Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church September 19, 2021
Texts: Genesis 1:1-25; John 1:1-6
One of the joys of reading The New Yorker is looking at the cartoons, and one of my favorites is the one with two brontosauri standing at the edge of a lake looking out at a boat, clearly the ark of Noah. One brontosaurus says to the other, “Oh, was that today?” as the ark goes off in the distance. When I showed it to one of my evangelical friends, he just looked at me and said, “That’s not funny.”
For many of us, it seems difficult to believe that when dinosaur fragments were first discovered in the nineteenth century, a tremendous controversy about their origin developed. That controversy continues to this day with the so-called Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, where you can see Adam and Eve standing next to all kinds of dinosaurs.
In the spring of 1822 Gideon Mantell, an English country doctor with a lifelong passion for fossil hunting, set off in horse and buggy to visit a patient. His wife, Mary Ann, accompanied him on the trip. While Dr. Mantell tended to his patient, his wife took a stroll. As she walked, she came across a pile of stones that had been placed alongside the road to be used in filling ruts caused by the spring rains. Amidst those stones, she discovered what appeared to be very large fossil teeth. She took the fossils back to her husband, a well-known, amateur paleontologist in his own right, who was amazed, never having seen such huge teeth before.
He went to the nearby rock quarry from which the stones were cut, and found more teeth like those that his wife had discovered. He presented the teeth to several scientists, and although none agreed with him that they were from some type of heretofore-unknown creature, he was stubbornly sure that they were. In 1825, he named the long-dead owner of the teeth, Iguanodon (“iguana-tooth”), since the teeth were similar to those of an iguana, but much larger.
Several years later, more teeth like these were discovered in a different quarry. The discovery of huge bones of another creature in Oxfordshire led the leading British anatomist, Sir Richard Owen of the British Museum of Natural History to conclude that an entire tribe of huge, lizard-like reptiles had lived in the distant past. Based on his studies, he named them “dinosaurs” (from the Greek words deinos and sauros, translated by him as “fearfully great lizards”)—known to us today as “terribly great lizards.” Their discovery caused tremendous ferment in the religious community since it was patently clear even before the age of carbon dating that these bones predated Bishop Ussher’s calculated date of creation as October 23, 4004. The old idea of order had been destroyed.
Creation stories, including the one we just heard almost all deal with the idea of creating order out of chaos. Both the creation stories in Genesis draw from the common pool of the ancient Near East, primarily from Babylonian and Sumerian culture both of which had a tremendous influence on the development of Hebrew Scripture. The commonality has more to say about how we as human beings envision the Divine and how the Divine spark within us -- our souls -- respond to the larger Divine outside of us.
The language of Scripture may communicate a deeper truth to us but it is not in and of itself truth. The reason, of course, is obvious. Our human language cannot contain the Divine nor can it totally contain our human yearnings for the infusion of the Divine within us.
The language of faith, of theology is different from the language of the natural sciences. As one theologian put it, the danger in theological language, especially when we are considering Scripture, is that the symbols used to communicate theology can be allowed to become ends in themselves and take on a life, a reality, of their own. Understanding the imagery used in Scripture enables us to better understand the message, the theology, which the language and its metaphors are expressing.
Most peoples of the ancient world viewed the world from the perspective of myth. The term "myth" as used here does not mean false or fiction but a story or group of stories that serve to explain how a particular society views their world. These stories often deal with phenomena of the physical world for which a culture does not have an adequate explanation. Creation is a perfect example.
How do we understand the world we inhabit? Almost every creation story has the struggle to develop order out of chaos. That deep myth says something about us as human beings, namely, that we need to develop order out of chaos. The imagery used by Genesis 1 describes the breath of God sweeping across the void, the formless to bring order -- separating light from dark. If you look at pictures taken from the Hubble telescope; it is a picture of a portion of the universe millions, indeed, billions of years old and what do we see? God’s hand, poetically speaking, bringing forth light.
In his magnificent oratorio, The Creation, Hayden set a libretto translated from a combination of English sources into German, the chorus sings, “The heavens are telling the glory of God, the wonder of God’s work displays the firmament” Joseph Addison’s poem, The spacious firmament on high, a paraphrase of Psalm 19, was set to Haydn’s music, giving us a magnificent hymn declaring that the hand that made us is divine.
The deep truth to which the creation myth speaks is that the hand that made us and breathed into us the breath of life and conscience is indeed divine. The question for us remains our response to God’s initiative. As it was with God, it remains with us.
Let us pray: Great Original, Creator of our lives and of our minds and hearts, bring us into a true harmony with you together creating order from the chaos of hate and violence so we reflect your perfect order in love. In the name of the One who gives us order in the chaos of our lives, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.