Zimzum Life

I learned the 10 Commandments by heart when I was in Sunday School. I can’t remember what I earned when I could say them from memory for my teacher—a sticker perhaps, or maybe a treat—but I knew them cold. The shortened version, that is. The same one that we used this morning for the Decalogue. When we get to the Fourth Commandment, it’s simply “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.” Which, of course, is the first sentence of that commandment, and what it gets distilled down to. But then it gets 3 more verses to explain it and giving reasons as to why the sabbath should be remembered. You may have noticed that it’s one of the longer commandments. One of those with the most air time.

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Whenever I hear the gospel passage we read today, I just want to ask, Peter, what were you thinking? Just a day or two earlier you aced the exam and got a gold star on top of it because you realized who Jesus was, that he was indeed the Messiah, the Christ. And now you had to go and spoil all that because Jesus decided to make clear what being the Messiah really meant. Rather than keeping quiet and thinking about what Jesus had said about being rejected and undergoing suffering and ultimately being put to death and then rising again, you had to open your mouth and let loose. Did you think somehow this would change things? That Jesus would come to his senses after you set him straight? Did you expect him to say, “My bad. I take it all back. Peter here is right. Now who’s got the weapons so we can sack the Romans?” Or did you just not think at all and start rambling on with your heart running out ahead of your brain?

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There is much I want to say today to you before I embark on my sabbatical leave. The lesson from 2 Kings seems on first blush to be perfect. Elijah handing things over to Elisha as he’s whisked away in a chariot to heaven. But once you start laying it out, that would mean I’m getting whisked away by God—who, as singer-songwriter Marc Cohn suggests, would be using a silver Thunderbird instead of a fiery chariot, but I digress—and I’d be leaving Christine behind to pick up the ministry here. Except that knowing her as I do, I would be the one like Elisha asking for a double portion of Christine’s spirit. More so, as someone who has retired from full-time ministry, I suspect Christine will be honored to do this for a season, but then wanting to return to the things she loves that sustain her life. And there’s the simple fact that Elijah is gone forever while I’ll be returning to you in three months time. So that’s not it.

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As Genesis describes it in the primal history of the world, everyone used to speak the same language. The kids liked it, as they didn’t have to take a foreign language at school. The adults liked it, because they didn’t even have to deal with regional accents, wondering why someone called soft drinks “soda” or “pop.” The government loved it because it meant that you could get people to do what you wanted with clear instruction. It was all good.

So as the people made their way across the plain in the land of Shinar, they laid out plans for a city and the first skyscraper, a tower reaching up to the heavens. They wanted to make a name for themselves, to build this impressive and massive fortress. And they imagined that in this skyscraper, they could add in condos—surely costing more the higher you went up—so they could continue to live together instead of being spread over the face of the earth. They wanted the whole world to know that they could do anything they set their minds to.

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Three weeks ago I began a sermon series on the Genesis 1 Creation account introducing the idea of zimzum to you. Building on the Jewish mystical understanding, zimzum describes how God’s first act in creation was to become humble, and withdraw within God’s self in order to make the space for all of creation to emerge. God limited God’s self in love, took on the posture of a servant, and then spoke the universe into existence in the womb like space within God’s self. And God decided not just to create a few choice things. Rather, God imagined and spoke into being billions of stars and creatures and vegetation and finally humankind. Humanity was formed in the image and likeness of God—all of us, not just one gender or color. Last week I suggested that we most fully bear God’s image when we embrace zimzum ourselves, making space in our lives for God, others, and all of creation. We too can take on the self-giving humility and love that God did and become most fully who God created us to be as we live in community.

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We’ve reached a significant point in our Creation account from Genesis 1 as God calls forth into existence humanity into the beauty of the created world. A reminder of how we arrived at this place. First, at the very beginning, only God existed. As such, God withdrew into God’s self out of love in order to form the space into which God could create. This idea—called zimzum—shows us that the Godhead’s first act was one of self-giving love. God contracting, withdrawing, humbling Godself in order for there to to be room for something else to come into existence. The Triune God loved so much—and a reminder, the Trinity is probably best understood with the words as Lover, Beloved, and Love—that God created a type of womb into which all of the cosmos could emerge.

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Last week I began a sermon series on Creation. We explored the reality that nothing else existed with God when God began to create—not even the dark empty space of nothingness. There was only God. Because of this, God’s first act involved God’s self withdrawing and becoming humble in order to create the space within God’s being in order for there to be the room in which to create. This contracting and limiting of God is called zimzum; God making space inside God’s very being for creation. God formed a womb into which God could speak forth the entire universe.

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The writer of Genesis starts with, “In the beginning God…” and with those four words much debate has taken place in theological circles. As a good Anglican, I’ll present the two most prevalent understandings, and then consider a third way. First, the one you’ve likely heard about at some point. Many theologians suggest that God created “out of nothing”—ex nihilo, they say in the Latin. God, way back in the beginning, looked out across the nothingness and declared, “Let there be light,” and, Genesis tells us, with these powerful words from God into the nothingness, light emerged. There was in fact light! And it was good! And so God separated the light from the dark, and that was the First Day. 

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