Who rules? - Genesis 1
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me begin with a couple of questions: how do you account for Auschwitz in all its horror and misery? How do you account for the world in all its elegance and diversity? Whatever explanation you have for the one must also provide a suitable explanation for the other. Let us take Auschwitz first. The famous psychologist, Victor Frankle, himself a former captive of Auschwitz wrote this: ‘If we present man with a concept which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present him as an automaton of reflexes, as a mind machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drive and reactions, as a mere product of heredity and environment, we feed the nihilism to which modern man is, in any case, prone. I became acquainted with the last stage of corruption in my second concentration camp, Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment- or, as the Nazis liked to say, “of blood and soil,” I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in the lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.’ In short, he is saying that the practical horrors of the gas chambers can be traced back to the theoretical ideas of the academics, ideas which are antitheistic and materialistic- that there is no God and the only reality is what we can see, hear and touch. That is also the view which seeks to explain the world solely in materialistic terms. The American astronomer Carl Sagan popularised this on TV several years ago in the series Cosmos. He said, “The cosmos is all there is and ever will be.” He argued that all life was simply a product of nature and therefore we are exactly on the same level as all other animals in terms of value and significance. Of course one can choose to move in one of two directions with this. You could with Sagan argue that animals should be elevated to the same status as humans and afforded the same rights of protection as the rest of us. That is one route you could take. But by the same token one could argue with the Nazis that some humans can be relegated to the same status as other animals, to be treated like vermin and so be eradicated; in such a universe ‘might is right.’ For, if there is no transcendent, objective source of value by which to adjudicate between our choices, what is good and what is bad, i.e. a God- then why not choose Auschwitz over hospitals?
But there is another explanation which accounts for our world and our experience of it both in terms of its beauty and its baseness, its glory and its grime. It is the explanation given in the Bible. But this explanation is something which not only addresses our minds; it also calls for a response of our hearts. So over the next six weeks we are going to be taking a close look at the Bible’s account of reality; answering such questions as to why the world is the way it is, made up of the good, the bad and the ugly. What is God like who has made us and how can we properly be related to him. Has God done anything to clear up the mess we find ourselves in, if so what is it and what implications does that have not only for the future of the planet in general but my personal future in particular? So if you are here tonight and are not yet a Christian, this series will help you get to grips with what the Bible claims to be true so enabling you can make up your own mind. If you are a Christian then this series is not only going to increase your understanding and hopefully a sense of gratitude and adoration of the God who made this magnificent universe and the marvellous creature you are, but help you to explain the Christian faith more clearly to others. And so what better place to start than, in the words of Julie Andrews, at the very beginning, which is what the word ‘Genesis’ means.
Now, whatever physical means God has chosen to bring this world into being from a scientific standpoint, the account we have in Genesis deals not so much with the question of ‘how?’ or even ‘why?’, though it does that, but the fundamentally more important question: ‘who?’ Who is the God who out of nothing made this mind dazzling something called the universe and this stunning creature called man who can achieve so much and yet so little, who can send probes to the outer limits of the galaxy and yet not control the inner desires of his own heart? Well, in the first few pages of the Bible we are presented with three great truths about this God: that he is the only God, the orderly God and the owning God.
First, he is the only God, 1:1 ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’ Now that verse may not have blown your socks off, but it would have given the original readers of the surrounding nations of Israel apoplexy. God, not gods made the heavens and the earth. And our writer makes this same point in several different ways, so it must be important.
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? 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 such idolatry. He is saying that is nonsense, these are nothing more than functional lights provided by the Creator, like giant lamps which on a smaller scale you might use to illumine your house- no more and no less.
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 all. Well, that makes sense. Then in v 27 to describe the pinnacle of his creation –mankind-that too would make sense-emphasising the special place of human beings as his representatives. But why v21 and the creation of giant sea monsters? What is so special here? Well, if you were a Babylonian living in what is now modern day Iraq at the time this book started to come into circulation you would be mightily offended by that, because part of their creation myth (Enuma Elish) was that the god Marduk battled with a giant sea monster called ‘tiamat’- the leviathan -and with a flat sword he killed it and from its two halves he made the earth and the sky. Not so, says Genesis, whatever sea creatures there are, that is all they are- big fish and the true God has to do battle with nothing to bring about his creation- he just speaks and it is so.
‘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 as an alternative to the biblical account which for all their rhetoric are weak in logic. For example, here is the atheist biologist Sir Julian Huxley: ‘In the evolutionary pattern of thought there is no longer either need or room for the supernatural. The earth was not created; it evolved.’ Or take the scientist G.G. Simpson, ‘Man is the result of a purposeless and materialistic process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned.’ 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 ‘the evolutionary pattern of thought’ -a philosophy which is not necessarily wedded to the technical theory. Scientific fact can say nothing either for or against the supernatural, but what is being put forward 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 and uncompromising, the whole universe, seen and unseen, was conceived from all eternity in the mind of one true God and brought into being and is kept in being by him. Which brings us to the second point, that he is an orderly God.
The very structure of Genesis 1 speaks eloquently of harmony and order-the crafting of a cosmos and not a 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 uses a literary device to show 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. The two series of days parallel each other perfectly as you see on the hand-out sheets.
Notice how the pronouncement ‘good’ appears at the end of each stage. The word can mean ‘beautiful’, or just right for the purposes for which it is designed. And so God presents himself as the master craftsman, the consummate artist 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 view his work and so it is a day of celebration and blessing. The author of Genesis is using his literary genius to construct a narrative whose intricate form reflects that of the Creator-the supreme genius and draws attention to the ultimate goal of creation which is brought together in the description of the seventh day- here is a theatre which displays the glory of God with everything rightly related to him- this is the ‘Sabbath’ the day of harmony, wholeness and peace.
It is a dazzling display of vibrant creativity isn’t it? 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 one in the eye for the pagans who believed the stars were gods and therefore to be worshipped. No they are artefacts, which are to be admired as the product of one infinite Being. 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 there was.
But why such a universe? Why 100 billion galaxies when we are never going to get to the bottom of our own galaxy? 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 all powerful so that he is able to do this, but that he us all generous 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. 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.
The God who created all of this is the God who owns all of this. And as the owning God it is to human beings that he gives a special role to take care of all of this-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 Huxley, Simpson and Dawkins that we are mere accidents unplanned and unwanted, thrown up by a cold impersonal universe like a child might throw up undigested milk, we are placed in a very special and privileged position. The writer speaks of us being made in ‘God’s image’. At the very least that carries with it the notion of being God’s representatives, acting responsibly for God, doing things his way, knowing we are accountable to him for the way we treat him, his world and each other. This brings us to complete the first picture in the Two Ways to Live Presentation: God is the loving ruler of the world and so God is represented as a crown, he is creation’s true King; he sustains our very being with his Word. If he were to withdraw his divine say- so, there would not be chaos, with one planet flying into another, there would be nothing, everything would simply cease to be. As we heard from that reading from Revelation 4:11 ‘You are worthy our Lord and God to receive glory and honour and power, for by your will all things were created and have their being.’ So here is the ultimate irony for the atheist: he can only denounce God’s existence by permission of the very God he denies exists!
God made the world and so owns the world, and he made us to be his managers under him. That is the way God originally set things up, showing his loving care by placing his first two rulers in a park called Eden which you read all about in chapter 2. The world was to be tamed and its abundant resources managed for mankind’s good not exploited for individual greed- chapter 1:28: ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it (harness it). Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’ What a generous God!
And as we see in the diagram, man is put properly in his place. He is created like the rest of creation. He is not immortal like God; he is a creature like all the other creatures and owes his existence to God’s kindness. And yet he is unlike any other creature for his is placed on top of the world as its vice-regent, whilst always being under God who alone is sovereign. Here, then is the proper balance when we think of ourselves as human beings. You see, at one level the Chance myth debases man- here is the Nobel Prize winning scientist Jacques Monod: ‘Chance alone is at the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere: pure chance, absolutely free, but blind, at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution. The central concept of biology is today the sole conceivable hypothesis, the only one compatible with observed and tested facts. The biosphere looks like the product of a unique event whose chances of occurring were almost nil. The universe was not pregnant with life. Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game.’ Contrast that view with another French scientist and philosopher, the Christian Blasé Pascal: ‘I blame equally those who make it their sole business to extol man and those who take it on themselves to blame him and those also who attempt to amuse him. I can approve none but those who examine his nature with sorrow and compassion. It is dangerous to show man in how many respects he resembles lower animals, without pointing out his grandeur. It is also dangerous to direct his attention to his grandeur without keeping him aware of his degradation. It is still more dangerous to leave him ignorant of both; but to exhibit both to him will be most beneficial.’ And that is but a summary of what we have here. There is something noble and glorious about us, but there is also something very ignoble and feeble too. The Bible explains both things.
It is obvious that this world is no longer the world we live in- a good world which knows God’s presence and peace. For as Genesis 3 goes on to explain, which we shall look at in more detail next week, something has happened to disrupt that harmony and has caused God to vacate his presence to some degree- and that something is called sin- our decision to try to rule without reference to God. And if God is removed from the picture something else must be introduced to take his place and that something will not be kind. For Monod it is ‘Chance’ with a capital ‘C’- just as mythical and just a tyrannical as the pagan gods of the Babylonians against which our writer is tilting. And this also explains Auschwitz- let go of God and some idolatry will be introduced to take his place and humans will suffer as a result. And if you do not understand that it is God who governs the world, who made it, who owns it, then the enormity of your sin will never make sense to you and why God is angry with you. Why it is so monstrous that we snub this God and wreck his world.
And if God had left it there we would be in an intolerable despairing situation. But he hasn’t. His original intention to rule by a man has now been realised, for he sent his Son into the world-Jesus Christ to exercise his heavenly Father’s rule perfectly. And in order to establish that rule in the hearts of rebellious men and women he first had to rescue them, and this he did by dying on a cross taking the judgement upon himself of all who put their trust in him and submit to him. This and this alone is the way we get connected with our Maker. So that one who in the infinity of his power made you, is the one who in the infinity of his love redeems you for a personal relationship with himself. Let me ask: have you entered into that relationship? Now would be a great time to do so. And as with any relationship it begins by talking, owning up to your wrongdoing, your need and asking that this God will meet it through his Son. And if you already have this relationship, could I ask: How big is the God you claim to worship? This big? For this is the only God, who wants to bring order into your world, because he owns you.