Title: The beginning and the end
Texts: Gen 1:1-3, Ps 84, Jn 1:1-5, Rev 22:16-17, 20-21
Date: Oct. 24, 2010
Author: Isaac Villegas
“The earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Gen 1:2). The first chapter of Genesis is not a straightforward history of the origins of the world. It’s much more than that. It’s a creation poem. The bible begins with a poem about creation, about how God creates life in the midst of death.
Poetry is language that invites us into a world which we cannot control; it helps us to catch a glimpse of the mysteries that surround us. Poetry invites us to see a new reality—and not just see it but also live into it, to experience the new reality with our lives.
“The earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep…” This is a poem about the world as we know it, a world of chaos, where one act of violence is answered with another, where the people who claim to work for order and peace in the world always end up having to try to justify killing some child’s father or mother.
“Darkness was over the face of the deep”—the earth, formless, empty. At the center of all things is a black hole, a void that greedily consumes life.
This poem in Genesis reminds me of another one, a poem that I had to memorize in my High School English class. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” W.B. Yeats wrote those words in 1919 as he looked out over Europe at the insane destruction of World War 1. And the words seem appropriate today as the world processes the U.S. military documents made public by WikiLeaks.
Even though it shouldn’t surprise me that the military always lies to the public and keeps secret some of their most horrific violence, I was shocked to read some of the stories that came out yesterday (also look here and here). Among the 15,000 unreported civilians killed at the hands of U.S. and British forces in Iraq, there is one story that I think will become emblematic of the WikiLeaks revelations.
In 2006, in the town of Samarra, 100 kilometers north of Baghdad, Khalib was in a rush to get to the hospital. His pregnant sister, Nabiha, was his passenger. She was in labor and Khalib had to get her to the hospital. They made their way down the usual streets. But down one street the U.S. military set up a checkpoint. The soldiers perceived the approaching vehicle as a threat, so they opened fire and ended up killing Nabiha and the child in her womb. She was 35, and the dead baby was a boy.
War is never kind to women and children, especially to pregnant women. Neither is war kind to the mentally disabled, who are some of the most vulnerable among us. Here’s another story from the WikiLeaks archive. A pedestrian approached a checkpoint. The soldiers thought he was acting a bit odd. According to the soldiers the pedestrian did not respond to their warnings. So they shot and killed him, thinking he was a suicide bomber. Once he was laying dead in the street, the soldiers discovered that he did not have any explosives on his body. When the dead man’s parents arrived at the scene, they told the soldiers about their son’s disability.
“The earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the face of the deep.” I’m at a loss. I don’t have the slightest idea how to change the minds of people who are drunk on violence. But just because I don’t have any ideas doesn’t mean there is no hope. The poem of creation in Genesis is ultimately about hope, hope in a God who makes something out of nothing, who speaks light into darkness. “Let there be light, and there was light” (v. 3).
Traditional theology calls this “creatio ex nihilo,” creation out of nothing. God can create life when it appears impossible. Or, like I hear some of the inmates say on Tuesday nights in prison, “God can make a way out of no way.” Even in the anti-human conditions of prison, they are able to find life, God’s life, light in midst of darkness.
The Gospel of John uses the poem at the beginning of Genesis to write his own poem about the life of Jesus, the Word made flesh: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). In John’s poem, Jesus is the one who makes new life possible. Again, using the language of Genesis, John writes, “The light [of Jesus] shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it” (v. 3).
To live by faith, is to bear witness to this light, to be Christ’s presence of life for the world, even when it seems like nothing will ever change, even when death seems to be the norm. Church is a gathering of people who are committed to being God’s presence of life for the world, even when life seems impossible, even when the earth is formless and empty, and darkness is over the face of the deep.
In our poem from Genesis, hope enters the scene as a gentle presence: “darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” The Spirit hovers, God’s presence rests on the waters. Life comes through God’s gentle presence. The Spirit rests in our midst. This is how new life begins; this gentle presence, the companionship of God’s Spirit is the beginning of hope.
During my visits with Mennonite churches over the past few months, I’ve seen how congregations create spaces for life to grow in their communities. In many places and among different people, I saw how congregations try to be present to the people around them, and to be a presence of life—to work with the gentle presence of the Spirit, who hovers over their neighborhoods.
In Dallas I watched as the church organized itself to welcome Hispanic immigrants from Arizona who were afraid of that state’s new immigration policy. In Louisiana I saw how the Mennonites are restoring life to a community that was washed away by the formless waters of Hurricane Katrina. In Chicago, I sat with a handful of people from the Mennonite church as we sang songs in a low-income, assisted living residence.
Church is a community of presence, a people who make space in their lives and in their world for God’s Spirit to rest with them. Over the past four years of being your pastor, I’ve come to know some of your struggles, some of your pain. And I’ve watched as you have been there for one another, how you have been present to each other during pain and joy. From walking with you during over these years, I’ve learned something very important about all of you: If my life were to return to a formless void, I can’t imagine another group of people I would rather be with than with you.
This is what it means to be people who embody good news. Through our love for one another, we invite the Spirit to hover over us, to dwell in our chaotic lives, in the places where we experience emptiness, void, darkness. And we wait together for God to speak again into our lives, and into our neighborhoods, and into our world, and to say: “Let there be light.”
At the end of the bible, on the very last page of the book of Revelation, we see this light again. Chapter 22, verse 16: Jesus says, “I am the bright morning star.” With Christ, there is a new day approaching. With Christ, even though it is still night, we can find our way with a star, the morning star, which announces the beginning of dawn, a new day. Yet we must not delude ourselves with a happy ending to the story call the bible. At the end of the book, the story ends and it’s still night. Darkness is over the face of the earth. But we do see a light, the light of the morning star, showing us the way into the dawn of a new reality.
After we learn about Christ, our morning star, the following verses of Revelation culminate in an invitation; or, I should say, a series of invitations. First, the Holy Spirit and the church offer invitations for all people to drink from the waters of life—to be refreshed, recreated, renewed, as the dawn approaches. Then, at the very end, there is one last invitation: the story leads us into a prayer to Jesus, an invitation to our Lord Jesus Christ. “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”
That prayer makes sense for me today, as I think about the unceasing pain I from you and others in my ministry, as well as the sickening new revelations of violence in Iraq. When I am at a loss for solutions, for ways to change the world, when nothing seems to make our problems go away, I can’t help but join in the prayer: “Come, Lord Jesus.”
That’s what we are about as a church. We are a people who are learning how to pray, “Come, Lord Jesus”—come in to our lives and give us joy, and come into our world and show us the ways of peace.
This cry for the dawn of a new day is also at the heart of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray—and we are still learning how to pray as if we mean it, as if lives were at stake, our lives and the lives of the people of this world. Let us close with that prayer, and as we pray may our eyes be opened to catch a glimpse of the One who is the morning star, the One who is able to create life from death, the One who creates something out of nothing, the One who makes a way out of no way: “Our Father…”