Sermon January 14 2024 ~ Genesis 1 Beginnings      Rev. Betsy Hogan

Do you enjoy a good story? In a book or on TV or in a movie or just made up? One that lifts you, however briefly, out of the ordinary and empirically measurable… and into the space of the imagination? Where there’s time for our spirits to join our intellects in responding? In considering? In meaning-making?

I say this because it's January. And so we've literally just come off an entire month of Biblical storytelling and Biblical preaching that is completely grounded and rooted in narratives that are at once fundamental to our Christian faithfulness – and indeed to Western Culture –

And also scientifically untenable and historically problematic and to a moderate degree at least, utterly bizarre. 

There are angels. Everywhere. They announce, they chat, they sing, they turn up in people's bedrooms in the dark of night, they hover over fields of sheep, they offer warnings, and redirect journeys... there are angels everywhere.

There's a star. It moves. People follow it. It shines over... one particular place. Which is an interesting feat of celestial engineering.

There's an incarnation. A neat and tidy purity-preserving pregnancy, a virgin birth. A swift reparative marriage that somehow secures the heritage of being "of the house and family of David" even though the gentleman in question – namely Joseph – wasn't meant to have been involved at all.

It's all quite bizarre. The whole Christmas story in all its epic glory. Known by heart for millennia, acted out in a billion children's pageants and embodied in the Nativity Scenes we've only just put away – 

Even though, to make it, we've actually had to squash together two separate stories – one from Matthew and the other from Luke – to achieve the whole narrative arc. Speaking of interesting feats of engineering.

But it's the Christmas story. And we just let it wash over us, for all of December. As a narrative fundamental to Christian faithfulness and indeed to Western culture, we just let it wash over us, for all of December. Mystical and meaning-making – somehow evoking in all of us the sense that what we’re made for is love and generosity and peace and good-will toward all.

And then suddenly it’s January. And we shake off the mystical and set aside the inexplicable and close up the story telling – and return to the purely rational.

Unless we don't. Unless we choose on purpose to sustain meaning-making space in our lives for the power and possibility and playground for our spirits – of a good story.

It's a beautiful thing. It's a beautiful thing ANYTIME, but it's a beautiful thing especially in January. When we’re coming off Christmas and the empirical and rational and factual are so extremely cold. And sharp. And ruthlessly demanding. 

It’s a beautiful thing especially in January to be reminded in the wake of all the Christmas stories... that the faithfulness, the believing, the knowing, the trusting, that can be nourished and challenged and shaped by the stories of the Bible are NOT nourished or challenged or shaped by those stories because they’re FACT – but because they’re TRUE.

It's only since the Enlightenment, just the last couple of centuries, that this has even been an issue. That identifying something as TRUE has gotten bashed and battered and utterly shipwrecked by a tsunami of insistence that it also has to be FACT.

Consistent with the exercise of pure reason. Empirically measurable, test-able, prove-able. 

That was never the case until the 1700s. Not in the narrative story-telling out of which the human family makes meaning. And if we can recognize that easily in Greco-Roman mythologies, or Egyptian mythologies, or in the legends of the Gods of East Asia, or in the formative legends of First Nations –

It's no less the case in relation to the narrative story-telling in the Bible. The words bear permanent witness to what's been experienced as TRUE. What "rings" true, what "feels" true, what we believe and know and trust – in our bones, in our spirits, quite apart from and transcendent beyond our intellect or reason.

And the reason that matters, and the reason I bring it up, in response to an entirely reasonable noting that a lot of this doesn't actually make sense – is that it's actually quite important for me to make clear that I preach from the Bible as though it's TRUE... because I believe it to be TRUE and it was written to be understood as TRUE.

And NOT because I've abandoned the significant amount of science I have in my background enough... to consider it FACT. 

So when I preach, for example, about the annunciation to Mary and the virgin birth, and I do so unquestioningly, taking the narrative at face value, it isn't because I've abandoned what I know about the science of reproduction. It's because the factuality, the science of reproduction, isn't the point. 

The point of the narrative at face value is that Jesus was experienced by those around him as Holy with a capital H. As all of Godness squished up into a person. Brought into being by the power of the Holy Spirit. The point of the narrative at face value is to convey all that meaning. And its TRUTH.

So it's a choice. My deliberate choice in preaching is to take the narrative at face value because it was written to be taken at face value, as story-telling that's not about facts but instead reveals truth. It's how I choose to preach these stories because it's how they were always meant to be heard and read.

And if that's important with regard to the Christmas stories, or the Feeding of the 5000 or any of the other miracles and visions and events in the Bible, and it really is, it's maybe most obviously important when it comes to the story of creation in Genesis. 

Because there is very very little more ridiculous than imagining that Genesis Chapter One is about facts.

Genesis Chapter One is about meaning. It's story-telling that reveals truth. Not facts about the process of creation, but truth about the nature of the Creator.

Genesis Chapter One is let's start at the very beginning with the very first question, at the dawn of a new year when this is what we need to be reminded of, to ground us and keep us solid.

Because Genesis Chapter One answers the question Who is this God we come from? The God who created us, who created all things. What is this God like? What "true" is revealed in the story of Creation?

It's actually a writer, American Debie Thomas, rather than a theologian, who's pulled these meanings out of the story of Creation that I wanted to share with you this morning because I found them deeply grounding. So I'm paraphrasing her thoughts and her words in this regard, even as she draws on the words of theologians Frederick Buechner and Marcus Borg.

And the truth she mines from the story of Creation – this ancient story in Genesis handed down to us via oral tradition, story-telling from around campfires since 10,000 years ago, before it was written down in the form we have it, about 2500 year ago, begins with this.

We come from a God who makes new things. Who makes things new. And not 'periodically', at a whim, whenever... but reliably. Each day, innovation. Each day, something that never was. Every day, NOT in fact the same show over and over again, but newly born and it was never this world before and we were never this US before. We come from a God who makes new things. Who makes things new. 

We come from a God who makes good things. Who calls things good. No dualism of opposing forces, no balance, no wariness or humility or forebearance – what God makes, God calls good. The Genesis story is strikingly world-affirming, not world-denying. Literally the elements of creation, not merely the esoterica of wind and air but mud and soil and stone, all of these are pronounced good. We come from a God who makes good things and calls them good.

We come from a God who speaks creation into being – who knows the power of words both to bless and to harm. We come from a God who sees – who lingers over creation, every leaf, every stream, the smallest feather, stepping back each day to behold what's been made. To relish it, like an artist. We come from a God, Thomas writes, who pays delighted attention to all of it and to us. Who sees.

And we come from a God who rests, and who calls that resting holy. 

These are truths that are revealed in the story of creation. It was never meant to describe facts. It was meant to reveal truths. Who is this God we come from, who made us, who made all things? 

And the story bears witness and makes revelations. This is a God of reliable newness, of unilateral goodness – today is new, today has possibility, today is a fresh start. 

This is a God who knows words have power – our words need to be used thoughtfully, they’re purposeful, they can create things and change things, they can bless and they can harm. One of the things I’ve loathed most about a new trend in parenting has been the slogan “use your words” as though that’s somehow automatically more benign than just smacking someone. Because it’s not. Words require care, that’s revealed to us in the Creation story in Genesis – words have power.

And equally revealed to us in Genesis is that this is a God whose attention never falters. Whose spirit is alive to beauty and goodness and also vulnerability and hurt.

And this is a God who hallows not just busyness but rest. Who can help us get our heads around that, and make our own rest holy too. 

So this morning, in relentless ruthless January, back to the beginning. To the first moments and the first revelations – the earth, the skies, the seas, the wind and the air and the waters...

... and the firmament of story on which we stand. God is good. Each day is new. We are not alone.