We begin at the beginning.
In fact, we begin at least three beginnings: the beginning of a new year; the beginning of the Bible; and, the beginning of a year of congregational reading and discussion.
As we do, I urge each of you who have thought about stepping onto this path of regular Bible reading to make two commitments.
First, commit to yourselves and to this church and to God that you will follow through on it.
Second, to commit to yourselves and to this church and to God that this will not be a resolution you will abandon easily.
I know its not easy to read through the Bible in one year.
There are some days that it is hard to keep up.
Illnesses can halt our progress, as can work demands, family matters or other life challenges, but you will be rewarded richly if you persevere.
I say that out of personal experience.
Many times over the years, I’ve heard or read interviewers ask the person being interviewed what their favorite book might be or, possibly, to name the book that most influenced their life.
As those questions were asked, I pondered my answer them, but have never had a satisfactory answer. . . until this week.
Of course, the answer was in front of me all along, but I didn’t realize it until I was reading the chapters prescribed for this week.
It occurred to me about Wednesday that the Bible is easily the most influential book in my life and that nothing else is even close.
I say that while admitting that there are parts of the Bible which I don’t like, there are parts of it I don’t understand, and there is a lot about it I do not know.
However, this is the book that has most shaped my life, directly and indirectly.
This is the book God used to turn my life around, to put me on a new career path that is not really about a career but about a calling . . . and to call me out of the hell of a life lived for self and onto the path of a life lived, at least partially, for God and others.
That is not to brag, sinner that I remain, but rather to acknowledge the truth.
Of course, it is easy for me to say that, because this is the book that has most affected almost all people living in the western world today even if they rarely open it, have never read a verse or can’t even remember the last time they saw one, because this book likely has shaped Western culture and the people in it more than any other single factor.
Unfortunately, the truth is that most Americans don’t know much about this book and rarely read it.
There is no need to chastise people about this, because it is even true of pastors, or at least pastors-to-be.
I remember taking my first Bible class in seminary.
I and my classmates filed in and found a place to sit.
Our Old Testament professor soon walked in and announced that we would start out slowly and go slow the entire semester because most of us were biblically illiterate and had little idea what was in the Bible and no idea about its story line.
I thought that must be so, because I didn’t know the Bible had a story line.
Did you know it had one?
Indeed, it does.
You and I are a part of it.
The story line begins at the beginning, Genesis 1:1.
That verse reads, as you remember, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. . .”
The story line ends in the very final verse of Revelation, 22:21, with a benediction from John, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.”
You see, the story line is about God, God’s creation and God’s grace.
You and I—our living, breathing, eternal selves—are all caught upon within that story of God, God’s creation and God’s grace.
As St. Paul wrote in Acts 17:28, “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’…
As he wrote in Romans 14:8, “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
In some sense, God is the creator, star and producer of all that is, and we live on the stage he created.
We owe it to ourselves to read, discuss and learn from this book that devotes itself to God’s creation and the way people like you and me and Moses, Isaac, Abraham, Paul, Peter, and Matthew have encountered and struggled with and been blessed by God.
So, let’s devote ourselves this year to engaging God in the same way that hundreds of millions of Christians have done and been blessed by during that time—Holy Scripture.
A bit of housekeeping
Before we move to our first week’s readings, there are a few housekeeping measures to note.
First, bring your Bibles. Bring them each week. We are going to be students of the Bible, and we need to bring the main tool from which we will learn.
Second, bring your questions and comments.
I know, I know, most of us do not want to talk in church.
We are Methodists and may well be horrified at the thought of speaking during the middle of a worship service.
We can’t imagine ourselves doing that.
Most Methodists think that is something best left to Pentecostals and charismatics.
Besides that, most of us have long hated to ask questions in front of others or to say something which we are afraid might offend others or reflect poorly on ourselves.
But, let’s make this year different.
We always want to learn and grow in faith, hope and love.
We always want to be become better disciples.
We will fail in those if we don’t talk about what we love or hate or question about scripture.
Shoot, some things might even absolutely freak us out.
The Bible is filled with things to love or hate or question or not understand.
In that regard, I urge you to keep a notebook and jot down your reactions to each day’s readings—your thoughts, feelings, questions, or even objections.
I also want to invite you to contact me during the week.
My phone number and email and even home address are in the bulletin each week.
You can call, email or text and I will get back to you as soon as I can.
You can even talk to me at church or come by my house.
(Beware of the dog, though.)
If you have questions, however, I must warn you that I’ve played and lost many times that game known as “Stump the Pastor.”
In other words, I may be stumped and need to research the answer and get back to you.
Last in our housekeeping is an important matter on biblical interpretation.
I don’t mean to shock or offend anybody, but it is only in the last century and a half or so that there has been a widespread insistence on a literal reading of the Bible.
In fact, for the first few centuries after Jesus died, many Christians, including bishops and elders and church higher ups, interpreted the Bible primarily in an allegorical way.
By that I mean, they believed that the Bible talked in myths and metaphors that told the great and eternal truths of God and human beings and all creation.
Don’t misunderstand me on this, our mothers and fathers in the faith did not believe that the Bible was a work of fiction, fantasy or superstition.
They did believe, though, that it was chock full of Truth with a capital “T” irrespective of whether events happened exactly as described.
For example, many then and today read Genesis 1 and 2 and 3 as stating the truths that God created all that is and made humans in God’s image but that humans had this problem with sin and fell away from God.
They were not too concerned with arguing about what we might call scientific fact.
Was one day 24 hours?
Did God create all in exactly the way described?
Are we made from dirt or is that a metaphor to describe our earthiness compared to God’s heavenliness?
Let me note that it is valid to believe in the Bible as literal truth.
It is also valid to believe that some of the Bible is metaphorical or allegorical.
Comments or questions?
Onto this week’s verses
Let’s turn to the verses we read this week.
My goal in the few minutes we have left is to point out some themes we see in Genesis 1-13 that will recur throughout the Bible.
First, as noted a bit earlier, God is the star.
First and foremost, the Bible is about God.
However, this week’s verses also introduce to some important qualities of God, qualities that we will see as we continue our reading and likely will see at work in our lives.
One is God’s power.
Genesis describes a powerful God.
At one time, many churches regularly affirmed the omnipotence, the all-powerful nature of God.
Whether they do or not, however, Genesis 1 is all about God’s power.
We read, for instance, that God created all that is out of a void, out of nothing.
That is power.
We see that when God speaks His word, things happen.
“God said, ‘Let there be light and there was light.”
That is power.
We also see God’s power when we look at His creation.
For example, we see that power in the astonishing photography of stars and galaxies billions of light years away.
These photographs look like a brilliant display of fireworks in the inky blackness of space.
And we can see God’s power not just on that immense, unimaginable scale, but also in the wonder of a sunrise, the beauty of a smile, the touch of a loved one.
I do not question whether God made it all.
It seems clear to me that the universe has great power and intention behind, not just in the beginning, but in the sustaining, nurturing, caring for creation.
Just think of creation on our small scale.
Our planet is tipped just the right amount from the sun and just far enough away from it so that we will remain in this orbit that brings us the days and seasons and is so beautifully adjusted that we will neither freeze not burn up.
And meanwhile, there is a force at work holding us here so that we do not fly off or ascend into space.
And the atmosphere is set just right to allow the right amount of oxygen to maintain life.
That is the big deal about global warming and climate change—are we messing with God’s handiwork in a way that will limit or even extinguish life?
Beyond God’s immense power we see other qualities.
For example, his presence.
His presence in the beginning.
In the garden.
Sadly, with Cain and Abel.
And, in the days of Noah, disappointed at what He had made.
We see Him after the flood, too.
With Noah, certainly.
And then, importantly, with Abram calling him out of Ur to the promised land, to be blessed to be a blessing.
God’s power and presence has always been at work and is always at work in the work in the universe and on this good earth.
And it is combined with the divine surprising quality of seeking relationship.
Again, in the garden with Adam and Eve.
And, Cain and Seth.
Those qualities of having power and being present and seeking relationship are part of the story line of the Bible.
And we see some other things at work in these early chapters.
God’s love and mercy and grace are on stunning display.
Out of that love and mercy and grace, God made us in his image, placed us in a good creation and, as we will note in our communion prayer shortly, remains true to us even when we turn away from him.
We see these qualities of love, mercy and grace God throughout the Bible.
And you and I see them in our lives as well.
It is God who gives us life.
And breathing lungs.
The gifts of sight and hearing and taste and touch and smell.
He shows us further grace in the daily blessings of life—food, shelter, clothing, clean water.
And, the beauty of a cardinal flying in the dead of winter and the enjoyment of a cool cup of water on the hottest summer days.
And we believe that this is a God who came to earth. . . who reaches out to us . . . who calls us to Him. . . who urges us to join Him on the path to eternal life . . . and who even yearns for us to live out of our best selves.
Brothers and sisters in the faith, you good people with whom I share the journey, God gives us much and wants much more for each of us.
May we praise his name, live in awe of His grandeur and help build his kingdom.
And may we commit this year to Him.