow before him, and ask him to reign within our hearts that the wonderful miracle takes place, we see everything differently, so that life has meaning, the world has a purpose, that everything- our work, our families, our thinking, our play, is to be offered up as a sacrifice of thanksgiving to so wonderful a God as we see him in Jesus.

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