Whenever I teach my introductory Hebrew courses, I always share the Hebrew of Genesis 1:1-5, reading it to my students, as I just did, way before they have learned the Hebrew alphabet or know the vowels. Because even if they don’t know a single thing about the language, they can still hear the poetry of the verses…the repetition of sounds, of words…bereyshith bara Elohim ve’et ha shamain ve’et ha aretz. The Hebrew is beautiful in a way the English text, that many are so familiar with, ‘in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,’ could never really be…in fact, the Hebrew text contains musical notes so the words can be sung in Jewish worship. And with Genesis 1 being a poem it is not, then, meant to tell us how the world was actually created, it is not science, it does not counter the big bang theory…instead it is a song to God in praise of God for God’s role in creation.
And it is God’s role in creation that makes sense of why we read this passage this morning. You might have wondered, as I did, why in the world are we reading Genesis 1 on the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus when it doesn’t seem to fit the theme? But when I looked at it closely I noticed that it actually fits really well because it paints a picture of a God who creates by taming watery chaos, which not only connects with Jesus’ baptism as he begins his ministry, but also with our own lives as we begin 2024.
In Hebrew, the first word of Genesis 1 is bereyshith…this means something like, at the head of things, at the start. So the Bible places us at the very start of everything. Then God appears and God begins to create. And the creation here is not out of nothing, God doesn’t just speak and things appear, but Genesis refers to tohu vavohu, ‘unformed and void’, something like confusion, chaos, formlessness. Before God comes on the scene, there already exists this deep, swirling, watery, chaotic stuff. It is an image meant to evoke the terror of not knowing what is up or down, what is dark or light, the terror of confusion.
And the Hebrew tells us that God intervenes in this dangerous chaos and God creates, in Hebrew, bara. In the entire Bible, bara is only ever used for God and it paints an imagine God as a potter. God takes the watery chaotic stuff into God’s hands and forms it into something new. We also hear that God’s ruach, God’s breath or wind, sweeps over it all. The sweeping, merhapet in Hebrew, is something like fluttering, shimmying…we could even say dancing. So the poetry of Genesis 1 is creating a powerful, evocative, and beautiful scene…there is total darkness, chaos, deep, swirling, dangerous waters…and then a wind, a breath, begins to dance over top of it all, God takes it into God’s hands and forms a heaven and an earth.
And as God does this God speaks, ‘let there be light’ and there was. God not only tames the chaos, but God also brings light, taming the darkness. There is now light and dark, there is now day and night, the tohu vavohu, the formless void has ended and the rest of creation that follows has something firm, ordered, and safe to live on. Whereas chaos once reigned now God is in control.
It is interesting to hold this image of creation alongside the Baptism of Jesus in our Gospel. In the Gospel, the baptism takes place in water at the start of Jesus’ ministry, the bereyshith. He goes down into the watery chaos and then comes up, hearing God’s voice. Jesus’ ministry begins with a reminder that watery chaos has no power, is nothing to fear, because God is in control…God calls him, God leads him, God loves him so much that God does not allow him to sink into the terror of the tohu vavohu, God brings him up out of it, God gives him light, as he begins the unknown ministry that lies before him.
Reading Genesis 1 on the Baptism of Jesus is a reminder of how God does the same for us. Today we also find ourselves bereyshith, at the start of a new year. As we look to 2024, the watery, swirly chaos of countless unknowns lie in front of us and yes, we might feel some trepidation over what could happen in the year ahead. But today, we are being called to remember that God is in control and we have nothing to fear. That as Jesus came up out of the water, hearing God’s voice at the beginning of his new ministry, so we will come up out of the water of 2024, hearing God’s voice saying to us, it is all good. The watery chaos, the danger, the fear, the realities of life, especially at the start of a new year are nothing to fear, because God tames chaos and brings light, God crafts the tohu vavohu, the swirling waters that lie around and in front of us, into something safe, dancing over it all. God loves us so much that this is the good news of our faith that we are reminded of today.
I mentioned at the start of this sermon that the Hebrew of Genesis 1 can be sung, so to end I want to share this with you…I have an audio file of a cantor singing the poem and I invite you to just let the sounds wash over you. Listen to these very, very ancient words and maybe imagine 2024, imagine all the unknowns on the horizon…the swirling chaos, our own tohu vavohu…and then imagine God, imagine the purest love, taking it all, reshaping it as a potter, dancing over it, bringing light, bringing order, removing all fear. Imagine God bringing you up, as Jesus came up, out of the water and God speaking to you…maybe resting one of God’s almighty hands on your shoulders and saying, ‘it is all good.’