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Second Sunday After Christmas – January 5, 2020
Today begins a three-week sermon series wherein we will explore together the relationship between science and faith. As Galileo famously said “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” In that vein, I would like for us over the course of these three weeks to explore the relationship between evolution and scripture, the story of Noah and the Ark, and what it means for us to truly love God “with all our minds” as Jesus entreats us to in the gospels, for it is my conviction that the Christian faith is indeed a religion for thinking people, despite so many modern assertions to the contrary. As such, it matters not only that we read scripture as we interact with the world, but how we read scripture as well.
In the Bible, there are three major places that seek to explore the origins of everything that is. Those three places are the Old Testament texts of Genesis chapter one, Genesis chapter two, and the New Testament text that I just read from the Gospel of John chapter one. Each of these three readings approaches the nature of reality in a different way and each makes a different yet important theological claim about God, about humans including us, and the relationship between God and humankind. I will begin with the accounts in Genesis and I will get to this morning’s text from John one a bit later.
In Genesis chapter one (and the very beginning of chapter two), God creates everything from light and darkness to the heavens, day and night, the earth, the sky, the sea, the land, plants, the sun, the moon, animals, and finally, humans who Genesis explicitly states are made in God’s image. God declares each part of creation to be “good,” and when creation is complete after day six, God rests on day seven.
In Genesis chapter two, starting with the fourth verse, we encounter a different story of creation, one that provides us with a more compressed account of the creation of the earth, yet one that includes details such as how God created Adam from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. In this account, God creates a garden in the East called Eden in which God places Adam to live. God instructs Adam to till the ground and care for it. God instructs Adam to eat from any tree in the garden except for what God calls “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” God warns Adam if he does so, he will die.
So that Adam would not be alone, God creates the animals, and Adam names them. However, Genesis two tells us that Adam had not yet found “a helper as his partner.” So, God causes Adam to fall into a deep sleep, removes a rib from him, and from the rib creates a woman. Upon seeing her, Adam proclaims “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.”
In the next chapter, chapter three, Adam (whose name means “man” or “from the ground”) and his wife who will be named Eve (which means “life” or “bearer of life”) are tempted by a serpent to eat from the forbidden tree in the middle of the garden. They do, and they suddenly are ashamed of their nakedness, and God punishes Adam and Eve by evicting them from Eden but not before telling them there will be enmity between them, that there will be pain in childbirth, that Adam will till the soil for the rest of his life, soil now infested with thorns and thistles, and God says those words we repeat each Ash Wednesday as we consider our sin and our mortality: “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” God fashions clothing for them, and they leave Eden forever.
And with this, we have before us the Genesis accounts of creation.
One afternoon about twenty years ago, I was riding in a hearse with a local funeral home director named David who was giving me a ride from a graveside service back to my car. We had worked together several times and were the same age, and as we rode together, he began to tell me how deeply worried he was about a friend of his because this friend believed in evolution and not creationism, a fact that made David very concerned about his friend’s salvation.
This conversation stuck with me over the years because I cannot find a place in scripture where one’s understanding of the origins of the universe is a salvation issue. I can find plenty of verses that discuss the utmost importance of believing that Jesus is the messiah, the Son of God, the Christ, but as I read scripture, I find it uninterested with our modern debates over whether the earth came to be in six twenty-four hour days or if the world as we know it unfolded over millions of years. Nowhere in the gospels does Jesus ever ask someone if the earth is six-thousand years old as Young Earth Creationists believe or 4.57 billion years old as is the consensus of most scientists.
According to a 2012 Gallup poll, 46 percent of Americans indicated a belief that God created humans fully formed and not evolved less than ten thousand years ago. Another 32 percent believed that humans evolved over millions of years but with God’s guiding hand. Fifteen percent believed that humans evolved over millions of years without the guiding hand of God. Clearly this topic is one that people are divided over, even within the broader Christian community itself. For some, it is a badge of honor to dispute the science around evolution, while for others, the science and the stories of creation can exist in harmony with one another depending upon how we read scripture. This latter category is where I find myself.
In his book Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today, the United Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton tells of a young man in his congregation who describes his belief this way: “Any craftsman can build a chair, but how many can design a chair that builds itself and improves over time?” Hamilton then writes “Evolution doesn’t diminish God’s glory, as some Christians seem to believe. To me, it magnifies God’s glory, as is captured so well in this analogy.”
So then, the obvious objection to what Christians like me believe about the origins of the universe is that we are, if nothing else, diminishing the power of scripture, in essence, picking and choosing what to believe. For many people I have known, the fear is that the authority of scripture is akin to a house of cards, where if you doubt one part you have permanently opened the door to all of it being untrue—each card is essential in holding in place all of the other cards. So they ask if the creation stories are divine allegory, what is to say that the resurrection is not divine allegory as well?
My response is to say that Christians who think like I do on this issue do not doubt that the accounts in scripture are true, just that they are not science. Yet most importantly, and I cannot stress this enough, without the truth evident in the scriptural accounts, the scientific narrative is poorer, and I will explain why.
While science may convincingly and elegantly explain how you and I came to be, it cannot tell us some very important things we need to know to live as faithful people on this earth. Science tells me how I got here. Science tells of a miraculous unfolding of system that produced the wonders of this world in which we live, including life that is so resilient that it has been able to adapt in order to survive over millions of years. Science fills my mind with wonder as each new discovery provides us with amazing and beautiful glimpses into the continuous unfolding revelation of the God who set it all in motion. Each time I cross a bridge or see an aircraft with hundreds of people inside cross the sky, I give thanks to God for setting in motion systems that would allow you and I to live in a world of which the ancients could not have dreamed. Science reminds me that God is not yet done with this world, instead choosing to continue to interact with it in ways large and small, ways continually revealed in each new discovery that is made.
Yet in scripture I learn who I am and whose I am. In scripture, I learn how I am expected to regard myself and others and life as a fellow sojourner on this terrestrial ball. I learn of God’s dream of a world of intimacy between the divine and human where God walks through the garden with God’s own people “in the cool of the evening.” I learn that God is a creative God. I learn that, even on my worst day, I am still made in God’s image, and I am reminded that so is everyone else around me, despite what I may sometimes find myself tempted to think, such that I am perpetually reminded to see the divine in others. In scripture, I learn that this world is not a cosmic fluke but a gift of beauty to be treasured and and well-cared for.
Science also keeps me from holding our ancient ancestors in the faith to an unfair standard. They did not know what science was, and as such, they were not writing science. They were writing poetry, music, even. Scripture reminds me that the ancients’ perception of the world holds within it a measure of truth that extends across the millennia and transcends all of the things that divide us, giving us insight into how this intimate, creative God would have us to live. For example, In psalm 8, the psalmist writes “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”
Some nights, when the moon is low and golden and bright, I consider the ancients and how they looked upon that very same moon and saw in it what they would call a “lesser light” that God had provided to watch over them through the night. Some days, I imagine those ancient ancestors in our faith watching it rain, watching the water come down from the sky and nourish the earth, and I believe I can understand how they looked up and imagined a dome, a firmament separating water above the sky from the earth below. And then, I think about life and how they regarded these elegantly designed, beautiful machines that our souls inhabit and understood what a gift they are, and how they were somehow designed by a master craftsman in that designer’s own image. I imagine how they must have tried to comprehend a God so powerful that this God could ignite the sun being the same God who breathed God’s breath into the lungs of the first man.
All of which brings me at last to this morning’s reading from the Gospel of John, verses often referred to as the prologue to John’s gospel. In these beautiful, poetic verses, we learn one of the most important claims the church makes about Jesus Christ. It is something we affirm when together we recite the Nicene Creed or sing “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The claim is this: Jesus is truly divine and was present with God at the outset of all that is—all of it. As John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”
As Paul writes to the Colossians “[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.”
What all this means is that this God who spoke creation into being, the God who created all things and called them good, the God who designed you and I in God’s own image, the God who created and set in motion an amazing, resilient system that would one day produce life on earth as we know it, and who would give us these wonderful, timeless scriptures to help us begin to comprehend what it all means; that this God is the God we know supremely as a poor, itinerant rabbi in the ancient Near East, a carpenter’s son. The God who flooded the darkness with light, and molded the planets, and placed the rings around Saturn is the God who healed the sick, fed the hungry, and ate with sinners. The God who designed us is the One who wept at the grave of Lazarus, who blessed children, and called simple subsistence fishermen to leave their nets to come catch people.
To me, the most beautiful image in the creation narrative may be the one we encounter in Genesis chapter three, where our creative, creator God walks through the garden in the cool breeze of the evening. Upon hearing this, Adam and Eve hid themselves because they knew that they had sinned.
And this same God is the One who also trod the dusty paths of Galilee, teaching and serving and ultimately dying and rising so that you and I could dare to dream of once again possessing everything we lost, everything we left behind in Eden, so that we might never be separated from this amazing, creative, extremely local, parochial God who created us so that we might know God and enjoy God forever.
Science tells us how and scripture teaches us why, and what a wonderful world we live in when our lives are blessed by both as both enable us to be in relationship with each other, with creation itself, and with this God who through it all so deeply desires to be known, by you, by me, and by all people, all made in the marvelous image of the divine.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.