January 14, 2018 – White Bluff Presbyterian Church
God did not create the world out of nothing. If you look closely at these opening sentences of Genesis, you can see that what was there before God created was not “nothing.” But it wasn’t exactly “something,” either. In the words of our translation of the Bible, “the earth was a formless void.” Interpreters have a lot of ways to try to get at what is being said there. One piece I read said that what was there was “an untamed something that is formless and void.” Another talked about it as “that which is desolate and unproductive.” It wasn’t nothing, per se, but it wasn’t exactly anything, either.
The writer of Genesis goes on: “and darkness covered the face of the deep.” “Deep” here is the same thing as “waters” at the end of the next phrase. So, one of my interpreters said, whatever was there was a “wild and foaming chaos” with nothing to contain it or even surround it, not even light. Genesis says that “a wind from God swept over the face of” that wild, foaming, watery chaos.
Doesn’t life feel like that sometimes? Don’t some days feel like “an untamed something?” When you think of some situations, can’t you feel what “an untamed something” must be? And don’t some of the rhetoric we hear and the maneuvers we hear about from powerful and famous people feel like they are “an untamed something?” It’s not nothing; it has an existence and even a power that is very real. But it’s out of control, and not in a good way. Can’t we all look at our bodies or our families or our communities or our institutions and relate to that image of a “wild and foaming chaos?” Aren’t there places we all know of in our daily routines, in our work, and in our city and nation and world that feel desolate? Don’t we find ourselves sometimes listening to stories on the news, stories from our friends, or stories deep in our own souls that tell of places and times that feel like they will never produce any good at all?
Genesis tells us that the wind from God swept over the face of that untamed, formless void. That word for “wind” can also be translated as “breath” or “Spirit.” The breath of God moved over that desolate, unproductive, wild, and foaming chaos. The Spirit of God moved over that deep water, which wasn’t exactly nothing, but it wasn’t really something, either. And through that wind, that breath, and that Spirit, God began to work. First God brought some light into that something. Then, in the paragraphs after what we read a few minutes ago, God divided that deep water on the next day, and then on the day after that, land emerged. On the story goes: that watery chaos was split and crafted and shaped to become everything we know.
Ever since then, water became a symbol of powerful chaos in the Bible. Water was where people drowned, whether it was in the flood at the time of Noah, when God gave the world a new beginning, or in the time of Moses leading the people away from their Egyptian slavemasters and toward the Promised Land. Water was how ships got wrecked, like the boat Jonah traveled on to escape God’s call to deliver the word of the Lord to the Ninevites, and water was how rivers and floods overwhelmed the land, like the mighty streams of justice and righteousness Amos described. It was formless and void; it was untamed and wild and foaming and chaotic; when there was too much of it, it was deep and desolate and unproductive.
And then, in Jesus, God used water to offer blessing. We started our service this morning with the story of Jesus’ baptism. The way Mark tells that story, John the Baptist would have been a watery character to the folks hearing the Genesis story. He was untamed and wild, living out in the desert, wearing clothes and eating food more appropriate for people who were being punished for their sins than anyone invited to a public speaking engagement. He was foaming and chaotic, spewing warnings about sin and unworthiness and predicting that something world-changing was about to happen.
Mark calls what John was doing “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” What John did was offer people a chance to make a change. They could leave behind what they were doing wrong that was sucking the life out of them and the people around them, literally washing those habits and actions and attitudes and arrogance off. And at the same time, they could also wash off the consequences of their sin, so that not only would they be making the commitment to live better, but they would be doing that in the freedom of knowing that they could make a new start with God. The water of the river seemed like it was appropriate for that action. It was the water which bore all of the power of that deep, formless, void that was present when the Spirit of God swept over its face. Only God had the power to divide it and contain it, so it was appropriate to use it to wash what only God could scrub clean.
Jesus went out in the wilderness to John. And Jesus submitted to what he was doing: using the formless, untamed, foaming and chaotic water of the Jordan River to offer, of all things, God’s grace. No one knows why Jesus needed to go through that. After all, Jesus didn’t have any need to wash off his sin or be reconciled to God. The way the story gets told in the Gospel according to Matthew, John objected to baptizing Jesus, and Jesus responded by telling him that it was the way “to fulfill all righteousness.”
Whatever that means, it is clear that when Jesus was baptized, something more than just repentance for the forgiveness of sins was happening. And the fact that something more was happening was made vividly clear when Jesus came up out of the water. It was like a scene from in the beginning when God created the world. The sky which God had divided from the rest of the deep waters was suddenly torn open. The Spirit of God, which danced like wind and breath over the face of the deep waters, came down like a bird and pointed straight to Jesus. The voice, which spoke into being the light that began the mighty act of transforming the deep waters, spoke again: “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I Am well pleased.” With Jesus’ baptism, something more cosmic was happening than simply the confession, commitment, and forgiveness of some poor sinner.
And here is the part that is most powerful to me: that cosmic, world-creating something more that was happening when Jesus was baptized used water. God chose to bless Jesus with water. God revealed who Jesus was when he came up out of the water. God used, of all things, water to connect baptism with God’s act of creating the world out of that untamed, desolate, unproductive, formless void of deep, wild, and foaming, watery chaos.
Like Jesus, we are baptized with water. And as we come up out of the water, we see the heavens ripped apart, and we feel the breath of God flying all around, and we hear a voice speaking of acceptance and love and joy. Of course, we have to pay attention; if we are looking for it all to appear the way we think it ought to appear, we are going to miss it. We can’t control it any more than we could control all that chaos and formlessness and void and all the rest from in the beginning. It will be more subtle than we expect, or maybe it won’t. It might even be so much a part of our everyday world that we take it for granted. But remember that everything about the way our everyday world is ordered was created from the untamed, formless, voided, chaotic watery depths.
Life feels sometimes like it is untamed, wild and foaming, desolate and unproductive, just like that formless void that was before God created. In baptism, we see that God brings blessing out of just those elements. This is the part that is most powerful to me: God wants to bless us, not in spite of the chaos, but through the chaos. That’s just the kind of power God has. God can take the chaos and create something new out of it. God’s Spirit stares the chaos in the face, then speaks light into it and divides it and contains it so that fertile earth can emerge from it. God wants to use it to wash us clean, offering forgiveness and other gifts of grace and freedom through it. God blesses us out of the watery things: those days that are untamed, those situations that refuse to reveal their form, the news stories that just exist out there as a void, not really nothing, but also not really something, either. God blesses us out of those bits of life which are wild and foaming and chaotic and those depths which feel desolate and unproductive. God doesn’t bless us in spite of the chaos; God blesses us through the chaos.
God blesses us through the chaos. God blesses us with water. God speaks of God’s promise and God’s love and God’s joy as we come up out of the water. My prayer this morning is that we will hear these amazing words. My prayer is that we will see how the watery chaos we feel in the world is not beyond God’s power to divide and shape and create. My prayer is that we will see how the water we emerge from is a tool for God’s blessing. My prayer is that we will understand that all of us who have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into covenant with an amazing God.