“In the beginning…” That’s always how it starts, isn’t it? Somewhere, at some point in time, there is a beginning. But as one of our enterprising young people asked in Children’s Church last week, “where was God before that?”
That, friends, is a great question. Whatever your take on the stories of the book of Genesis in the Old Testament, there is a time when nothing exists… except the Creator. There is a time when God chooses, intentionally, to exert power and love in the act of forming the world. Honestly, if you don’t believe that there’s even a possibility that God had anything to do with that, I humbly submit that you may have come to the wrong place this morning.
You see, to get anything out of this story, you must first believe that there is a Creator, and you must secondly believe that this Creator is capable of love. It’s in the second that I think most people have a problem with, as does Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who says that he has a belief in God but he just can’t believe that God still cares what happens here. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Let’s assume that both are true, that this Creator is real and that the Creator loves us. If we look again at the second version of the Creation story, from Genesis 2. Certainly, the words of Genesis 1 tell us things about creation, but more in terms of a list of what happened, and when. It’s Genesis 2 that we get into some of the nitty gritty.
Here, God finishes his work and rests, blessing the seventh day and making the first foray into forming what it will mean for God’s people to rest, to gather, to worship on a day set apart. This is the first of many times that God will call back to what life was like before humanity even existed, when there was nothing, then Creation, and now rest. But then the Creation narrative relaunches, or reboots, or reorganizes in a different way.
Here, again, there are no plants, no rain, no humans. But upon causing waters to rise from the deep, God then takes the dust of the ground and breathes the breath of life into the first human.
The breath of life…
Have you ever taken CPR? I imagine many of you have. I had the first experience to take it as a teenager, as I applied to be a babysitter, long before the upteenth time I’ve taken it as a lifeguard or otherwise certified caregiver. But the first time I took it, I took it with my dad.
I’ll never forget my dad giving the back blows to the infant ‘dummy,’ and watching the dummy’s head sail across the room. It was quite an interview for me with all of the potential parents in the room who might hire me as a babysitter….
But breathing into the dummy, you know that you can watch the chest rise… and your breath doesn’t really ‘go’ anywhere. In fact, it has little to no effect because the dummy is itself not capable of life.
That’s what this dust is, what humanity is, in Genesis 2. It is not capable of life except that God does the breathing and the man formed of dust becomes a living being.
So the narrative flashes forward through the rest of God’s creating, stopping to mention the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Here, we know, if we can read the story for the first time, if we can revisit the statements presented here as if they are new to us, there must be in us a question of some dread.
God has created all of this, and he says that it is good, over and over again.
God has lovingly breathed life into this first man, this Adam, and given him everything he could need.
And yet there is a tree in the middle of the garden that contains the knowledge of both good and evil? When or how does evil enter into the picture?
Most us can tell you that a snake, not the garden variety snake but a serpent seduced Eve into eating of the tree, and then Adam did, and well, the rest is history.
St Augustine wrote in The City of God, that “Our first parents fell into open disobedience because already they were secretly corrupted; for the evil act had never been done had not an evil will preceded it. And what is the origin of our evil will but pride? For “pride is the beginning of sin.” And what is pride but the craving for undue exaltation?… This falling away is spontaneous; for if the will had remained steadfast in the love of that higher and changeless good by which it was illumined to intelligence and kindled into love, it would not have turned away to find satisfaction in itself, and so become frigid and benighted.”
And there you have it. Case closed. Sin has entered the picture, the Garden of Eden is no longer innocent, the first couple is booted out of the garden, and we have our literal or metaphorical (depending on your perspective) view of sin that will last forever and ever, Amen.
Except, and there’s always an except when it comes to these Bible stories, isn’t there?
You know that so-and-so, and this-and-that, and all of this will work this way because that’s how it’s naturally supposed to work, except in the cases where miraculously, we suddenly seem to find a stream of grace, a flash of light, a beam of love breaking through. And that sunbeam, that graceful movement, through this particular story is Jesus.
In our second Scripture, from Romans 8:18-28, we see that Paul recognizes that Jesus is the answer, the solution, the cure, the road back to the Garden of Eden. But Paul recognizes something about the world and how wrong it is that rises above whether you or I have a personal relationship with Jesus: Paul says that the whole world is suffering.
“For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”
What happened in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve were disobedient and believed that they knew better than God and they ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, that seemed so final. So absolutely terrible.
We see it in the ways that we fight with each other. In the ways we are mean, spiteful people to those who we really mean to love. We see it in the way that we long to be different than we are. We see it in the ways that we fail to be obedient to the vows we take to be true to God and to the church, “by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.” We want to, but somehow we feel like we can’t.
But Paul knows this, and Paul says that it’s not just us. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” Those inward groans we have, of longing to be loved, and known, and whole, and healthy, and strong, those are echoed in the natural world: in earthquakes, tsunamis, and forest fires, in cancer, HIV, diabetes, and sickle cell anemia. The natural order is off because the world God made perfectly has spun sideways from what it was always meant to be.
It’s this groaning that Stewart’s belief system comes out of: we want to wrap our minds around suffering, around pain, around disappointment, around the times we prayed for something and the prayer wasn’t answered the way we wanted. But Paul says we’re not alone, that the whole of creation waits for the time when God is going to make it all right.
It’s that hope, that future, that brings the song “Cry No More” to mind. (And no, I don’t mean the Chris Brown song.) The group Cross Movement sang,
“There’s coming a day that’ll be much better than now
No more hurts. no more work by the sweat of your brow
No more drunk drivers drivin all out of control
No more flats and being stuck on the side of the road
Believe me, no more turning on the T.V
Seeing kids say, for the price of coffee you can feed me
In fact, no more anthrax in the mail
No jail, no blizzards, no twisters, no hail
It’ll be the end of rain and the end of planes
Being hijacked and flown into window panes
It’ll be nice just, imagine a world that’ll be righteous
No more Middle East crisis
One day I won’t cry no more
Can’t wait for the day when people won’t die no more
Daddy’s won’t say, bye no more; lie no more
In the streets bullets won’t fly no more.”
Most of us can’t imagine life that bad. Sure, we might dislike our jobs, we might wish we were healthier, or that we had more money.
But for the person who lost a loved one and still feels the pain…
For the family dealing with the terminal illness of a child…
For the country in the midst of a war or natural disaster…
Those people cry out, groan, for something better.
And Paul says that we, the believers, the church, that we have the hope. That we have the Spirit, that we should pray but we’re prayed for when we don’t know the words, that God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. That if we have this hope- then it’s imperative that we share it, too.
Paul believes that this should give us hope, even while we watch hardship around us, struggling with bills and jobs, coworkers and bosses, family members suffering and people we care about betraying us. Paul seems to echo Jesus in this, that the hope we have in Jesus Christ has to make a difference in the way we approach the whole world, or it might then mean nothing at all.
In a funny/crazy little story in Luke 19, Jesus shows up outside of Jerusalem and there is a huge crowd of disciples praising God, shouting blessings on Jesus and expressing their hope in the good world that is to come, in the resurrection of this fallen one.
But of course there are Debbie Downers, some party poppers in the crowd. The Pharisees scold Jesus for his disciples’ joy- they want people to Eeyore their way through life, bemoaning everything. “Tell them to be quiet!” the Pharisees warn, “they shouldn’t be celebrating and praising you this way.”
To which Jesus says, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
The rocks cry out? Really? Are we talking like Stonehenge or like the strange rock people in the Noah movie? Are we talking with voices or will they all just sort of mumble? I mean, it’s one thing to say that Creation, all abstract and inclusive, is crying out, but the rocks? Even the pre-science people of Jesus’ day knew that rocks don’t talk.
I admit that I can’t imagine the world itself, or any one rock crying out. But I can imagine this, an examination of what would happen if another anthropomorphic group cried out to God.
And it begs the question: do you see the great God of the universe moving in your life? Do you lift God up so that others might see? Or do the rocks need to cry out because you’re not doing your job?
The Message translates Romans 8:19 this way: “The created world itself can hardly wait for what’s coming next. Everything in creation is being more or less held back.”
Can you hardly wait for God’s full presence on the earth? For God’s love and grace to be shown through you in a way that would be completely undeniable? For people to see Jesus in you?
Too often, I think we’re bogged down by our own sin, by the reality of ourselves we’ve come to believe, because we don’t see ourselves the way that God does. We see ourselves through the Adam and Eve lens, not the Jesus lens.
We prooftext the Bible, we understand Romans 5:12, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” and we say, ‘well, Jesus died for us,’ but we don’t actually let it make a difference.
Instead, Romans 5:17 asks us to consider a new reality, a new way of living: “For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!” Paul says that through one man’s disobedience (Adam’s) that all became sinners, but that through one man’s obedience (Jesus’) many will become righteous.
That the resurrection of Jesus Christ means that all of this will be put back together right, that again, the world as we know it will be the way God always intended it.
No more sickness.
No more pain.
No more fighting or anger or discord.
No more broken hearts and broken spirits.
No more addiction.
No more bills.
Because God will put it back together again through Jesus. Can you imagine? It’s almost more than I can even contemplate let alone understand!
But Paul says, and Jesus said, that it’s our job to celebrate that God is moving and will move in the world. That if we don’t do it, the rocks (and maybe the cartoons) will cry out.
It’s our job to point to the miracles.
It’s our job to hold onto the happily ever after.
It’s our job to stick together and love each other through the bad parts of the story.
It’s our job to actively work toward the coming of that day when God will reign and all evil will be defeated.
In our Baptismal Covenant, which we’ll use later today, we say that baptism is what ‘initiates’ us into the church, where “we are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price” (UMH 33). God calls us to see how God has moved already and continues to move- how we are washed clean, dusted off, and put back on our feet to keep moving forward on the journey.
And our obedience to God looks pretty simple if we boil it all down. Will we “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin? Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church with Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?”
Do you see the power in those words, in those membership vows? To reject evil, injustice, and oppression… and repent of our sins? To serve Jesus?
And then the kicker, the practical ways we will be obedient: “will you faithfully participate in its ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service and your witness?” Feel free to skip to page 38 in your hymnal and write that in there. Yes, I said write in your hymnal! “And your witness.” [We just don’t have the money to buy all-new hymnals.]
We believe that we’re called to pray for the church and for the world, that God would renew it and make it right; that we will gather together to be with each other and provide support and hope because we can’t experience the same amount of love and encouragement from home; that we will contribute with the skills we have and from the money we make to help the church open its doors to others and to make a difference; and we will share the good news of what God is doing in our lives to bless us and the world.
Too often, we hear people give excuses about two things: how much money they can give and how uncomfortable they are telling other people about Jesus. It seems that we’re confronted pretty strongly by Paul and Jesus on both matters: we’re called to bless others out of what we have through the church, and we’re called to share and sing and praise God. It beats talking like Kermit the Frog.
If we’re going to be faithful to the Creation story, both in the past and what is to come, we have to do our job- and cry out.
Cry out for those who suffer and can’t speak for themselves.
Cry out that God would forgive your sins… and your neighbors.
Cry out that God’s kingdom, “thy kingdom come,” would come upon the earth and swallow up all of the sickness, pain, hatred, war, and lack of enough.
Cry out that God would help you to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ, and that grace and peace you would grow to love your neighbor.
Cry out in thanksgiving that you are loved and redeemed by the Creator of the universe.
That’s our job.