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Sunday, 23 February 2014

In the beginning, God


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I seem to have published this before I preached it, which isn't something I tend to do! Without checking the formatting first! Ah well.... Listen to the podcast, as I am not sure how closely I stuck to my script!

Our first reading today was that lovely poem that begins the Bible, that tells how God created order out of chaos. It's a lovely poem, one of my favourites.

You start with the absolute blankness, nothing. I don't think we can ever experience that sort of nothingness here on earth. Even if you all shut your eyes tightly, you can still hear and smell and taste and feel. Although some people have gone through what they call "sensory deprivation", which sounds as if it's very nasty indeed. Some people do it voluntarily, to prove a point, but for others it's quite literally torture. I suppose that might give us a glimpse of what it was like before the world was made. Although even sensory deprivation, unless you have it in space, doesn't turn off gravity!

 And then gradually, day by day, order forms out of chaos. First the light - not yet the light of the sun or moon, but an unspecified light. Then the sky, then the land, then vegetation, trees, plants, seeds, grasses. Then on the fourth day the sun, moon and stars, on the fifth day the birds and the fish. And on the sixth day, firstly the land animals and then the pinnacle of creation, human beings.

 "So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them". And on the seventh day, that great Sabbath rest that we have such trouble either understanding or implementing.

 The chorus of the poem, at the end of each stanza: "And God saw that it was good." "And there was evening and there was morning, the whatever day". It is a lovely poem, isn't it?

 Incidentally, nothing here about the man naming the animals, or the woman being created from his ribs, and them being placed in a garden – that is another story, I suspect a separate one, that comes in the next chapter. This poem is self-sufficient. And it is true. I don't mean literally true, of course – we know that the actual history of how this world came into being is told, firstly by astronomers and then by geologists and those who study tectonic plates and so on, and finally by naturalists and geneticists.

 But it is true in other ways.
 It shows how God is intimately involved in creation; it shows how pleased God is with that creation;
and it shows how we, in our creativity, are made in God's image.

The story shows how God is intimately involved in creation. Well, yes, that goes without saying. But I think it does bear repeating, because all too often, we act as though God created the world and then left it to get on with it. But those who wrote down this story – and I suspect they were writing down a tale that had been repeated and repeated and repeated for generations – those who wrote down this story did not, I think, believe that. For them, God was intimately involved in every detail of creation; why would He abandon it? No “God of the Gaps” theology for them.

 It's not always easy, when we know that we share much of our genetic material with earthworms and other animals; we know that it is the characteristics that enhance survival that are the ones apt to persist down the generations. Mind you, when it comes to some birds, the characteristics that their mates seem to prefer are more decorative than practical!

 But sometimes, I know, we wonder how much God has wound up his creation and left it to get on with it! But our Gospel reading reminds us that God is still involved in creation, providing food for the sparrows and clothing for the flowers; we are told that even the hairs on our heads are numbered. And we know that the poem shows God is still intimately involved in our lives today and that we are able to have a relationship with Him – or why are we here this morning?

 So yes, God is intimately involved in His creation, and God is pleased with that creation.

 Every stanza of the poem ends “And God saw that it was good”. God was pleased with what He had made. Sometimes we forget that, don't we?

 I know I used to, years ago – I got so used to the idea of myself as a sinner that I somehow forgot that, actually, God meant to make me – I, and the rest of humanity, wasn't some kind of dreadful mistake on God's part! It's all too easy, I find, to get into the mindset where God only tolerates humanity because of what Jesus did – rather than God loving his Creation so much that it was His idea to send Jesus to fix what had gone wrong. God doesn't hate his Creation because, through humanity's fault, it became flawed and broken – rather the reverse; God loves it so much that he fixed it!

 I sometimes wonder, don't you, what creation is like on other worlds, other planets. There has been endless speculation about this; we know now that Mars is mostly desert, but scientists are still looking for traces of life, although they don't think there was ever intelligent life there.

 But before we knew what Mars was like, people speculated, and some really good stories were written about potential Martians, and what they might be like. And, indeed, on what people from all sorts of other places might be like. But all too often, our authors have created them in our own image. They might be bug-eyed monsters, in fact, they frequently are – but it is the word “monster” that is significant here.

 It was, I think, C S Lewis, among others, who drew attention to the fact that other civilisations might not have fallen, as humankind did. In an essay from 1958 entitled Religion and Rocketry, he says that if animal life exists on other planets, and if any of those animals are self-aware, rational beings like us, and could be argued to have souls, as we do, then are any of them, or all of them, fallen as we are? And if so, what provision has God made, as He undoubtedly has, for their redemption.

He quotes a now-forgotten poem, Christ in the Universe, by Alice Meynell, which I rather like, so I'm going to read it to you:

With this ambiguous earth
His dealings have been told us.  These abide:
The signal to a maid, the human birth,
The lesson, and the young Man crucified.

But not a star of all
The innumerable host of stars has heard
How He administered this terrestrial ball.
Our race have kept their Lord’s entrusted Word.

Of His earth-visiting feet
None knows the secret, cherished, perilous,
The terrible, shamefast, frightened, whispered, sweet,
Heart-shattering secret of His way with us.

No planet knows that this
Our wayside planet, carrying land and wave,
Love and life multiplied, and pain and bliss,
Bears, as chief treasure, one forsaken grave.

Nor, in our little day,
May His devices with the heavens be guessed,
His pilgrimage to thread the Milky Way
Or His bestowals there be manifest.

But in the eternities,
Doubtless we shall compare together, hear
A million alien Gospels, in what guise
He trod the Pleiades, the Lyre, the Bear.

O, be prepared, my soul!
To read the inconceivable, to scan
The myriad forms of God those stars unroll
When, in our turn, we show to them a Man.

 Lewis comments that it is just as well that the distances between stars is so vast that it is unlikely we shall ever meet beings from other planets. Given humanity's record of dealing with people from other places, he doesn't think we would be very good at dealing with them, whether or not they were the bug-eyed monsters of pulp fiction or a race of wonderful, unfallen people, of whatever shape, who are able to worship their Creator and to know Him in ways we cannot. Or whether they have been redeemed in some totally different way. We will never know.

But what we do know is that God reckons that His creation is very good. And where it is no longer good, He has redeemed it. God is pleased with His Creation.

So, then, God is involved in His creation;
God is pleased with His Creation;
and God created humankind in His own image.

 Earlier, we looked and thought about some of the things that we have made. Few other animals make things. Some do make tools – apes certainly do, and some species of bird. And some birds, the Australian bower-bird in particular, make beautifully-decorated bowers to attract their mates.

 But by and large animals are not creative in the way that we are – they don't bake cakes and decorate them, or knit themselves sweaters, or weave fabrics that last beyond a brief nesting season. It is, I think, in our creativity that we are made in God's image.

 God thought of the whole of this universe – or is it “these universes”? I am never quite sure. And in our turn we have thought of most extraordinary things – just look around you when you leave this place.

 Some years ago now I happened to be visiting my parents when someone who had been given permission to use a metal detector on some of my father's land came to call. He was showing us some of the things they had found in the field, ranging from a brooch that had been lost off a Roman cloak to a button that had come off a railway-worker's uniform. I held the brooch and could see how it was made – much more interesting than just seeing them laid out in display cases in a museum, when you really can't tell what they are supposed to be. Human beings had made all these things.

Some years ago we went to Bolzano, in Italy, and saw Oetzi, the so-called Ice Man, whose preserved body was found in a glacier about twenty years ago. The artifacts found with his body were wonderful, too – a copper axe, among other things, and shoes and other clothes. Even five thousand years ago, people were making things!

We have gone on making things down the ages, right down to the cup of tea we made this morning! Some of the things we've made we could wish we hadn't – guns and bombs and other tools for killing people with. Other things, we are very glad we did – respirators and iron lungs to keep people alive, for instance.

 But all our creativity, whether we have used it for good or for ill, harks back to that of our Creator. And like God, we need to look at what we make, and be sure that it is good. God is still involved in His Creation; God is pleased with what He has made, and God has gifted us with creativity in His image. We may well misuse that creativity, but it is still in God's image.

So, my sisters and brothers, let us praise our Creator in the words of hymn no 699: Lord of Creation, to Thee be all praise.

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