Genesis 1:1-5 | Mark 1:4-11
Genesis chapter one has been one of the unfortunate victims of the perceived conflict between science and faith that has generated so much vehemence and so little insight over the past decades. With vocal parts of the Christian church insisting on the literal interpretation of these verses, and even going as far as to declare that entertaining any other reading is directly furthering the work of Satan (and yes, I have been accused of that, more than once, over my years as a non-literalist Christian), those who find they are more able to accommodate both the insights of science and the wisdom of the Biblical narrative have often found it simpler to avoid the conflict by avoiding the text.
Which is unfortunate for at least three reasons: it yields the floor to those who would argue vigorously for a literal reading, and in doing so advances the popular impression of Christianity as irrationally anti-science; it implicitly accepts the worst aspect of the debate, by suggesting that we must choose between reading the text literally or not at all; and, perhaps worst of all, it deprives us of insights into the Hebrew understanding of God which enable us to better understand everything that comes after.
So in the six weeks that we have before shrove Tuesday leads us into Lent, we’re going to take the six days of the creation story, and see what we find in them.
And so we begin with the very opening words of the Bible: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep”.
It’s fairly common, when the Biblical creation story is described, to speak of God as having created everything ex nihilo, out of nothing, in a foreecho of modern cosmology: before the big bang, there was nothing, not even time in which nothing might have existed; and then God spoke, and there was light, the universe of time and space came into being.
But the language of the Hebrew poet seems to tell a slightly different story; in the beginning, when God began to create, the earth – as formless void – and the deep – the waters that covered the earth – were already there: and a wind from God, a spirit from God, swept over the face of the waters.
As if the formless void, the water, the chaos, was there as raw materials for the Spirit of God to work upon.
Jewish cosmology hated chaos; saw it as the unambiguous enemy of the work of a God of order and structure. They had, of course, no idea of the modern concept of entropy, but they had a pretty strong sense of it none the less – that the natural state of the cosmos is chaos; that without the intervention of the creative word of God there is no order; and even after the act of creation bringing order to the heavens and the earth, without a sustaining power creation inevitably descends back into chaos. Anyone who doubts that chaos is the natural direction of creation need only look at my study to be immediately convinced.
So the story of creation starts, not with nothing, but with darkness, formless void, the waters of the deep. And the Spirit of God swept over the waters. I’m sure it won’t have escaped your notice that these two ideas – water and spirit – are a thematic pair throughout the scriptures. In today’s gospel reading, of course – John says “I baptise with water, but he will baptise with the spirit”. Or in the conversation with Nicodemus “you must be born of water and the spirit”. Or even right back in the exodus, when “a wind from God” (wind, spirit, same word) drives back the waters of the red sea so that the people can flee from Egypt.
And all of those stories make a different sense when you read them in the light of the creation story: where water is the natural stuff of creation; alone, no more than a raw material out of which something meaningful can only be created by the spirit of God.
And so we reflect on John the baptist: preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Baptism, of course, was an echo of the rites of purification undertaken by the priests before they could enter the Temple; it had also, by the time of Jesus, begum to be used as a rite for those who were converting to Judaism – after a seven day period of fasting and reflection and repentance, the new believer would be baptised into the Jewish faith. But John takes this rite of repentance and purification, and throws it open to all who seek forgiveness, all who truly repent.
But in none of these rituals could the baptism with water actually achieve the thing that it symbolised. Josephus wrote, of John and the practice of baptism in Jesus’ day: “The washing would be acceptable to God, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away of some sins, but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness.”
For the water can do no more than water does; the natural material of the physical world could do no more than bring a physical cleanliness to the physical body.
And so John declared the limitation of his own ministry: “I baptise with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit”.
As if to say: “all I have to offer is that which can be brought about by humanity, by the natural, by the raw materials of creation. Water can clean the body, but something else is needed. The waters that were there even before God spoke in creation need to be shaped, formed, transformed, by the creative power of the Holy Spirit of God. I baptise you with water – for you are human, a part of creation, made of the same stuff as rest of us; but the transformation that you are looking for, the fruit of repentance, the life worth living that God has created for you: that needs more.”
Life needs both the natural – the water – and the supernatural, the spiritual, the spirit of God. No one will enter the kingdom of God unless born of water and the spirit. Born of nature and of God. Neither one is enough. And so we see Jesus getting baptised – in water and by the descending spirit of God. It’s almost the story of the incarnation – or creation – written again; the declaration that the water, the stuff of creation, the physical, is good and important and necessary; but that it only takes shape, form, meaning, when the spirit of God moves over the waters and God says “let there be light”
We in the Church are often water. We strive to do all the things that can be naturally done. We do our good works, we offer our love and support to those around us, we fight for justice and work for peace, and we try, desperately, to live lives that reflect those same things. We recognise our failures, we repent and receive God’s forgiveness and try again. And all of those things are like water, like the baptism of John.
And sometime we are spirit – we pray, we meditate, we seek deeper understanding of the will and way of God, we draw near to God in word and song a silence and seek a meeting of our spirit with the spirit of God. We learn the meanings of our sacred story and reflect upon them in our stillness and our busyness. All the things of the spirit.
But we only find our true shape, our true meaning, our true power, when the two baptisms are joined; when the wind of God moves over the water of our works; when the spirit of God breathes life into our desperate longing for reconciliation, peace, justice; when the baptism of fire brings the light of day into the darkness of night that covers the world in the absence of God.
Meaning, I guess, that this new year each of us might helpfully reflect: where in my life do I live like the water, operating in the way of the natural world; and how might the baptism of the Holy Spirit touch those aspects of life?
And where do I live like Spirit, connected with God but not with the world; and how might I bring the water of creation into the spirit of God in my life?
For when the spirit of God moved over the water; when the physical stuff of creation was empowered by the spiritual creativity of God, God spoke, and there was light, and the light was good.