Click here for the youtube video of worship: Water
It’s pretty safe to say that this past year was a tough one, for all the big reasons that make newspaper headlines and all the smaller reasons that have come as a result of the bigger ones. There isn’t a person who hasn’t been touched in some way. That’s the pan in pandemic. It has effected everyone and everything. It really has been a bit much. Early on, one of the saving graces came in the form of YouTube videos put out by John Krazinski from the popular TV show The Office. He called them Some Good News, and they were a bit of light and lightheartedness in the midst of tough times. He had the cast of Hamilton perform via Zoom for a girl in Florida who had tickets to see the show until COVID shut everything down. There was a virtual prom for all the high school kids who were missing theirs. In every installment he shared all the good that was being done to offset the hardship at hand. This is what we do in times of trouble. This is what we do when the world around us is in disarray. We look to something that will remind us that there is more to what is happening than whatever threatens to undo us.
The scholarly consensus around this epic poem that opens the book of Genesis, in which creation unfolds over the course of a week, is that it was likely set down in the form we know during the Babylonian exile. This is the central traumatic event at the heart of the Hebrew scriptures- the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and the dislocation of a people, God’s people, to a foreign land hundreds of miles away. Much of what has made this past year so difficult has been the isolation we’ve felt, stuck in our homes. The people marched into exile didn’t even have that. They were completely unmoored by the chaos that had been unleashed upon them. Everything familiar that had ordered their lives and their way of understanding the world around them had been stripped away. They too needed to be reminded that there was more to what was happening than what threatened to undo them. They needed to know that the disordered existence they were experiencing wasn’t, in fact, the new normal, that, from the beginning, the creative work of God has been to move over what otherwise looks shapeless and void and to call forth order from it.
While some may want to argue and assert that this text represents a literal account of the beginning of the physical universe, what’s really going on here is a picture of something much more profound and far reaching. Our English translation renders the opening as, “In the beginning.” Now, if you’re a grammar nerd like I am, you might be curious to learn that the original Hebrew doesn’t contain a definite article. Which means that instead of this text being just about the beginning of time, space and matter, it might be better rendered, “When God began to create.” Reading it that way, we start to see that what follows describes what it looks like whenever God begins to create. That whenever we feel like we’re up against a formless void, what in the Hebrew is call Tohu V’Vohu, it is simply prelude to creation.
That’s been a good reminder this week as our nation’s capital descended into chaos. As the Tohu V’Vohu of the MAGA movement showed its true colors, destroying federal property, running amok in the Capitol building and throwing our constitutional democratic republic into complete disarray. I confess, it’s been a little difficult to concentrate on the promise in this text for all the noise and threats of violence that we witnessed on Epiphany. But that is precisely the point of this text. Just as darkness covers the face of the deep, just as darkness covers our homes, our friendships, our work, our neighborhoods and communities and even our national life, just as that is happening we are assured that a wind from God is sent forth over all the churning chaos. Here again, the Hebrew word for what comes from God is ruach. In addition to being translated wind, elsewhere it is called breath, or even spirit. So, in response to the Tohu V’Vohu, in response to the darkness that covers the face of the deep, comes the Spirit of God, the breath of God speaking a word, what the gospel writer John calls the Word. Into the formless void, into the darkness God speaks light. More than light as both particle and wave. Before it is energy or matter, it is the singular utterance of God that announces an ordering of all that is disordered, everything that is in disarray. This is the light that shines in the darkness that the darkness cannot and will not overcome.
We need that reminder, not just when riotous mobs overrun the capitol building on the news. We need that reminder whenever our lives are beset by chaos. When the good health we might otherwise take for granted is threatened by a virus, or heart disease, or the malignancy of cancer. When the career path we faithfully followed disappears from in front of us. When a spouse is betrayed through infidelity or abuse of any kind. When those we love fall victim to their own minds, losing clarity of thought or become enslaved to an addiction. We need that reminder because we can so easily get sucked into the depths of that darkness, pulled by the outrage and disgust into a place that betrays the goodness with which God creates. When the people of God, exiled in Babylon, set down these words they were rehearsing what they had learned about the creative power of God, that God begins to create while things are still in darkness. When God begins to create, things are a mess- formless and void. That Tohu V’Vohu it is only prelude the movement of God’s Spirit that speaks light.
So, what does any of this have to do with baptism? This is the Sunday each year when we take note of Jesus’ baptism by John that began his earthly ministry and remember our own. We hear these words of creation against the story of Jesus’ baptism and recognize the parallels. The world that Jesus was born into, the world into which he will step is also a mess. It’s one where the whim of an Emperor can send peasants scrambling to be registered for a census regardless of how far along one’s fiancé may be in her pregnancy. It’s one where a power-mad king, infuriated by the suggestion that another may usurp their throne, orders the wholesale slaughter of children. It’s one where the people are occupied by yet another foreign power and impoverished by an economic deck that is continually stacked against them. When Jesus steps into the Jordan, its waters are every bit as chaotic as the world around him. Those who know me, know that baptism may be my very favorite thing that we do as church. You might think that’s because it is a joy to hold babies and hear the promises made on their behalf by their family and their church. Don’t get me wrong, that’s great. But we don’t just baptize babies. We baptize, or reaffirm the baptism of anyone who is looking to begin again; anyone who needs to hear the word God speaks that reorders our disordered lives and calls forth a new creation. We don’t always emphasize this part when we’re baptizing babies because it sounds a little dark, but the water of baptism recalls the chaos that precedes creation, as well as the life that follows. The waters that nourish life and cause it to flourish, are equally capable of great destruction and death. Before we rise from the waters of baptism to new life, we are first buried in them. Before we embrace the claim that is made on our lives by those waters, we first renounce evil and its power in this world, the formless void that contorts and disfigures everything. The light is separated from the darkness and the first day of what God breathes and speaks into existence begins.
The story goes that during the tumultuous days of the reformation, when Martin Luther felt like he himself was being sucked into the depths of darkness, he had a simple way of grounding himself by remembering the faith that had claimed him by repeating, “Martin Luther, you are baptized.” Today we remember our own baptism, turning from the ways of sin to trust in the gracious mercy of God that indeed makes all things new. In these dark days in which so much has been thrown into disorder, we remember how the creative word of God has claimed and reordered our lives, so that we can not only withstand all that is formless and void, but so that our lives can be knit together into the beloved body of Christ, a new creation that is just beginning.