Week 2, Genesis 1:1—2:4a “Created in God’s Image”: In God’s Image—Male and Female

Friday, March 10

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them”
(Gen 1:27).

The familiar, traditional reading of this passage, from the King James Version, is “Let us make man;” the NRSV instead reads, “Let us make humanity” (Gen 1:26).   This is not “political correctness,” whatever that bugaboo of our times may mean: it is a matter of accurate translation. In Hebrew, the word for “man” is ‘ish. But that is not the word used here. In Genesis 1:27, God creates ‘adam, which means “humanity.” It is particularly important that we translate ‘adam correctly here, because Genesis 1:27 goes on very plainly to state “male and female [God] created them”! Masculinity and femininity, maleness and femaleness, are both reflections of God-likeness in this verse. There is no hierarchy of the sexes here, no basis for regarding women as inferior to men.

Our traditions have not always been equal to this insight—yet here it is, at the very beginning of the Bible!  Sexism is denied any legitimate place in God’s rightly ordered world.  Further, to say that both maleness and femaleness represent “God-likeness” is also to say that God is neither male nor female—or more accurately, that masculinity and femininity alike reflect aspects of God.  While the dominant images of God in the male-centered culture of ancient Israel were masculine, there are texts that depict God in feminine terms—for example, as midwife (Psalm 22:9-10) and as mother (Hosea 11:1-4). Further, one of the dominant features of Israel’s theology from early on, central to the foundational texts of Israel’s covenant with God, was the absolute refusal to make any image representing God (see Exodus 20:4-6; Deuteronomy 5:7-10), for no one image can adequately express the One whom Pulitzer Prize-winning African American novelist Alice Walker calls “That Which Is Beyond Understanding But Not Beyond Loving” (Alice Walker, The Color Purple [Orlando: Harcourt, 1982; preface 1992], vii). All of our language about God—including God as “King,” “Lord,” or even as “Father”— must be held lightly, because whatever image of God we have in our minds, God is not that! Inasmuch as our images of God open us up to become channels of God’s love and peace into the world, they serve their purpose. But if our images of God shut us off from one another, they also shut us off from God; they become, in that moment, idols that kill.

Prayer: God our Mother and Father, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, give us a hunger for you that will not be satisfied by the thin gruel of our own conceptions and imaginings. We long to know you, not to know about you, but we cannot know you if we close our hearts and minds and ears to half of your image in humanity. Open our eyes to your image manifest in women and men alike. Through Jesus, who made the Samaritan woman the first missionary (John 4:39-42), Amen.




Week 2, Genesis 1:1—2:4a “Created in God’s Image”: In God’s Image—A Human Face

Thursday, March 9

“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’” (Genesis 1:26).

Volumes have been written on what it means that we are created in the image of God—some of it blasphemous and wrong-headed. So, for example, the white supremacist Church of the Creator claimed that only white people are created in God’s image, while the other races are “mud people,” made from the dirt (a deliberate misreading of Genesis 2:7). Others insist that only men are created in God’s image, not women (something tomorrow’s devotional addresses directly).

But by saying that humans bear God’s image, the priests were saying something about God, as well as about humanity.  The gods of the nations surrounding Israel were embodiments of natural forces or powers: Baal was the thunderstorm, Asherah was motherhood, Ishtar was raw sensuality. But in Genesis 1:26, the priests of Israel say that God’s likeness is seen in humanity: to understand what God is like, we are to look, not to raw elemental powers, but into the face of another human being. Our passage understands God in personal terms. The rest of the Bible, it could be said, pursues the question, “How can we be in relationship with God?”  Right at the start of Scripture, we have a clue in our very humanity.  Our own longing for relationship, for connection with one another, tells us something of God’s love for us. As the Bible frankly and extraordinarily declares, “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

Genesis 1:26 goes on to define what being created in the image of God means in greater detail: the image and likeness of God in human being is related to “having dominion” (Hebrew radah) over the rest of creation. Under God’s divine lordship as the ruler of the cosmos, we concretely represent God’s rule in this material world. Unfortunately, in the history of our faith, believers often have misunderstood governing the earth to mean abusing the earth: as if we are free to use the world, and even to use it up, as we see fit. But as we have seen, Genesis 1:1—2:4a affirms God’s valuation of the world in and for itself.  If we exercise our dominion properly, we too will recognize the wonder, beauty and inherent goodness of the world that God has made, and exercise our responsibility to be faithful stewards of God’s earth.

Prayer: O Creator, in Jesus you have shown us a human face, full of compassion and love. May we search one another’s faces for your face, and so learn to love you by loving one another. In the name of Jesus, who gives us your new commandment: “love one another” (John 13:34), Amen.


Week 2, Genesis 1:1—2:4a “Created in God’s Image”: Multiplication by Division


Tuesday, March 7

“God separated the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:4).

At the beginning of our Bible God creates, not only by speaking, but also by separation. As Claus Westermann observed, the first three days of creation all involve acts of separation: light from darkness (1:3-5); waters above from waters below (1:6-8); dry land from water (1:9-13; Claus Westermann, Genesis: A Practical Commentary, trans. David Green [Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1987], 8-9).  The Hebrew word used here, hibdil, is important in the vocabulary of Israel’s priesthood. One of the primary tasks of priests in ancient Israel was to teach their people to keep the holy separate from the common, the clean from the unclean (Leviticus 10:10).

Likely, Genesis 1:1—2:4a regards God and the world from that same priestly perspective. At issue is the goodness of each and every aspect of creation on its own, as a gift from God. Genesis 1:1—2:4a affirms God’s valuation of the world in and for itself. Again and again the text affirms, God saw that it was good(Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25), and when the work of creation is complete, God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good(Gen 1:31). The goodness of creation does not depend on its utility for human beings: God calls the world good well before we show up! The creation is good because God calls it good, in all its diversity.

In our own context, however, we may miss the point. We may think that God baptizes our own divisions, and wants us to stay in our homogeneous boxes. So too, in the human community, God calls us to affirm the created goodness of other races and cultures. God calls us not to bland homogeneity, but to the celebration of our differences.

Prayer: O God, help me to see the world in your terms: as good in itself, rather than good if it is good for me. Help me to see my sisters and brothers, too, as sisters and brothers, rather than as means to my own ends. In the name of Christ Jesus, who “came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45), Amen.




Week 2, Genesis 1:1—2:4a “Created in God’s Image”: Delight in Diversity

Wednesday, March 8

“God saw everything that [God] had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Although we are barely at the beginnings of space exploration, we have already learned far more than we could have imagined about our universe. Yet so far, every probe we have sent into outer space, whatever its target, has come back with one common, depressing fact: so far as we now know, at least in our corner of the cosmos, there is no life anywhere except on our own blue-green world. That is remarkable, because on this world, pretty much the opposite has proven true. Nearly everywhere we have looked on Earth, we have found life: in every environment, no matter how desolate and inhospitable, from our deepest oceans to our highest mountains, from our most frigid polar regions to our hottest thermal springs.

The priests of ancient Israel knew far less about our world, in scientific terms, than we do. Yet they too marveled at the diversity and complexity of life on earth, describing with wonder the many kinds of life, from plants to fish to birds; from domestic animals who share our lives to wild animals beyond our borders to the remes: the creepy-crawlies who seem to inhabit every nook and cranny of this world. A delightful, if unlikely, story is told of famous biologist J. B. S. Haldane. When asked what his studies had revealed to him about the Divine, he allegedly responded, “God has an inordinate fondness for beetles.”

The diversity and profusion of all life on this planet, beetles included, does indeed reveal something of God. For Genesis declares that God delights in this diversity, declaring continually of the world he calls into being, “It is good; it is good; it is very good.” Surely such a God delights in our human diversity, too.

Prayer:           All things bright and beautiful,

All creatures great and small;

All things wise and wonderful,

The Lord God made them all.

Gift us, O God we pray, with your delight in your creation. Teach us especially to delight in one another, and to learn from one another to praise you more fully and love you more deeply than our separate, single perspectives permit. In the name of Jesus our Christ, whose birth was celebrated by sages from strange and distant lands, Amen (Hymn by Cecil Frances Alexander).


Week 2, Genesis 1:1—2:4a “Created in God’s Image”: Naming

Monday, March 6

Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (Genesis 1:3).

Readers have long noticed—and rightly so!—that in Genesis 1, God creates by speaking. John’s Gospel begins with this insight (“In the beginning was the Word”), and goes on to identify Jesus as that creative word of God (“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” [John 1:14]). It is important for us to recognize, however, not only that God speaks the world into being, but also what God says. In Hebrew, God’s creation begins with two words: Yehi ‘or—“Let Light be.” God creates by naming: when God pronounces the name of a thing (Light, or Sky, or the Lights adorning the sky), the thing comes into being!

In part, this reminds us of the importance of naming in the ancient world. It is no accident that often in Scripture, with a new call comes a new identity: Abram becomes Abraham (Genesis 17:5), Sarai becomes Sarah (Genesis 17:15), Jacob becomes Israel (Genesis 32:28), Simon becomes Peter (Matthew 16:18); Saul becomes Paul (Acts 13:9). But it also affirms that who we are is God’s gift to us. God has pronounced our names from the beginning of creation. Today, let us remember and celebrate God’s gift of identity, and pray for the wisdom and insight to grant that gift to one another.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for making me who I am: for gifting me with my very identity. Forgive me when I fear and distrust those unlike me, forgetting that you have spoken their names as well—that they, too, have received their identity from you. Grant me wisdom to listen, and courage to value what you value, for you are truly “no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34 KJV). Through Jesus the Christ, who called his disciples by name, Amen.


First Sunday of Lent

Sunday, March 5:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him (Matthew 4:1-11).






Week 1, The Book of Joel “Hope Isn’t Easy”: Hope for All People

Saturday, March 4

“Then afterward
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit”
(Joel 2:28-29).

The setting for much of this remarkable book of prophecy is a locust plague, which has decimated Judah.  But, by today’s passage, that is over, and after the swarm has passed, when the locusts all are gone, reassurance is offered to the community, the “children of Zion” (Joel 2:23), who twice are promised, “my people shall never again be put to shame” (Joel 2:26, 27). But the people also learn that they are part of a larger community than they had known.  In this passage—the most familiar passage from this book, quoted by Peter in his sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:17-21)—the “children of Zion,” called “my people” by the Lord, include not just the adult men of the worshipping congregation, but women, children, the aged—even slaves.

Joel reminds us that we belong to a larger community than we had known.  We may have forgotten that—I confess that often I have forgotten that.  We succumb to the temptation to define our community too narrowly, as including only those like us, whether ethnically or ideologically or theologically. If this past election taught us anything, it is that we had not heard one another at all.  In the days and weeks to come, we must learn to listen to one another—not necessarily to agree, but to listen, to learn, and to understand. We too hear today God’s promises of deliverance, of vindication, of freedom from shame. But we cannot experience these blessings separately and severally. They are not offered to us in that way. We will find them together—all of us—or we will not find them at all.

Prayer: O chain-breaking God, we long for freedom. But you have shown us in your Word and by your Spirit that if we would be free, we must work to free one another, for until we all are free, none of us is free.  Teach us to draw the circle wide–to find ourselves a part of a larger community than we had known, embracing sisters and brothers we did not know we had, and extending to include all God’s world. In the name of Jesus, whom God sent to us out of love for all the world (John 3:16-17), Amen.


Week 1, The Book of Joel “Hope Isn’t Easy”: Time for Lament

Friday, March 3

“Put on sackcloth and lament, you priests;
wail, you ministers of the altar.
Come, pass the night in sackcloth,
you ministers of my God!
Grain offering and drink offering
are withheld from the house of your God.

Sanctify a fast,
call a solemn assembly.
Gather the elders
and all the inhabitants of the land
to the house of the Lord your God,
and cry out to the Lord”
(Joel 1:13-14).

In a sermon preached in the chapel of my seminary, a courageous student observed that our community was a very hard place to be if you were sad. People who were hurting or depressed were likely either to be ignored, or worse, to be jollied: to be told to cheer up and trust in Jesus—as though sorrow and pain were somehow a denial of faith. I fear that mine is not the only Christian community guilty of this offense. As Donald Gowan ruefully observes, “Christian worship tends to be all triumph, all good news (even the confession of sin is not a very awesome experience because we know the assurance of pardon is coming; it’s printed in the bulletin). And what does that say to those who, at the moment, know nothing of triumph?” (Don Gowan, The Triumph of Faith in Habakkuk [Atlanta: John Knox, 1976], 38).

True repentance leading to new life requires lament: not only our own authentic lament at the realization of our sin, but also our providing space for, and attending to, the laments of others. Walter Brueggemann writes that the loss of lament in worship means “the loss of genuine covenant interaction because the second party to the covenant (the petitioner) has become voiceless or has a voice that is permitted to speak only praise and doxology” (Walter Brueggemann, “The Costly Loss of Lament,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 36 [1986]: 60).  No wonder Joel urges the priests, “Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord” (Joel 1:14). By stifling lament, we shut off the genuine interaction that a living relationship with God presumes.

Prayer: Oh God, we confess that in our discomfort with lament, we have silenced the oppressed in our communities—and our personal struggles and fears as well. We have insisted that everyone in our services smile and be happy, and so have condemned our worship to insipid shallowness. Teach us how to lament, and to let others lament, so that we may rediscover the authentic covenant relationship into which you call us. Through Christ our Lord, who listened to the cries of others, and was not too proud to cry out on the cross, Amen.






Week 1, The Book of Joel “Hope Isn’t Easy”: No Easy Reconciliation

Thursday, March 2

Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing” (Joel 2:12-13).

In her book Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, Jennifer Harvey proposes that a major obstacle to racial justice in the church is “the powerful hold that ‘reconciliation’ has on the white Christian imagination” (Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014], 2). Being reconciled to one another is certainly a worthy goal—but not if white Christians think that “reconciliation” means expecting Christians of color just to let bygones be bygones! As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” white Christians may prefer “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Such easy “reconciliation,” as Harvey reminds us, ignores and trivializes “an unacknowledged history of brutal injustice, harm done, white hostility to and violence against communities of color—histories that are alive and well in the present.” White Christians need to ask, “without repentance and repair having come prior, why would we even assume interracial relations to be desirable or beneficial to Christians of color?” (Dear White Christians, 5).

Joel understands that true repentance means far more than saying that we are sorry! He calls upon his community to demonstrate their whole-hearted desire to return to the Lord, and their deep sorrow at past wrong-doing, “with fasting, with weeping, with mourning.” This can be no superficial demonstration: “rend your heart,” the Lord demands, “and not your clothing.” If this Lent is indeed to be for us a season of new life, as Jesus desires, then we too cannot expect an easy resolution to America’s besetting sin of racism. May God grant us open hearts, listening ears, and the wisdom and courage to do the hard work of repentance and repair.

Prayer: Transforming God, we confess that we often do not see or hear one another clearly. Blinded by our own perceptions, deafened in our own echo chambers, we do not see or hear the oppression that grinds down our sisters and brothers. Grant us opened eyes and unstopped ears, we pray, that we may know our sin, for only then may we truly repent. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who invites outcasts to his table, for food and for healing, Amen.



Week 1, The Book of Joel “Hope Isn’t Easy”: Ash Wednesday–Call to Repentance

Ash Wednesday, March 1

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.

Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O LORD, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” (Joel 1:1-2, 12-17)

Here in the northern hemisphere, Lent always comes in winter, which feels appropriate. Lent seems a wintry season of the church year: dark, cold, grim, unforgiving.  The liturgical color for Lent is purple—an appropriately dark and mournful shade.  But we are likely to think of Lent even more in winter hues: the penitential black of clerical garb and of leafless winter branches; the gray of ashes, on hands and foreheads or on icy streets; the off-white of sackcloth and of trodden snow. The Old Testament reading for today fits that perception: Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!” (Joel 2:1-2).

Yet curiously, the word “Lent” has nothing to do with winter or darkness—or fasting or penitence, even.  Etymologically, “Lent” derives from the Middle English lenten and the Old English lencten, and is related to the Old High German lenzin—all of which mean “Spring”! Lent is a green season—a time of growth.  Lent provides the opportunity for us to dig down deeper in our tradition, to break up the fallow ground of our cold hearts so that the Water of Life may seep down into the center of who are.  Lent is the time for the Spirit to prune away our dead branches so that we may bear fruit.  Lent is a season of new life—a springtime for our souls! So too, for Joel, the point of the call to repentance is found in the possibility of new life that will follow: Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him” (Joel 2:13-14). This Lent, may God’s Spirit awaken us to repentance, and so to new life.

Prayer: O God, we long for growth, yet we fear change. We long for your new life, yet fear what it will cost us. On this, your word does not reassure us! In fact, you assure us that we indeed must change, and that your new life will indeed cost us, as it cost you, everything. We pray for your Spirit to empower us, that this season of Lent would be springtime for our souls. Through Jesus our Christ, who “throughout these forty days for us didst fast and pray,” Amen. (Hymn by Claudia F. Hernaman)