Tuesday, 15 September 2009 15:14

September 13, 2009 Sermon

“In Search of Eden”
Genesis 1-2:4a
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
September 13, 2009
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

God looked and saw that it was good.  That’s how it was in the beginning.  That’s what it was when order was made out of chaos.  And the best of us seek that order once again when we encounter the chaos of our lives.

God looked at the earth and it was good.  Look at the earth.  Breathe in the smells of food and crunchy leaves.  Take off your shoes and let the grass tickle your toes.  Pick a bean or an ear of corn from the UBC garden.  Or just watch someone get their own food and wonder if it is really free-for real?  It’s not stealing if there’s a sign that says help yourself and enjoy.  That’s grace.

In Eden, things are good.  Things are possible.  Order comes out of chaos.  When we come together, we seek a bit of that Eden—a bit of paradise.  Many of us have been intrigued by the book Saving Paradise.  But paradise is hard to define.  A few months ago, a dozen people gathered at a worship planning team retreat.  We came up with at least 18 examples of paradise.  Leave it to Baptists to have more opinions than people.  But the longing for paradise is primal and worth focusing on.  That’s what we seek to do this year.  The Second Century Bishop Iraneus said that the church is paradise on this earth.  And when you died, you simply changed addresses.  You are already in paradise when you are in the church.  How’s that for a novel concept?

Most of you know there is more than one creation story in the Bible.
There are several things we notice from Genesis 1.  First of all, mystery, not history is being portrayed here.  Karen Armstrong puts it this way: the “authors are not interested in historical accuracy.  Instead, they bring to the reader’s attention important truths about the human predicament that still reverberate today.”(In the Beginning, 1996:7)

The second thing we need to know is that the God in this story is named Elohim.  In the second chapter, God is named Yahweh. This is a clue that it was a different author, speaking with a different concept of God.  Most scholars posit that Genesis 1 was written in the 6th century BCE around the time of the exile.  It comes from the priestly school of thought.  The priestly writers of the Hebrew bible were interested in dealing with people’s hopelessness and despair.  They did so by writing about order and concreteness.  All of the lists of kings and lots of the Levitical rules come from the priestly writers.  The people needed structure.  They needed order since their lives were in chaos.  And that’s what this creation story gives them.

The good news to the exiles is that life in God’s well-ordered world can be joyous and grateful.  The relationship between God and humanity is one of trust.  There is no coercion, only free gracious commitment and invitation.  The purpose of creation is unity.
In Genesis 1, God is distant.  God is omnipotent.  God has no opponents.  God speaks and creation happens.  And creation is good.  It is said over and over again.  It was good.  And when humanity was created on the sixth day, God said it was very good.

As we join God in the creative process and search for evidence of Eden, how might we find encouragement by this God who makes things good?  Thanks be to God that Christians are seeing environmental stewardship as a priority of faith.  It wasn’t too long ago that most of Christendom did not believe that creation was good, but that creation was part and parcel of the fall and the introduction of sin.  We’ll get to that next week.

A troubled Israel found its identity through Genesis 1.  It helped them to recover because they rediscovered Eden, that place of purpose where they could reclaim their place in paradise.
Look at how this creation story opposes itself to other ancient accounts of creation:

1.    There are a number of gods in most creation stories.  This story shows one God and one God alone, although in a nod to polytheistic understanding, God says in 1:26 “let us make humanity in our image”.
2.    In other stories, there is conflict between gods that causes creation. In the Babylonian epic poem Enuma Elish, the male god Marduk kills the sea goddess Tiamat and creates the world after splitting her body in half and scattering her innards—a world destined to be one of chaos.  In Genesis 1 God only speaks and like a cosmic big bang, the universe and all its inhabitants are created. “In the beginning was the Word”, rings true.  Walter Brueggemann calls the world, God’s speech-creature.
3.    In Job, we hear of behemoth and leviathan, evil monsters of the deep, an echo of the beliefs of near eastern religions where sea creatures were on par with the creative forces of the world (not unlike the goddess Tiamat).  On the fifth day, Genesis 1:21, God creates the great sea monsters.  They are subordinate to God.
4.    In other belief systems, the moon, the stars, the earth and the sun are all gods.  In this story they are all created by one God.
5.    In radical departure from the second creation story in Genesis, male and female are both created equally and are both in the image of God.
6.    There is no opponent in this story, contrary to others. Satan doesn’t exist.  Angels don’t exist.  Spirits don’t exist.
7.    In this story, God is a god of life and everything is good.

The theology of Genesis 1, says Claus Westermann is one of blessing.  There is no sense of fallenness.  There is no sense that we need to be saved from anything.  In creation is God’s goodness, God’s blessing, God’s image.  This is unique.  It does not exist in ancient near eastern texts.  It is derived from the faith-life of Israel. The faith in this benevolent and good-creating God saves Israel and restores their faith.  It might save and restore our faith, too.  Sadly, later chapters of Genesis leaves this benevolent good God behind in favor of a more violent and vengeful deity.  Popular Christianity has done the same thing.

In Genesis 1, God creates order out of chaos and majestically watches over a universe that is called to rest.  This was very important to a people with no homeland, no sanctuary.  Seeing God does not require a temple.  Sometimes we can see God better outside the familiar temples of our lives.  Seeing God also requires rest.  That Sabbath rest is our re-creation. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke of the Sabbath this way:

“The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space.  Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.  It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world…The seventh day is like a palace in time with a kingdom for all.  It is not a date but an atmosphere.” (Talking about Genesis, 1996:29, 30)

The God we follow is not one who begins with violence.  The God we follow is the one who starts out making everything good, including all people.  If we get back to this kind of creation, then we are truly seeking a return to Eden—viewing God and humanity in a renewed manner.

This year, we will be in search of Eden.  Not just some Biblical garden with rivers flowing through it, but the place of rest and creativity and beauty and power that comes when we join God in making order out of chaos.  We are calling this year’s worship focus  “rivers of paradise” as we seek to find those ways to preserve, establish and celebrate those places that resemble Eden.  For when we find them, then we remember why we’re here.  We connect with the goodness around us.  We remember to breathe in the blessing of God.  And it is very good.

So, relish the dew at your feet.  Remember that God made the earth and all of us for good.  And when we seek out that good, that part of us that bends toward Eden, we unleash the creative powers of God.  Those powers are in us as we search for Eden and create a loving alternative to chaos.  May God guide and bless us on this journey.