“The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep,” said our Old Testament reading today.
I guess that’s a pretty good summary of how the world feels to many people right now. Insurrection in the USA, Covid almost overwhelming the NHS, uncertainty everywhere, fear for the future, and many of the familiar landmarks of our lives swept away – the social interactions, the activities which give shape to our days and weeks.. And lurking in the wings, the devastation of climate change which dwarfs all of this. The challenges are huge, and real, and we often feel very small in the face of them, whirled about in that formless void, out of our depths in that deep, dark water.
Perhaps Covid has come as a particular shock to the people of the developed world because many of us, much of the time, have the luxury of living relatively stable, comfortable lives. That’s not to say that there isn’t poverty and desperation around us, but we are used to having a more or less functioning government, health service and social support. There’s an assumption that the vulnerable should be cared for, even if we don’t always do a very good job of living up to it. But that isn’t so elsewhere. Yemen has endured decades of instability, civil war, abject poverty, and almost unimaginable suffering, and now has Covid to deal with on top of it. It’s sadly a story that is repeated in many parts of the world, where, as throughout human history people live with the knowledge that they are just one bad storm, one failed crop, one bomb or stray bullet away from disaster. Life is precarious, uncontrollable. That formless void, those waters of chaos are ever present, and we have perhaps been much more aware of that this year.
The people for whom today’s Old Testament passage was written - the opening words of the book of Genesis – lived with that knowledge too. They come from the time when the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon, having lost their homeland, their Temple and their way of life..
And yet their response to this, wasn’t to despair; it was to tell stories, the old stories which had shaped the nation and the faith they worried they might lose. Most of the big stories of what we call the Old Testament – the stories of Abraham, Joseph, Moses and the rest - were gathered together and shaped anew during this exile to remind them of the bigger story of God’s call to them, and his faithfulness.
In some ways their stories resembled those of other ancient cultures around them. The Babylonians, among whom they lived also told a story of the creation of the world which started with a formless void and the waters of chaos. But though the opening words were the same, the way it continued was very different. The Babylonian story, like most ancient creation myths, started with great battles between the gods which could have gone many ways, and human beings created to do the work the Gods didn’t want to do themselves. But the book of Genesis doesn’t have any of that. Instead, there is simply the declaration by God ‘Let there be light’ and there is light. He says that the waters should be separated by dry land,
that there should be plants and birds and animals of all kinds, and to crown it all, that there should be people, made in God’s image, to be loved and celebrated and enjoyed for themselves. And it is all good, says God.
The Jewish idea of God was very different from any of the civilisations around them, for all the things they had in common. The Jewish scriptures spoke of one God, ‘enthroned above the flood’ as today’s Psalm put it, in command, however stormy the weather might seem to be down below. There is no conflict, no question about who is going to win this struggle. His people are ultimately safe in his hands. That doesn’t mean, of course, that nothing bad will ever happen to them – remember these words were written by and for people who’d lost everything – but those who wrote the Bible believed, and affirmed, that the end would never be in doubt.
The Scriptures proclaim that we matter to God, and so does everyone and everything else we share this planet with. We’re not mistakes or accidents or tools to be valued simply for what we can do. We are God’s good creation. That can profoundly shape our lives if we take it seriously. It can give us hope in desperate times, dignity even when we are face down in the mud, a reason to love and value not only our friends but also our enemies, as fellow children of God. If we matter to God, we should also matter to each other. We are of value not because of what we can do, but because of who God is, a God who loves his creation.
And that brings us to today’s Gospel story. It’s another story involving water, the story of the baptism of Jesus. John’s baptism symbolised the washing away of sin, so on one level, Jesus didn’t need it – there was nothing to wash away – but nonetheless, Jesus insisted it should happen. Christians believe that in Jesus, God shared the whole of our experience, including the human experience of being out of our depth in those waters of chaos – real or symbolic - that Genesis speaks of, the feeling that we are being overwhelmed, drowning in an ocean of mess and complexity. Jesus will share that experience too, as he dies on the cross, drowning in the hatred of those who had him crucified, with the darkness of death closing over his head. Then he will need to remember the words his Father spoke to him back at the beginning as he came up out of Jordan’s waters. “You are my Son, the Beloved: with you I am well pleased.” God hadn’t abandoned him, wouldn’t abandon him, couldn’t abandon him, no matter what it felt like, because he was not a God who abandoned his children, not ever.
What makes that message even more powerful is that God speaks these words to Jesus before he’s done anything that we might think deserved praise or even notice. He hasn’t preached a word or healed anyone at the point when John baptises him. All that lay ahead. He was Beloved just because he existed. God was “well-pleased” with him, just because he existed. And that’s not just a message for Jesus; it’s a message for all of us. We are all beloved. We are all blessed. We are all held by a God who doesn’t abandon his children, not because we have deserved it or earned it, but simply because we exist. And so is everyone else, however hard we might find it to believe that sometimes.
There is no easy route through the difficult times we are all facing at the moment, but the message of the Bible is that we don’t face them alone, and that even if we drown, even when we are swallowed up by failure, or weakness or trouble, or even, ultimately by death, the God who is enthroned above the floods can bring us through those deep waters to new life and new creation by his love.