In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, “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.” God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
s a clergyperson, I get told things from time to time that I simply don’t know how to react to. It’s an occupational hazard, you could say—one of those things they don’t really teach you about in seminary. I’m never quite sure how to respond, for example, when someone—upon finding out I’m a pastor—starts apologizing profusely for the swear words they used in my presence a few moments before. Nor is it usually clear what someone I do not know is looking for when, unprovoked, they start handing me all their childhood baggage about growing up Roman Catholic or Southern Baptist.
There are other things one hears as a clergyperson that I do begin to react to, because I inevitably know what’s coming next. Perhaps the classic one is when someone begins to say, “You know, I really feel the presence of God when I’m out in nature…” When I hear this, it’s easy to begin tensing up… not because there’s something inherently wrong with that sentiment—I know there are plenty of you here in this congregation who resonate with it. I myself even seek and find God in the natural world. And as a clergyperson, I start tensing up when someone begins that statement because of this sneaking suspicion about what’s coming next. More often than not, “I feel the presence of God in nature” is a person’s prelude to saying, “so that’s why I don’t go to church”, or even “I don’t need to go to church.”
This, of course, is on my mind today for two reasons. First, here we are gathered to worship outside together in the beauty of God’s creation! The grass is beneath our feet. These ancient oak trees, partially defoliated as they are by caterpillars, arch over our heads and shielding us from the warmth of the sun’s rays. We are surrounded by the sounds of birds singing, the wind in branches, and the occasional motorcycle. Second, and just as obviously, we read this morning the first creation story from Genesis.
These majestic, almost-poetic verses from the very beginning of the Bible paint a cosmic and transcendent picture of God’s work of creating “the heavens and the earth.” A story like this invites us to marvel in the beauty of the branches of the trees around us. It invites us to rejoice in the finest details of the bluebirds and goldfinches as they fly overhead. It invites us to stare in awe at the expanse of blue sky and white clouds for hours at a time, basking in the warmth of summer’s heat.
But there is something else in this creation story that we often overlook. Perhaps it is because it isn’t as pretty. Perhaps it is because it is scary. But mostly it is because we have a hard time picturing it. I’m speaking of course, of the chaos. In the beginning when God was creating the heavens and the earth, all was formless. All was void. All was darkness and chaos.
But we do not live on that side of creation. Our vision and our experience lie solely after the beginning of God’s bringing order to that primordial chaos. And so even with our best and deepest imagination, it is hard—if not impossible—to imagine what that formless void, that watery chaos, was like.
The work of God in this creation story is all about the work of bringing order out of that chaos. In the midst of watery chaos, God stretches clear a space in which life can not only exist, but flourish. The jumble of waters upon waters is separated out, so everything can have its place: sky, seas, dry land. All of this ordering, this chaos-clearing, this place-making, and all of it is pronounced good. Good. Very good.
For a story that speaks of so much being good, you might be surprised to hear that this version of creation is handed down to us from a people who were experiencing much that was not-so-good. For this creation story we’ve heard today comes to us from among the Israelites as they were in exile in Babylon in the 500s B.C. These people, they were experiencing the world as anything but orderly. The chaos started gathering as Jerusalem was destroyed and they were hauled off across the desert to live out their days in a foreign land, under foreign rulers, who worshiped foreign gods. In this life of exile, they experienced poverty. They knew unemployment. They struggled with times of famine and hunger. Their futures grew bleak, and in the face of all that they had lost, all that they had suffered, they began to lose hope. All around them, the world had grown formless, void of meaning. All around them chaos reigned supreme.
In the midst of that life in exile, in the midst of the pain, the people were forced to ask deep and hard questions about who they were and how they had gotten there. From these questions comes forth this majestic affirmation—this majestic statement of faith. In a world in which it seemed that their dreams had been defeated, a world where their god had lost, the people assert with all the more clarity and grandeur that God is, in fact, the creator of all. God is, in fact, the Lord of all life, the one who speaks a word that cuts through the chaos so that order can emerge.
This was no mere aspirational writing, I dare say. Their words were not only hope of what God might do, what God could do. This story of creation is a witness to what they saw God doing, already, in their midst. In their world writ void of meaning, in their world ruled by chaos, they nevertheless saw God at work. They still saw God making order in their midst. They saw God take the stuff of their new reality and arrange it in new ways so that meaning began to emerge. As God worked, the people saw that Babylon, the seemingly all-powerful and irrepressible monster of chaos, was not bigger than God. God was bigger than the void that filled their lives. Even here, God was putting things where they belonged. Even here, God was creating meaningful life. Even here, God made things and declared that they were good.
It makes me think about our own world today, because—let’s face it—ours is a world filled with chaos. Not simply the political chaos in our own country, although that certainly contributes. All over the world, countries and societies are in upheaval. The aspirational dreams of the West, which once propelled forward entire generations, suddenly seem fuzzy and out of focus. The promise of prosperity no longer seems extended to all people, and many of us face the reality that our own lives will not be better off than our parents, and our children’s future may not be as good as our own. Even the future of this very “creation” upon which we stand—this earth and its waters and skies and ecosystems—it is uncertain and threatened. The very things we experience here today may be a distant memory, a story told by elders, for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
It is bleak. In the face of this bleakness, it is hard not to lose hope. In our hopelessness, we lash out. We lash out with violence. We lash out with hatred. All around us we see the hands of terrorism at work. All around us we see the hands of racism at work. All around us we see the hands of extremism and nationalism at work. They are the monsters of chaos, and they feel overwhelming. We feel powerless in the face of their irrepressible advance. It is easy to feel that the world has become void of meaning. It is easy to lose hope.
But just as our ancestors in Babylon suffering in exile discovered, God is bigger. God is bigger than our violence, our hatred, our injustices, and our brokenness. God is bigger than the monsters of chaos. Here in this place, God is setting things in their proper places. Here in this time, God is taking the meaningless void in our present world and arranging it in new and meaningful ways. Here in our world, God is creating new order and new life out of the stuff of chaos. Here among us, God is making things and declaring that they are good.
My friends, can we see what God is doing? Can we, like the ancient Israelites, look up and witness our God, who is bigger than our present reality, scooping up the chaos and the void that seems so deep, and forming it, shaping it, creating it into something new?
On a day like this, surrounded as we are by the beauty of God’s handiwork, it is hard not to seek God’s presence here. And that is okay. We should look to the natural world to be reminded of what God can do. It is good to look.
But that is not the hard work. That is not the challenge before us. That is not the invitation of the story of creation. Go, my sisters and my brothers, and look at creation around us to see what God has done. Then, go. Go and look at the present world and all the chaos that lies within it. Go and look within your own life, and search out the disquieting chaos within you. And see. Knowing what God can create, see what God is creating. Knowing what God can do, see what God is doing.
Preached by Adam Yates