We have read the creation story hundreds of times. In the beginning . . .
How do you hear the story? What kind of music would you set it to? Is it a sweet tale about the sun and moon, flowers and trees, birds and beasts and bees suitable for a sing-song children’s book? Is it an epic saga that lays the foundation for all of human history, set to the theme for Star Wars? Is it otherworldly and ethereal, sung by the likes of Enya?
As I reread the story this week, I heard it in a less familiar way. No happy-go-lucky cartoon animals. No triumphant opening crawl. No new age Celtic melodies. Instead I imagined those opening verses of the creation story set against the backdrop of nothingness, emptiness, darkness, chaos. The soundtrack is not soothing but a clashing and atonal: not music, noise.
In the beginning . . . formless void . . . darkness covered the face of the deep. For the ancient Hebrews, the deep, the sea, was both literally and symbolically a place of chaos, perhaps even its source. It was a place of uncertainty and peril where large and terrifying creatures hid from human sight. Whole ships could be swallowed by the deep, never to be seen again. Indeed, entire jumbo jets.
The Hebrews had been telling this story for generations before it was finally written down. They told it along the banks of the Nile when they lived oppressed by the yoke of Egypt. They told it again as they wandered thirsty through the wilderness. They wrote it down at last when they hung up their harps and wept beside the rivers of Babylon. In captivity, the rhythms of life had been disrupted and meaning stripped away. They could no longer worship Yahweh according to the old patterns centered around temple and sacrifice. Different growing seasons made subsistence more difficult. Even their calendar had been taken from them and replaced with the calendar of their captors.
We know about chaos, disruption, and loss of meaning. I often hear from people who feel like the world is changing all around them and nobody asked their permission. Churches are replacing the organ with keyboards and electric guitars. Schools are replacing prayers with moments of silence, or not replacing them at all. Marriages are failing even as the right to marry is given to more people. Terrorist are attacking their own neighbors. Our rabid consumerism leaves us with more stuff but less idea why it all matters. At least we still have our calendar! (Did you hear, though, that they are adding a “leap second” this year to keep the atomic clock on track with the earth’s actual rotation? It turns out that even our calendar is not perfect!)
When every semblance of order had been taken away, when life was utterly chaotic, the Hebrews put pen to papyrus and told this story: In the beginning God created . . . swept over the waters and said, “Let there be light.” In my imaginary setting of the story, the strange atonal cacophony suddenly becomes a bright and robust symphony. When God separated the light from the darkness, the day from the night and gathered the waters together in one place, God declared that even the darkness, even the chaos, is under God’s control. When their whole world appears disordered, the Hebrews looked at the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening to remember that the chaos and darkness had not won.
If the faith of the Hebrews seems too simplistic, if you think the sunrise and sunset is not reason enough to hope that the chaos won’t prevail, then you have not heard the story of Martin Pistorius, a South African boy paralyzed by meningitis to the point of becoming vegetative. He could not pass a single test to show he had any cognitive function. Martin spent his days propped in front of a television at a special-needs day care, watching endless reruns of Barney. Years into his illness, Martin’s brain came back to life, but his body did not. Now conscious but unable to communicate, Martin began to despair – until he noticed the shadows inching across the floor of the day care. Able to measure the passage of time, the rising and setting of the sun, Martin found hope to begin a journey toward healing. Today he maneuvers his own wheelchair, communicates through a computer that speaks what he types, and Martin is married.
When chaos and darkness seem overwhelming and out of control, the rhythm of the sun and the story of the Creator who set the sun in the sky are a source of hope.
But there is more. The beginning. It is not only the ancient Hebrews who begin their story with these words. So too the evangelist Mark writes, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” Jesus, too, comes to the waters – not the primordial waters of creation, but the sacred waters of the River Jordan. The Spirit descends and God speaks, not bringing light and matter into being but claiming Jesus as God’s beloved Son. At the Jordan River, Mark tells a new creation story that is entirely dependent on the old. At the Jordan, God himself descends into the watery abyss and emerges on a mission to bring healing and redemption to the world through the mysterious power of the cross.
In our own baptisms, we are invited to join this new creation, this new beginning that puts chaos and darkness in its place and claims the truth that God is in control. In our baptism, we might find comfort that we, too, are called the beloved sons and daughters of God. In our baptism, we might find hope that though the world may change without our permission, the God who made the sun to rise and set is the same God who came down to redeem us in Jesus Christ, and who keeps us in his care even now.
But our baptism is not only a source of comfort, designed to make us feel warm and loved; it is also a source of power. The Spirit that hovered over the waters of creation and descended upon Jesus is the same Spirit that is given to the baptized children of God. When chaotic darkness seems to cover and surround us, when life seems empty or meaningless, we have the power of the Holy Spirit (the power of God!) to resist not only in word but in deed. Our resistance may be as simple as insisting on a morning ritual of praying the Psalms over a quiet cup of coffee, even when our day planners tell us we are too busy. Our resistance may be as difficult as restoring love and respect to a broken marriage. Our resistance may be as counter-cultural as praying for those who persecute us or as revolutionary as giving to others instead of buying more for ourselves. Filled with the Holy Spirit, we join Jesus in his ministry of banishing the darkness and chaos forever.
In the beginning . . .
This eleventh day of a new year is good time to think about beginnings. There is plenty of chaos that surrounds us, threatens us, frightens us. We find hope in the creative rule of God who restrains the sea, orders the day, and keeps our lives. We find power in the waters of baptism where the Holy Spirit meets us, claims us, and equips us to push back against the chaos and live joyful, hopeful lives ordered according to God’s good plan. This is the beginning of a new year; may you find such hope and power in 2015. Amen.