Come with me back in time, if you will, but not all the way back to the creation of the world. Our journey will stop in the year 586 BC, and we will look in on the Middle East, in the area known as the kingdom of Judah. The northern kingdom of Israel had been conquered and scattered long before this, in the year 722 BC, while the southern kingdom of Judah remained for a couple hundred years longer than that, with its capital being Jerusalem. But even though this kingdom was tiny and seemingly inconsequential on the world stage, it had the great misfortune of lying directly in the path of the two world powers of that time: to the southwest, Egypt, and to the northeast, Babylon, the area that we know of today as Iraq. As Babylon and Egypt vied for power, Judah was caught in the middle, and, to make a very long story short, Judah was conquered by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in the year 586 BC. When that happened, most of the population in Jerusalem and the surrounding area was dragged off into exile in Babylon.
So, I’d like for you to imagine this, if you can: you are an Israelite living in Jerusalem at this time. You believe that God, the one God, has made the Temple in Jerusalem God’s dwelling place. This is where God comes down to meet humanity. You have heard the rumbles of the coming Babylonian army, but with God on your side, you never think that the Babylonians will actually be victorious. And then, the unthinkable has happened, and you, with your family and your friends, are shackled in chains and marched off to Babylon, a strange culture where strange gods are worshiped. When you get there, you are confronted with this strange culture, and, wherever you have been placed, you discover that you must find a way to fit in or you risk punishment and even death. What do you do? Do you find ways to maintain your national and religious identity, even while seeming to fit in on the surface? Or do you give up everything you are and become someone new?
You’re probably wanting to ask me what this has to do with our readings today. Well, scholars think that the creation story that we just heard was written down by the Jewish community living in exile in Babylon after 586 BC. That’s not to say that the story wasn’t told orally before then; in most of human history, oral culture exists long before anyone thinks to write things down. But the Babylonians had a very different creation story than the Jewish people did. Instead of a god who made everything good, the Babylonians’ story of creation involved gods who fought and killed one another. The world was created by one of their gods from the bloodied corpse of a dead god. And human beings were created from the blood of yet another dead god to serve the whims of all the gods above.
This is what the Israelites were coming into when they entered Babylon as exiles. Besides being a pretty gruesome creation story, it justified King Nebuchadnezzar’s (and all other Babylonian kings) rule over the people and the atrocities he committed. If Nebuchadnezzar was seen as the representative, or image of his god, and his god could kill and use other gods’ bodies as he wished, then Nebuchadnezzar could also use people as he wished. He could enslave and kill and exile people with no thought of any consequences. And so, as an act of rebellion against this narrative of the dominant culture, the Israelites who chose to remember who they were as people of their God wrote down their own creation story.
And what a creation story it is! In contrast to the Babylonian gods, we see a God who is even more powerful than they are. The Babylonian gods need the bloodied corpses of other gods in order to create the world. Not so for the one God worshiped by the Jewish exiles: their God can create out of nothing, simply by saying, “Let there be. . .” And when God makes something, God calls it good. If you notice, the creation story never says why God creates the world and all that is in it. It just says that God commands, “Let there be. . .” and whatever it is comes into being. It’s almost as if God is dancing around and testing what “Let there be. . .” actually brings into being, and then God finds absolute delight in the things that have been created. God loves the creation, simply because God made it. And it’s absolutely wonderfully good.
And then God decides that part of the creation must bear God’s image. And so God makes human beings. And God makes them both male and female: both men and women bear God’s image. Neither one is disposable. And when God has done that, God is absolutely, completely satisfied with the creation. The creation is just as God intended it to be, and God not only calls it good, God calls it very good. This is not a God who kills in order to bring to life, like the Babylonian gods. This is a God who respects and who loves life in all of its infinite variety, and who can create life, beautiful life, out of absolutely nothing.
We Christians have inherited this beautiful creation story from the Jewish people, and yet, I don’t know that we are fully able to appreciate the beauty and the wonder of it. We use it as a weapon in creation vs. evolution debates in the school. We argue over whether the seven days of creation were literal 24-hour days or were metaphorical days intended to represent longer periods of time. We think that God’s directive to human beings to have dominion over the creation means that we can do whatever we want to the environment with no consequences. In short, this story often has very little meaning for us anymore. Even I, as a pastor, would rather talk about the more intimate account of God molding Adam from the earth that we see in chapter 2 of Genesis.
And yet, here we have this story, and it is part of our Holy Scriptures. And besides an appreciation for the God who creates everything out of nothing, and a wonder for all of the things God has created, I want to talk about one very important thing: what it means to be made in the image of God. Now, much ink has been spilled over this by many theologians over many centuries, so I don’t want you to think that I am giving you the definitive answer over what the image of God means. But here are some of my ideas:
First, let’s go back to the Babylonian creation story. If the Babylonian king is the image of his god, who killed other gods in order to create the world and human beings, and who made human beings to be slaves to him, then it follows that the Babylonian king, as the image of his god, could kill and enslave other people with no consequences. In contrast, if our God made human beings in God’s image, and called them very good, and blessed them, then it follows that, as God’s image, we are called to participate in the act of creation with God, and to call that creation good. Now, because we are sinful, not all of what we create is going to be good, but that’s a discussion for another chapter of Genesis. But any time we create new life, or help others to live, then we reflect the image of God.
And this brings me to my second point. Each one of us has something of the image of God in her or in him. That means that, when we look upon one another, we should be remembering that something that looks like God is looking back at us. We are to see God in one another, and we are to love and respect one another as if we are loving and respecting God. The Hindi language has a word for this that you may have heard before: Namaste. It means something like this: “I bow to the divine in you.” On the one hand, that might make us as Christians a bit uncomfortable. But on the other hand, if we had a greeting like this for one another in Christianity, it might make us more able to respect one another and forgive one another, even when we are in the midst of conflict.
And this brings me to my third and final point: we hear this creation story on the day when we honor the Trinity: God as Three-in-One and One-in-Three. I’m not going to try to explain the Trinity to you; no one can, and every time someone has tried, someone else condemns the first person as a heretic. This is one of those things that you have to take on faith. But many theologians have suggested that what the Trinity, what God is about, is relationship. Somehow, in some mysterious way, God is in relationship with Godself. And God wants to be in relationship with us, too; that part of God’s creation that is running around bearing God’s image. And God wants us to be in relationship with one another, and to love one another as God loves us. That’s a tough thing for us to do, and often, when we are frustrated with one another, it will be hard to see God’s image in the other person. But that is who God has made us to be, and on our worst days, we still, somehow, have a bit of God’s image in us.
Relationships are difficult for us human beings. We mess up a lot when we speak to one another, either intentionally or unintentionally causing hurt. Sometimes we have good relationships that last for a long time, and other times we hurt others so much that we irreparably destroy relationships. But one thing that we cannot do is to not have any relationships at all. When a God who is in relationship with Godself as a mysterious Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity creates something in God’s own image, then part of that image must mean that we are born to be in relationship with one another. As we go from here this week, in all of our interactions with each person that we meet, let’s look for that reflection of God shining out from the other person. Even in the midst of conflict, let us remember that we are looking at God’s image, and treat that person with respect and with love even when we disagree with him or her. And let us never forget to marvel at the created world around us that God has gifted us with, and let us continually think about the relationship we have with all things that are living. Amen.