Where did you begin? Where did your story--the story of you--begin?
Is it a birth story? Did you begin the night you were pressed upon by waves of fierce contractions, forcibly evicted from the dark womb to the light of this world?
Did you begin in a sweaty, lusty liaison between your parents (God forbid we think about that on a Sunday morning!), when your own unique mix of DNA was created?
Did you begin farther back in history? Are you part of a great and noble race, a shoot from a distinguished family tree? Perhaps the part of you that is most you came from an ancestor's participation in one of history's great migrations: the crossing of a continent, the Middle Passage, a boat from the islands, a jet and a sunrise at LAX.
Some of us are not as old as our bodies. Maybe you began the day of the great awakening in your own mind, or the day you met your soul mate and you began living for someone else. Some of you began the day you finally went sober for good.
A few days ago, my wife and my co-pastor Beth was putting our son James to bed. He's four years old. Every night we read him three stories, then we make up a story. My wife asked James the other night if he wanted to hear a real life story about his birth. James replied, "No, I'd rather you tell me about the time I got to go to Target to look at the expensive toys."
Beginnings--whatever they are--are important. They tell us who we are, and they often tell us where we are going in this life.
The Bible has a story about the beginning and some of us know it by heart. It goes like this:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God* swept over the face of the waters.
What a scene! God sets down in the midst of a formless darkness. God draws near the tohu va vohu--the empty waste. God gazes into the tehom, the water that would not or could not bear life, and from this face-to-face encounter, a sensible world begins. God orders chaos.
What a beautiful beginning! A Divine Creator who stares down at nothing until there is something beautiful!
Many scholars believe that this story of beginnings in Genesis 1 was written down during the exile of the Israelites in Babylon. What that piece of information tells us is that this is not the oldest story in the Bible, so it must be placed first for some other reason. I think the reason is that this kind of beginning story is the kind that we need. It's the most important kind of beginning, a story that shows us God staring down chaos and making beauty. Because when the world feels like chaos, when we find ourselves trapped in the formless void, the tohu va vohu, the tohu va vohu of lost or grief or despair, when God seems to us to be nowhere...in that time when we are desperate for a new beginning, we have this story. We have a Creating God who reshapes the chaos into order, even into beauty.
Beginnings happen every day. I want to look at one together with you. A short time ago, a movement calling itself "Occupy Wall Street" appeared out of nowhere to capture the nation's attention. You may have a soft spot for these occupiers or you may think it's a bunch of hooey. It doesn't so much matter--what I want to share with you is the story of how this movement began.
Months before anyone occupied anything anywhere, a group of people met in a room to dream. They were New Yorkers--some of them--but also Egyptians and Spaniards, Japanese and Greeks. They did not dream and talk about protest plans. Their passion was not for organizing an event. What these people dreamed about was how to create a new life, together. They weren't just dreamers; they were also people who were frustrated and angry. Something essential about life in their eyes had gone missing. You might identify with their frustration, because we live in a world of big things: big forces, big governments, big companies, big banks. Some days it feels like people have no power. Some days it feels like people don't matter at all.
The group that met in New York believe that people do matter. They dreamed about a way of life that would testify to that belief, a world of direct democracy, a world of personal and collective responsibility, a world with access for all people to schools and medical care and art and information and housing and nutrition and natural spaces. They wanted a humane order in a culture and in a world that sometimes feels despairing chaotic. And so they founded what they call the New York City General Assembly to bring about order into the chaos they felt.
I've had a chance to see and be a part of the Occupy movement here in Atlanta and in New York City. What looks to some like a mob is to me quite beautifully ordered. A General Assembly governs every one of these gatherings. All their affairs are conducted through a democratic process that is brutally time consuming, but it also honors people. Anyone can speak. Decisions are made by consensus. It's an order, one in which everyone has power, everyone has a voice, everyone matters. I believe that it's this order that has made this movement matter.
Whether it's an Occupy movement or a neighborhood watch that you're a part of or a young mothers group that you've recently joined or even a church--wherever people gather to stare into the chaos, into the tohu va-vohu of our felt reality and then we speak and create order, we echo the voice of the Creator God who brought new life from a murky deep.
Beginnings are important. They tell us who we are and they tell us where we are going.
One of the mistakes that most Christians and our culture often make when we read the Bible is that we think that the Bible only has one beginning. In fact, it's a book that has dozens of beginnings, maybe hundreds, and many of them echo this same theme. God creates order out of chaos.
That's not a bad way to think about the significance of John the Baptist, who appeared in the wilderness shouting, demanding that people rise up to take responsibility for their lives and for the state of the world. John didn't show up in a world where everything was going fine. It was a world scarred and disfigured by the oppression of the many by the few, by state-sponsored violence, by greed, by the exploitation by the powerful of the powerless. John showed up there, standing in the waters of the Jordan excoriating people to see the tohu va-vohu, to see the chaos around them and to make a change.
And then Jesus wades in next to him. Can you focus your mind's eye on that moment, see with me that instant there in the rippling waters of the Jordan, where Jesus stood and looked down and saw his own reflection on the face of the deep? It was creation happening all over again. The wind blew down that river as John scooped up the water and poured it over Jesus' head. A voice broke the silence, "You are my child, with you I am well pleased."
And just as before, there was light in the darkness. As it was in the beginning, here God was in the world, wresting order from chaos. This time it was by proclaiming good news to the poor and release to every captive. God was in the world to speak peace to the world's strongest army, to feed the hungry as others hoarded their excess, to restore dignity to all in a world that afforded dignity to some and stripped it from others, to forgive us our sins and free us for love.
When John and Jesus arrived, the earth had yet again become a tohu va-vohu; darkness covered the face of the deep. But when God's Spirit moved on the face of the waters, God was making order from chaos through Jesus.
There's not one beginning in the Bible; there are so many. But they contain echoes of the same theme: when the earth was a formless void, God ordered the chaos and made a good creation. When injustice reigned in human life, God gave us Jesus to reorder lives from the inside out. When the earth was dark and its Savior had been laid in a tomb, on the third day he rose again from the dead to show once and for all time that there is no disorder that the love of God cannot remake, there is no chaos that God's love cannot turn into something beautiful.
Today we will refresh ourselves with the promises made unto us in our baptisms. As we do, I want to ask you again: when did you begin? When did the Spirit of God hover over the chaos of your life, call you by your name, and deliver you into a good and blessed place?
Beginnings matter. They tell who we are--and whose we are. They tell us where we are going--and even who we will meet when we reach the end. As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be, a world without end. Amen.
Let us pray together.
Gracious God, we thank you for the beginnings, for the good earth that you created. We thank you for every beginning in our lives, for the new mercies that are for us each morning. We thank you, God, that you look into the chaos and that you create order in this life, in our world, you create for us a place of beauty. We give you thanks and all praise and in Christ's name say together Amen.