Last week was a bit of a crash course into reading Genesis 1 with both ancient and modern eyes. So, this week, we will scale it back a bit and focus in on one thing that we touched on last week: the idea that God created humanity with a purpose. In Genesis 1, God creates humanity with a divinely appointed vocation.
And that’s significant because questions of vocation are very important to human life: Is my work contributing something to the life of my community or the world? Is there a larger goal that my work accomplishes? Am I succeeding?
I think these questions are becoming more intensely felt for people these days, especially in places like the Bay Area. I grew up in Western Colorado, in a little town that hadn’t changed much culturally since it was founded in the 1890s. And there, no one much cared what you did for a living. As long as you worked hard and fed your family, you could hold your head up as high as anyone else in the community.
But in places like the Bay Area, L.A., or New York, career and success have become much more of an identity marker. When I moved to L.A. after college, I noticed that the first question people always ask when they meet you is, “what do you do?” It was assumed that you didn’t truly know someone until you knew what job they had, & what job they wanted.
In places like this, we’re tempted to measure our worth and the worth of others by the nature of our work. The trash collector is typically not held in as high esteem as the successful tech startup entrepreneur. And failure in career can lead to existential crisis.
So, we have a lot of social pressure, but we don’t seem to share a common goal or purpose. It’s more often assumed now that each person must define their own purpose – and then do all they can to achieve it. That sounds like it would be freeing, but in practice, it often adds another layer of stress as people wonder, did I choose the right career?
So, I want to suggest that what Genesis 1 has to say to that, is that we’ve got the wrong idea about the human purpose. We’re not aware of the true human vocation.
So, what then, does Genesis 1 say? Well, to answer that, we’ve got to get a bit literary. Because Genesis 1 is an incredibly sophisticated document, and it speaks with an ancient voice. And there are three very important ideas in Genesis 1 that modern readers can easily miss. But I think we can keep it simple.
First, Genesis 1 is playing off an idea from ancient literature, the temple creation story. Temples were the places where deities dwelled. And the ancient Babylonians and others would tell stories of their gods creating their own temples to dwell in.
Those cultures and Israel’s word for temple was simply “house of God.” So, Genesis 1 plays off this idea and transforms it by imagining all of creation as the house of God. God creates the world as a place to live in.
Second, God’s rest on the seventh day, doesn’t mean that God is taking a break. When I was in college, I remember thinking that God resting meant that He was sleeping while the world went to hell in a handbasket. That’s not the meaning here at all.
The Hebrew word for rest, shabbat, means to cease. On the seventh day, God ceases from creating, so that He can transition to the normal activities of dwelling in and ruling the cosmos. Thus, he takes upon Himself a new vocation, which He will have through the rest of Scripture and human history.
Let me give you a picture of that. Imagine a father building a house for his large family. Lots of materials are coming together and everything has to be put in order; but eventually, the construction process comes to an end. And then it’s time for the father to bring his whole family into the house to dwell and enjoying it. So, rest is actually a surprisingly active thing.
This sentiment is found most clearly in the Bible in Psalm 132, where Israel cries out to God for help, saying “Rise up, O Lord, and go to your resting place.” That is, “your temple.”
God responds by saying:
“[Zion] is my resting place forever; here I will reside…I will abundantly bless its provisions; I will satisfy its poor with bread. Its priests I will clothe with salvation… I will cause a horn to sprout up for David… His enemies I will clothe with disgrace, but on him, his crown will gleam.”
We can see that there are about 5-7 activities here that God engages in in His rest! And it’s not just any kind of activity, but the activity of bringing about salvation for His people.
So, Genesis 1-2:4a is a story of God creating the world as His dwelling place in six days, then on the seventh day, ceasing from his creative work so that He can begin the normal activities of dwelling in and ruling over the cosmos – and when things go bad, fixing it!
And finally, because every temple must have an image of the deity, God creates humanity in His image. This is a kind of rebuke of ancient paganism. False gods are represented by lifeless forms of wood and stone. But the living God is represented by a living being that will have dominion over all the animals in the created order.
Adding It Up
And those three insights all add up to an amazing statement about the purpose of human life. God gives Himself the vocation of maintaining, ruling over, and saving the good world He created. And He graciously shares part of His divine vocation with us.
The human vocation is to share in the divine vocation. We’re to have dominion over all animals, to fill the earth and conquer it. Turn a wilderness into a garden city. Put your own stamp on it. And once the creature is able to take part in the creative and sustaining process, God calls His work very good!
We live in a world where people are very competitive about their vocations. They seek to hoard the glory and don’t want to share their vocation with anyone else. But the Creator of the universe shares His vocation with us. And not just some of us, all of us!
Contemporary culture gives vocation to those with talent, or those with the competitive edge. Ancient pagan theology gave the king a divine vocation, but the rest of humanity got the role of slaves to the gods. And those ancient cultures were extremely chauvinistic. Men had vocations and women typically followed in tow.
But the God of the Bible creates both men and women in His image, and blesses all humans with this divine mission to share in His work. This includes all the people that human cultures have so often marginalized. The untalented, the disabled, the social outcasts, are all invited and challenged to fulfill this great human vocation.
And God gives unique gifts to every single person to contribute something special to the mix. The trash collector, no less than the entrepreneur… no less than the minister, is taking part in the human vocation. Any constructive career path can fulfill this divinely appointed human vocation if we have a deeper dedication to work in faith for the glory of God.
As Paul told the Colossians, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as if working for the Lord. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”
The Gospel of Genesis
To close, I want to look at what is the most amazing thing of all about this reflection on the vocation that God gives to humanity. When we abandon our vocation, when we sin and rebel against God and mar His image in ourselves, He doesn’t give up on us, and He doesn’t take our vocation away!
That is the promise that is powerfully fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus is the only perfected image of the living God. He is the only one who perfectly fulfilled humanity’s vocation.
And, when Jesus comes, we might imagine God would say, OK humans, you messed up and I had to save you. So, from now on, we’re just going to let Jesus do everything. Jesus has done it all perfectly, no need for you to go messing things up again.
But that’s not what happens! Look at the gospel passage we read today. Matthew says that Jesus “went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.” That’s Jesus fulfilling the human vocation.
Then Matthew tells us that Jesus sent out his 12 disciples to “proclaim the good news, [of the kingdom]. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” Jesus shares his very same mission with his disciples. These are the same twelve disciples that always seem to misunderstand Jesus and do everything wrong, but he shares his mission with them.
Certainly, Jesus could do the job better on his own. And the church since then has always fallen far short of Jesus call. But if our vocation was revoked then the image of God wouldn’t be restored in us. Because the image of God is a calling. It’s a vocation, to share in the vocation of Christ, healing and restoring this good world that He has given us.
If the core of our identities is in our careers and success, that’s a house built on the sand. You never know when it might be swept away. But if we base our identity on the love of the one who gave Himself for us and calls us to join him in his great vocation, then we can, as Paul told the Romans, “boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.