God Spoke and Speaks
A sermon based on Genesis 1:1-5
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 7, 2018
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A church hired a graphic artist to design a website logo with earth being gently molded in the hands of God. The artist worked for quite awhile, when she completed the design she sent the client a proof. The client, the church called very disappointed telling her the hands in th design looked too human, please try again and this time use hands that look more like God’s.
I often preach that we need to be the hands of God and so God’s hands always look human in that respect; but THE very being-ness of God, the One who molded creation and cradles the earth does not have hands, at least not literal hands we can see to draw.
Often humans imagine and picture the Creator of the universe as human-like, indeed the other creation story in Genesis (the one in Chapter 2) has God walking around and molding people in human kinda ways, but that Adam and Eve story is an older more primitive creation story. That version of the creation narrative is thought to have been written when there was relative stability for the Hebrew people in the kingdom of Israel.
The later creation story, the narrative found in Chapter 1 which we just heard Tom read the first five verses from, is thought to have been written hundreds of years later by a priestly writer trying to make sense of the chaos Yahweh’s People experienced when Babylon conquered and exiled them. Until that time they had imagined themselves cradled in the protective hands of Yahweh, a God they also imagined shielded them from enemies who followed enemy gods. Kind of like a divine medieval knight, Yahweh was believed to be the Hebrew people’s invincible champion on the field of life vanquishing any threats by other gods’ and those other gods’ people. The Babylonian conquest and Exile created a theological crisis, the championing God was gone leaving the Hebrews in a dark and formless theological void, as well as a dark and formless place–exiled in Babylon.
In the ancient world bodies of water were scary places of seemingly lawless forces. They did not just drown you in the depths, but reached up and wrecked fragile boats and flooded cities and homes in storms and rising tides and swollen rivers and flash floods and tsunamis. Like Babylon, rivers and oceans and seas could and did bring uncontrollable chaos. And so the oldest creation story the other one in Genesis 2, the one with the placid Garden of Eden, was supplemented with what has long been the first creation story people read in the Bible.
See the older creation story in Genesis 2 and the image of God and God’s relationship to all of creation, most especially humankind needed reimagining, needed rebirthing. And if we listen for it we can actually hear woven into the remarkable imagery of today’s lesson the context of chaos that I just briefly laid out. At the start of this reimagining we hear “In the beginning WHEN God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” God in this story even has a different name, in the Hebrew text God’s not called Yahweh like in Genesis 2, here God is called “Elohim.” THAT name for God in Hebrew can be singular and plural, suggesting perhaps a reflection of the evolution that took place, from imagining a campion God for one people to a One God encompassing the gods of all people and being the sole Creator of them and the universe.
And that One God of everyone, of all creation, begins in our very short reading by staring down the formless void and darkness that covered the deep. We need to notice how the world at the beginning of this reimagining is all water representing the frightening chaos of the deep. The Feasting on the Word commentary (p 221) puts it like this “the beginning is all water; watery deeps, dark, formless, essentially a flood.” .
This image serves as both a picture of the swirling-ness of creation in the grand scale at the start, and the microcosm of the proverbial creek God’s people are up without a paddle because of the Babylonian crisis. They are lost at sea . . . to mix metaphors. Our Bible uses the image of watery threats elsewhere– like the great flood; parting of waters; calming stormy seas; walking on water– and they all end with the waters being tamed and controlled by God.
Listen and we can hear God doing that in the image in our reading today. We are told that while darkness covered the formless void “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” That wind, by the way, is called “ruah,” it is a feminine Hebrew word that can mean wind, breath, mind and spirit. And the word translated as swept is “rachaph” which means “hovered.” The female aspect of God from the beginning is hovering over the face of the deep worldwide, creation-wide chaos. And this is so cool, God turns the vast waters of chaos into the waters of a womb for all of creation. And God does this in Genesis 1 not with hands like the church wanted in the graphic designer story, but with her female Spirit and Divine voice. All God had to do was speak God’s Word to start transforming the chaos into creation. Order comes when God’s word is heard.
The first thing we humans in the dark tend to want is light, the tension and fear goes way down when a chaotic dark night is broken up with the light of the sun at dawn. ANY darkness in our waking hours is easier to exist in with light. That’s why the story starts with God bringing light.
And going back to the birthing of creation and a new way of seeing God’s image; every healthy birth starts with the womb leading the new born to light and the first breath of one’s birthing. So it should not surprise us that our Genesis 1 story starts in some ways like human life with God’s breath– “ruah” – giving voice in the womb of the waters of creation and calling forth light while the dark waters are swirling . . . “God said ‘let there be light;’ and there was light.” Human life begins out of waters and into light, so too does creation this ancient story.
Another fascinating aspect of this story is that, being ancient, it was not meant to be science. The discipline of science did not exist in 6th century BC. Yet today science tells us that life itself did indeed come out of a primordial soup with water and light and the breath of oxygen from the atmosphere hovering over the earth plus some sort of spark of life which we can fairly call God. All that is scientifically needed to get life going, and keep it going. The water; the light; God; and the breath of God in the utterance of God’s Word are all there in the first five verses. The intent wasn’t science but marvelously we can hear it there metaphorically by accident or design or the beauty of reading the Bible as poetry and metaphor, as much of was meant to be read.
The church liturgical calendar for Sundays has moved rather quickly this year. The way it worked out, we’ve had three seasons in the past three days. Friday was the Twelfth Day of Christmas, yesterday was Epiphany and today is Baptism of Christ Sunday. It’s a three for one weekend! All of those holidays, holy days, have new beginnings as a central theme. So does the secular New Year’s holiday. Our Lectionary reading ties in nicely, of course, portraying the beginning of all beginnings. And like the birth of first life; and all life; and our births; and our baptisms (which are rebirths), water plays a start. We come out of water. And in the coming out there is goodness. In Genesis 1 God calls all of creation good, and we also know that existence, life is indeed good.
And remember, this story of creation has it all start from chaos ordered and calmed by God’s Word. If the awesome, mighty and glorious existence of creation can come out of vast chaos of the universe’s swirling beginnings, then the exiled people of God in much less powerful Babylon can come out of that too with God’s Word. And in the New Testament the oppressed people of God in Roman occupied Palestine can come out of that chaos too. If that is true, then surely in the small corner of the world, and small bodies we humans inhabit, we all can come out of chaos, through our still speaking God.
The short first five verses of Genesis can be heard to offer what we all need to hear, hope. Because all of us travel through existence in what can at times seem like a formless void and dark deep chaos in the many messes of our lives. The hope comes from knowing that God, the Creator, the Being of Love who’s constant pull toward betterness soaks creation, that she hovers over us always and is present with us in the messiness of life us. Just the Word of God can bring order to chaos of any size.
We need to know – as the United Church of Christ motto assures us– that just as God speaks and cosmic chaos is calmed and glorious results are created; that “God is still speaking” in our world and our lives. The motto means the very voice, the Word of God that speaks good creation into being out of chaos, speaks good creation still out of any and all chaos yours, mine, our communities, our nation’s, the worlds’s anywhere in creation. This was good news for the Babylonian exiles when Genesis 1 was written. It’s obviously good news still.
And as I’ve suggested, getting that, understanding it, allows a re-imagining of God who no longer needs to be thought of as a champion shielding a select few as favored and vanquishing their opponents. It also means God is not failing us when we experience trouble or opponents are unvanquished. Now God can be understood as hovering over amongst the troubles speaking with the very breath that gives life, the Word of God that made creation good that turns chaos into good.
This does not mean that all encounters in creation are good, it means that there is goodness– Godness– soaking all of it even in the messes and chaos and in those seemingly Godforsaken places. Christmas and Epiphany and Christ’s Baptism are all liturgical seasons and days whose imagery can be understood to track this meaning.
In the Christmas stories, during the dark chaos of Rome’s brutal conquest and rule, God speaks to Mary and she conceives God incarnate on earth who not only magnifies God in her soul but calls her good and does great things for her and provides love to all who are in awe of God and quells the chaos by showing strength, scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things. Mary sings about all that and notes it is God fulfilling God’s promise. We sing about it still. Advent and Christmas are about God’s incarnation in the chaos. In the darkness there is always the Light of God.
Epiphany remembers the Magi finding Jesus in the chaos of wandering to find a king pronounced to the wise on earth by a communication in heaven speaking (as it were) to them of new born king and the starlight communicates the way to Jesus and hovers as light over him. This is the first light in the darkness of the chaos that was Rome. It is the very same God who also speaks to the Magi in a dream too, having them avoid Herod on the way home. Epiphany is about the world’s dawning of awareness of God’s light incarnate in the chaos.
In Jesus Baptism he literally rises from water and heaven parts and that spirit part of God hovers and lands on him and God speaks, declaring that he is good. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
See our faith stories can be heard in one way or another about God hovering over chaos of life and God’s Word speaking light into it to bring order to the parts of creation that listen. Pretty cool that the first five verses of the Bible are so full of meaning, meaning that keeps on having meaning. Because God’s hovers over us still and is still speaking.
May we all stop and experience the always hovering God of creation and listen to her Word. It can make and does make the difference between night and day, chaos and good, hate and love.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2018 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED