When I asked if I would preach on Earth Day, all I could think about was the story of Creation. Or more accurately, stories. Because Genesis actually gives us 2 different accounts of how God created the world. You’re probably familiar with a combination of the 2-- 7 days of creation, but also humanity made out of the dust. However, these are actually 2 different stories. These stories were how the ancient Israelites made sense of the world. Most of us aren’t familiar with other ancient creation narratives, but at the time that this story began as oral tradition, all the different people groups, particularly in the ancient near east, had creation stories. The ancient people had to make sense of the world they were living in. How did we get here? Does life have meaning? These are not new questions.
For the past few decades, people have interpreted this text in one of two major ways. The first is a scientific textbook or history book. 7 days means 7 24-hour days, which means the earth is somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 years old. Reading the Bible like a science textbook makes it pretty difficult to read actual science textbooks, but that’s beside the point. People who interpret it this way believe they are taking the Bible literally. They truly believe that for the Bible to be true, it must be literal in every sense of the word. But I’ve learned, it could never live up to those standards. From the beginning, it’s already a mess for people who want to take the Bible literally. 2 creation stories? That doesn’t sound very literal to me.
So instead, let me offer another way to interpret scripture. Let’s interpret it theologically. The Bible is true in a theological way. It is true because it reveals who God is and how God created and relates to us. So on this Earth Day, let’s dive into the theological meaning of Creation and the One who created it.
We’re going to go through the creation story of Genesis 1, day by day.
In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; andGod separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day and the darkness Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
The first day is so strange. In the beginning, when God creates the heavens and the Earth, but the earth is formless. What does that even mean? It either had a form or it didn’t… This is why a literal interpretation gets problematic so quickly. While the earth is still formless, a wind from God swept over the waters. The word for “wind” here is ruach, the same word used throughout the Old Testament for Holy Spirit. Creation isn’t just done by God the Father, it’s the whole Trinity. This is why the gospel of John begins with “in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” It is the fullness of God in Father, Son, and Spirit that creates.
While the Earth is still shapeless and the mysterious wind is fluttering over the deep darkness, God spoke and light appeared. God saw it was good and separated it from the darkness. And there was evening and morning, the first day. This is why Jewish holidays start at sundown the night before. It’s right in the text. The beginning of the day is at evening, not morning.
And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
This day of creation doesn’t make much sense to modern ears. People in the ancient near east thought of the sky as celestial seas. The sky was blue like waters, so it made sense that it must also water. Even though we know this isn’t the case, it still ground our theology in water. Water is central to the Christian story, beginning with Creation, with the flood, the red sea of the Exodus, and Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. Our own baptisms harken back to all the ways throughout history that God has been made known to us through the waters. This is why clean water is social justice AND theological mandate. Water is meant to sustain life and if it has been polluted, it impacts everything.
And 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 God called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 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: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
Day 3 is when the Earth begins to really take form- land and sea, plants and trees. I love to pay attention to what God is doing—speaking and seeing. God speaks life into existence. God’s truth is really that powerful. I’ve been spending a lot of time in our community garden over at Columbia and I’ve learned a lot about plants and fruit. I’ve planted strawberry plants, weeded around fig trees, and found mint plants in every corner of the garden. These plants nourish and sustain me, but when I read over this passage, I realized that they were all created before there was anyone to consume them. They were good before they were useful or profitable. The fruit trees are good, not just because they taste good, but because God made them good.
And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
Isn’t it wild that the sun wasn’t created until day 4? Where was the light coming from for the first 3 days? This is why it’s so important to not try to make literal, scientific sense out of poetic scripture. Genesis isn’t trying to tell us that for 3 24-hour days there was an earth with plants upon it, but no sun. Instead, I think it’s framing God’s desire for all of creation to have order and purpose. The sun and the moon “rule” over their times, but neither is constant. We experience day and night as we go around and around the sun. These lights were not just created so that the earth would have life, but so that we could experience time. The changing of the seasons and the passage of time matters to God. It is not just our planet that God made, but all of the cosmos were beautifully designed by our loving creator.
And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
On day 5, God brings forth swarms of living creatures, birds of the sky and great sea monsters, which we might now call whales, sharks, and deep-sea creatures. I love how the abundance of sea life is described as making the waters “swarm.” The oceans are meant to be filled with life. Day 5 is the first time that God blesses a part of creation. These sacred words are not spoken first to humanity, they’re spoken to the birds and fish. If we’re ever tempted to think that we are the greatest and best of all creation, let us remember that God first blessed pigeons and tuna fish before a word was ever spoken to us.
And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.
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.”
So God created humankind in God’s image,
in the image of God, God created them;
male and female God created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Day 6 is so full of creating work that it’s hard to fit it all in. The animals are created and fill the earth, which God calls good, but God is not done yet. The triune God makes humankind in God’s own image. More has been written about what this means than I could ever read or say, so let me just say this. Who you are—the color of your eyes and your skin, your personality and your interests, your passions and your creativity—are all made in the image of God. You may be as different from your neighbor as two humans can be, yet we are all made in God’s image. Theologians call this imago dei. It is an incredibly liberating and dangerous truth. It’s a dangerous thing to believe that even our worst enemies are made in God’s image. But God is not safe, never has been. The triune God creates humanity with dignity and purpose—to care for the earth that God has just created.
“To have dominion over it” sounds domineering and forceful, but I’d like to wager that it is just the opposite. To have dominion over the earth means to always know that all this world belongs to God. God created it and called it good, so our actions must reflect that. This world is a gift to us and we cannot just abuse it for our own pleasure. It is not until God has made everything that God finally says it is very good.
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day, God finished the work that God had done, and God rested on the seventh day from all the work that God had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that God had done in creation.
The creation story doesn’t end with the claim that the world is very good, it ends with rest. Even God chose to rest after doing holy work. And if God chooses to rest, who are you to think you’re stronger than God by never taking a break? You aren’t a martyr for never taking a day off, you’re prideful. In our capitalist, face-paced, logged-in society where you’re never more than a click away from your inbox, rest is the most counter-cultural thing you can do. I know that for some of you, your life might be so full that taking a whole day as a Sabbath seems impossible. You’ve got bills to pay and kids to take care of. I hear you. But I encourage you to fight for it anyway. Fight for those days of rest, when you can enjoy the work of creation. When the earth can rest with you. When you can breathe deeply and get restored and renewed for the days ahead. The world does not need more weary warriors.
People of Pulse, we’re in a sermon series called Shape Up Atlanta—fighting for a more just and beautiful city. And I just spent 25 minutes combing through the story of creation. And yes, it’s because it’s Earth day. But it’s also because I want you to be rooted and grounded in why we are fighting for a just and beautiful city. It’s because this is God’s world and God called it good. So, who are we to say otherwise?
The story of creation is about life on this Earth before sin entered it. It was created good. People were created good. When we see creation being destroyed—from polluted waters to animal extinction to systemic injustice against people made in God’s image—we must fight against it. We must fight for the restoration of our beautiful planet. We are fighting for restorative justice because we believe that the world can be made right again because it was once created good. So together we will fight for the restoration of right relationships between God’s beloved people, and for a more just and beautiful Atlanta. We can’t do it on our own, and we can’t do without rest. But if Earth Day means anything, it is that this is God’s world and God has not given up on it yet.