June 19, 2011
“STILL UNDER CONSTRUCTION”
It’s Father’s Day. I never knew my grandparents and I remember asking my father about his father, what he did, his personality, and his father’s father, and he would eventually say “It’s better not to ask any more questions”. Evidently I had some ancestors my father would just as soon not talk about.
I was curious about my ancestors, my origins.
The first book of the Bible, Genesis, is about our genesis, our origins. It’s all about who we are, whose we are, and it holds us accountable.
This is not the first creation story in the Bible. The one that follows in Genesis 2 is actually older, more primitive, uses a different name for God, gives a different account for how God created everything, and is not nearly as orderly and neat. The rabbis wove together several strands or traditions of their people to form what we now have in the Bible. This strand, this later creation story that comes first, is from what we call the priestly tradition around the sixth century B.C.
The Jews traced their history back to Moses who led them out of Egypt to the land of Canaan, their kingdom under Saul, David, and Solomon, and their temple in their capital city, Jerusalem. In 587 they were conquered by the Babylonians who dragged them off as slaves. The Priestly writers tell this story to help the Jewish people in a strange land retain their identity, to know the story of whose they were, and to maintain their traditions, especially the tradition of the Sabbath.
Today, we hear it as our story and we are in the middle of it carried along with it, part of God’s eternal story. Knowing we are part of God’s story changes everything!
One message we take from this Scripture as God’s message for us is this : The world is God’s, God’s creation, it all belongs to God, the spirit infinite and eternal that moves across the emptiness, the void, the chaos, and brings order, separating light and dark, day and night, sea and land, and creates each species, orderly, day by day.
The priestly authors, like almost everyone, thought the earth was the center of everything, and the sun and moon and stars all moved in regular patterns across the sky above the flat earth, and they thought the mountains, valleys, rivers, and seas were fixed and unchanging.
But the mountains are not fixed and unchanging; God’s creation is still under construction! As Gail and I have visited some of the extraordinary national parks in this country, we have been impressed how God is still at work. God’s action in creation seems to be a constant cycle of construction and deconstruction, building up and wearing away.
Take The Grand Tetons for example. I wondered “How did God create them?” Nine million years ago the earth’s crust broke along the 40 mile long Teton Fault. Through sporadic movements during the past 9 million years the block on the west rose, hinging upward to become the Teton Range while the eastern block tilted down under the block on the west to form the valley known as Jackson Hole. The sandstone layer now extending more than 6,000 feet into the sky once connected to the layer now 24,000 feet below the valley floor, separating by 30,000 feet in 9 million years, averaging about 0.04 inches/year The mountain is expected to continue to rise and the Valley floor is expected to continue to drop as they have for the past 9 million years. Meanwhile, erosion takes its toll and the rocks will be washed away into the valley, the streams, and the sea. The authors of Genesis viewed the earth as flat and the mountains fixed, rather than growing and diminishing, but it is clear God’s creation is still under construction!
Iowa has been having destructive floods this week. My shirt is from Coralville Iowa, near Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa. In 1866, Louis Agassiz, the French scientist teaching at Harvard had come to give a lecture on glaciers. Some of the geologists from the University of Iowa took him out in the afternoon before his speech to see where a recent flood had washed away top soil and exposed some unusual limestone formations. When he gave his speech that evening he surprised them with a speech about the coral reefs of Iowa, left there from the Devonian era about 400 million years ago! The people of the settlement shortly thereafter adopted Coralville as its name. My T-shirt pictures some of the creatures that lived in that Devonian sea.
As we study the universe we find it is probably more than 13 billion years old expanding and contracting, that our sun has existed for 4.5 billion years, earth, has been around for several billion years. God created the earliest life forms billions of years ago, and they grew and diversified into new life forms which grew and multiplied – which were then practically all eliminated in the Permian extinction about 270 million years ago; and that God then created new life forms that grew and multiplied for two hundred million years until they were nearly all eliminated in the extinction that took place about 67 million years ago ending the era of the dinosaurs Only 0.01 percent of all species that God created still survive on this earth, bombed occasionally by asteroids and pelted regularly 500 times a year by meteorites. Scientists who study rocks, geology, archaeology and the rest will continue to learn more about how God continues the work of creation, building up and tearing down, but the frame for all that we have learned and will continue to learn is that the world and all the universes that are, are God’s, and it is still under construction! Seeing the world and ourselves from that perspective makes all the difference in the world.
Something else we learn from this passage: We are created in God’s image.
What does this mean, to be created in God’s image? It can’t be physical, because God is not physical. God is Spirit, infinite, eternal, holiness, goodness, and truth. What does it mean to be created to reflect the image of God’s spirit, God’s breath, the source of life, God’s spirit? We reflect God’s Spirit and bear the fruits of the Spirit, compassion, love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, faithfulness (Gal 5:22).
“What gives humans value is not our physical substance, not even our superior three pound brains, or vocal chords, or communication abilities, but our relationship to God. What does it means to be created in God’s image? It can be seen in Jesus as in the likeness of God. Not that God has hands, feet, nose, or the physical features of a 1st century Jewish man, but that Jesus spirit exudes God’s spirit. What does it mean to be a real whole human being, created in God’s image? - look to Jesus.
God isn’t finished with us yet - you and I are still under construction!
This view changes everything. From the perspective of faith, the very way we see the world is itself transformed.
There is much more we can take away from this passage, but the final Message I want to mention is this: We are accountable – as Stewards (1:28) “And God said …have dominion over the fish of the sea and birds of the air and over every living creature that moves upon the earth”. And so God puts us in charge as God’s stewards, as tenant farmers of Creation, which is the context of our discussions on ecology.
Wendell Berry, in his novel Jayber Crow, describes Althey, who had a 500 acre farm. Althey was a careful manager of the 500 acres which was able to sustain him and his family. “Althey was not exactly, or not only, a “land owner”. He was the farms farmer, but also its creature and belonging. He lived its life, and it lived his. He knew that of the two lives his was meant to be the smaller and shorter. Troy, his son-in-law, who would come to inherit the land, had no idea, not a suspicion. He thought the farm existed to serve and enlarge him”.
For me that says it all. God places us on earth and holds us accountable as stewards, as temporary tenants of God’s creation. Creation has a life and we have a life, and ours in the shorter.
How does one hold onto this message in the midst of all the struggles of life?
You have this truth that it is God’s world. Each day build on that truth. On bad days stuff happens to the life you building, and you struggle to patch it up. On your worst days you claim the world is yours, and you can do whatever you want, and when you do that the life you are building suffers and crumbles, and then you begin again in repentance to rebuild. But you are still God’s creation, and you are still a child of God, created in God’s image, and God isn’t finished with you yet.
You and I and all God’s creation are still under construction. Amen