A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City Mo., on September 2, 2012.
We begin at the beginning… everything has a beginning, some point of origin, some place where the story begins. If you curiously follow a stream far enough up the mountain, you will find its origins. So it is that Genesis gives us the stories of our beginning. The first book of the Bible is called Genesis after the Greek translation meaning simply, “the beginning.”
That title is appropriate for Genesis is all about beginnings. It’s about the beginning of the universe, the beginning of time, of life, of humanity, of male and female, of sin and grace and judgment, of marriage and commitment and the nurturing of families, of communities and the hard issues of making a life. It’s about the beginnings of worship and awe, and of mortality and the questions of the beyond. It’s the beginning of the mysteries of God the Creator and God the Redeemer. Nearly every belief pertaining to life and godliness begins here. Perhaps that helps explain why some people so stridently both defend and attack this book.
The Bible’s first words form the Hebrew story of a beginning no one was present to witness. In truth, while the Bible opens upon the dawn of Creation, the biblical witnesses did not begin writing their story there. Most scholars agree the first words of the Bible began with their understanding of who they were as the children of Abraham and their witness of the astonishing ways in which they were trapped in Egyptian slavery and in need of redemption. In their case, they had a conviction God had called one of their ancestors from the far country to partner with God in forming a people who were the possessors of a land.
Along the way, the Hebrew explanation of the beginnings of the world was formed orally and later inserted in the front of the holy stories of the patriarchs and ahead of their story of salvation.
But Genesis doesn’t tell a single unified story of creation; rather it tells two stories, both with meaning, both significant in explaining that God acted in creation.
There are two creation stories laid down alongside one another, two incontrovertibly different stories, what can we make of them? The stories are attempts at explaining the world’s existence and to point to its purpose. The Creator is the one who is at work, mysteriously taking chaos and ordering it into meaning.
Because they are so different, we aren’t allowed to accept the stories as literal renderings of the sequences of creation much less to consider them as historical accounts of how the creation occurred. Rather, we are forced to look deeper and consider them for what they are, stories meant to give meaning to that which cannot be described.
But the stories of creation undoubtedly raise more questions than they answer. As we live in the age of science, we’ve attempted to use the principles of science to unravel the message of Genesis and those principles simply don’t fit. The stories of creation are ancient – they were oral stories for untold generations before they were written down and added to the Holy Scriptures. They were written long before the scientific age emerged in our quest for knowledge. Because of that, as pre-scientific stories, they could easily be considered a part of Hebrew mythology, meaning they held for the people of God the rich theological meaning of creation and did not purport themselves to be what we would consider a historical account in the modern sense of the word.
Those on the most conservative end of the spectrum of faith literalize the stories to mean that God created the Bible in 6 twenty-four hour days. [By the way, to hold the literalistic view of creation such as that created by Bishop Ussher means you believe in a 6,000 year old world and many refer to themselves as “young earth Christians.”]
A few years ago I spent 10 days on a bus filled with ministers and their wives all with some affiliation with Bob Jones University driving through the northern parts of Israel which made for some interesting times as we traveled about that ancient land.
One evening I asked the oldest minister in the group about how “young earth believers” would explain the phenomenon of measuring the great distances of space through what we know as light years (the distance light travels at the speed of light for one full year). He nodded anticipating my question. So I asked, “So you’re suggesting that even though we know that the light we are seeing that we can measure as say, ten million light years (meaning that light according to the laws of physics has been traveling for ten million years to get here) was at the moment of creation 6,000 years ago also light was created in transit just as though it had been traveling most of that way.” “Yes,” he answered, “that’s how we believe it happened.”
On another day as we drove along, the tour leader was describing a region of the country along the Syrian border and he casually mentioned a geological phenomenon that had occurred some “fifteen or twenty million years ago,” to which the young pastor in the seat in front of me muttered under his breath, “that mountain wasn’t there fifteen or twenty million years ago.”
By that, young earth believers offer a counter-narrative of creation that believes the universe was created ex nihilo, “out of nothing,” 6,000 years ago as one might deduce from a literal reading of the Bible and calculating such a calendar of creation as was done by Bishop Ussher in mid-17th century Ireland. Bishop Ussher famously established a literal biblical chronology that held the time and date of the creation as occurring on Saturday night, October 23rd, 4004 BC.
It was no small thing for me to recognize that these young earth Christians were well-wired with all kinds of highly sophisticated electronic tools, laptops, cell phones, GPS, all built on a scientific understanding of a global universe, not the Hebrew understanding of the created world consisting of a flat earth with waters above the sky canopy and waters below as depicted in Genesis and throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.
Christians even today are torn between science and faith’s revisionary views on science as amended by religion. This tension continues as science is denied and shoe-horned to fit into religion’s limiting view of the world.
Science on the other hand continues undaunted in the immense task of exploring the mysteries of the universe. Essayist Annie Dillard explains that scientists with the Hubble telescope tell us we are beginning to reinterpret the immense size and age of the universe which goes beyond what most us can imagine. This is the part of the sermon you might buckle your seatbelt as inconceivably huge numbers will be thrown around in such scale as to make our national debt look like a child’s weekly allowance.
Some 20 years ago, before the Hubble and its far-reaching gaze into space, the estimates of the size of the universe was big but limited. It was believed before then that there were 2 galaxies for every person alive. But that number has given way to a new understanding that there are perhaps 9 galaxies for each living person, which would mean there are some 80 billion galaxies.
Let’s unpack that because on average, they estimate there are at least 100 billion suns per galaxy. While that’s the average, remember we don’t live in such a small neighborhood because just in our own galaxy (the Milky Way) there are 400 billion suns (give or take 50%).
In contrast to the young earth Christians who believe in a 6,000 year old creation, all told, the Hubble seems to indicate that the stars are some 13 billion years old.
Not only that, but the story of human beings goes so far back into the mists of time we cannot even fathom. We are civilized generation number 500 or so, counting back some 10,000 years. But that’s not the whole story as paleontologists tell us we are homo sapiens generation number 7,500, counting all the way back some 150,000 years ago when our species presumably arose.
The creation as we know it is a feast for the senses, both with what we can see and what we can only imagine. But the wider world that must be examined through the telescope can also be observed through the microscope with much the same result. There is an unseen world within that is known as the microscopic world, some of which can be observed with powerful lenses and some of which is so small as to be known only through mathematics and physics.
You can’t see it, but at the atomic level, there is sub-atomic motion happening in each and every atom. It may look as though a rock is absolutely still, but in truth it is a beehive of activity as the sub-atomic materials are spinning at speeds our brains cannot comprehend. The electrons, protons and neutrons (not to mention the other sub-atomic particles – quarks, gluons, photons, muons, pions, kaons, and neutrinos, etc.) are spinning so fast it’s amazing we don’t fall down and quiver like a blob of Jell-O.
Not only that, but even the hardness of the rock is a total misconception as it’s mostly void for each atom is as empty as outer space itself with the emptiness created between the sub-atomic materials. It’s more like outer space with a few rocks thrown out in the midst of the void to make it all interesting.
It seems one of the creation’s greatest lessons is to tutor us in paradox. It is in paradox we live as mortals in the world, living between heaven and earth, sensing the eternity in God’s good world. Artist Alberto Giacometti once said, “The more I work, the more I see things differently, that, everything gains in grandeur every day, becomes more and more unknown, more and more beautiful.”
Where is God in all this? I suspect where God has been from the very beginning when God began to weave out of the stuff of the basic stuff of creation and made the world ordering it all into existence. How, we ask? We don’t know how to even think about that answer. When, we ask further? Again, we don’t have the real means to address the question but have only the most rudimentary knowledge to illuminate the question.
The Bible’s stories of our beginnings seem eager to let us know that it if we follow the stream of life to its source, there we will meet God. God is there, right under our noses shining through the awe of our magnificently adorned world.
 Annie Dillard, For the Time Being, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1999, 72-73
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).