Running through our readings today is the theme of the Word of God active in creation. But before we go any further, it is good to ask ourselves how we envisage the Word of God?
For some people that is very straightforward. The Word of God is found in the Bible. And that is of course true, but only up to a point. We particularly found the difficulties of a straightforward equation of the Bible with the Word of God last week at the Church of England Synod’s debate on same-sex relationships and their status. So let’s think for a moment about how we may hear the Word of God through Holy Scripture.
To do justice to this would take much more time than I have in this sermon, but I will try to suggest how best we may listen to God’s Word. It is very easy to get seriously misled in this. Fifty years ago when I was at University, I used to hear friends of mine arguing along the lines of but it says in the Bible that…. And generally would follow a string of condemnatory remarks against those who though rather differently from themselves, be that in terms of their moral understandings, their theology, or their religious practices. This clear abuse of Holy Scripture was something that left a very sour taste in my mouth and, to be honest, it was some years before I could really begin to listen again with any real openness to the Bible – despite encountering it several times every day through the Church’s liturgy of the Eucharist and the Daily Office.
And this indeed was my way back to listening to the Bible and I stress the word listening. Bible reading as an individualistic exercise by a solitary person with a copy of the Scriptures is in the history of the Church a very recent thing, however good it may be. Most Christians through the ages have listened to the Bible being read and have memorised parts of it in days when the human memory was rather better than it appears to be today! And then we have to realise that between the covers of the Bible lies a whole library of different kinds of writing – there’s history, myth, legend, science of its time, poetry, illustrative stories and so on. All of it requiring discernment in our approach to it. We say that it is inspired and it is, though this does not for one moment mean that it is all infallibly true in a way that requires us to act precisely according to its prescriptions. Clearly within the different genres of literature found, particularly within the Old Testament, we hear of faithful response to God and almost equally unfaithful response to God. We read of God’s loving pursuit of God’s people and we read of their varied answers, their moments of truth and their failures and sins, their clear misinterpretations as well as their meetings with God’s love, truth and justice.
It used to be said of the now disgraced UK Sunday newspaper, the News of the World, that all human life was within its pages. That is certainly true of the Bible! So how may we hear God’s Word through this very mixed medium of Holy Scripture? What criteria are there for discerning truth from falsehood as we read the varied stories of the Scriptures about God’s initiative and the sometimes faithful and sometimes unfaithful human responses that we find there?
Let’s think of it as inspired by the Holy Spirit first of all. Whatever that means – and it does not mean that everything in the Bible is infallible – it does mean that Holy Scripture transcends cultures, languages and times to be continually one means of listening to what God is saying to us. It doesn’t do that by giving us proof texts in support of what we think our faith is about. Rather it does that by drawing us into the narrative, into its stories. And it draws us to a meeting with Christ, whom we discover within the New Testament as the perfectly obedient response to the loving initiative of God, hinted at and prophesied in the OT. So much so that, as S. John puts it in the first words of his record, the Word (of God) was made flesh and dwelt among us.
As we are drawn into the narratives that we find in holy Scripture, both the Old and the New Testaments, we are, by the power of the Holy Spirit, brought close to the Word of God, the Christ who is at the very heart of Creation. We are confronted by him who embodies complete and utter integrity of response to God. Christ who is God’s Word. For us who seek to follow him, all listening to Holy Scripture points to Jesus, the embodiment of God’s Word. Which is why we dare to say, at the end of the scripture readings at the Eucharist This is the Word of the Lord.
Such reading and listening can only be done within a community of faith and one that extends back through the ages. As Anglican Christians, our faith has the three pillars of Scripture, Tradition and Reason, and so as we listen to Holy Scripture today, we cannot do this in isolation from other people of our own time and those back through twenty centuries who have given such attention to God.
In the light of this, what are we to make of today’s readings? The long Genesis reading expresses much that perhaps today we might find confusing, and at odds with 21st century scientific insights and findings. But it is interesting to note that the story of Creation in this account, labelled by scholars as the Priestly account of creation (in contrast to the next chapter which is thought to be written by the Jahvist or J author). The Priestly writer used a much earlier account of creation from Mesopotamia as the basis for his account – the Enuma Elis, the Babylonian Creation Epic from sometime around 2000 BCE and this passage from Genesis are almost identical in their development with one important exception. And the Priestly writer wanted to make this passage a kind of early creed. So instead of the Babylonian array of competing gods, he emphasises that creation is the work of one God and this has consequences too for the future behaviour of God’s people – we see for instance a reminder of the Sabbath day, and of the human creation made male and female and in God’s own image.
We know that ancient Mesopotamia was a rich culture and it was one where scientific observation of the world and religious faith were intermingled. Although these days we see theology and science as separate though not incompatible areas of study – theology concerned with ultimate questions about God and meaning, and science exploring questions about how things come to be – when it comes to talk about creation, even today science is forced to use the language of myth. So today, scientists believe that the beginning of the universe was something less than a trillionth of the size of a full stop on a printed page – that is to say something infinitesimally small, too small to imagine – which at some point began suddenly to expand at a huge rate, and is now continually expanding as it takes the shape of the entire universe.
That may well be so, and it is probably enough astrophysics to cope with in a Sunday sermon! But the question for us as Christians is how is God involved in this? Well, let’s see how the writer of the Genesis account tried to express it. In verse 3 of Genesis 1 we have And God said. It is the Word of God who brings about the whole of Creation – God speaks the Word and all is made.
What kind of Word is this? As Christians seeking to answer this question, we must direct our gaze to Jesus. The Word of God made flesh. In Christ we see someone who is uninterruptedly living a creaturely, finite life on earth and at the same time living out of the depths of divine life and uninterruptedly enjoying the relation that is eternally between the Divine Source, God the Father, and the Divine Word, or God the Son. In this sense, Jesus is the heart of creation – the one on whom all the patterns of finite existence converge in order to find their meaning.
Back for a moment then to how we listen to Holy Scripture. I believe that as we are invited into the narratives that we find in the Bible, we are – as Christians – ultimately confronted with the person of Jesus the Christ. The Word of God active throughout creation made flesh. To be confronted by Christ and invited to a closer relationship with God through Christ, is going to challenge us in many ways. Ways, however, that will lead to the flourishing of the whole of creation. The Word of God in creation is, according to that Genesis reading, that all that exists is good.
And equally all is provided for if we listen to God’s Word in Christ. Which is part of what Jesus says to us in today’s Gospel reading – don’t worry. Particularly don’t worry about things that don’t ultimately matter too much.
Sadly the news this week has been dominated by the tragedy of devastation left by the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. For some, the fact that such things happen at all cause them to doubt the existence of a good creator. Faced with such human tragedy and engaging with God’s Word we cannot come up with quick and facile answers. People do what they can do out of compassionate love to support those suffering and help them survive. Questions ultimately need to be posed about the safety of buildings and the wisdom of high rise blocks in earthquake zones. And sometimes those questions have answers that we would rather not hear.
And in another piece of news this week, we heard about the Church of England General Synod’s debate about same-sex marriage and whether this might be celebrated in liturgy, or whether for now civil partnerships or civil same-sex marriages might be blessed in church. Again, there are no quick and easy answers to this. The Church produced back in 2020 a very important document entitled Living in Love and Faith commended by the Archbishops for study throughout the Church. It is an attempt to help us all listen to God’s Word shown in the realities of created life and supremely in and through Christ. The complexities of this journey mean that steps when taken will appear to some painfully slow and to others a headlong rush into disaster. What has been agreed by Synod is a small step towards recognising the love and commitment of same-sex couples and giving a means by which there may be public liturgical affirmation of couples’ relationships. But it was not judged to be right to move towards a revision of the Church’s understanding of marriage which would have permitted same-sex marriages to take place in a liturgical ceremony. The discussion will continue as people study and pray together with the help of the document Living in Love and Faith.
As St Paul says in today’s second reading, creation groans in travail and longing for its completion, and we are to wait in patient hope for that state of affairs. Jesus too in the Gospel directs us not to be anxious but ultimately to strive first for the Kingdom of God and his justice. Where God rules will be a reign of God’s Love. And there need be no anxiety where there is such rule.