Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 7, 2024

Genesis 1:1-5 Commentary

Not How But Why

A great deal of ink has been spilled on these opening chapters of Genesis, particularly in the last 200 years. With perceived threats from science, particularly evolutionary science, Christians have been anxious to make sense of Scripture’s creation narrative.  Literal 24 hour days or day-age theory? A gap large enough for the entire fossil record between verse 1 and 2?  Dinosaur bones placed by malevolent actors (whether in the physical or spirit realm) to test our faith.

But here I suggest a question: what are the opening chapters of Genesis for? What is their purpose?  Are they intended as a science textbook?  Or does this creation narrative serve a different purpose?  For far too long, these words have been used to answer a “how” question.  How did God create the world?  But, in the ancient world, the more pressing question would have been “why?”  What is the purpose of the world — of creation and human beings?  According to one commentary, “The purpose of these texts is not to elucidate the how, the mechanics of creation; but rather to seek answers about the why, the ultimate questions facing humanity.”

How do these verses answer this question: why did God make us? Why did God make the world?

God in the Chaos

The Hebrew phrase often translated “formless and void” are poetic and evocative of a howling emptiness.  Then God comes and hovers over the waters — a reminder that in the conception of the Ancient Near East, the water often signified chaos, uncontrollable danger.  By highlighting the emptiness and chaos, the creation narrative tells us there is *nothing* beyond God’s presence.  There is *nothing* that will not come into submission at God’s command.

From the start, God is eager to let us know that God cares and God is able to bring order out of chaos.  Walter Brueggemann thinks of our hearers as he muses: “we should not lose sight of the experiential factor in the notion of creation from chaos. The lives of many people are chaotic. In such a context, the text claims that even the chaos of our historical life can be claimed by God for his grand purposes.”

The season of Epiphany is marked by the growing light of longer days (in the Northern Hemisphere) and the Light of Christ, particularly the gospel narratives of his life and early ministry.  But the Genesis text reminds us there may be wisdom in not rushing too quickly toward the light but, instead, finding something of God’s presence even in the darkness.  As one commentator says it, “God is present in the light of day and in the dark of night, on the sunny mountaintop of hope and in the twilight depth of despair.”

God’s Voice and Spirit

Reading Genesis 1:1-5 in the context of the other lectionary texts, two meanings of the creation narrative seem to uniquely lift off the page: the power of God’s voice, the work of the Spirit.

The opening verses of Psalm 29 invites us to worship the strength and glory of God but the rest of the psalm goes on to substantiate the validity of this invitation by chronicling all that God’s voice accomplishes: powerfully breaking the cedars and flashing like flame.  Also this, “The voice of the Lord is over the waters” then concluding, “The Lord sits enthroned above the flood.” Here we have an almost certain reference to the work of God’s voice in creation: above the waters calling light and everything else into existence.

The voice of God appears above the waters one last time in the lectionary reading, that is when Jesus is baptized and the heaven’s open, the Spirit descends and “a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This reference ties the voice of God with the on-going work of the Spirit that is also picked up in the narrative from Acts.  The powerful, on-going work of God on display in creation was made human in Jesus Christ and then applied to all those in Christ through the work of the Spirit.  One commentator put it this way: “Like a mother hen brooding over her nest waiting for life to spring forth, God’s spirit hovered over the waters. The good news is that God’s spirit still hovers over the formless void of broken lives and the great darkness in which the marginalized find themselves.”


Praying for Darkness in a Year of Glare

Poet Rod Jellema has a marvelous poem by this title. In truth, much of what he wrote attempted to redeem darkness, to make a friend of it or, perhaps, to remind us of its friendlier permutations. Several of these poems are available in the public domain (or at least via google books.). Here I especially commend his poem, Come Winter.


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