One of my favorite poems is James Weldon Johnson’s The Creation.
And God stepped out on space,
And He looked around and said,
“I’m lonely —
I’ll make me a world.”
As far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.
Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said, “That’s good!” ………………
And [then, this] great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand;
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till He shaped it in His own image;
Then into it God blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Sometimes I feel sorry for people who try to turn the wide, wonderful creation stories into a small sterile science text. It’s so obvious that the stories in Genesis 1 and 2 are poetry – poetry in the very best sense of the word. This kind of poetic drama makes the story so much bigger, tells the story so much truer than any other literary form, because we can find here deep, profound truth about who we are and about who God is; truth about the eternal God who is outside of time but who is ever breaking into time, ever breaking into our lives in unexpected places, in unexpected ways. We can find ourselves in these poems and stories and narratives, and we can come to realize that we, like the ancestors, are always growing and developing and evolving in our understandings and in our possibilities. We are always and forever in the process of becoming our fully human selves.
The two Creation stories in the first two chapters of Genesis most likely grew out of the Babylonian Exile. Before then the Children of Abraham never were really a monotheistic people worshiping only one God. It was finally in Babylon that they obeyed their call to love this God, this one God who is God alone. It was finally during their Exile that they put their hope in this God. It was here in the chaos and darkness of Exile, they finally began to trust that – even now, even here – God could and would create something out of their nothingness. They held onto hope that God was at work creating a new people with new hearts and a new future. And so the image of God as Creator became a consuming image that gave hope and purpose to these people who were – in some very real ways – disintegrating.
And so, in their Exile, as they told their story, they imagined themselves – re-imagined themselves – and understood themselves to be a people created and recreated by this Creator.
Babylon had several tales of beginnings; every culture does. But in the Creation Stories preserved for us in Scripture, we can see how Israel did not buy into the Babylonian worldview. Israel re-imagined the conventional wisdom and rewrote the story of the dominant culture in order to craft an alternative vision that gave witness to and sustained their faith. All-that-is, the Children of Abraham insisted, did not magically emerge from the carcass of a defeated cosmic monster; rather all-that-is was purposefully conceived within the mind of the one true God; all-that-is was woven into matter by Wisdom, spoken into being by Word, breathed into existence by Spirit.
In these creation tales, we can see how they stood against their culture and rejected its power to name them; they rewrote the story the world tried to impose upon them and they stood firmly in their faith.
In the first Creation story, we see Israel’s testimony that God is the Transcendent One, outside of Creation, speaking everything into existence. But in the second Creation story, God is at the same time, the Immanent One, intimately bound to Creation. God is both/and: unsearchable and yet known; unreachable and yet near like a friend in a garden.
And we humans are God’s creatures, God’s desire, God’s beloved – and ultimately God’s responsibility. These stories remember the One who is Source and Sustainer and Goal and they remind us how deeply intertwined we are with this One; they remind us who we are and why we exist. They remind us whose we are – creatures of creation bound to the Creator.
They remind us that God is God and we are not.
This re-writing, re-telling, this re-imagining became Israel’s Scripture. And these Creation stories continue to be foundational stories for Jews and Christians alike because they affirm that our very existence is gift and grace.
Centuries later, John wrote his gospel, and in chapter 1, John also re-wrote the story. But not like Israel rewrote the Babylonian story; rather John was bold to rewrite his own Scripture!
In the beginning … (John says) was the Word. And the Word was with God; and the Word was God. For John and the Christians of the First Century, for these deeply spiritual people who were grounded in their Holy Scriptures, everything had changed. Nothing could ever be the same – because of Jesus Christ.
How does a believer rethink everything they have thought before? How does one re-imagine what once was firmly set and seemingly unalterable? For these faithful people of God, putting their faith in this One Jesus Christ had changed everything. Now when they looked back at the old stories, they saw them through the prism of the Christ. Now when they considered the story of God’s way in the world, they saw it was much bigger than their tiny particular story. Now in this one Jesus Christ – the cosmos had opened up and they understood that all-that-is IS because of the gift and grace of the eternal God that had now been embodied in this one Jesus Christ. Their one little story had been broken wide open; it was now the story of every Jew AND Gentile, every man and woman, slave and free.
And equally amazing – the recognition that this cosmic reality had been incarnated in this one particular human being who lived among us for a while. The Transcendent One who spoke creation into existence and pronounced all things “good”; the Immanent One with dirty hands who shaped a human out of the humus of the earth; now this One (we confess) has entered into creation like no story before could ever have imagined. Jesus Christ, as Colossians says, in his fleshly body, in his death… in that reality of humility and powerlessness; in that attitude of self-giving and letting go – has reconciled all creation…
This Creating Christ, the Word who spoke all things into being, who is before all things, and in whom all things hold together – this one was the baby in the manger and the man upon the cross. And this One is now, we confess, the Risen Christ, the very Energy, Power, Wisdom, Word of God, who continues to create and recreate and to make all things new.
In the person and power of the Creating Christ, the Creator has also rewritten our story. In these ancient stories, we are invited to see that, to name that, and to live in that cosmic story. We could choose to continue to let our babylons define us and hold us captive to our old small worlds. Or we can choose to re-imagine what Scripture imagines for us: that we are God’s creatures, God’s desire, and ultimately God’s responsibility. The stories we imagine for ourselves have the power to create our realities.
We are a people with an uncertain future.
Who we have been is not who we are now.
Who we are now is not who we will be in the future.
And we don’t know what the future holds.
Is that anything new? Hasn’t that always been true? And so, we have a choice: we can live in that unknowing by giving in to fear and anxiety and continue to create and cultivate chaos for ourselves. Or we can choose to open our eyes and see the God who is light; open our ears to hear the Word who is life speaking light and life into our existence here and now.
We can choose to live in estrangement and alienation and submit to the exile that all our various babylons attempt to impose upon us. Or we can choose to put our faith in the God who is wisdom, the Spirit who is life and the Christ who is freedom – the Creating Christ who releases us from our chaos and empowers us to become the people God has created us to be. We can choose to try to hold on to what has been. Or we can choose to let go of ourselves, trusting that God can – and will – create something new and amazing out of our nothingness.
We are Christians, we say, people of the Christ, the body of Christ in the world. If that is real for us, then it must always and ever be real for us that this body of Christ is a crucified one. We entrust ourselves to the Crucified and Resurrected Christ, the firstborn from the dead and we release our fear of death – because we already are dead. “We have died to ourselves. And we live for Christ.” We entrust ourselves to the Creating Christ, the firstborn of all creation, and we let go of the anxiety about our future – because we remember that our very existence is gift and grace; and we remember that Christ goes ahead of us.
Everyday is a new beginning.
Every moment is a new creation.
So let’s breathe in this hope, this newness, this freshness; breathe in the breath of life God is breathing into each one of us individually and all of us together. Let’s live our life together here and now with confidence that the Creator is still breathing life into every moment; still creating and recreating and making all things new. Let us trust that the Word is still speaking into our every darkness; that Wisdom is still weaving beauty into every chaos; that Spirit is still brooding, hovering, nesting over all-that-is so that we finally may be transformed into the people God has created us to be.
Living in The Story Week 2
Genesis 1 and 2, Psalms 33 and 104, Proverbs 8, John 1-8, Colossians
Hear James Weldon Johnson reading his poem: The Creation
Read an article on the Babylonian Creation myth, the Enuma Elish, here.