Sunday, January 5, 2014

Not All Myths Are Created Equal, Part 1: The World

Not All Myths Are Created Equal
Part 1: The World
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 5, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Genesis 1: 1-27
John 1:1-14 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

Sometime in the middle of the fall, as I was mired deep in the throes of lectionary preaching, looking mostly at the gospel of Luke, I decided that I wanted to preach from the Old Testament at the start of this year. I thought it would be fun to walk through the Old Testament Narrative, doing some storytelling, preaching the stories that often get relegated to Sunday School; they are familiar, though they typically remain away at a distance. We know them but we do not study them much as a whole, how they are connected, and what they tell us about God and ourselves. We often look at them from afar and see a very different God from the Gospels, but what I want to do in this series is look at these stories, see how they picture God, see how they paint the human experience, and see how these two aspects of life, God and us, despite our thinking to the contrary, hasn't changed all that much. I haven't staked out the Sundays yet, so I'm not sure how far I'll go, I'm not sure how long it will take, I'm not sure of much, but I think the Old Testament story is very much worth telling, for it is foundational to how we see God and how we see Humanity, and therefore is very important for giving us a better understanding of Jesus and the Gospel of Christ, since he is both. So let's start this morning, and this new year at the very beginning . . .

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. 3 And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
6 And God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so. 8 And God called the firmament Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.
9 And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 11 And God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, upon the earth.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, a third day.
14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 And God made the two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night; he made the stars also. 17 And God set them in the firmament of the heavens to give light upon the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.
20 And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the firmament of the heavens.” 21 So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23 And there was evening and there was morning, a fifth day.
24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. 25 And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the cattle according to their kinds, and everything that creeps upon the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. [1]  

I took a risk with the title of this sermon, but I did so on purpose. I wanted to push us a bit from our fragile comfort zone, to hopefully establish a new more substantial and lasting one. Most people do not like biblical stories, especially this story to be called a myth. We have this feeling that calling something a myth suggests that it isn't true, but that is a modern notion, the ancients did not see things that way. And if you study the myths of different civilizations it isn't history that comes into question, but rather truth. Truth is the essential quality of a myth, all things else are irrelevant. So what makes a myth is the truth that it represents.
A good definition for this ancient understanding of myth is "a traditional and legendary story told to reveal truth" Traditional means closely tied to a culture, and defining of that culture. Legendary means that the story is told as if it were historical fact, it may be fact, but that is not the purpose of the story. All myths fit this part of the definition.  The second part of the definition is that the story is told to "reveal truth." Truth comes in all shapes and sizes from why the sky is blue, to the idea that sons don't listen to their fathers, to bigger things like what the world is all about, and what the purpose of human life is. Genesis 1 very much fits the definition. It's a good definition because it remembers that the purpose of the story is to reveal truth, and is then geared to do so. Genesis fits into a special category of myths called origin myths, because their plots center around the beginnings of the world. The key though is that they aren't so much about that beginning, but more about the truth of the world as it is now. In other words origin myths are centered around defining a culture's worldview, and that world view is very much what it sounds like, simply what is the world like? How do we see it? Most ancient civilizations have one of these origin myths and they tend to reflect the ways in which that culture viewed the world around them, but as the title of this sermon suggests, these myths are not created equal. This is the true claim of Genesis 1, and an important distinction to make for us. . . not about science, nor history, but about the present, about truth, about our world. Yes the Big Bang Theory and its Brother Evolution also fit definition the ancient understanding of  what an origin myth is, but in their claim to be historically and scientifically accurate they paint the picture of a world and a humanity that just doesn't really hold water. It seems that what Faulkner said about truth and fact rings true, that they "rarely have much to do with one another."
Having said that by way of preface, I'd like to jump right in to the text. I want to focus on the two sides of this story, one today and one next week., They are each central to its claim and formative of the Christian Worldview as depicted by the Biblical revelation, and I will raise some of the other origin myths of the world at the end to help us distinguish that Biblical claim. Many people believe that all religions and world views are basically the same, but I think you will see that they just aren't the same at all. The first side of the creation story is the role of God, what it means to create, how he creates, and what creation means, this will be our focus this week. Then the second is the place and role of us within that creation, which we'll get to next Sunday.  
The Bible does not wait around to drive home it's central message. All through Advent we looked at how so much of the Christmas story calls out that God is in control, and it is there from the beginning. The first 5 words in English, and three in Hebrew. "In the Beginning God Created" or in Hebrew "Beresheet" (Beginning), Bara (Create), Elohim (God)." I want to focus on that middle word, Bara, the verb. It's translated as creates, but there is more to it, because it is a verb that only God can be the subject of, no one else can "bara" other than God. The Hebrews had a different word for the kind of creating that people do, but God is the only one that can Bara. Here we have one unified creator, doing it all, there is no help, no other forces, just God, and only God baras.
So the big question then is what does it mean to create, what does it mean to bara? It says that God creates the heavens and the earth. Great, but what was there first? In English it says in most translations "formless and void, with darkness upon the face of the deep." But what does that mean? Formless and void to me is hard to imagine. Is it something or is it nothing? I'm not sure, but in the original Hebrew language there is a really interesting image. It's a compound word, To'u-vovo'u, two words that have great poetic imagery. Hebrew has to use figurative language often because they just don't have words for things, especially abstract things like "formlessness and the void." So they use images. So the first half of the world is To-om. . . it's onomatopoeia. . . this is the part that means "void" . . . . onomatopoeia, means sound words. . .like buzz or crash, where the meaning is based on what they sound like. . . many ancient words are like this. So To-om is a sound. . . it's the sound of a rock being thrown down in the bottom of a well. . . "To-om" do you see how that is void, the empty, hollow darkness, like the bottom of a well, and there is water. . . important, keep that water image in your head. The next part "vovo-u," is actually a word that means chaos monster like a dragon, crazy and out of control. So these are the images that come together in the pre-creation world. Emptiness, darkness, and disorder. God then bara's, filling the emptiness, bringing light to the darkness, and bringing order where there was chaos. Pretty cool image huh, do you notice the Trinitarian sense of it? Do you hear the connection to John 1 that we read as the gospel passage, especially the "light shining out of the darkness." It's impressive. . . impactful.
So God's first act of Creation is to speak, more connection to John 1, speak, sending out his Word, and it says "let there be light" and it was light. There is the Word, but the spirit is there as well, look "the spirit of God" the Hebrew word is "ruach" breath, wind, is on the face of the waters." In the  beginning was the word, father, son, and Holy Spirit, let there be light, and it was.
The cool imagery continues, showing what God does, day 2, the firmament, dividing the waters from the waters. It's cool because the word for water in Hebrew is "Shamayim", but do you know what the word for sky is, yes, "ha-shamayim," which literally means "the water." So God separates, water from the water. Makes sense right, they are both blue, and water does fall from the sky at times. There is logic, there is truth, they are describing the world around them, describing truth, the truth of a God who is unique, single, one, unified, with a will, a purpose, a plan, in control, creating an ordered world, and calling that ordered world Good. The next few days of creation go to show God meticulously building a home. All pointing towards the 6th day creation of human beings. Breathing life into us, and shaping us, both male and female in his own image. We'll get to that next week.
But now I want to compare this world view to some of the others in the world because the distinguishing features can give them even more emphasis. Many believe that most of the world's origin myths were written about the same time, in what is called in history the Axial age: the period of the exile for the Jews in Babylon, the Greek Golden Age and their rivals the Persians, the Vedic Period in India, and the period of the Han Dynasty in China. These all roughly take place at the same time. These are each of the main centers of civilization known as the fertile crescent. From all of these centers you get very unique world views, and each is reflected in their origin myths, and each is different from the Biblical. It's important because these world views, sometimes by different names are very much still around, and some have found their way within our own Christian understanding, for better or worse.
Babylon and Greece both have a polytheistic worldview. Unlike the Biblical account they have many gods who have hands in creation, resulting in much conflict. Human beings then are caught in the balance of that conflict and often seek to manipulate those conflicting forces to best benefit themselves, called to create along with the gods, all in conflict. There is no real right, only what can be pulled off, each god has their own perspective and their own power, and you appeal to whichever one you need. Very different in perspective from the Biblical, one God in control, baraing alone based on his own perfect will. You'll find that polytheism has many similarities to atheism, in that there is conflict, individual human beings left in the balance to claw their way, nothing of substance above to set real standards, so other much more transient things set the standards like who is the strongest, smartest, or whatever the opinion is of the majority. It lacks the peace, unity, and purpose of the Biblical Claim.
The Persians altered this slightly with the idea that there really is only two Gods, and one is good and one is bad. The Good one creates and the Bad one destroys. . . again you see the distinction between this and the account in Genesis 1, though certainly the Christian notion of the devil is similar. . . we'll have to look sometime at where that aspect of the story comes in, since it doesn't seem to be present at all in Genesis 1.
In India the Hindu take the idea of God and put it within all things, believing that the truth, the eternal, the forever living is within each individual created thing, and therefore cannot die, but instead is reincarnated in different bodily forms forever. Looking for truth within, also is a big part of the Christian landscape, perhaps with the idea of the indwelling Holy Spirit. The worlds then are created, but they don't matter because they are just blips on the eternal cycle of life. I believe we're more than that.
In China there is the belief that all things are connected, that the entire world makes up what God is equally. The butterfly is a piece, the grass, you and I, we are all equal pieces of the concept of God (for lack of a better more accurate term). I believe there is difference and variety. I'll touch on it more next week.
So there are all these opposing viewpoints about the world, and how it is created. We could even bring a modern atheistic secularist world view into play, but you will find that these myths are not at all the same, nor they do not paint the same picture about what this world is all about, and how it is in balance around us. The Bible makes very unique claims, and they are claims that can offer real comfort to us. Peace not conflict, order rather than chaos, good rather than bad, eternal, timeless, in control, forever, shaping, molding, creating, baraing, bringing light out of darkness, again and again, then, now, and forever. The truth of the Genesis account is vivid, impressive, all inclusive, and believing it to be true is very much a foundation for the rest. There must be a God, a God in control, a God creating, in order for there to really be a Jesus. Like so much it is a matter of faith. We all as humans ask ourselves what we believe. I've seen the other options, seen what they do, seen how they affect life, and I just don't see how they measure up. The God of Genesis 1 creates a world that is good. . . all we need do is believe that to be the case, and we will know freedom, hope, and peace, like you cannot even believe. . . No not all creation myths are created equal. It just can't be so.

[1]The Revised Standard Version. 1971 (Ge 1:1). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

Sermon Notes from Bulletin. . .

Myth - a traditional (tied to and defining of culture) legendary (told as historical fact) story told to reveal truth. 

Origin Myth - a myth about the origins of the world used to reveal truth about the way the world is.

In the Beginning God Created --אלהים    ברא  בראשית -- B'reshit bara elohim

Formless and Void - תהו-ובהו   (to-u v-vo-u) sound of a rock falling into a well and the chaos monster

water - שמים   (sh'my'em)       sky - השמים   (ha sh'my'em)

Who Creates
What is the world like
God (elohim)
Ordered according the will of God called good
gods in conflict / natural forces
Conflict, humans manipulating world to fit their will
Ahura Mazda (good)
 Ahriman (Evil)
World in struggle of Good versus Evil, Life versus destruction
Indian (Hindu)
Manifestations of Brahman
Worlds are created and destroyed in endless cycle
World is One
All things are connected and equal, humans are simply a part