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image of God: a sermon on creation

May 19th, 2008 by isaac · 5 Comments

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.”

Tags: sermons

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anonymous // May 23, 2008 at 1:16 pm ewTopic.cfm?TopicList=10524&Topic=GOOD,+C HIEF&DictID=4#ISBE The blueletterbible site gives uses of the word ‘good’ and many references to how we are blessed with God’s goodness. He gives us a choice whether or not to accept it. The earth was not good until it was habitable for man to live; thus, we are not good until habitable for God to live within us (accepting Jesus) and being guided by the Holy Spirit. We are in God’s trinitarian image, (have moral, intellectual, and spiritual natures)

  • 2 Nicholas Chorba // Feb 9, 2009 at 7:30 am

    I’m not convinced that verse 31 does not refer to the sixth day, as the sixth day ends after the proclamation that everything that God had made was good:

    “31 Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good. So the evening and the morning were the sixth day.”

    However, I will play along in your line of reasoning.

    You have missed something else with the pattern of “And God saw that it was good”. Genesis 1:6-8 is the account of the second creation day when God creates the firmament or atmosphere. The pattern is also broken in this passage.

    Many people suspect that this is so because there may have been a different form of “water” in the sky, not just the regular clouds that we see today. They sight Genesis 2:5-6:

    “5 before any plant of the field was in the earth and before any herb of the field had grown. For the LORD God had not caused it to rain on the earth, and there was no man to till the ground; 6 but a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground. ”

    From this they draw the conclusion that there was no rain before the flood, and further support that notion by showing that though rainbows are a natural phenomenon, they did not show up until after the flood, thus something has had to have physically changed within the world. They also suppose that this is, in part, where the water came from for the flood.

    Therefore, it is concluded that the second day of creation was a sort of a “mousetrap” waiting to be sprung upon the world in judgment of man. Not so good.

    If this is so, then it would make sense that “And God said it was good” is omitted from the day six passage. For just as the “mousetrap” was set on day two due to God’s foreknowledge of the judgment to come, God also foreknew that man would be the one to fill the world with the corruption and violence (Genesis 6:11) which would be the cause for God to spring this “mousetrap”.

    Day two and day six appear to be linked in that fashion.

  • 3 Anonymous // Dec 15, 2009 at 11:31 pm

    If we are the image of God, are we not perfect just like him

  • 4 Daleinaz // Dec 17, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    @Anonymous, no, we are not (yet) perfect. A “perfect” picture (image) is not a exact representation of the person. It is only two-dimensional, and it does not show the other side. We are made in the image of God, but we are not an exact representation of him. Too often, we miss the mark (the literal definition of sin), by not doing what we could and should do. Not to mention doing what we shouldn’t. Have you always honored your parents? Never once rolled your eyes or made disparaging remarks about them? Never once given time and attention to something at the expense of worshiping God? Never once stolen time, scissors, or pens from work? If you’ve ever violated even one of the ten commandments, even once, then you are not perfect.
    But the good news is, Jesus paid that debt for us. We are made perfect in God’s sight when we receive forgiveness from his son. It’s an ongoing thing, we have to stay in relationship with him to keep receiving forgiveness, because we keep sinning.

  • 5 Daleinaz // Dec 17, 2009 at 8:59 pm

    And I’d quibble with Agent Smith – animals don’t “instinctively develop a natural equilibrium”. Put an animal into an environment where it has no natural predators (like rabbits in Australia) and see what happens! Usually the population expands until the food is depleted, and then there is massive starvation, until the food source recovers, then the cycle repeats.