“In the beginning… God created the heavens, and the earth.”
These are the opening words of the Bible, the very first utterance of Holy Scripture: and though the phrase is a simple one, the depth and beauty of it can scarcely be measured. With a few scant words, we immediately learn two fundamental truths about our faith: first, that before anything else, there is God, and second, that God has a very specific agenda.
What we learn here is that God is neither vindictive nor destructive, but that God creates. And what’s more, God is not random or accidental in his creativity; God very specifically and in a very ordered way creates the heavens and the earth. We find that out immediately, because the very next thing that God creates is light: light, so that all creation can see; light, so that the earth is warmed; light, so that living things may grow. From the very beginning, you see, every one of God’s creative acts provides the proper foundation for the next.
It’s a beautiful and powerful image that’s set before us in the Book of Genesis; and, ultimately it doesn’t matter whether one subscribes to a view of creation that took place over six days, or happened over billions of years, because what we read in those opening words of scripture is more concerned with God’s nature than God’s method. In the beginning, you see, there’s God; and God creates, purposefully and lovingly, out of nothing.
Lest you think I’m merely waxing philosophical here, you should know that theologians actually refer to this as creation ex nihilo, which literally means creation “from out of nothing.” It also, by the way, sets up the very first Biblical conundrum, if you will: it’s the assertion that everything that we know to be fundamental and real about creation (the earth and sea, the stars and sky, right on up to all the galaxies spread across the universe), all of this at some point had to have been created. In other words, they weren’t always there; at some moment of time millions or even billions of years ago, everything that we know now had to have begun to exist in some form or another. So if you accept that, then it follows that way back before creation began to exist, it had to have not existed; in other words, before there was anything, there first had to have been nothing. And… what is nothing, anyway? How do you describe nothing? By our attempt to describe it, does nothing then become something? And if that’s the case, does nothing really exist? And if it doesn’t exist, then what is it?
And while we’re on the subject, there’s God… what about God? If God, as we believe, created heaven and earth out of nothing, then what is God? We can’t say that God is nothing… because we know that God is certainly something that exists and is as real to us as the very air we breathe, though God is not something that we can even begin to wholly understand. All we really can say is that before there was something, there was nothing, and God is something that in the midst of nothing and out of nothing created something; and that, friends… is really something!
Well, my head is spinning (!); how about yours?
In the end, I guess, our best understanding of creation hearkens back to Genesis, where it says that in the beginning “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” Actually, the original Hebrew there suggests that not only was everything formless and void, it was also full of chaos and darkness. In fact, the words used are Tohu Vebohu, which can be translated as “an exceeding amount of chaos.” So what God does in creation is to bring form out of the void and order out of chaos; bringing forth a universe, a world, light… and life.
Truly, without the formative, creative work of God, there would be nothing at all. But creation is more than just existence; it goes far beyond the scattered placement of the universe. Creation was not only an intentional, ordered and purposeful act: it was a gift; the gift of God who loves to bring something good out of nothing. Actually, this all brings to mind a poem I remember reading back in high school. It was by James Weldon Johnson, and it begins this way:
AND God stepped out on space,
And He looked around and said,
“I’m lonely –
I’ll make me a world.”
And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.
Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said, “That’s good!”
– James Weldon Johnson, “The Creation”
I love that. Creation, you see, is all about God’s love, and God’s joy; it is about God’s great and passionate desire to bring something real and good into the chaos and darkness. And it’s always been that way: we experience this gifting of love and joy again and again every time we pause on a frigidly cold winter night here in New Hampshire and gaze up in wonder at a star-filled sky, or every one of the mornings we awaken to see a blanket of snow on the ground outside; or, for that matter, in the first blessed sign of a crocus poking through the soil after a hard winter. God creates; and creation did not cease after six days, nor has it concluded; even now, by grace, God is still creating. God is ever and always working and planning and bringing newness to our world, to our lives – yours and mine – and, might I add here, to the church.
That’s an important point, you know; because creation has to do with more than the beauty and wonder of nature; creation has everything to do with who we are as a people. Did you happen to catch the striking similarity that exists with both of our scripture readings this morning? In Genesis, we read that in bringing forth life, “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” And then, in Mark’s description of Christ’s baptism by John in the river Jordan, we see much the same thing: “And just as [Jesus] was coming up out the water,” Mark says, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”
In the beginning, you see, the Spirit of God brooded over the dark waters and brought forth a new world in creation; likewise, at that moment of baptism, the Spirit of God moved over humanity and in the Christ brought forth a new kind of relationship with God, a relationship that finds its source and focus in Jesus’ teaching and healing, and his saving act on the cross. In Jesus’ baptism, the seeds of a community of gathered disciples were sown, and by our baptism we become part of that community; we have been created to be a new people: that of the family of God, the body of Christ, the church.
Think about this with me for a moment. You know, I can’t ever look out at this congregation without marveling at it! I mean, here we are in this sanctuary, a diverse bunch of folks coming from a wide variety of backgrounds and experience; people with differing opinions and priorities in life; a group of folks who in all honesty, in a great many ways have a whole lot of nothing in common (!), except for this one thing we do have in common, and the one thing that really counts: our baptism. By our baptism, we are made one with Christ and one with each other. And that’s how God intended for it to be; God created us out of nothing to be his people!
Friends, we cannot ever say that the Christian faith is merely a set of lofty ideals and noble propositions; a system of ethics or a guide of proper behavior. The Christian faith is meant to be expressed and lived in community; it is a way of life that’s to be understood in the presence and leadership of Jesus Christ. That’s why, by and large, I encourage the sacrament of baptism to be celebrated in the context of our worship – and that’s going to be happening here next week, by the way – with all of us watching and participating. In our Christian understanding, baptism is never meant to be a secret and private event; for it represents nothing less than our very adoption by God into the larger family of faith. That’s why I refer to it as a sacrament of welcome, for within it every confessed Christian becomes our brother or sister, and every child becomes “our kid” to love and to nurture into full Christian faith and discipleship. Baptism is the formal expression what God has created us to be; it’s an affirmation of what God has always intended for us to become, and it is the constant reminder of what we’re created for, which is LOVE; love with the same kind of passionate creativity that God has extended to us.
Mary Ann Bird has written a story about her own life entitled The Whisper Test, and in it she tells of growing up knowing she was different. She’d been born with a cleft palate, and in school her classmates made it clear to her how she looked to others: “a little girl with a misshapen lip, crooked nose, lopsided teeth, and garbled speech.” She became convinced, as children sometimes do, that no one outside her family could ever love her.
“There was, however,” Bird writes, “a teacher in second grade whom we all adored, Mrs. Leonard. Each year we had a hearing test. Mrs. Leonard gave the test to everyone in the class, and finally it was my turn. I knew from past years that as we stood against the door and covered one ear, Mrs. Leonard would whisper something, and we would have to repeat it back – things like ‘the sky is blue’ or ‘do you have new shoes?’”
“I waited there for those words,” Bird goes on to say, “[words] that God must have put in her mouth, those seven words that my changed my life. Mrs. Leonard said in a whisper, ‘I wish you were my little girl.’”
In baptism, friends, God says to you and to me, “you are my beloved daughter. You are my beloved son.” In baptism, we are God’s children; we’re a family. Not because we’ve earned it; not because we’ve done all the right things to make it happen, but because God loves us. Because that’s how God wanted it to be; that’s how God created it and made it happen.
What an incredible gift that is!
William Willimon, writing specifically to preachers, says that too many of our clergy-type sermons say, in effect, “Here are ten reasons you are not really Christian even though you thought you were when you came to church this morning.” And that’s tragic, because the greatest sermon of all began at that precise moments eons ago when God uttered the words “’Let there be light,’ and there was light.” By God’s very utterance, it was so: beginning a process of creation and recreation that continues even in this moment and even with you and me.
You and me, we’re no less than God’s creation; each one of us is something fresh and new, a one of a kind edition, created from the loving hand of the divine artist. And what’s more, together we’re the church: Christ’s chosen body in the world; a people loved, empowered and sent forth to be God’s people in the world.
Now that’s the kind of sermon I can stand behind!
So let there be light; let there be life (!); and let there be… us.
And may all that God has created in us be very, very… good.
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!