Sermon January 8th: The Face of the Deep

Rev. Stacy Swain

“The face of the deep”

Genesis 1:1-5, Mark 1:4-11

It was well over a mile wide, a grey swath cutting through the green arctic tundra. It was the Denali National Park in Alaska. Two hours of hiking had brought us down onto the great gravely expanse of the river bed.

The river we were to cross was a braided river called such because instead of one big stream of water, it consisted of several smaller interwoven ones. Braided rivers are typical for glacial run off and often change course surging and diminishing with the changing melt from the glacier above.

We had been instructed at the ranger station, before setting off, on how we were to cross this river bed before us. We were to make a chain with interlocking arms, one person before and one behind, and to walk in single file facing up stream in order to keep an eye out for a sudden surge of water.

We were about half way across, when it happened. When suddenly I was lifted up as if grabbed by the collar of my jacket and tossed backwards into the icy water. A section of the stream above had changed course and great gush had hit me square on while leaving the person on my right and on my left untouched. But I was tumbled downstream. I thrashed from side to side, trying to find a footing, trying to wrestle my arms out of my water logged back pack, but I couldn’t. It was too cold — the current too strong – the water too tumultuous. I could do nothing.

I am certain that I am not the only person in this sanctuary who knows what it is to be swept away. [1] At one time or another, and for many of us right now, we are hit square on. We lose our footing and tumble backwards into churning chaos. Illness strikes and someone we love is suddenly gone. The words we dreaded are spoken and our job is swept from us. A relationship that has grounded and defined us for years, crumbles tossing us to waves of sadness and loss. And even if our life circumstances are fairly stable right now, there are places in our hearts that we keep well guarded. Places of regret, or shame or pain that we seal off for fear that if we face them their angry energy will surge up and overwhelm us. And let’s not even mention the chaos of the nation’s and world headlines.

“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, ” (Genesis 1:1)

In the beginning… back before language, back in the shadowy dawn of pre-memory, back in the beginning. At a then so long ago, a then lost to us now, a wind from God swept over the face of the formless void, swept over the waters of chaos and God created….

We hear these words now as an echo of what was so long ago. But theologian Catherine Keller wonders if the “in the beginning” that was, is not the God that is. What if God is the beginning, what if God is that which moves over chaos, enters the formless void to deliver us from it, creating something beautiful, a new creation, on the other side of it?

Did you know that here are two creation stories in the Bible. There is this first one where God calls all that is into existence. And then there is the second one with Adam and Eve in the garden, and the serpent that tempts them to eat what God has forbidden. This second story was remembered when the Israelites were at their strongest. When theirs was a unified Kingdom under one Monarch. It is a story of beginning that warns about the arrogance of thinking too much of ourselves and too little of God.

But this first creation story was remembered centuries later when that powerful kingdom had been toppled by the Babylonians and the people swept far away into exile. It was written later but placed first in the cannon of the bible not as a warning against arrogance but as a hymn of hope. Out of chaos, out of the churning of the formless void, out of the dislocation and despair of exile, the breath of God moves across the face of the deep and God creates.

As the waters closed over him, as he sank backwards into the cold and muddy waters of the Jordan he saw it all. In one achingly pure moment he saw their pain. He saw how lost they were. He saw their fear. He saw how they were swept away by chaos unsure of their footing, unable to make their way. As he felt himself drowning with the sorrow of it all, his cousin John’s strong arm reach underneath him and lift him up, up. And as his face broke through the water, as the warmth of the sun was upon him the heaven was torn apart and the Spirit descended like a dove upon him and a voice from heaven said. “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus, the one Paul will call the new creation. Steps out of the river Jordan, water streaming from him, baptized in glory he will walk forward now into his ministry for us. He will be the strong arm that lifts the lame to walk. He will be the kind hand that touches ones no one else dare touch. He will calm the stormy sea and fills the fishing nets until they strain. The new creation, in the beginning — is now.

All was fading from me, until a strong arm reached underneath me and lifted me up. As my faced broke the waters I was startled by the son. Where was I? What was this, what this new beginning now?

In this beginning, God creates.

In the beauty of song, in the candle lit softness of the sanctuary, in the sweet singing voice of a camel, in the twirling dance of a rogue sheep, the strong arm of the one who was born to us in a manger lifts us up. As our faces break the waters are we are warmed by the son and stunned by the beauty that we are part of the new creation that is unfolding around us.

People of God, the good news for us and all the world is that “in the beginning” is ours not just then but Now! Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Catherine Keller. Face of the Deep, a theology of becoming. (Routledge: London and New York, 2003). P. xx.