Once Upon a Time
“Once upon a time…” These four words bring back good memories for many of us. Perhaps it is the memory of a mom or dad sitting beside you after they tucked you into bed and began to read you a familiar story before you nodded off to sleep, or possibly it is the memory of you saying these words to your own children.
These words were just the beginning, introducing a tale sure to capture the imagination of the listener. If it was a new story, there would be a palpable anticipation in the room and with the turn of every page, the restless excitement would build. When it introduced a well-known story, there was an impatience to get to your favorite part of the story, to hear how the prince rescued the damsel in distress, or the more politically-correct modern version where the princess saves the prince after she has slain the evil dragon. With each new night there would be a new story, with new characters, new adventures, new twists and turns, new excitement and anticipation.
Many of us grew up with the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales of “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” or “Rumpelstilzchen.” Some may have experienced Aesop’s fables like, “The Ant and the Grasshopper.”
Personally, I love a good story. One of the things I like to do in my down-time is watch a good television show or movie. I am often frustrated when I invest time and money into a show that has no plot, or a poor plot. However, a movie that can illicit emotion in me, that can make me feel anger or sadness or make me laugh…that is time well-spent for me.
The problem with a lot of modern storytelling is that it is often disconnected. Even in TV shows that run for several seasons, there is very little that ties one episode to the next, one story to the next, except for the recurring main characters. Each story is a disconnected moment with no overarching theme or thread to tie it all together.
This summer, there was a sci-fi show on Fox called “Wayward Pines.” I love a good sci-fi show, but do you know what I loved most about this show? It was only ten episodes. That’s it. Each episode was building to the ending, the finale of the series. There was something that tied it all together from the first episode to the very end.
Often, when we read the Bible, it is easy for us to approach it like we would modern television or novels. We read a story like how Jesus fed 5,000 people or how Moses received the Ten Commandments. We enjoy the action stories like David and Goliath and Samson.
In many of the stories, we can even see the moral, a life lesson we can learn from the story. But too often, when we come back to the Bible and we read another story, we look at it as just another story. We can fail to realize the overarching narrative.
The Bible is a collection of 66 writings, including various types of literature, history, poetry, law, words or warnings written by prophets to people, and letters written from one friend to another. All of this was written over thousands of years ago. Through time, these writings have been collected into the 66 books we now have that make up our Bible.
From the very first pages of Genesis, to the final words of Revelation, there is something that ties this all together. We can miss it if we aren’t careful. During this series, we would like to spend some time digging into this book. We will discover that this book isn’t a collection of disconnected stories. Rather, it is a carefully crafted story with an overarching theme. I want us to discover how it is all connected and see the Big Story of God.
There’s no better place to start than the beginning.
In the Beginning God
As we open the book to its first pages, past the presentation page and the copyright information, past the table of contents, we come to the book of Genesis, whose name itself means “beginning.”
In the first four words of the book we find the subject. We find not just the subject of the sentence, or even just the subject of this chapter, but the subject of the book, and even the entire Bible. “In the beginning God…” is our “Once upon a time…”
Why would I stop there? The verse does continue on and there is a long chapter after it too. So, why stop there? It is because I realize that when we continue reading Genesis 1, there can be a struggle, a debate over what appears to be an unresolvable conflict between science and the Bible. I will get to that in just a moment.
Before we get there, before we dive into any other issues with creation and the beginning, we need to stop here and see first and foremost that the primary concern of Genesis is not how old the earth is or how long it took God to create it. The primary concern of the creation story is God.
What leads me to that conclusion? Well, when you read the Bible, you realize that it was not written yesterday or even a decade ago. In fact, Genesis was most likely written by or under the direction of Moses. The original audience was ancient Israel, around 1400 B.C. In that day and age, their primary concern wasn’t scientific proof or even how creation came about.
If we look into what the original audience would have been confronting, the surrounding nations would have all been espousing their own versions of creation. Stories that taught that heaven and earth were made out of the slaughter of a sea monster and human beings were made from the blood of a slain god.
Polytheism was rampant and worshipping multiple gods was commonplace. Yet, Genesis begins with, “In the beginning…God.” What was the author thinking when he penned these words? He was thinking that there is but one, true God. The author is concerned that we know the “who” of the story and the “who” is God. The entire point of Genesis is to reveal God, but it doesn’t end there. It doesn’t just introduce us to God. Genesis continues to reveal to us several truths about God.
What Creation Reveals About God
If you keep reading beyond the first four words of Genesis, it says,
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
Even here we begin to see just who this God is. We see the eternalness of God. God wasn’t born. God wasn’t created. When the world began, God was already there. He was. His has always been. He is. God is eternal. And because he is eternal, everything that exists finds its origin in God.
Next, we see God as Creator. Pastor Tim Keller said that this is the only religion, this is the only book, in which it opens and in the first scene, God has dirt under his fingernails. God is making things. God is forming things.
How he creates is amazing. The Hebrew word used here for created is used only for God and it means that he created what is out of nothing. The Latin phrase is “ex nihilo.” Impress your friends with that at your next party. Ex nihilo means out of nothing. So, it’s different than how we create. We gather supplies when we get ready to create, but not God. He created all that is, from nothing.
Next, as an eternal Creator, we also see God as sovereign over all that exists. Because he created it, he is over it. He is not limited by it. Old Testament scholar John Walton writes that in creation we see, “a demonstration of God’s independent, autonomous position as the sole and ultimate source of power and knowledge in the cosmos.” There is none like him. He has no competition. He alone created, he alone rules and reigns and holds it all together.
We continue just looking at these two short verses and we find that God is a God of order. God brings order to the chaos. We see it described as formless or empty, water and darkness, chaos. And if you keep, reading you see that it is the voice of God that brings order to chaos.
We can see that God had a purpose in bringing order. This isn’t just some random chance occurrence. It is not an accident. Creation happened because of God. There was a plan in mind when he began. We will see this plan unfold as we continue through this story in future installments.
If you continue reading through Genesis, you have this beautiful picture of things coming together. Again, don’t get hung up on whether it is literal or figurative. Don’t miss the main point the author is trying to convey…God.
We come to verse 26 and we read,
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
At the end of the creation story we read about a personal God. A God who creates humanity and has a desire to know and live in relationship with us.
There may be a lot of things we try to make Genesis 1 say, but above it all, it reveals to us the “who” of this story. And that “who” is God, but it doesn’t end there. Creation also reveals some things about us.
What Creation Reveals About Us
The passage I just read uses an important phrase when referring to humanity. It tells us we were created in the image of God. Nothing else mentioned in creation is given this designation. God calls his creation “good,” but nothing else is said to be “in his image.” We are his principle creation. We are not on the same level with the vegetation or animals. We are different, special, in his image.
But what does in his image mean? Does it mean I am what God looks like: a middle-aged, slightly graying, white guy with a slight southern accent? Let me put your mind at ease. That’s not it.
Being made in the image of God means that we were created to reflect the character of God and to be the vessel through which God accomplishes his work in the world. Only man and woman were given the responsibility to rule over and take care of God’s creation.
Being made in his image also tells us that we were created for relationship. I already mentioned that creation reveals a personal God, but we were also made to know our Creator, to live in relationship with him, and to seek to deepen that relationship. We need this relationship with him. And this relationship exists not with us as slaves, but as partners to whom he has entrusted the rest of his creation.
It is through that relationship that we find we are created with purpose. God created with purpose and we have purpose. We are more than just cosmic accidents suspended between birth and death. There is a reason for your life.
One final thing we also see that isn’t very popular is our dependence on God. All these things that creation reveals about us, show that we need God. We try to find substitutes. We try to substitute others for our relationship with God. We try to find purpose outside of God, but inevitably, we find these fall flat. Maybe not at first, but eventually, we find these substitutes to be insufficient, because we were created for relationship with our Creator and it is only through him that we find fulfillment and purpose in life.
As we consider these two points, what creation reveals about God and what creation reveals about us, I hope you have seen that the beginning of the story isn’t as much about what, when, or how, as it is about who and why.
The “who” is God, and the “why” is for relationship with us.
The Conflict Between Science and Faith
As I wrap this up, I don’t think it would be complete without addressing a potential question raised by Genesis 1. Is there an unresolvable conflict between the Bible and science when it comes to creation? The best answer I can give you is, I don’t know.
Does Genesis 1 teach exactly how God created everything and how long it took him to create it? I don’t know, but the more I study it, the more I don’t think so.
There are good, Godly people on both sides of this issue that make compelling arguments. We need to be able to talk about such things with respect and understanding. If we start hitting each other over the head with this passage to prove our rightness about the how and when of creation, we have already lost, because as I have spent this entire sermon discussing, I believe that the primary point to be made from the creation story is that it reveals God and his desire for us to know him. Everything else is secondary.
If we read Genesis and we want to boil it down to simply a textbook on how things were made, I think we miss the bigger picture that is here. What if Genesis isn’t as much about the story of creation, but rather the beginning of the story of the Creator, the story of a Creator who loves us and pursues us and gives meaning to our existence?
We can discuss and debate the secondary issues, but we cannot lose sight of the “who” and the “why” of the beginning of the story.
I close with some final questions to think about. Why is this recorded the way it is? Why do we have a picture of creation, where everything God makes is good? Why are we given a peek into this perfect creation of God?
I think it is to show us that the way the world is now, with war, and a refugee crisis, and poverty, and evil, was not always how it was. It was better. It was good. And as we continue through “The Big Story of God,” we will see that how it begins is ultimately also how it will end: with a garden and perfection and everything being good again. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
As you have been reading about the beginning, what has God said to you? I hope you’ve heard that God desires a relationship with you. Are you embracing that relationship or are you resisting? Do you see a greater purpose for your existence? If not, know that God created you to not have to struggle with this. He has made a way for you to experience the life he created you for, in relationship with him.
The way he has provided for us to know him is through Jesus Christ. I failed to mention it earlier, but what is fascinating about the creation story is that even though it is about the one true God, in this we see God as Trinity, through the phrase, “Let us make man in our image,” and in the Spirit of God hovering over the water.
In John 1, we read the same first three words from Genesis 1:
In the beginning…was the word and the word was with God .
Jesus Christ was there from the beginning. Being fully God, he created all that is, and it is through him that we have the relationship with God. Do you desire a relationship with God? What was needed to be done has been done through Christ on the cross. By repenting of your sin and believing in Jesus, you can know the love and freedom and purpose that God created for you.
So, it begins with God. He creates everything. He creates us. The Bible is not some random collection of stories with examples of how we are to live. If that were true then the Bible would be all about you. But it’s not about you. It’s about Him. It is not so much about what we need to do, but what HE has already done.
In the next installment of the series, we will see how humanity lives in perfection for a little while, walking and talking with God in the garden, but something goes horribly wrong. Everything was good, but it didn’t stay that way. Don’t miss the next installment as we continue, “The Big Story of God.”