The Way Things Were Meant to Be:
The opening chapters of Genesis constitute what is called a “cosmogony.” It’s an account of how things came to be, of why things are the way they are.
And lots of people have argued over these ancient stories, often stridently. Some insist that they are to be understood as straight assertions of fact, others as the best Babylonian science of the time, still others as a clash between two different writers (the Jahwist and the Elohist, according to what name they used for God) which was later smoothed over and conglomerated by an editor.
But what a lot of people don’t pause to consider is that the creation stories in Genesis are a cosmogony – and there were lots of cosmogonies floating about in ancient times. The Egyptians had their way of explaining how things came to be, and the Sumerians had theirs, and the Greeks had theirs, and the Canaanites had theirs. And all these stories explained pretty much the same phenomena and described God or the gods in much the same vocabulary. But what we have in Genesis is a cosmogony that describes a God very different from the gods of the surrounding peoples, even while using much of the same vocabulary to do it.
The God of the Bible is unique. And the story of his making of the world has a unique twist upon it, too, for not only does it describe the way things are, and why they are that way, it also describes the way things were meant to be, and why they are not that way any more.
A lot of people think those are the same thing: the way things are, and the way things were meant to be. But the Bible has to account for sin, even for futility. For if God made everything, and it was good, then who made evil? And if everything was perfect, why do things not work out perfectly? The biblical answer is that God made all things good, but that things went awry, and diagnosing what went awry and what can be done about it is what we call the Gospel. So, I thought I’d preach a little series of sermons from the creation story in Genesis, about “the way things were meant to be” – and why they aren’t - and what can be done about it.
We begin with the first day of creation, and right away we notice something very different about the God of the Bible as compared with the gods of other ancient peoples. The God of the Bible does not emerge from a pre-existing creation, nor does he make creation out of himself – something that is true of every other cosmogony of the ancient world. Instead, he merely commands – he speaks – and the things he imagines are given existence. The God of the Bible is discontinuous with his creation; he is not subject to its laws, which are entirely of his making, nor is his substance to be found within his creation.
Still, the first thing he makes is a thing that reflects his own nature, for we are told by the Apostle John in the New Testament that “God is light,” and the very first thing God makes is light. The created light is an imitation of the uncreated light of God, but still, it is not God, not divine. It is part of the creation, not of the Creator.
And notice what happens, as soon as light is created – in the next breath, darkness is mentioned. Now, we are told that "darkness was upon the face of the deep" before the first act of creation, but without light, you would not know it was dark. God creates light, and the light gives darkness meaning. For we are told that “God separated the light from the darkness,” that is, the act of creating the one means that the other now has an existence of its own.
Without light, darkness has no existence, no meaning. A person born blind is not “in the dark” in the same way we are when someone shuts off the houselights. The person born blind knows nothing else and the alteration of light and dark is a mystery to that person; but to those who know light, the absence of light is a thing felt as surely as its presence. Night has a quality of its own, as surely as Day. And both are good, but the one is derived from the other.
So, the creation of Something creates the option of Something Else, automatically. Which means that it creates the option to choose, where before choice had no meaning. And, given the option to choose, some choosers might decide to choose the Something Else, just because they knew that God wanted them to choose the Something he gave them. Will, decision, the possibility of pride and stubbornness, is born. And while it may not be inevitable that any should choose wrongly, yet we know that some did – and all of us do.
Dorothy Sayers put it this way. Before Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, it was impossible to choose between seeing Hamlet performed and some other stage play. The very creation of “Hamlet” creates the category, “not-hamlet.” But before Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, it was also impossible to see a bad production of the play, whereas now, you can see all kinds of people butcher Shakespeare’s lines.
Some people, in their pride, have thought that they could improve upon Shakespeare’s play, and so they have re-written it now and then, trying to make it what they think it should have been. And while it might be possible to improve what Shakespeare wrote, it is certainly true that to re-write what he wrote is an act of astounding pride. And pride, of course, is the first and greatest of all sins: the pride that says, I don’t want what God has given me; I want to have my own choice, and be adored for the having of it.
So, as soon as you have Something, it becomes possible to choose Something Else. And what if there is nothing but what God has made? Well, then, you can choose Nothing. You can choose Not belonging, Not obeying, Not doing it God’s way, No heaven, No rules, Nothing that you have not thought up for yourself. And this sort of practical nihilism is the essence of evil and lurks in the hearts of every one of us.
The very act of creating something good means you can choose something else, which by definition would be bad. When God said, “let there be light” in order to give light to the world and draw it to the uncreated light which is himself, he made possible the choosing of darkness. Again, John says in his Gospel, “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”
In her play, "The Devil to Pay,” a re-write of the Faustus legend, Sayers has the soul of Faustus, bound for hell, finally ask the tempter Mephistophes, “Who made thee?” And Mephistopheles answers, “God, as the light makes the shadow.”
“Is God, then evil?” asks Faustus, and Mephistopheles replies,
God is only light,Faustus says, “What are thou, Mephistopheles?” and he replies,
And in the heart of the light, no shadow standeth,
Nor can I dwell within the light of Heaven
Where God is all.
I am the price that all things pay for being,Well, this has a practical application beyond the philosophical and the metaphysical. Where evil comes from, and what it means to choose it, and what it costs to redeem it affect you and me very closely. The Christian Church has spent 2,000 years telling people that their bad choices have earned them a 1st class ticket to hell and that Jesus came to redeem their choices and make it possible for them to inherit and inhabit the kingdom of God.
The shadow on the world, thrown by the world
Standing in its own light, which light God is.
So first, when matter was, I was called Change,
And next, when life began, I was called Pain,
And last, when knowledge was, I was called Evil;
Nothing myself, except to give a name
To these three values, Permanence,Pleasure, Good,
The Godward side of matter, life and knowledge.
Too often, though, we have taken the forgiveness offered and then assumed that we had full license to go out and commit all our sins over again. We have presented the gospel of salvation in Christ almost exclusively as deliverance from the consequences of our bad choices, while not investing much in the idea of correcting our choices to where we make good ones.
But the Gospel is not merely a get-out-of-hell-free card which allows you to go merrily on your way. “You were bought with a price,” Paul says – the price of Christ’s death on a cross. "So glorify God in your body” – that is, with your behavior, which springs from your choices, from your desires. Redemption is not only deliverance from the consequences of the past, but the renewal of your inner person so that you begin to choose rightly and act rightly and become what God intended you to be.
I used to read the Beatitudes with trepidation. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” and I knew I wasn’t pure in heart. But hey, he also said the poor in spirit and those who were merciful and so on were blessed, too, so maybe I could fit in under those categories. I didn’t realize that all those categories are just different ways of describing the same thing: blessed is the one who chooses to be what God chooses to make him – and who chooses to have what God chooses to give him.
Blessed is the one who wants what God wants, even if at first, he or she can only want to want it. That’s at least a beginning, a turning away from the desire to have more of Self toward a desire to have more of God. And, friends, all the right words and proper ceremonies and all the rest of it will not save you if what you really, really want, at the bottom of your heart is that Something Else that God has not made and has not chosen to give you. For God only has one gift to give, and it is only by his grace that we twisted creatures can be remade so as to desire what we should have desired all along.
Back in the 14th Century, there was a Benedictine monk in England named Uhtred of Boldon. Uhtred taught an astonishing doctrine: he taught that only when a person dies can one truly know what one has wanted all one’s life, and that God would give to each person what he really, truly wanted. Those who wanted only to know the love of God would find that love, and it would be theirs, for ever and ever, without diminishment, no matter how badly and disgracefully they had sinned, and even if they had failed to properly repent or confess their faith according to the formulas of the Church. Meanwhile, those who, at the bottom of their hearts, really wanted something other than God, would receive that, too, but since God only has one gift to give, the gift of himself, they would perceive that gift, not as love, but as condemnation. They would be forever held in the embrace of a God whom they wanted to get away from and could not; their desire for the Nothing which is the alternative to God would be that they should be tortured with Nothing for ever and ever, without relief.
Well, Uhtred was made to recant his views by a Church Council, since his idea would seem to mean that the sacraments of the Church and the faith taught by the Church were irrelevant to salvation. But I think that council was wrong; indeed, I think God has given us the formulas of faith and the sacraments of bread and wine and baptismal water as a concession to our weakness. For when we hear the words of our faith, and repeat them – when we take the bread in our hands and eat it and drink the wine – when we physically enter the church and bow ourselves to pray – God works to remold us into the shape we should have been, and need to be, and should desire to be. In the end, it is what our inmost souls truly desire that matters, and by which we shall be judged.
Choices, choices. All of creation is fraught with Choice. What will you choose, and how will you open yourself to God that he might redeem your choices and help you to desire what he most desires to give you?
May the light of Christ shine in your heart forever. Amen.