The Exile of Ex Nihilo
This sermon was delivered on
November 15, 2020
At First Presbyterian Church of Glen Cove
In Glen Cove, New York.
Text: Genesis 1:1-5
I want you to picture a dirt road with lots of trees. Think a wooded area with the occasional large open field. You’re driving down this dirt road and you come upon one of these fields and you see donkeys and goats grazing. And then you see a small one-story brick home on the edge of that open field.
This, my friends, is my first childhood home where I lived with my grandparents, whom I call Nanny and Papa, and my mother.
In this home there there were a few constants: sweet tea, lots of hugs, and Jesus. You see, something that really shaped my earliest childhood memories was what my Papa called, “That good ol’ time religion…” One of the ways that this showed up for me would be in our bedtime stories. While there was probably some room for diversity in what we read, one of the memories that I most easily recall was when my Nanny read to me the creation story from a children’s Bible. It was probably not my first time hearing this story, but that night was the first time that she read that story to me after I had learned about the prehistoric existence of dinosaurs. And my oh my, was I confused.
“Nanny, where are the dinosaurs in this story?” I asked trying to make sense of it all.
“I’m not really sure, but I know that God made them,” she replied. It was an honest answer on her part. She didn’t try to solve the timeline for me and at the time, I was satisfied with her answer.
When I went to college, though, this question of the timeline was a problem for me. I was a conservative Christian through and through. And for me, that meant a lot of things, but at a minimum it meant that I believed the Bible was meant to be read literally--including Genesis 1.
It was in college when I really began dissecting what this creation story meant to me. I learned a phrase that captured the essence of how I understood what God was up to in this story. The phrase was “ex nihilo”, which simply means “out of nothing” in Latin. Christians have long used this expression as a statement about the way that God created the entirety of the cosmos out of nothing. What does this mean though? Why does this matter? Well, for many Christian theologians, it was important to name that there was nothing before God and thus, God is the source of all that is. I remember being told that the concept of ex nihilo is based on the creation narratives themselves.
Well, the irony is that when one actually reads the creation narratives, they start in a different place. When we read these texts with a close eye, I believe that they actually guide us to a notion beyond ex nihilo...towards a notion that is a profound and necessary word for us today as we wrestle to make sense of the chaos in the world around us. And unfortunately, I highly doubt that the originators of this creation poem knew about the existence of dinosaurs to even concern themselves.
Nevertheless, today, I invite you to join me as we slow down and pause at these first five verses of this familiar passage.
Many of us can recite the first verse of Genesis 1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void…” It’s familiar. It’s timeless. And that familiarity can make it difficult for us to notice what the text is even trying to say.
The phrase that we translate “formless and void” is an obscure Hebrew expression that is a bit difficult to translate. Robert Atler, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California Berkeley, translates these opening verses as ‘When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste…’ This gives us a different sense of the text. First, I think it’s important that Atler translates the Hebrew as “When God began to create” rather than “God created.” This leaves us with the reminder that creation is an ongoing work. This poem then becomes about the story of when God began this work.
And Atler’s words differ in an important way from “formless and void”...he writes, “welter and waste”. I’ll be honest with you...welter was a new word for me. It means “a state of wild disorder or a chaotic mass or jumble”.
What a different picture this helps us see. This creation poem does not begin with God creating out of nothing. Rather, God is interacting with something that is already in existence. An earth that is in a state of disorder and labeled as waste.
How did this happen? Was there some kind of incident that occurred to make the earth this way? We’re not given this insight as readers. But the insight that we are given is that God becomes invested in this disordered wasteland.
God looks at this wasteland and sees that it can be something. What was God doing before this? What about this disordered wasteland inspired God enough for God to decide to create?
The poem isn’t explicit about God’s motives for creating. Rather, the poem is explicit about what God creates and how God perceives that creation. Before God moves any further, God says, “Let there be light.” And there was light. God sees this light and sees that the light is good. And God gives structure to the light so that there is day and night. And thus, we have the first day.
I think that it’s important to note here that God sees the light. God takes it in, observes it, and notes that it is good. That the light will make visible all the disordered wasteland and will make a way forward for God to create with this disordered wasteland. And God derives pleasure from this light. God sees that the light is good and with the light, God continues to create and find delight in this creative process.
When was the last time that you made something and looked at it and said, “That’s good”? When was the last time that you created something and felt pleased with yourself when you looked at your creation?
This poem tells such a powerful story to me. You see, I don’t read this story through my childhood eyes anymore as a literal story about the scientific beginnings of the earth. Instead, I read this story through the lens of making something good and beautiful with the mess that’s right in front of us. I read this story and I realize that God is a God who knows how to enjoy goodness and beauty. And I read this story and I am in awe of a God who would see a disordered wasteland and say, “This can be something good. This can be something that I take delight in. This can be something beautiful.”
What kind of God is this? At a minimum, this is a God who sees potential where others don’t.
Where do you see a disordered wasteland? Maybe you look at your life and that’s what you see. You’re not sure that anything good can come of your life. You’re wounded. You’re afraid that you’re too broken for goodness, pleasure, or beauty.
Maybe it’s your family. You look at your family and wonder, will anything good come of our mess?
Maybe it’s our country. I imagine there are many of us who are honestly wondering what the future of our nation will look like. Can we be move beyond polarized tribalism? Is there a way to take what feels like chaos and build something that we take pleasure in?
Maybe you see a disordered wasteland when you look at the earth. I mean, we have seen wildfires decimate homes and rainforests, hurricanes destroy cities, and trash fill our precious oceans. Can the earth survive? Can humanity survive? Is there a way for us to renew the earth and see the goodness that God created?
As we look at the days ahead, we are all asking questions about disordered wastelands that we can see in our lives. We all have different ways of coping with these wastelands. Some of us find it easier to ignore them while others of us aggressively attack them. I believe that once we can accept that there are wastelands, we have another way forward.
I believe that this story invites us to be like the God of creation and partner with this God. We are not going to create an entire new earth or change the world on our own. But we can look at the disordered wastelands that are in our spheres and become co-creators with God. Theologian, Jennifer L. Baldwin, writes, “Creation of worlds, a life, or oneself does not occur out of nothing; it happens when we embrace the messy chaos, engage our creativity, and draw on the energy of the chaos to create from what is present.”
So friends, I invite you as both individuals and as a community to step into our God-given nature as creators. The dark, chaotic places within us and around us do not mean the end of our stories. Rather, they are places where God’s breath is breathing new creation. So, let’s get creative. Amen.