This is an amazing text. There was nothing – a formless void, darkness covered the face of the deep. No-thing. Then there was. First, a wind from God sweeping over the face of those waters. Then God spoke. Let there be light.
This an extraordinary enough thing. But here’s where some context adds a dimension. Imagine being an Israelite back sometime before 587 BCE. All you had been told growing up was about the glory years, the magnificent history of your people. King David’s victories, 400 years before. Solomon’s grand temple, the envy of the world. But since then, no matter how good the story was, the people had been scrambling to find security. The Philistines, the Phoenicians, the powerful Assyrian Empire. They made deals, paid tributes, did whatever they could to be safe.
Finally the deal-making fell apart, and in 587 the Babylonian armies destroyed the Temple and carted off the leadership in Jerusalem – priests, intellectuals, civil servants – back to Babylon. The Holy City was in ruins, the Temple Mount smoldering. This event led to the crisis that is at the heart of much of the Hebrew Scriptures: If our faith is about God’s promise to claim us and give us a home, and that home is taken away, what does that say about our God? Almost all of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, was compiled in exile, put together, stories told around the campfire for generations recorded in secret, in order to answer these questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? In a world in turmoil, who can we count on?
The creation text is the beginning of the people’s answer to that question. In the face Babylonian power, the Israelites are saying to the world – You are not in charge. Our God is. This text – and most of this is another sermon for another day – its important to say this text is not intended as a firsthand account of creation; it is not intended to bring evidence to prove the mechanics of creation, of how mountains formed in geological time. It is a claim of authority and power. To whom does creation belong? Creation belongs to God.
Last week we began our Lenten journey and our community book read. In “Way of Love,” Professor Norman Wirzba writes: “The argument of this book, as we have so far seen, is that the point of Christianity, its central reason for being, is to communicate the unfathomable love of God that creates, nurtures, and perfects the whole universe, and then to invite everyone to participate in that love.”1 While this love sustains and infuses all we know, we need to go back further. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Wirzba begins chapter 4. “What is anything for? From a Christian point of view, these questions are answered best in terms of the love of God. It is possible that nothing should have ever come into being. So the fact that things exist at all is because God loves and wants them to be. And because God is love, God is not content that things merely or barely exist. God wants everything to be beautiful and whole, and God wants every living thing to flourish and fully develop its potential. This world and this life are not a random fluke. They are the love of God become flesh, become active.”2
It is possible that nothing should have ever come into being. So the fact that things exist at all is because God loves and wants them to be. This was one of those really simple insights, that I probably should have thought of before now, but hit me like a ton of bricks. We don’t have to be here. God didn’t have to create anything. God, in God’s own self, in God’s own being, was doing fine. God is infinitely self-sustaining. But God did breathe over the waters, speak light into darkness, shape holly bushes and rosemary and azaleas, deer and hippos and iguanas, you, me. And God did it in love. Something very important, Wirzba claims, is being communicated. “God does not keep love as something to be hoarded or jealously enclosed within itself, but instead wants to share and extend to others all the goodness and joy that God’s eternal life is.”3
Again. This is really simple, but it blew me away and I have been trying really hard to think about this this week, and it’s amazing. If none of this has to be here, and God created IT ALL IN LOVE, then every single thing is a gift. Everything. I remember some of our homeless friends at a shelter the seminary did a lot of work with when we were in Atlanta, and at the Open Door’s Wednesday morning breakfast this gentleman would always begin his prayer at 6am with, “I thank you God for waking me up this morning.” He didn’t just assume it was going to happen. If everything is gift, if none of this is to be expected, and we are not entitled to any of it, then this day is a gift. The weather, whether you like it or not, is a gift. All you have and all are you are doesn’t have to be. Your body – our culture tends to view bodies as sources of shame or of desire – your body – when it works as you’d like it, and when it doesn’t, is a gift. Your aches and pains, the changes that come to us in each season. The breeze. The pollen beginning to settle. All of it. Folks you know and love. Folks like you and not like you. Folks who agree with you on all manner of things and folks who don’t. What if God is just as invested in THEM (whoever THEM is to you, and we’ve all got a THEM) as God is invested in you? That is tough, but good stuff, and important. How might that inform how we live and speak to each other and about each other?
But too often we’re stuck. This past week I was with one of my children, taking one to an activity of another one of my children, just to tag along. We needed to leave early because I needed to get home to be helpful with another child before I went to a meeting. And the whole way home I didn’t hear, “Hey, dad, thanks for taking me for a little bit.” I heard, “Why do we have to leave? I wasn’t ready to leave!” And because my children are cursed with having preachers as parents, said child got a little sermon on deciding to be grateful for the thing they got, instead of always wanting more. And we are really annoyed when our kids do this, but I doubt us adults do much better. We always want more. More money, more stuff, more time. And sure, some of all of those things we’d use to do important, kingdom-building things. But more often than not we’d worry even more about what we didn’t yet have. And it is spiritually exhausting, I confess, as one who wrestles with it often. We always want more. Always. More.
Because we are terribly afraid there will never be enough, but with God there ALWAYS IS. God created all of this magnificent abundance, IN LOVE. A couple of weeks ago I went to a lecture at the Divinity School, hosted with our friends from First Presbyterian Church, as a part of their McPherson Lecture Series. Miroslav Volf, an extraordinary theologian from Yale, toward the end of his lecture he said, “For a Christian, the ultimate framework of meaning in which to situate properly every single one of our pleasures, from the very trite to the most exquisite ones, is the perception of the world as God’s gift. An abiding experience of the world as a gift of the God of love would be the single incomparable and all-encompassing pleasure identical with our living itself, a pleasure in which all other pleasures are gathered and united.
… Little trinkets on the shelves of gift stores are not gifts; they become gifts when somebody gives them to somebody else. In other words, gifts are relations. If the world is a gift, then all things to which we relate – and many to which we don’t – are also God’s relation to us.
Now imagine, Volf said, that you feel a bond to the giver of the gift that is the world, that you “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind” (Deuteronomy 6:5; Luke 10:27). Imagine also that you “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18; Luke 10:28). “Spread wide and boldly the wings of your fancy, and imagine that all your neighbors do the same, which is, of course, exactly how Christians have for centuries imagined the world to come – as the world of love. Each thing in the world is now a relationship marked by love. Each distant star and every gentle touch, each face and every whiff of the freshly plowed earth, in sum, literally every good and beautiful thing shimmers with an aura both vibrantly real and undetectable to our five senses. Each thing in the world is more than itself and just so a source of deep and many-layered pleasure.”
We cannot save the world, Volf concludes. We shouldn’t even try. But we can improve the world, perhaps, above all by learning how to rejoice together in the gift that each one of us and the entire world is.”4
How we understand the world and how we see it is key, Volf claims. If we don’t have to be here, then all is gift. All is gift. And there is enough. Might we live toward each other in such a way that we believed that were true. All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Norman Wirzba, “Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity,” (New York: HarperCollins, 2016), p 33.
2. Wirzba, 47-48.
3. Wirzba, 48.
4. Miroslav Volf,, “What Will Save the World? Flourishing in a World We Cannot Save,” Given at the Duke Divinity School, February 26, 2017. Courtesy of Rev. Mindy Douglas.