In The Beginning God

We find ourselves today in the first chapter of Genesis. It is one of the most familiar chapters in the Bible. We have been teaching it to children for generations. There is no background to offer because nothing happened prior to this chapter. In the beginning, there was nothing, yet God has always existed. However, do not worry because God had a plan. This is God’s plan:

According to the Bible, on the first day of the week God created light. You should not be surprised because light is a major theme in the Bible. Jesus called himself the light of the world (John 8:12) and Jesus tells us to let our light shine (Matthew 5:15-16). Without light, there is only darkness.

On the second day, God created the atmosphere and the firmament. In Biblical cosmology, the firmament was a solid dome that surrounded the earth, causing the dry ground to appear. Without the creations of the second day, life of any kind could not have existed. From the very beginning our world was designed to be full of life.

On the third day, the dry ground appeared along with plants. Each plant was suited to its climate. Caucus exist in the desert regions. Palm trees in the tropical regions. Pine tree in the northern regions.

On the fourth day, God put objects in the sky. There was suddenly the sun, the moon, and the stars. Each one of those objects plays a major role in the world we know today. The tide would not exist without the moon. Life, itself, would not last long without the sun.

On the fifth day, God created sea creatures to live in the water and birds to fly in the sky. We call them fish and birds. Whales are impressive. Parrots are beautiful.

On the sixth day, God created animals to walk on the dry ground. We seem to like the fuzzy cute ones and we have trouble with the dry scaley ones. Later that day, God created the crown jewel of his creation, humans. They are to rule over the rest of creation. According to Genesis 1:26, God created mankind in his own image or likeness. That means there is a part of God resting inside of you. That means everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, even the preachers. If you struggle with self-doubt, then read Genesis 1 every day. It was quite a week, but God was not done. God “separated” and “gathered” on the first three days. God “created” and “filled” on the next three days.

On the seventh day, God rested and created the Sabbath. It was not created to have a day to play football. It was created to help us rest physically and be recharged spiritually. Never forget, God longs to spend time us. God expects us to worship him. Worship is not an option to your spiritual development. It really is an amazing piece of scripture. God created this entire world out of nothing. I find that fact to be humbling. Did you know, according to the Pew Research Group, 40% of Americans believe God created the world 10,000 years ago? I will confess. I am part of the 40%.

While the entire creation story is impressive. It is the very first verse of the Bible that grabs our attention. Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning,God created the heavens and the earth.” That one short verse summarizes the entire story. That one short verse tells us three divine truths about God. Each one is significant and should never be forgotten. I do not want to plagiarize. These thoughts are not original. These thoughts came from Shawn Thomas, who has been the Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Angelton, Texas for 35 years. Here are the three.

First, Genesis 1:1 tells us of the centrality of God. “In the beginning,God created the heavens and the earth.”The Bible teaches us from the very first verse; it is all about God. It is not about us. Our universe is what scientists call a “helio-centric” universe. Helio means sun. That means the sun is at the very center. That means everything revolves around the sun. The sun gives us light and without the sun nothing would be able to live. Many in our world believe we live in a “ego-centric” universe. Ego means self. That means many believe everything revolves around them. The very first verse of the Bible, “In the beginning,God created the heavens and the earth.” reminds us that it is not all about us. It is all about God.

Second, Genesis 1:1 tells us God is a triune God. “In the beginning,God created the heavens and the earth.” That verse tells us there is one God and He is the one true God. However, there is a plurality in God. The Hebrew word for God in that verse is plural. That is interesting but Genesis 1:26 states it clearly, “Let us make mankind in our image.” God is triune, three in one. The traditional benediction reminds us of our triune God. Now may God the father, God the son, God the Holy Spirit, be with you now and forever more. God the father is the creator. God the son is the redeemer. God the Holy Spirit is the life giver. Experience has taught me it is impossible to understand the trinity completely. It has been said, if you understood God completely then you would not have much of a God. The trinity is one of those things you must accept with faith. “In the beginning,God (plural) created the heavens and the earth.” 

Third, Genesis 1:1 tells us God is a creator God. “In the beginning,God created the heavens and the earth.”  John 1:3 says, “All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being.” God created everything. The Hebrew word for created in Genesis 1:1 is bara, to initiate something new. It is interesting to note, bara is only used when God is the topic. It is never used when mankind is the topic. “In the beginning,God created the heavens and the earth.” 

One of my favorite places in the world is Aa, Estonia. You may know where Estonia is located. It is in Northern Europe. It is bordered to the north by the Gulf of Finland, to the west by the Baltic Sea, to the south by Latvia, and to the east by Russia. The history of Estonia can be traced back to the year 9,000 BC, but her national identity did not develop until the twentieth century. When I arrived in Estonia, I expected to find a Slavic influence, but I found a Nordic influence. The capital of Estonia is Tallinn.

Located on the northern border of Estonia, on the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland, is the town of Aa. According to the 2000 census, the population of Aa was 190. Most of those residents live in a state-run home for the elderly. However, Aa is also the home of Christian Camp Gideon. One of the disappointments of the last 18 months for Kathryn and I was not being about to return to Christian Camp Gideon. It is part of our travel itinerary for next year. The camp has an interesting history. During Soviet times it was a Pioneer Camp, where children learned about communism and atheism. When the Soviet Union disbanded in 1991, the camp was purchased by a United Methodist congregation in Tulsa, Oklahoma and given to the church in Estonia. Today, that camp teaches children about Jesus. Kathryn and I spent a few sacred days at Christian Camp Gideon two years ago. The children and the staff were wonderful.

Every day, Kathryn and I would go for a walk. Completely safe, we exited the campgrounds and headed south. As we walked the dirt road and absorbed the beautiful countryside. Our walk ended when we came to the end of the dirt road, where the dirt road ran into a blacktopped road, maintained by the government. At that intersection were a herd of sheep behind a wire fence. Near the goat pen were the remains of an old manor house. It was not just a single building. There was the main house and several outbuildings. At the heart of that property was a small pond with ducks. We sat on a bench overlooking the pond and watched ducks’ takeoff and land. It was just beautiful and relaxing. We were a million miles from our responsibilities. We just sat there and talked. We talked about how we met. We talked about how our lives had changed. We talked about what brought us the greatest joy and our greatest disappointments. We talked about where we had been and where we still wanted to go. We talked about our children and how the world had changed. We talked but most of the time we sat in silence. It happens every time.

Whenever, I sit in natural beauty, I think about creation and how God created it out of nothing. I thought about how God created the world out of nothing when I saw the Grand Canyon. I thought about how God created the world out of nothing when I saw the hot springs in Yellowstone. Something big is going on beneath the surface. I think about how God created the world out of absolutely nothing every time I look out the window of an airplane. I think about how God created the world out of nothing when I walk outside of clear cold winter’s night and look at the stars. I think how God created the world when it snows the first time every year. I think about how God created the world out of nothing every time I walk on a beach and listen to the surf. This is the best! I think about how God created the world out of nothing when the fall leaves are at their peak of color in the fall. I thought about how God created the world out of nothing as I sat next to the love of my life on an old bench looking a beautiful Estonian pond.

Do not just memorize the verse, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Think about it. Meditate on it and be prepared to be amazed. It is not all about us. It is all about God. When was the last time you thought about the greatness of God?

Our Unchanging God

Many years ago, before man walked on the moon, before a civil war threatened to divide America, or before Columbus discovered a New World, there was a man who spoke for God. His name meant “my messenger,” but we just call him Malachi. He lived approximately the year 400 BC. That means he lived 100 years after Haggai and Zechariah, the Minor Prophets we looked at the last two weeks. Time did change certain things. The reconstruction of the temple was complete. However, certain things did not change. The spiritual renewal that Haggai and Zechariah desired never happened. God’s Chosen People were stuck in a spiritual funk. The book of Malachi echoes their spiritual condition. It is a dialogue between God and His Chosen People. Malachi acts as the go between. God is concerned about the unfaithfulness of both the priests and the people, themselves. Yet, God does not give up on his people. The book ends with a word of hope. Someday the Messiah would come. Jesus would be born four hundred years later. The background is interesting, but one verse stands above the rest.

Last Sunday evening, I googled the question, what is the most important verse in Malachi. The answer did not surprise me. The answer came back, Malachi 3:6, “I the Lord do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.” That verse grabbed both my attention and imagination. In a world that is constantly changing, it is refreshing to find something that remains the same.

On month from today I will be in Yellowstone National Park. Due to the pandemic, Kathryn and I have not been out of the area since last October. We are going to be gone for two weeks. It will be a great trip. We start off at Mount Rushmore near Rapid City, South Dakota. Then, we travel to Billings. Montana. We will spend three days in Yellowstone, travel to Jackson Hole, Wyoming and end up in Salt Lake City. It was supposed to be a bus trip, but the company canceled the tour when the coronavirus invaded. We are renting a car and following the same route. I am excited about the trip because I have never been to that part of the country.

I am really looking forward to seeing Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. It has always fascinated me. It was named by explorers in September 1870. In the early days of the park it was used as a laundry because of the ample hot water. It erupts approximately every ninety minutes and shoots up to 8,400 gallons of hot water into the air some 150 feet. Historians tell us there are records of Old Faithful erupting 500 years ago. Old Faithful has erupted more than 1,000,000 times. It is safe to say it is as old as the earth, itself. Old Faithful is the same, but the world has changed over that period. Only a fool would say our world has not changed since Old Faithful erupted the first time!

One of my favorite places in Ohio is Johnson Island. It is located off the Marblehead Peninsula in Ottawa County. Over the last few years, the rich have come to develop it, but for many years it was rustic. On the north coast of that island is a Civil War cemetery. It is filled with former Confederate officers from the deep south. It is all that remains of a former prisoner of war camp. The Union built it there because it was so remote. The Daughters of the Confederacy maintain it. I love to take that short walk to the shore of Lake Erie. If you look out across the water, you can see Cedar Point Amusement Park. If you turn around you can see the graves. The contrast is shocking. Do you believe our world has changed since the Civil War? Would you like to be operated on using Civil War era medicine or knowledge? Only a fool would think our world has not changed since the Civil War!

How much has the world changed in your lifetime? I was born in 1957. When my parents moved to Warren, they lived in an apartment at first. When my sisters were born, they bought one of the few houses for sale in town. They paid $5,400. According to Zillow, that house is now worth $60,000. When I was very young my parents only had one car. I remember riding the bus occasionally. Our black and white television set got three stations. I remember the day we got our first color television. I remember the color nob to adjust the color from red to green. The first movie we watched in color was Alford Hitchcock’s The Birds. I remember the day they got an antenna that moved so we could watch Cleveland or Pittsburgh. We thought we were flying. I remember the day John Kennedy was shot. The announcement came out of the school’s public address system. I remember my teacher, Mr. Fuller, went to the hall and cried. I remember the day Martin Luther King getting shot and my dad wondered how the world could get any worse. It did. I remember the milk man coming to the house. He left the milk in a small silver box on the front porch. His name was Gilbert. He sold pop-cycles on the side for a nickel. How much has the world changed in your lifetime? Only a fool would think our world has not changed!

How much has our world changed in the past twenty years? The people at Insider released a list of ways our world has changed since 2000. It was only twenty years ago much has changed. This is their list of ten changes:

  1. The internet has taken over. It is no longer a novelty. It is a requirement.
  2. Landline telephones are disappearing. Everyone has a cell phone.
  3. Smoking in restaurants is history. There is no longer a smoking section.
  4. Streaming services, like Netflix, have become the rage.
  5. It is impossible to get away on vacation. The internet will find you.
  6. People now fear terrorism and mass shootings.
  7. People are more likely to text than leave a voice mail.
  8. Online dating is the norm.
  9. Airport security has redefined travel.
  10. More pictures are being taking by cellphones than cameras.

All those changes have taken place in the last twenty years. How has your life changed in the last twenty years? How will our change in the next twenty years? Only a fool would say our world has not changed!

How much has our world changed since the pandemic began? In March of this year, The Washington Post predicted the pandemic would change our world in several significant ways. This is their list:

  1. Mass gatherings are a thing of the past.
  2. Political melodrama will escalate.
  3. In person doctor’s appointment will end.
  4. Working from home will be the new normal.
  5. Handshaking is obsolete.

How much has your life changed since March? It has been reported, 99% of all Americans have experienced change due to the pandemic. I would like to meet the 1% who have not experienced change. They must not have understood the question. Only a fool would say our lives have not changed since the pandemic began. This is the point.

Our world has been changing for a long time, but God remains the same. This message is not called Our Changing World. This message is called Our Unchanging God. This message is not about volatility, it is about stability. We hear it in the Malachi reading, “I the Lord do not change.” We hear it in the ninetieth Psalm says, “From everlasting to everlasting, you are God.” This is not a new concept or discovery. It should be a foundational piece of your understanding of God.

One of the reasons you come to church is not to expound on your understanding of God. You come to church to learn about God. Churches teach about God in a variety of ways, sometimes from the pulpit, sometimes from the classroom, sometimes in our music. Hymns are not just a collection of pleasing notes. Hymns teach us theology. They teach us about the basic elements of the Christian faith. Let me give you an example. In 1867, a new hymn came out. It was called Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise. It was written by Walter C. Smith. It is a loved hymn in traditional worship. We have sung it countless times. There is a stanza in that hymn about the unchanging character of God. Do you remember it? It goes:

          We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,

          And wither and perish – but naught changieth Thee!

In other words, we change regularly, but God remains the same. God is God and God does not change. Whatever God is, God always has been, and God always will be. That is important to remember in our changing world.

Theologians call it immutability. The word is not connected to physical appearance. It does not mean God does not get gray or God does not need hip surgery. The word means the character of God does not change. Our reading for today, Malachi 3:6, is one of several verses which attests to the immutability of God. So, in what ways does God not change? This is the list.

God is:

          Always wise

          Always powerful

          Always holy

          Always just

          Always good

          Always true

          Always gracious

          Always present

          Always knowledgeable.

          Always sovereign

          Always loving

God is unchanging! Let me end with public service announcement.

It was in the newspaper last weekend. The Niles First Presbyterian Church will be hosting their last worship service tonight, August 30, 2020, at 6:00. It has been located at the corner of Robbins Avenue and Summit Street for more than sixty years. If you are interested, they are serving refreshments at the conclusion of the service. I have never attended a worship service in that church, but I find myself mourning at its closure. It is sad to see any church close. I am sure the people were nice. I am sure the congregation was committed. I am sure the building was well maintained. I am sure the pastors for the past fifty years were assigned the task to rebuild the congregation. It is hard to do in an area with a shrinking population base.

A closing church is a sign that the world is changing. I am not saying the world is getting worse or the church was bad. I am not saying the members of every closing church were not gifted. I am not saying younger generations are not spiritual or religious. All I am saying is the world is changing. That should not be a big surprise because the world has always been changing. The problem is people are reluctant to change. That is why God is so appealing to us. God never changes. Malachi knew it. He quoted God, I the Lord do not change. Isn’t that refreshing?