Monday, October 15, 2007

BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING: Address 1: God Made the World (Gen 1)

The following addresses on Genesis 1-12 were given to students at Uganda Christian University in the Fall Semester 2007.

Address 1: God Made the World (Genesis 1)

I have titled this series of Bible expositions “Begin at the beginning” because so many things can be understood from their origins. One of the wonders of modern genetics is the insight that the entire human being, at least at  a biological level, is already present in the first set of chromosomes that come together to form the embryo. In the social sciences, we often find ourselves looking for root causes in one’s personal psychology or in societal practices, even going back to a hypothetical “state of nature.”

The Book of Genesis lays a foundation for our understanding of everything else. If we are educated Christians, it is therefore our privilege and responsibility to understand what it is saying.

God made the world in time.

Bereshith. “In the beginning…” This the first word of the Bible (it’s just one word in Hebrew). The almost last words of the Bible are: “I am coming soon. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” Again another single word sometimes replaces this last phrase: it is “Maranatha,” which means “Lord, come!” These single words represent something of the character of the God of the Bible. His Hebrew Name has four sacred letters YHWH, which can be translated “I am who I am” or “I will be what I will be.” The New Testament name boils down to the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet “Alpha” (Α) and “Omega” (Ω). This God is called He who was and is and is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation 1:8).

Time has been a preoccupation of modern physics. Einstein added time as a fourth dimension to three-dimensional space and argued that time can “bend” in the same way space can. Modern physics has postulated a “Big Bang” at the beginning of time, and is not sure what to make of the end. Many religions have trouble with time. For some it is an illusion (Buddhism). For some God is utterly timeless (Islam).

What do we learn from all this symbolic language about God? We learn that He is a God who is above time but who has willed to enter into time, indeed it is his first word about creation. Hence the Bible story is a history with a beginning and an ending. But in the same way, the creation itself is a history: the first creation comes into being over seven days; this creation at some point will be rolled up like a scroll, and will be replaced by a new heaven and earth (Revelation 21:1).

God is a time-creating God. He is also a time-keeping God. What does this truth mean for us here in the year 2007? Well, let’s say a word about what some people call “Africa Time.” “Africa Time” is a reflection of the preference that many Africans have for relationships over precise time commitments. Hence, for instance, one will take time to attend functions – kwanjulas, weddings, burials – for a large array of relatives rather than sending a sympathy card, which would be more common in the West.

Now let me say I have a lot of sympathy with putting relationships over time commitments. Often time commitments have more to do with material than spiritual profit. However, I need to ask: is it really necessary to be habitually late? I think not. Archbishop Henry Orombi has said repeatedly: There is no such thing as Africa Time or Western Time: there is only God’s Time.” Most decisions we have to make about time have to do not with a conflict over two good things but rather a conflict with sin. If we decide to stay in bed for an extra half hour or if we choose to put breakfast over prayers, then we have made a choice for Satan’s time, not God’s. The Psalmist says: “My times are in your hands…” (Psalm 31:15). Let’s take the Creator God at his word. He knows our going out and our coming in now and forever more.

Let me make one more brief observation about time. Time is measured in numbers: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven days. God is the god of mathematics. Some of you will be taking a course called “elements of mathematics.” You may ask: what does this have to do with my education, or even my Christian formation? Well, appreciating the wonderful world of non-material laws should be a priority and a delight as well as a practical help. Interestingly, one criterion for good science is the beauty of a particular mathematical or physical theory. We glimpse that pristine beauty of the cosmos as we read the day-by-day creation commands of our God.

God made the world by his Word.

So if we learn the first word that God created the world in time, we also learn from the first word that he created the world through speech. Put it another way, we meet the speaking God right at the beginning. Some translators render the first three verses as a single sentence:

When in the beginning God created the heaven and earth – the earth being formless stuff and the Spirit of God moving on the face of the waters – then God said, “Let there be light and there was light.” (my translation)

According to English grammar, the “when” clause depends on the “then” clause, i.e., God’s Word is the efficient cause simultaneous with the final cause – a universe. There is no world behind the Word; the world was made by God’s Word.

The idea of a speaking God is, for Jews and Christians, well known and accepted. But the idea is actually quite radical. A speaking God is also a rational God, a “logical” God. The word “logical” comes from Logos or Word. Many peoples believe that God is totally unknowable and that whatever happens happens by accident or by Fate. This is a bleak view of the Universe, but not surprising – unless one believes that God speaks.

“Words” have something in common with “numbers.” They are non-material. It is really hard to understand how a totally material cosmos generated its own logic and its own mathematics. But that is exactly what many atheistic scientists say today. Of course, they are really not speaking as scientists but as believers in a God who is Void, voiceless and unintelligible.

The idea of a word also implies a multiplicity of forms. As God creates the various regions of the universe, the sky, the sea, the earth, the stars, sun and moon, the fish, the birds, the animals and man, He names them at least in their larger categories. In Genesis 2, we see God giving the man a subordinate role to give names to the specific species: from the aardvark, to the zebra.

Above all, a God who speaks is a personal God. He is a “He” not a blind, dumb Force, an It. He is a God of relationships, of loving relationships to his creatures. Our Creed says, “I believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth.” God’s Fatherhood is an essential part of His Creatorhood, as much as our earthly fathers are intimately involved in our coming to this earth.

I hope the notion of God as speaking His Word forth calls to your mind the first words of John’s Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. (John 1:1-4)

And then John goes on to identify that creative Word is the incarnate Word Jesus Christ:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

We Christians recognize the Word as not only personal but Personal, i.e., the Second Person of the Trinity, God the Son. This very God who spoke the world into being came as Man and Saviour.

God made us in his own image.

The history of God’s creation culminates on Day 6. After creating the land animals, it says:

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." (Genesis 1:26-28)

The creations on Day Six remind us that we are animals, sharing the earthly nature of the beasts. It is not hard looking at a chimpanzee or gorilla to see the likeness (sorry ladies). But there is also a fundamental difference. Man and man alone is made in God’s image. The idea of the imago dei, or image of God, has so many dimensions it hard to know where to begin. We are speaking animals, as God is a speaking God. We are ruling animals as God is a divine Ruler. We are moral animals, as God is good. As God could appreciate his work and say “it is good,” so we too may rejoice in His good works.

One of the remarkable things about our world is that it is suited to intelligent beings. Scientists agree that the coincidence that life might emerge in our universe, and then intelligent life, which can actually understand the world, is an absolute miracle, in the sense that it goes against all odds. Those scientists who do not see God’s hand in the creation have to postulate an infinite number of parallel universes, or they simply say: ‘That’s the way it is.”

The Bible does not say God is a Man, or God is a creature. One of the great dangers of being made in God’s image is that we see Him in us without seeing Him apart from us. This is the root of idolatry, offering worship to the creature. It is also the root of self-love, worshiping Self as if it were God. Having said that, there is a case of a kind of biblical humanism, honouring and appreciating the creature. The Psalmist says: We are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). Christians therefore can appreciate great art and music as reflections of the glory of God discovered by man. It is for this reason, we can speak of Uganda Christian University as a promoting the “spirit of liberal Christian education.” We do not need to be afraid of the things of this world so long as we receive them as gifts of the Creator.

Finally, it is impossible for Christians to think of man in God’s image without thinking of Jesus Christ, who was the perfect image of the invisible God. We can think of it this way: the inanimate creation is the cradle which God prepared for the Christ-child, but we are the shepherds and wise men called to recognize Him as true Man and true Savior. Just as it is fitting for us to reflect back the love of the Creator, so also it is fitting and proper that we should acknowledge this same God as our Redeemer in Jesus Christ.

Conclusion: God Rested

To acknowledge that God made the world in time, that He made it by His Word, and that he created us as beings to reflect his praise should lead us to an act of worship.

One particular prayer from the Anglican Prayer Book which sums up our response to God as Creator is the “The General Thanksgiving,” in the Morning Prayer service, which goes like this:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
We your unworthy servants give you humble thanks
for all your goodness and loving-kindness
to us and to all men.
We bless you for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
But above all for your immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we pray, give us a due sense of all your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to your service,
and by walking before you
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

Let us today offer him praise and thanks which befits him as our Father God and Creator and our Redeemer Jesus Christ and let us go out committed to giving up our lives for His service. Amen

12 September 2007

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