A Beginning to the Beginning

Stories are profound–mostly because they are human. They tap into the human experience and give expression to our deepest hurts and longings. A good story leaves us changed. Because stories aren’t simply informative. They’re transformative. If you walk away from a film like Get Out with a list of facts about who the characters are and what they are wearing, where they are living, and that something important happens 1:07:03 into the film, you’ve not really watched the film. You’ve reduced the complexities of story into a box out of which you can pull answers to trivia questions. If all a story wanted to communicate was facts and information, a bulleted powerpoint presentation would do instead. But, as a white person, if you leave Get Out rethinking the black experience in such a way that postures you more compassionately and humbly before your black brothers and sisters, Jordan Peele would be proud.

Stories communicate more than facts. They do more than inform. They transform. This is why it is amazing that God doesn’t appear to us in a list of facts, but he reveals himself in the profoundly human element of story. He doesn’t leave us to piece together a list of facts about him. He doesn’t airdrop statements like “God is Creator” from the heavens. We’re given a story of God creating. He doesn’t trumpet claims like “God is faithful” from the clouds. We’re swept into a story that shows us how he is faithful. In the story of Genesis, God invites us to know him in the midst of the complexities of the human experience. This means we don’t have to escape our current circumstance or ascend to heaven to find God. God comes to us. We don’t have to wait until the incarnation of Jesus to see God’s heart to draw near to us. It’s his desire to draw near to his creation and his creatures in love that motivates the story from the very beginning.

Understanding Genesis as story forces us to ask the right questions. For example, you don’t read the Chronicles of Narnia and ask “What spatial and temporal realities make it possible for a group of children to stumble out of a wardrobe and into Narnia?” That’s the wrong question. If you’re asking that question, you’re a next-level science nerd or you don’t understand the point of the story. C.S. Lewis isn’t concerned with the mechanics of it all. He’s concerned with something altogether different. Same thing with reading Genesis. That’s not to say that Genesis doesn’t care to be factual, but it is to say that we tend to ask the wrong questions. We often approach Geneis asking when? (like when was the beginning?) and how? (how did creation happen?). Books have been written, documentaries made, and conferences have been put on to address these questions. But I think we are obsessed with all the wrong questions. Perhaps we need to heed the advice of Mary Poppins: “We’re on the brink of an adventure children, don’t spoil it with too many questions.”

Questions aren’t bad, but if we ask the wrong questions, while we may get right answers, we’ll miss what God is intending to say to us. Step one in hearing God’s address to us in Genesis is learning to ask the right questions. And the questions Genesis thrusts before us is who? and why? But let’s be clear. Genesis is not just another story. It’s the beginning of the only true story, the Story that makes sense of all other stories, the Story that all others merely whisper and imitate—the story of God who created the world good, of the entrance of evil into God’s good world, and God’s promise that in the end, even evil will not overcome his good purposes.

Beginnings and endings tell you a lot about what the story is communicating. Luke’s two-part narrative of his gospel account and Acts opens in the temple in Jerusalem and ends with the famed messenger of the gospel, Paul, in Rome. The geographic trajectory communicates that the gospel moving from Jerusalem to the end of the earth. Just like Jesus said it would. Interestingly, the geographic trajectory of Genesis is similar. Genesis begins with the whole cosmos in view in the first chapter before zeroing in on this one particular garden in the land called Eden where God dwelled with the first humans. From there, God tells the first humans to fill the earth, essentially commanding them to continue the work God has done and bring it into the whole world. Just like Luke’s narrative, the story of Genesis isn’t nearly as straight-lined as that, but this should sound familiar. The story begins in the place of God’s dwelling—Eden and the temple—and moves out to the end of the earth!

But perhaps the primary bookends in Genesis are the themes of good and evil. “God said. It was so. It was good.” This is the refrain of the first chapter. It’s poetic. It’s fitting that God’s creation would be communicated to us in poetry. It tells us there is a rhythm to God’s creation—and that to live well in God’s world is to be attuned to the rhythm of creation. At the conclusion of the first chapter of Genesis, God’s blessing of “good” permeates the whole of God’s creation. But just a page later the narrative takes a tragic turn. In defiance of God’s good command to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve ate, and no longer did they just know the goodness of God, they knew evil—not empirically as observers of it but personally as perpetrators of it. Instead of filling the world God had made with good, the world is filled with evil. So much so that by chapter 6, God is starting over again. But from chapter three on, the rest of the story reveals God’s plan to uphold his good purpose to bring good to the whole world even in the face of evil—a theme that is beautifully on display in the story of Joseph in Egypt. 

Jospeh was a bit of a punk kid. By the standards of your best life now, he led a pretty miserable life. He was denied by his brothers who left him for dead and sold him into slavery. He was accused of adultery, put in prison and forgotten about. Until one day, through a series of dreams and dream-interpreting, Pharaoh appoints him as his right hand man. It just so happens that back home, Jospeh’s brothers are on the fringes of death in the middle of a famine. They flee to Egypt to find food and only to find their thought-to-be-dead brother. But after all of this, Joseph says to his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive today.” This is one of the last sentences of the book! Genesis opens with God’s good creation and of evil’s entrance into it, but it ends with the promise that God stands over evil and even evil cannot stop God’s good purposes to bring life to the world.

And not only does God stand over evil, he entered into it in the incarnation. He sent his only Son to the cross, the most evil act in the universe, and worked that horror for the salvation of the world, that many more people should be made alive today. This is the story of Genesis. Of God creating the world in the beginning. Of evil’s entrance into it. And God’s unwavering commitment to his good purpose to fill the earth with his blessing even in the face of evil. This is not just a story. It’s the true story of the whole world. And it’s just the beginning! The brilliance of the opening line, “In the beginning…” immediately implies there’s an ending coming! If this is where it begins, where does it end? In many ways, where it began—but better. The vision of the opening line of the story anticipates the ending of all things new. Just like the beginning, the ending is authored by God who knows the end from the beginning, so we have assurance from the very opening scene of the Bible that wherever this story goes, God will bring it to his desired end—for his glory and the good of his creatures who trust in Him through it all.

The story of Genesis thrust before us a host of implications, three of which will be unpacked: the all-encompassing nature of the church’s mission, the reality of evil, and the heart of the Father.

Genesis declares that God created everything. Sin destroyed everything. God is redeeming everything. Therefore, the work to which God call his people encompasses all things. It’s as broad and vast as creation. The church is called to inhabit our cities in the presence of the Spirit and with the proclamation of Jesus on our lips so that Christ might redemptively claim every fiber and fabric of our city. The church should be those who, like our Creator, bestow the blessing of good on and within the brokenness of our city. There is no biblical category for the church existing and her city not noticing—not in the scene of brand awareness but redemptive presence.

As the church inhabits God’s world, evil remains an inescapable, unavoidable reality. It is at times subtle, at times overt. The uncomfortable verdict of Genesis is that we are both participants in it and victims of it. As evil presses in inside us and around us, our only hope is God’s kindness to uphold his good purposes for us. The kindness of God to preserve our life should amaze us! Especially as the people of God to whom He has shown kindness, there are powers and enemies at work against us visibly and invisibly to perpetuate evil and restrain good. There have been and there will be plenty of days that it seems like the destruction brought on by evil will get the last word. But that’s not the story of the Bible. Evil doesn’t get the last word. God’s purposes remain the same. God will bring his blessing of good into every broken and barren place, every scarred and sick place, every despondent and destroyed place. So may we hold fast to the One who scripted our story, who stands over evil and entered into, wielding what is intended for evil for his good purposes.

The story of Genesis is the story of God who knows the end from the beginning, who knew the cost of his creation was the cross, and yet in love, he sung us into existence. To know and chose to love—that’s the heart of the Father. That’s the story that gave us life, and it’s the story that will give life to our neighbors. But only if we, like the Father, chose to absorb the cost of knowing our neighbors and loving them still. Only if we, like Christ, don’t stand over in judgement but enter into the complexities of their story in humility.