A note of warning: my sermon this morning is a bit strange! It is 60% sermon, 30% poem, and 10% me just asking questions! But it seemed fitting, as I begin a sermon series on creation, to start with a creative approach to the topic. I promise every week won’t be like this. My logic may be a little harder to follow than usual so if you have trouble hearing, you can get a copy of the sermon from the ushers and follow along. I just ask that you stay with me and don’t read ahead!
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, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth . . .but take note of the footnote, for there is more than one way to translate a phrase, and a whole theology can hang on a single iota.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth . . .That’s what you’ve heard. Perhaps that’s what they wanted you to believe. Creation out of nothing: a God so powerful He didn’t even need ingredients to make a world. But many people believe this is creation’s bad translation. In truth it says “When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form.” The earth already was—but without order.
The Hebrew phrase is tohu wa bohu translated as formless void, but what is that void? A black hole? A place where nothing is nor should be nor wants? Or is a void an absence, a placeholder for something more than nothing. What is formless? Something without form still exists or we could not speak of it. Sometimes formlessness cries out, by its very existence, for the form that would make it change its name. Or maybe that is me being true to form, trying to impose order on that which eludes me, trying to inject meaning into nothingness. I am bothered by this formless void because its more common name, and its scientific name, is chaos.
Creation out of nothing or creation out of chaos? It was a theological battle for the ages, the sages, for from those sacred pages comes the power to decide sin’s wages. The biggest battle you’ve never heard of though perhaps you should’ve paid attention, for the “nothing” folks won.
Creation from nothing, a theology created by the church fathers, who somehow didn’t bother to learn that that where nothing reigns, chaos reigns and rains and rains and rains on the just and the unjust but more often the just … just children, just immigrants, just “them.”
The church fathers used their power to name the heretics, to define and confine them to a footnote in a history nobody reads. But perhaps those who believe in primordial chaos are those who have lived it. They know that when God separated the light from the darkness, chaos hid in the shadows.
We are not friends, chaos and I, though my desk might belie that statement! I spend half my life, it seems, trying to create order out of chaos—the chaos of parenting a talented teen who has places to go and no license to drive and drives me crazy in the sweetest ways possible; the chaos of parenting a five-year-old fireball who lights me up and burns me out and reminds me every day that families are not coincidence but creation; the chaos of pastoring in the so-called “post-Christian era,” when the possibilities for numeric growth have declined but expectations have not. I spend half my life, it seems, trying to create order out of chaos, and it’s not a formless void, for it is not a shapeless nothing. My chaos has the shape of teardrops, the shape of crayon hearts, the shape of a cross on the front of a funeral bulletin. And it is not nothing. This life, this love, this calling—it is not nothing. It is everything. And still it is chaos perhaps because that’s how the world was made.
When God began creating the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void . . .
The chaos was already there, the chaos was God’s raw material, the active ingredient in the recipe of the galaxies. Of course, I could be wrong. There is another possibility; this is the Bible there is always another possibility, another responsibility to determine the options of truth. If God did create out of nothing, then God created the earth—and it was a chaos, which means God created chaos in order to bring order from it. Either way, whichever truth you choose, is it any wonder that it seeps through the cracks in the universe? The randomness of disease, the coincidence of accidents, the trauma of terror attacks—we all cry “why” when the root of the universe itself is chaos.
There is a flip side that even a misguided order seeker like me can see: that chaos can be beautiful. It’s also not the only answer.
A “formless void” is, of course, a translation of an enigma, a mystery wrapped in metaphor, and do I dare create a theology out of such fragile strands? There are other ways to translate that Hebrew phrase, tohu wa bohu. Some claim it is not a formless void but more like a pathless desert, a wilderness, a placed of parched tongues and bleeding nostrils, a place of pain and death if there is no intervention. A desert with no way to find home. Was this what was before God created? An inhospitable place with no way out, no road home?
The story of creation was undoubtedly told for eons by the Hebrew people, but it was not written until they were in exile. In exile, they were a desert away from home, with no path to be found. So if God could create a whole world starting with nothing but a pathless desert, how much more could God create a way for them to go home? How much more could God create a way for us.
If you’ve ever felt yourself in a pathless desert, you know the beauty of this creation. Of course, again of course, the story is a mystery wrapped in metaphor, but at its base a myth. We progressives believe the Bible is neither science book nor God’s biography, and we recognize the truth that is different than fact. Our creation stories, like creation stories around the world in time, exist to explain the how and why, to answer the child-humanity’s question of “where did I come from?”
You came from want.
You came from desire.
You came from love for you are wanted.
Humanity is not coincidence but creation.
So although we do not accept it as fact, we do accept it as true, and how we tell the story matters. Our creation story doesn’t start with cosmic battles between angry gods. Our creation story is not violent and bloody and barbaric. Our story starts with God, a God who wants to create, a God who wants to bring order out of chaos, a God who wants to create a path through the desert so we all can find our way home. Our story is one of goodness and blessing.
God says “Let there be light” and it was so. And it was good. God will say it again and again: “Let there be…” and it was so. And it was good. God calls into being all that is good, and all that God calls into being is good. Word. Fulfillment. Blessing. Word. Fulfillment. Blessing.
Let there be and it was so and it was good.