The Redemption in Light

An Epiphany Sermon

There are two accounts of the creation in the Bible.  Anyone reading the Bible closely would see this, of course, but we tend to conflate them into one larger narrative just like we do with the birth narratives for Jesus.  For those stories, we have the wise men showing up with the shepherds and the singing angels with the newborn baby Jesus all bundled up in that manger.  However, Matthew’s account of the coming of the Magi—celebrated yesterday with the Epiphany—clearly says that the star led them to the house Jesus and his parents lived in, and that Jesus was about two years old.  While it’s easier for our children’s pageant to have the wise men showing up on that silent night, it isn’t biblically accurate.

Photo Credit: dan.kristiansen Flickr via Compfight cc

In the creation accounts the things we mash together are the 7 days of creation and the story of Adam and Eve.  In the first account—the one we began hearing today from Genesis 1—we learn that God creates over the course of six days with animals coming on Days 5 and 6, culminating with the creation of humankind, both male and female as the crowning achievement before God took a day off and rested.  In the other narrative from Genesis 2, we learn that God first forms Adam out of the dust and then, once God realizes Adam is lonely, begins creating all of the animals in order to find a suitable helpmate.  After Adam names all the wild beasts God dreams up and is still forlorn, God has Adam fall into a deep sleep, takes on of his rib bones, and fashions Eve.

Some readers of scripture get anxious if it seems that things in the Bible don’t align factually, and so will go to great lengths to make them seem to be in harmony. As a writer and dabbling theologian, I can say that both of these accounts are true without worrying about the misaligned factual details, nor do I have to believe that somehow Scripture is a scientific book with exact details of how things came to be. It’s enough for me to hear the words “God created” and then hear two wonderful and different narratives about God’s work of creation than to be concerned about whether the details from an ancient text fit our definition of what is factual in a post-enlightenment age.

The details I notice as a writer are one of the clues to seeing these as two different narratives, written by two different people, and then later stitched together.  In the first creation account, the name for God is Elohim—a generic name for God in the Hebrew language.  In the second, the name for God is YHWH, the name God shares with Moses at the burning bush, and translated as “Lord God” in English.  This pattern follows throughout much of the book of Genesis, but the important thing this morning is realizing that the two respective authors—in sharing the accounts of our beginnings—had different audiences and different messages in mind.  We even do this ourselves.  If you’re running late to work because your child had a melt down, you’ll give different details to a trusted friend compared to what you would tell the company’s CEO. Same story, two different messages to convey.

So, that’s a long way round to get to this point: the writer of the first creation account is trying to impart a specific message to a specific audience.  Many theologians think this account was written during the time of the Babylonian exile, when all the greatest days for the people of Israel seemed behind them.  At that point in their collective history, the writer pens these words,“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, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”

Imagine the people of Israel in captivity.  They would have been forced to see the most important place of their spiritual lives—the temple in Jerusalem—utterly decimated and then be forced leave behind everything they had ever known.  They would have been held captive in a strange place, with the people around them celebrating different holidays, worshipping different gods.  It would have felt chaotic, and disorienting. Theologian Richard Boyce writes, “Shackled in a prison cell with only a slender slice of sky visible…, the ongoing division between day and night might be your only sign that the Lord is yet creating order out of chaos, the wind or spirit of the Lord yet moving over ‘the waters.’ This is a story of creation for our weak days, when we are tempted to despair.”

“In the beginning when God created, there was chaos and darkness, and the Spirit of God hovered over the water.”  This isn’t an account of God creating ex nihilo—out of nothing—this is an account of God bringing redemption and order to the chaos.  This creation story reminds us that even when things seem utterly beyond our control, God’s Spirit hovers over the deep and light pierces through the darkness.

Seven years ago yesterday—on the Feast of the Epiphany—I met the moving van and began putting boxes into the empty rooms of the rectory.  We were still a week off from my first service as your rector, but the new beginning and the connection to Epiphany stay in my mind.  In many ways that journey for the LaBelles was one of coming home.  Of coming back to New England, and where a loyalty to the Patriots and Red Sox wasn’t seen as a detriment.  More than that, this community and this congregation have become a place where I felt God’s Spirit hovering over the deep in my own life.

Some pastoral consultants will tell you that the real work in parish life happen in this next season—in the years when the newness has worn off and initial storms have been weathered.  It’s the work that finds its way into a marriage when you no longer think everything is perfect about your beloved, but you know you deeply love and care for another person and want to honor the vows you made even when all seems chaotic and the waters dark and deep.  These years of sustenance and growth define the ministry shared together by clergy and parish.

And so here we are.  It’s easy to say that our world feels disorienting right now with world leaders cavalierly taunting others with the threat of a nuclear holocaust. The CDC this past week announced a briefing they will give later this month on how to help us be prepared for a nuclear detonation.  Personal chaotic experiences also continue to happen in this congregation and the lives of those beyond our community.  The serious health concerns, the significant losses of connection, relationships on the brink, the challenges of addiction.  These all cry out for redemption, of a knowledge of God’s Spirit hovering and bringing order.  Of the need for there to be light amongst the darkness.

If I had to define the work I see ahead for us as priest and congregation in the next years it is this: We must be and bear the light of Christ in the world.  Both to each and other, and especially the ones our society chooses to leave behind.  The poor and needy.  The elderly living alone thinking they may not have enough to make it through the winter.  Those who have been forgotten due to an illness or financial realities.  The ones who face derision due to their heritage, sexuality or beliefs.  To women who have lived for too long as second class citizens simply because of their gender.  To children who need someone to show them they care.  They all–we all—need that light to bring order to our lives, to bring us redemption, to bring us closer to God.  That light brought the Magi to the toddler Jesus, and they left changed.  That light continues to break into the chaotic places of our world so that the too can be changed.

So let us truly and fully embark on that work together this year.  Let’s go further into our commitment to God and the work of Jesus Christ.  Let us live as faithful disciples—as those who both need the light of Christ and also seek to share the light of Christ with others.  Let us not give in to the belief that God is not with us, but be reminded that with the coming of light in the morning and the descending of darkness in the evening, that God indeed created by bringing order to the chaotic, formless void, and God continues in that work even now.  And let us fully know that Jesus—as the beloved Child of God and the one visited by travelers from the East—came in order that we might have abundant life through the work of redemption seen in his birth, life, miracles, teaching, death, and resurrection.  He came to be the light in our dark places.  May we see it shining brightly bringing us hope and renewal.  Amen.