On this, our last Sunday in our seasons of creation worship series, we start where we’ve been starting each week—at the beginning. It’s a very good place to start. And within the process that was beginning, we affirm, as we have and do each Sunday, God.
And this Sunday, as we specifically consider humanity, as we begin, our beginning, we believe, is also with God. It’s been our consistent affirmation. Whatever else we might suggest was around, whatever else was happening, God was working with and through creation—creating. That’s the story we’ve been telling.
When it comes to the creation of humankind though, which story do we tell? The one from chapter one (Genesis 1:26-31)? Or the one from chapter two (Genesis 2:4-25)? Because they’re quite different. In the one, for example, man and woman are created together on the last day. In the other, man is created first—not just before woman, but before anything else. That’s a fairly significant difference. That is, in fact, a contradiction—if all the details of the stories need to be reconciled. And that’s a contradiction with implications far beyond just having the right order. For in the first story, creation is named good in and of itself, before there were ever human beings around. In the second story, creation is actually created for man who names everything. To consider the stories of the creation of humankind is to consider two different stories edited together from two different sources with two different agendas. Some other time, we’ll spend our time looking at the specific differences, the different sources and the different agendas. For now, let’s just acknowledge that our scripture contains two stories—two very different stories—when it comes to the creation of humankind. From the first chapters of our sacred texts, we receive the implicit message that there’s something more important than consistency in detail.
So the question is not did God say, let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness …. did God create us in the image of God, and there we were? Male and female, created by God? (Genesis 1:26-27) Or did the Lord God form man from the dust of the ground, and breath into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being? (Genesis 2:7)? That’s not the question. But do we have here, again, that idea of the couplet, the truth more important than any one (telling of it) any one image of it, the story richer than can be told, the bold initiative of God that was also process, the work of God that was and always is the taking of what is and shaping and forming and breathing life into ….
Regardless of differences in story, detail, priority, implication, there was something about creation that we associate with being created in the image of God, with having God breathe life into us, with existing in harmony with all creation and with God, with naming creation, with walking with God at the time of the evening breeze, with being vegetarian—with there being no killing (other than harvesting, I guess)—no death … and we call that original blessing. We begin with—in—for—original blessing.
One more detail: we read that we, as human beings, get a blessing (Genesis 1:28a) that may or may not be distinct from: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28b). It’s interesting. You notice we, as human beings don’t get a specific “we are good” from God. God doesn’t look at us and see that it was good. We read, then God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good (Genesis 1:31). It’s a “very good” at the end, but not just for us, but for everything—for all creation together.
2. disruption of the ideal
It will come as no surprise to you … shouldn’t come as a surprise, has, after all, happened every week. Every week, we have started with creation and with original blessing, and every week, we have subsequently moved from that original state of blessing into the curse—moved east of Eden—into the falling.
It’s the idyllic beginning disrupted—distorted—perverted. Every week. But here’s where our story changes—changes from the way it’s been told the last four weeks. Because the sky, the waters, the land, the animals—the rest of creation was cursed because of us. The key difference in the unfolding story, when the story gets to us, is that it’s no longer a matter of the innocent suffering the result of someone else’s choices and actions. Now it’s about us. It’s not about what someone else did. It’s about what we did—what I did.
Call it disobedience—call it willfulness—call it sin. And there’s the curse or the consequences—on all creation. And we rephrase a question from a previous Sunday, is this God’s initiative? An act of cursing? Or is it God’s response to human kind? God’s observation that from the beginning, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)? God looked and saw that we were throwing it all out of balance. God looked and saw the inevitable consequences.
Here’s the thing. It could only happen, because we were created to be free. Right? God risked creating us free. Free to do right and therefore free to do wrong. Free to make our own decisions. God created us with free will.
So here are two questions with which I wrestle. Surely God knew what what was coming creating us that way. So God accepted the possibility of what would be. Which is to say God risked God’s own self in creating us as we are created.
I’ve always been fascinated by how the whole expectation of God coming was always tied in with God coming as judge, right? And then Jesus came and, big surprise, got judged by us … which was, in effect, our judgment, but … anyway! So then, right away, we started expecting God to come again—started expecting Jesus’ second coming as—what? Judge, right?
Sometimes I wonder if it won’t be just like it was with Jesus’ first coming—the upending of expectation, and the final judgment will be God judged again. This time for creating us at all. Or, at least, for creating us as God did. And the fullness of time will raise the question, was it worth it? Was it worth the risk? God put God on the line in the hope, the belief that human beings created in the image of God, would, of their own free will, live in the image of God. And final judgment will be the judgment of the risk God took.
We’ve been focusing on the idea that God created with creation—that God invited us into the process of creation. It’s a beautiful image, and it’s a huge gamble.
Here’s my other question: we are created in the image of God. We are free to choose to do right, free to choose to do wrong—free to obey, free to disobey. Now, within all the conversation about what being created in the image of God might mean, have you ever heard it asked if that means God disobeys?
3. a disobedient God
So let’s talk a little bit about our disobedient God, shall we?
Throughout scripture “first born” is a designation of belovedness, of specialness whether in reference to Israel (Exodus 4:22, Jeremiah 31:9), in reference to Jesus (Romans 8:29; Hebrews 1:6; Revelation 1:5) or just in general (Zechariah 12:10; Hebrews 12:23). The best gift that can be offered are the firstlings Abel offers (Genesis 4:4), and the first fruits (Exodus 22:29; 34:26; Leviticus 23; Deuteronomy 18:4; 26; Nehemiah 10:35; 12:44-47; 13:31; Proverbs 3:9; Jeremiah 2:3; Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 15:20-28; 16:15; James 1:18; Revelation 14:4), and the biggest threat God and Moses offer Egypt is the killing of the firstborn (Exodus 11:5; 12:29; 13:15; Psalm 78:51; 105:6).
In fact, God claims all firsts. There’s the feast of first fruits (Leviticus 23:10-11). We’ve mentioned that one before. remember? Established upon entry into the promised land as a feast of thanksgiving, then becoming, through the years, an annual celebration of gratitude. God also claims all firstborns (Exodus 13:2, 12, 13; Numbers 3:12; 8:17). This applies to livestock. If you have ducks and goats and cows, each firstborn duckling, kid and calf is due God. Now firstborns could be redeemed (Exodus 34:20; Numbers 3:44-51). It’s all spelled out. If you’re particularly attached to this duckling, you can look up the small print and see what constitutes an acceptable alternative. God’s expectation of firstborn also extends to children—not to be sacrificed, but to serve in the temple. But they, too, can be redeemed. In fact, Levites, existed as the representative firstborn of Israel (Numbers 3:41; 8:14-16) and served God as priests in the temple (instead of the actual first born of Israel), and parents only owed a financial gift to the temple for their firstborn.
It’s technically called the law of primogeniture, and it was the way to hold a society together. A family is genealogically traced through the firstborn (Genesis 10:15; 22:21; 25:13; 35:23; 36:15). It was part of the law of Deuteronomy, part of God’s law, Torah—making clear that the firstborn has certain privileged rights—is to receive a double portion of the inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:15-17), for example.
But God doesn’t play by the rules. God received Abel’s sacrifice (Adam and Eve’s second born) and not Cain’s. God blessed Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn, but the biblical story continues to unfold through Isaac, the secondborn. Then not through Esau, Isaac’s firstborn, but through Jacob, the secondborn, and then through Joseph, Jacob’s tenth son!
Within such extraordinary disobedience to the way things were, there’s the ongoing reality of expectation and custom. Even Joseph who received Jacob’s blessing as the tenth son, expected his own firstborn to receive the privileged blessing of the firstborn and wasn’t pleased that he brought his two boys to his dad, Jacob blessed the secondborn, Ephraim (Genesis 48:10-20). Then in Jeremiah, God says I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn (Jeremiah 31:9)!
So, Reuben is Israel’s eldest and named his father’s strength, but the story continues through Joseph (the tenth son), but Judah (the fourth son) ends up being the ancestor of Jesus(!), while the descendants of Levi (the third son) end up standing in for the firstborn of Israel! As if, in the eyes of God, they’re all important! All deserving of special blessing. And Jesus, according to the gospels was a decendant of Adam and Eve’s third son and of Jacob’s third son (Matthew 1:1-16; Luke 3:23-38) as well. Hmmm!
Another example. Nowhere in scripture, is it presented as a law to despise the weak and the other. I haven’t read the whole Bible with that in mind, but I feel fairly comfortable making that assertion. On the other hand, it’s fairly safe to name it customary, wouldn’t you say? And yet the word of God consistently privileges the poor, the old, the weak, the sick, the widows, the orphans, the aliens.
Here’s the thing: love doesn’t play by rules other than itself. Love doesn’t accept rules other than itself. Love trumps rules. Can’t be bound by them. Whether the rules of law, custom, tradition, or even nature.
It’s an interesting thing, considering the children of God, faiths and congregations. Are they more invested in a love of rules or the rule of love? Two very different things. A love or rules makes for a very clear, ordered, safe existence. The rule of love is messy.
And to some extent, we’re playing word games here because God is not disobedient to who God is … love. God is absolutely consistent there, but in terms of the rules, the regulations, the expectations, the institutions set up in God’s name? Forget it! God plays by the rule of love.
4. salvation history
To continue in the vein established over the last few weeks is to now sweep through salvation history. There was original blessing. There was the choosing and the falling. Then there’s the promise of what is to be—the redeeming. God’s initiative to restore relationship and possibility.
There’s one key difference though. Unlike the rest of creation that waits with eager yearning … longing, expectation (Romans 8:19) for salvation to be worked, waiting is not the only thing we do. We wait (we do), but we’re also part of the working. Part of what we wait for is what we are a part of bringing about.
As the story unfolds, first, God sends the prophets (relying on the responsiveness of people to the word of God)—that is, relying on the responsiveness of the prophets to God and then on the responsiveness of the people to the prophets. It’s God taking initiative, but in that peculiar gambling, partnering, hoping kind of way. This turned out to be generally ineffective.
Then we have Jesus, and for Christians, this is a huge development—something entirely new. But it’s so important to note, it’s really not that different in terms of the story. It’s still God depending on people’s responsiveness to the Word (now with a captial “W”) of God. We still have to say “yes.”
Here’s the thing: our response to God is our choosing to be dependent—acknowledging our dependence on God’s grace. We do not claim to be dependent on what we do. We rely on God’s love not ours—on God’s commitment to us, not on ours to God. And while salvation remains God’s initiative, as with creation, the gamble is on us. God’s betting on us.
5. distinctiveness of Jesus
Alright, so what makes Jesus different?
On the one hand, we have those who talk about the one who is truly human and yet also truly divine, but then blur the absolute distinctiveness between the two. Consider the point that God became flesh and dwelt among us to get the insider view. You’ve heard that one, haven’t you? God knows what it’s like to be me because God in Jesus was like me. But what’s an honest understanding of me from someone who’s supposed to be perfect? If Jesus is the way God’s going to get to know us as humans, how’s God going to have any insight into what it means to sin—to live with having sinned? Seems to me that’s a key dimension of humanity.
It’s the whole Pauline existential crisis. God’s never going to know the exasperating, terrifying acknowledgement: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:15, 18b-19).
If Jesus was human, let him be human. And then, somehow affirm as well (without just blurring the lines) that as much as Jesus was absolutely human, Jesus is more than just the best of us—more than us as we could be. Jesus is not what it means to be “truly human” or “fully human” as if we’re not. There’s a dimension to Jesus, as human as he was, that was more than human. For his consistency and commitment, his integrity were—are inhuman. They are, in fact, divine.
If Jesus were simply who we could be if we made all the right choices and decisions—us never having blown it (never mind that all-have-sinned part of not just what we do, but also of who we are), then you’d have to wonder—I would, anyway—where are the others? If Jesus is simply the right combination of decisions and actions, surely there’d be one or two others in the fullness of history. I mean, I guess you could say this is a rare enough occurence that statistically it’s justifiable that there hasn’t been another …, but that’s kind of unsatisfying!
It is God who in freedom chooses, consistently, love, and we are called, not to be as we could be, but to be as God is—to be perfect as God is perfect (Matthew 5:48)!
6. church/body of Christ
That challenge—that call—that invitation (be like God—live in the image of God) is issued through the church (another odd combination of human and divine, right?). For the church (wonderful collection of misfits that it is) is described as the body of Christ: the hands and feet of Jesus, the heart of Jesus. but the head of the church remains Jesus (Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 1:17; 12:27; Ephesians 1:22; 4:12, 15-16; 5:23, 30; 6:23; Colossians 1:18, 24; 2:19; Hebrews 13:3), and the image is of diversity united in Jesus.
The fact of the matter though, looking around at most churches, is that we sacrifice diversity for the comfort and convenience of homogeneity. Churchs are, all too often, gatherings of people like-minded about something or about somethings very important to them. Sometimes it’s theology; sometimes it’s ministry. The important things can be appropriate. Certainly not denying those possibilities. But sometimes, it’s a political commonality. Sometimes a social one or socio-economic. Sometimes educational. Sometimes it’s the personality/charisma of a leader … like Greg! The homogeneity of most congregations is a scary thing to me because it’s typically dependent on something that shouldn’t be as important as it is.
I love the fact that we here at Woodbrook have lots of different theological perspectives. I love that we have lots of different political views represented. Lots of socio-economic and educational backgrounds. I love the countries we’re from and all the different books we read and movies we enjoy and hobbies and the friends we keep. I love that there are some of us that are only together because we’re together here—united in worship, in study and service, and thus in fellowship, and blessed be the tie that binds.
7. the promise of vision
At some point, each week during this series, we got to the promise of salvation—or recreation, transformation or renewal. And again today, we remember that while creation waits and yearns, amidst our waiting and our yearning, we also have a responsibility. We have John’s vision of a new creation in the book of Revelation that we will come to see, and that what we see will come to be, but we also have some sense of participating in bringing it about.
Why is all this important? It’s the story we tell. And yes, we need to be able to point where that story takes on our flesh. We need to be able to say look at the story made incarnate here in my life, in this life, in that one, in yours, but also, and ultimately, we need to be able to say, in God we trust. More than the words on the back of the money so many more trust. More than the official motto of our country (did you know that? signed into law by President Eisenhower back in 1956!), but the way we live: in God we trust.
What I am most comfortable telling people—what I am most comfortable saying, in a hospital, at a funeral—at a graveside, is that just as in the beginning, God was, at work, in partnership, just so, in the end, God will be, at work, in partnership. In the end, God. Yes? What more could we ask for? Do we know what that means? No. But we know God, and we trust God. In God we trust.
We are coming to see … a vision of what will be … a vision within what is. And what we come to see is that the end is no different from the middle which is no different from the beginning—God at work—partnering—co-creating—risking—gambling—investing—trusting—hoping—believing. Sounds like us, doesn’t it? Created in God’s image. Thanks be to God.