Ian McCormack exhorts us to be proud of the Old Testament
It’s probably not a controversial statement to say that the church—nationally and to an extent internationally—is going through a crisis of confidence at the moment. There are all sorts of reasons for this, the discussion of which belongs more in the lecture hall than the parish church. But one part of this which I do want to consider is that we western Christians are currently suffering from a lack of confidence in what is meant to be one of the great foundations of our faith: the Bible.
This is particularly true of the Old Testament. We are embarrassed by details such as the fact that Noah died at the age of 950. We squirm at some of the difficult social, moral and ethical teachings. And so we run the risk of losing sight of the fact that the Old Testament, the foundation of the Judeo-Christian tradition, is full of vital teaching and insights about God, humanity, and the relationship between the two; vital teaching and insights which if forgotten leave not just us religious folk but the whole of our society impoverished.
The creation narrative, which we heard tonight, is a prime example. You know the old line about if a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound? Well who was God speaking to when the earth was without form and void? How did that which had not yet been created know what God was saying? Who wrote all this stuff down? I could go on, with any number of entirely valid philosophical questions, each and every one of which would entirely miss the point.
Let me therefore offer, very briefly, three key things about the creation narrative which speak to our human condition today. This is worth doing in and of itself, since it has been one of our readings tonight, but I hope also that it will inspire within us a renewed confidence in the value of the biblical word.
First, God saw that his creation was good. Seven times (I think) the writer of Genesis tells us that God saw that what he had made was good. It follows from this that the creation is inherently good, and any religious system which tells you otherwise is not true Christianity. Yes, there is evil, and nastiness, and selfishness, and envy, and hatred, and all sorts of other things in the world that are less than good, but they are the result of human sin. They are perversions of the real nature of creation, which is good. Furthermore, God went on thinking that his creation was good, even to the extent of sending his son to put things right, even to the extent of allowing Jesus to die upon the cross for our salvation. God would not have done this if there was nothing worth saving in the first place. So creation is good, and love is stronger than death, good is stronger than evil. The whole Judeo-Christian tradition confirms this, but its root is in the very first chapter of the Bible.
Secondly, God created male and female in his image. This means that any creed or system which treats any human being as less than wonderfully made cannot be of God. It means that each and every Christian has a duty of care towards the most vulnerable in society: the poor, the addicted, the bereaved, the housebound and hospitalized, the unborn child, the terminally ill, the lonely, the frightened. Each and every one is made in the image of God, and to treat them in any other way is to commit blasphemy. It is also why Jesus instructs us to love our enemies, because even they are made in the image of God.
Finally, the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters. The Hebrew word for ‘spirit’ literally means breath, or wind. On the first day of creation, the breath of God stirs the waters. Millennia later, on the first day of the week, the breath of God comes upon the Apostles as they pray together. They feel it like the rush of a mighty wind, and they receive the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. They are transformed from a frightened collection of misfits into the most powerful group of evangelists the world has ever known. For this was the first day of a new creation—the Church, the Body of Christ on earth.
In other words, the Spirit which acted upon creation on its very first day has acted upon it ever since. The Spirit breathes life into the Church, and life into every baptized Christian, stirring the waters of our being, and shaping us into the people God would have us be. God is at work in the world, even if we cannot always understand why, or how, or when.
Three things then, which teach us so much about our existence as humans and as Christians, all plucked from the first few verses of the Bible: the essential goodness of creation; the inherent value of every human being, made in God’s image; and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. The next time somebody tells you the Old Testament cannot speak to us today, don’t believe them. The next time you find yourself embarrassed by it, look again. And in the words of Jesus himself: ‘Don’t be anxious. Have faith. Always seek the kingdom.’
Fr Ian McCormack is the Clerical Vice Chairman of Forward in Faith. This sermon was preached at St Mary’s Nottingham for Evensong on 24 February 2019. The texts were Gen. 1.1–2.3 and Matt. 6.25-34.