Title: Image of God
Date: May 18, 2008
Texts: Gen 1:1-2:4a
I preached my first sermon, here, 5 years ago this past April. And it was really bad. Hopefully no one remembers it. I do. And over the past 5 years, I haven’t had to preach on the creation stories in Genesis. That’s something I’ve counted as a blessing. Until this week.
Sure, I’ve studies the creation accounts. And I’ve read some of the other creation myths—the ones from Mesopotamia, from Egypt. I’ve had casual conversations about the troubling similarities and strange differences among the different accounts. But how does one begin to think about preaching the passage? It reverberates with so much mystery. And I have more questions than answers.
So, tonight I’ll share with you a question I have. It’s something I can’t stop thinking about. There’s something in this story that I’ve never noticed before—maybe you have and can help me think through this strange passage. I’m haunted by what I discovered this week when I read Genesis 1.
I’ll have to read some parts of the text again so you can see what I’m talking about. Genesis 1, verses 3 and 4: “God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.” Verses 9 and 10: “God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.” The next verses are about vegetation—plants, trees, flowers. Verses 11 and 12: “Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation… And God saw that it was good.”
The creation account goes on and on like this, with the same pattern. God creates something with his spoken word, and then sees that it is good. “And God saw that it was good”—that’s the constant refrain. It’s good. Creation is good. Everything is so good. Light, water, plants, the sun and moon and stars, birds that fly, sea creatures that swim, and animals that walk and run and creep on the land. It’s all so good. The passage says that over and over again, like a mantra, so we don’t forget it. Good, good, good, good.
Then we come to verse 26, and the trouble begins—at least for me: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to 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 wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’” The passage goes on to say more about how God commissions the humans to be fruitful and multiply, just like all the rest of creation is fruitful and multiplies. And then, at the end of the creation of the two humans, we get this: “And it was so”—that’s at the end of verse 30.
“And it was so.” That’s it! Shouldn’t we expect another sentence—that same statement we’ve been hearing over and over again? “And God saw that it was good.” But it’s not there! Humans are not called “good”—and if you’re a human, that should be a bit troubling. It stunned me Why doesn’t the passage reassure us that we are seen as good like all the other parts of creation? I wouldn’t mind being told that I’m good. (For this insight, I am indebted to Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, chapter 1)
Now, if you want some reassurance, in the next verse the author takes a step back from the individual acts of creation and tells us what God thinks of the whole. “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (v. 31). So, if after God is done with creating, God steps back, and sees that everything comes together as good, as very good in fact, then maybe we humans are good too. We are part of the whole, after all.
But still, why break the pattern, the form of the narrative, with that omission? Maybe I’m the only one troubled by this. Maybe it’s because I wonder the same thing sometimes. Are humans really that good for creation? Am I good?
I remember that scene from The Matrix. It’s toward the end of the movie, where Agent Smith (the bad guy) has Morpheus tied up in a chair. And Agent Smith says this to his captive audience, Morpheus:
I’d like to share a revelation I had, during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species. I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment; but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Humans beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet and we are the cure.
That’s a pretty harsh vision of human beings—an all consuming cancer, multiplying, spreading, destroying. Slowly making areas of the planet uninhabitable. Agent Smith definitely doesn’t think humans are any good for creation. Is this why Genesis refuses to say that God saw humans as good? Are God and Agent Smith in agreement?
I don’t think so. It’s not exactly the same thing. Agent Smith says flat out that humans are bad for the world. But Genesis doesn’t say that—the passage doesn’t offer a negative description of humans. Instead there is an omission. Nothing. Silence when we expect an affirmation like the rest of creation receives. And that silence provokes a question: Are we good? Are we good for the earth? What would it mean for us to be good?—to be called good?—for God to look upon us and to call us good? Good for what, exactly?
I wonder if this omission drives the rest of the story that Genesis tells—remember, this is just the beginning of the story, the beginning of Genesis, the beginning of that part of the Old Testament called the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), and it’s the beginning of the Bible. And the beginning always frames the rest of the story—and good stories usually try to hook you in the first chapter. That’s what going on here, in Genesis. As we read, we ask ourselves: Will the humans God creates turn out to be good at the end? What will make humans good? How will we become good, complete, whole, a holy people.
Our passage gives us a hint. Although we aren’t called good, we do bear God’s image—and that’s an important clue. Verse 27: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” What does it mean to bear God’s image?
Images. Here’s one. (Show photograph.) That’s me. A couple years ago my friend sent it to me. Don’t ask me why he took it, or why he developed it and printed it. And then why he sent it to me. I’ve never understood that—why people give you pictures of yourself. It’s not like we’re vain enough to put them on display. Except, here I am, showing you a picture of myself.
Anyhow. Who is this? Yes, it’s me. But is it really me? Not really, right. It’s only a picture. If I put the picture over there, and walk over here, does that mean I can be in two places at once? Not really. It’s simply that I’m here, and there’s a picture of me over there.
But you all can look at the picture, see a resemblance, and say, “Yeah, that’s Isaac.” It’s all about the resemblance—according to my likeness, as Genesis would say.
The creation account in Genesis 1 says that humans, all of us, are created in God’s image. We bear a likeness, a resemblance to God. How do we know what God looks like? Well, we look at the only images of God that we have: each other. God’s presence is promised through people.
Last night Esther was talking about what she learned in Uganda from her friend and mentor, Pastor Sam. When driving to meetings, Pastor Sam would pick up anybody who needed a ride, anybody waiting on the side the road. It was an inconvenient practice. They would end up driving out of their way to take these strangers where they needed to go. They would be late for important meetings.
Esther asked him why he always stopped to pick up these strangers when it meant that they would now be late meeting up with their friends. Pastor Sam said, “Well, do you think it’s a good idea to leave Jesus waiting on the side of the road?”
That’s someone who believes that people, humans, are the clearest way to see and experience God—that human beings bear the closest resemblance to God, that the image of God comes to us in each and every person. They re-present God’s presence. It’s a mysticism of the flesh. Human interactions and relationships are the places where we come to find God.
But there’s an important difference between the way this picture is an image of me, and the way we are images of God. This image can’t change. This image can’t become more like me. And that’s the difference. We are images that can grow in our likeness to God. We are images of God that can become more like the one who created us. We are dynamic images, learning how to grow into God’s likeness every day. (As Thomas Aquinas says, we are created “toward God’s image”—ad imaginem.)
I think that’s why Genesis won’t tell us that humans are good just yet. It remains to be seen. Will we grow into the one who gave us life? Will we become a creative power of life, like God is?—like-giving, life-proliferating, the life-multiplying presence of love. God’s Yes to life. Will we live into the blessing of our identity?—that we are God’s presence, God’s mission, of making the world “very good.”