Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 10, 2021
Genesis 1:1-5 Commentary
This First Sunday after Epiphany celebrates the Baptism of Jesus, that spectacular epiphany of his glory as he began his public ministry. All of the Lectionary readings for this Sunday were chosen because they have to do with water, whether the primeval waters of Genesis 1 or the waters of the Mediterranean that spawn a thunderstorm in Psalm 29 or the water of baptism in Acts 19 or the water of Jordan in which Jesus was baptized in Mark 1.
It surely makes sense to preach on Mark 1 today; it would be easier and more obviously relevant to the subject at hand, namely, the baptism of Jesus. But I want to suggest that preaching on Genesis 1:1-5 will make the earth-shaking importance of Jesus’ baptism shine forth even more than simply focusing on the story in Mark 1.
Here’s why. Mark 1 is the genesis of Jesus public ministry. Genesis 1 is the genesis of everything. In Mark 1 the Triune God who created everything in Genesis 1 begins his incarnate ministry of saving everything. If we can help people sense the majesty and mystery and miracle of Genesis 1, they will have a much deeper sense of awe at what happened in Mark 1.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Many scholars have pointed out that the Bible begins with God, making no attempt to explain God or argue for God’s existence. It simply assumes that God is and always has been. Before there was anything, there was God. And everything that exists came into being because God created it. The phrase, “the heavens and the earth,” means the entire cosmos. It was not always here. But God was. And God created it all.
Everyone who has ever thought about origins believes that there was never a time when there was nothing or no one. Something has to be eternal– whether mass or energy or a person– or there can’t be anything. The Bible assumes that the eternal “something” was a someone, a person, actually persons, namely, the Triune God.
How did the Triune God create the heavens and the earth? Well, says Genesis 1, when God began to create the earth, our particular planet in the universe, it was “formless and empty” and “darkness was over the surface of the deep.” This is very hard to imagine. Indeed, it is impossible to picture, because if something is formless and empty, there’s nothing see. And if everything was pitch dark, there was no light by which any spectator could see anything.
To convey this unimaginable new world, the Hebrew uses three ominous sounding words—tohu wabohu (formless and empty) and tehom (the deep). When I first heard those words in my intro Hebrew class, they seemed to reverberate with mystery and dread. The primeval world was unimaginably unlike the world in which we live today, though there are times when it seems as though tohu wabohu have returned and we are sinking into tehom again. (See my illustration ideas at the end of this piece.) The rest of Genesis tells us how God brought form to the world by separating and gathering (days 1-3) and removed emptiness by making and filling (days 4-6).
Before we hear about God’s creative activity, we encounter this enigmatic statement, “and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” The Hebrew word for Spirit is ruach, which fundamentally means “breath or wind.” So, some scholars claim this simply means that the waters of the primeval world were stirred by the wind, i.e., that it was stormy, chaotic.
Others see an early hint of the existence of the Holy Spirit, even as the “word” spoken by God suggests the Son of God, “the Word made flesh” in John 1. Some even wonder if the “and” in that sentence is really a “but.” Things were without form and empty, dark and deep, “but the Spirit of God was there, hovering over the waters,” about to join the Word in creating the world of form and order, fullness and beauty. That is surely how the New Testament wants to read these words.
But even if we’re reading too much into that phrase at the end of verse 2, we can be sure about God’s first creative action on this unimaginable world. He threw light on it. Or, more accurately, “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Of course! There can be no visibility or viability until and unless there is light. We cannot see and we cannot live without light.
So, God spoke light into being. Many critics have pointed out that the lights by which we see were not created until the fourth day; “let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night….” So how could God create light with those lights? The answer is simple but profound, and revealed in the New Testament, which says that God is light. God himself produced the light without the sun and moon. How? I have no idea, but Rev. 21:23 says that in the new heaven and new earth, it will be the same way as in the original heavens and earth. The New Jerusalem “does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.”
That’s not exactly what Genesis 1:3 says, but it helps us to imagine how there could be light without lights. The main point of this verse (and subsequent verses that use the same formula) is this, “And God said….” Contrary to all other ancient accounts of the origin of the universe, the God of Genesis did not put forth effort to create the world, either fighting or fornicating or whatever gargantuan use of energy those gods expended. God simply spoke.
His word doesn’t just impart new information; it brings forth a new situation. That’s how omnipotent God is; he speaks and it is so. This is not a snarky anti-scientific statement; it is a deeply theological statement. It is not an argument against a process that might be called evolution; it is as assertion about the creative power of God that is the ultimate cause of all that is.
Once God called light into being, or shed his own light into the world, or entered the world in a new way and brought the light that lightens every human being, God continued to exert his power by declaring that the light was good. God will say that 6 more times, as a way of asserting that the created world is good, not evil, perfect, not flawed, exactly what God had in mind. We humans set out to create things, but we often fail. Our creative effort is flawed, the product is misshapen or cracked or discolored or it breaks entirely. It is not good. About all of his creation, God says, “It was good.” Then came sin, and it wasn’t good anymore. Well, not totally. But then came Jesus into the waters…. But I get ahead of myself.
This first day of creation ends with God naming the light and the dark, another expression of power and sovereignty. The power to name, which God immediately gave to Adam in the next chapter, shows ownership or dominion. I can call you anything I want, because you are mine. When I put it that way, it sounds almost abusive. But that is not at all how Genesis means it. God in his creative love begins to give shape and content to the chaos and darkness. And as we do with a baby, he gives it a name as a gesture of love. So began day and night, the fundamental time division of human life, as a gift of God. And though there was no sun to rise or set, the text says that was the first day of God’s creative activity.
Genesis 1:1-5 tells us things about God that we cannot imagine. As Paul put it in his soaring doxology at the end Romans 11, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments and his paths beyond tracing out…. For from him and through him and to him are all things! To him be the glory forever! Amen!”
Now, connect Genesis 1 with Mark 1. Genesis 1 is the cosmic backdrop of Jesus baptism. The beginning of his ministry was as earth shaping as the creation of the world. In the same way as God created the world by his Word and Spirit, so God sent forth his Son by his Word and Spirit. That man walking into the water of the Jordan is the Word by which the waters of creation became the world we know (John 1). As Jesus enters that muddy water in Palestine, the forces of tohu webohu are being tamed and the darkness that is over the tehom is being pushed back. Even as the Triune God created the heavens and the earth, so the Father and the Son and the Spirit will create a new heaven and earth. Genesis 1 was the beginning of everything. Mark 1 is the beginning of a new everything.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (II Cor. 5:17).” “He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new (Rev. 21:5)!”
If you are able to use your sound system during a sermon, I would recommend using a recording of Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zerathustra” when you come to “let there be light.” Pull that up on Google and you’ll find a stunning video from “2001:A Space Odyssey” (I think). The combination of trumpets, tympani and full orchestra will send chills up your spine. That might help your people feel the awesomeness of God’s creation power. The title of the piece is problematic, of course. You might have to hide that.
One way to help people understand the concepts of tohu webohu would be to recall the chaos of the first Presidential Debate in the United States back in late September, 2020. It was without form and empty and darkness was over the face of the deep, no matter what party you are part of. With speakers interrupting, making ridiculous claims, attacking each other, clashing like a couple of furious sixth graders on the playground, it was a picture of waves crashing into each other in a storm-tossed sea.
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