Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

 We Confuse the Sun for the Light

Sunday, January 25, 2009

 

 

Genesis 1: 1-5

Dean

Rev. Dean Snyder


It is the season of Epiphany and one of the themes of Epiphany is light. The whole Advent/Christmas/Epiphany season revolves around darkness and light as both a reality of life and as metaphor.

 

Next week we are beginning a sermon series on “Christianity Without Easy Answers.” I want to try to talk about what I believe Christianity is and isn’t and the misapprehensions I think some others have about what we who go to church think and do.  They will be sermons that you may want to share with your non-churched friends. (Our staff has made a commitment to have an audio version of them on the web the same day so that you can email a link to a friend you think might be interested in hearing it.) I hope you also find these sermons helpful or at least thought provoking. 

 

But I wanted to talk today about the Epiphany image of light, and I want to focus on the first creation story in the book of Genesis. We confuse the sun for the light. Let us pause for a moment of prayer:

 

Help us to walk, O Creator God, as children of the light. Illuminate the dark places of our minds, the shadowy places within our souls, the gloomy places within our spirits. Shine your light on us, we pray. Amen.

 

For many years scholars have noted an anomaly in the first creation account in Genesis. The anomaly is this: God creates light on the first day, and separates light from darkness, and only on day four does God create the sun and the moon and the stars…the luminaries that give light to the earth.

 

There are a number of theories about why the writers of this particular creation account would have God create light before God created the sun and moon and stars.

 

One theory is that the ancients who wrote this creation account never made the connection between the sun and light, but I think this is very unlikely. I don’t think the writers of this creation account were ignorant of the connection between the sun and light.

 

A second theory is that the writers of this creation account were trying to make a theological point.

 

In a world and a time when many cultures and religions worshiped the sun, perhaps the writers of Genesis 1 were making the theological point that the sun is not the real source of light. God is the source of the light, the sun and the moon and the stars have no real power. They are only tools that God uses to achieve God’s goal of helping to spread the light.

 

They wrote this creation account, remember, in a time when most of world believed in astrology. Astrology was the leading science of the time. Even hundreds of years later when Jesus was born, most of the world still believed in astrology. The wise men were astrologers from the East who had seen Jesus’ birth in their astrological charts of the stars and the planets.

 

The assumption of astrology is that the stars and the planets and the sun and the moon control our fate. Have you noticed that the Washington Post, one of the greatest newspapers in the world, still prints a daily horoscope? The Post has done away with “The Three Wise Guys” who were one of the highlights of my weekend, but they use up column inches to print a daily horoscope. I assume the editors of the Post print horoscopes because readers read them. And I assume readers read them because part of us believes that the sun and the stars and the moon have power to shape our fate. 

 

If you believe in astrology, by the way, I don’t want to argue with you. There are days in my life when my stars seem drastically out of alignment.

 

But the ancients writing the Genesis 1 creation story were trying to say that the light comes from a creator God rather than from impersonal forces in the universe. The great Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad said that biblically, “The stars [including the sun] in no way create light but are merely intermediary bearers of a light which existed without them and before them.”[i]  The creation account has light being created before the sun and the moon and the stars in order to give the power to God and not to the forces of nature alone. That’s at least one theory as to why the creation account is written the way it is.

 

I want to suggest this morning a third theory, one that is consistent with von Rad and others, but which takes their thought a bit further.

 

I think that there is throughout the Bible, repeated often, a way of thinking that challenges our normal assumptions about cause and effect and means and ends. We, most of us, find it hard or even impossible to believe deeply in an end unless we can conceptualize the means of getting there. We can not give ourselves fully to an end unless we can grasp the cause that will result in that effect.

 

We can not imagine light without a source for the light like the sun or the moon or the stars or an electric bulb.

 

I think the Bible again and again suggests that for God the means are secondary and pretty much irrelevant. The end is what God focuses on.

 

God says “Let there be light and there was light, and God saw that the light was beautiful” (which is the literal translation of the Hebrew).  The sun and the moon and the stars are afterthoughts. Light is the point. Maybe even beauty is the point.

 

The theological and philosophical and practical implication of this is that we, too, need to stay focused on the end, and if we stay focused on the end, the means will manifest themselves. Stay focused on the means and we may well miss the end.

 

There is a story in the Bible almost nobody likes, except maybe Soren Kierkegaard. It’s a story I don’t like. It is the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham and Sarah have no children. God promises Abraham and Sarah that they will be the parents of many people and a blessing to all nations. They get very old and still have no children. How can they be the parents of many people when they have no child? Then when Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah was 90 years old, she becomes pregnant. They have a son, Isaac.

 

According to Genesis 22, God ordered Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and Abraham obeys until at the last minute God provides a ram to be sacrificed instead.

 

Sociologists say that child sacrifice was the norm at that time in Semitic society and what is significant in that story is not Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac but God’s decision to stop him.

 

Nonetheless, I don’t like the story, the very idea of it, but I think the deeper point of the story is this: that Abraham could not be the father of many nations and a blessing to all humanity if his vision was dependent upon having a physical child. If he could not envision the greater end but only one means to get there, a biological child…he was not the kind of person who could do what God wanted him to do.

 

This was the disciples’ problem. They had in their minds a specific idea of messiah – what a messiah should do and accomplish…an idea of messiah Jesus did not fulfill. The disciples expected Jesus to lead a political revolution, not to die on a cross. That was the only way to the reign of God that the disciples could imagine. It took the miracle of a resurrection to get the disciples to open their minds to the end God had in mind rather than the means they were locked into.

 

I think there must not have been a single African-American in Washington DC over 50 who was not asked the same question by some TV news reporter this past week. Do you know the question I mean? The question was: Did you ever expect to see an African-American elected president in your lifetime? The answer was always the same. I never expected to see this in my lifetime.

 

Do you know who did expect it? Martin Luther King Jr. Did you see the clip of an interview they found with Dr. King before his death? An interviewer asked him how soon he thought a Black person could be elected president of the United States. He thought it could happen within 25 years.

 

The reason for this is that Dr. King believed in the end even when he could not see the means. This is why he could consistently remain non-violent, I think. He believed in the end when the means to get there were not clear or convincing to others.

 

We often lose our way in the movement toward justice, inclusion and peace because we can’t see the means to get there. We settle for less because we assume it will be impossible to get there.

 

If proposition 8 passes we assume the struggle for justice has been lost. If General Council votes the wrong way we assume the United Methodist Church will not be inclusive and reconciling. But the light is not dependent upon the sun. Justice is not dependent upon the path we assume we need to go to get there. If God has said let there be justice, there will be justice. If God has said let there be inclusion, there will be inclusion. If God has said let there be peace, there will be peace.

 

We just need to remain open to the path that will get us there.

 

I wonder if we can also believe this in our own lives – you and me? A friend who is reading resumes for the new administration tells me that there are apparently thousands of people whose lives will have no meaning whatsoever unless they work in the new administration. [By the way, an extra piece of advice for no extra charge: if you apply for a job it might be better to emphasize what you have to offer rather than how badly you want the job. They are more likely to hire you because you can contribute than because you really, really want the job.]

 

How often do we get a job or a kind of job in our heads and think that it is the only way to meaning in our lives. Have you heard of the book by Michael Gates Gill? It is entitled How Starbucks Saved My Life. The subtitle is A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else.

 

Gill, a child of affluent and powerful parents, was a very successful advertising executive until his business failed and his life seemed to fall apart. His life was in shambles when one day, sitting in Starbucks, a 28-year old Starbucks manager asked him if he wanted a job and he surprised himself by telling her yes. He says he learned from Starbucks and the 28-year-old manager he worked with a sense of self-worth and happiness he had never known before. Starbucks, he says, has turned out to be the best job he ever had.

 

How often do we confuse the sun for the light in our personal lives? How often do we confuse the job for the work? How often do we confuse, say, finding the life partner of our dreams for the joy of love and commitment? How often do we confuse health for wholeness?

 

There is a Buddhist saying: “When the disciple is ready, the teacher will appear.” The teacher appears because when the disciple is ready, the world is full of teachers.

 

This biblical way of thinking, hard to believe, says: The world is full of meaning. The world is full of happiness. The world is full of love. When we are ready, it will appear.

 

 

Oh, one more thing: Students of the Big Bang tell us that light actually emerged long before the first star…millions of years before the sun and the moon and the stars there was light. There really was light before the sun and the moon and the stars, and it was beautiful.[ii]

 

 

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[i] Cited in Helmut Thielicke, How the World Began (Fortress Press, 1961), 33. This collection of lectures remains one of the most provocative and thoughtful expositions of the beginning chapters of Genesis.

[ii] Karen C. Fox, The Big Bang Theory (John Wiley and Sons, 2002), 175-179.