Sunday, January 8, 2012

In the beginning

When the sky above was not named,
And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
And the primeval Apsû, who begat them,
And chaos, Tiamat, the mother of them both,
Their waters were mingled together,
And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen;
When of the gods none had been called into being.
So begins the Enuma Elish, the oldest known written creation story. The story tells of the battles of six generations of gods in the Babylonian pantheon, and how from their begetting and dispatching, the world came to be: first light and darkness, then the separation of the waters, then the separation of the soils from the waters, and then the population of light with the heavenly bodies, then the population of the sea and sky with the creatures that dwell there, then the population of the land, the emergence of the god Marduk, founder of Babylon, and the creation of humankind as his slaves.
Believing a story like that -- living out a story like that -- has consequences. If one believes that humankind was created to be slaves to the Babylonian empire, if one believes that there are many gods with many value systems, but the currently triumphant one is the founder of your empire, if one believes that the world is the product of a clash between good and evil, with some natural entities of the one and others of the other, it profoundly shapes the way one lives.
Now the people of Israel were captives of the Babylonian empire. Forcing the people of Judah to leave their home, the Babylonians settled them in the midst of their capital city, hoping to assimilate them. Hoping to make them Babylonians. Hoping that they, like all the other Babylonians, would become good slaves of Marduk, good toilers for the benefit of the empire.
And there, in that setting, the exiles of Israel for the first time wrote down their stories of God. The Law. The prophets. The psalms. And, yes, their account of how the world began. The creation myth they recorded bore certain strong similarities to the creation myth of the culture that surrounded them. As far as the "facts" were concerned, the stories matched up: first light was separated from darkness, then sea from sky, then land from sea. Next the light was populated with the sun, moon and stars, then the sea and sky were populated, and finally, the land. Their alternate tale didn't rock the boat as far as the facts were concerned. But the account that begins "Enuma Elish" -- "when the heavens above" and the account that begins "Bey-rey-sheet" -- Hebrew for "In the beginning", but if we translated it into Greek, we'd say "Genesis" -- they are not the same story. Because the same facts are used to communicate a very different truth. Stories matter. Stories define us. The stories we live out about how the world came to be the way it is shape how we understand the world, how we understand our place in the world, and, ultimately, how we respond to the world. Our stories shape our lives.
Now this creation story was written to communicate a truth without getting into an argument with the surrounding culture about the facts. The writers of Genesis wanted to save their energy for disputing the important stuff: what the story means. How we should live in response to it.
We live now in a time where there are too many fights about our creation story related to the facts in the story. Which is too bad, because they distract us from a much more important disagreement about the truths of the story. Whether the world was created in six literal days is far less important a question than whether we can live our lives in faith the created world is good, and our God is all-powerful.
Our creation story tells us that the voice of the LORD is a powerful voice. In Latin, "dixitque Deus fiat lux et facta est lux." God said "Let there be light" -- and there WAS light. God gives the command, and it happens. I had to throw in the Latin, because I just got a beautiful new car, a Fiat, and the word Fiat is at the center of this story. God said "fiat," "let it be," and thus it is. In the Enuma Elish, the world is the byproduct of conflict among the mighty divine powers. It isn't planned. It isn't how any one of the Babylonian gods wanted it to be. It's what's left after they fight with each other. In our story, the story the Israelites told to resist the Babylonian empire, the world is because God said it should be that way. And God saw that it was good.
In both accounts, we start in a state of chaos. In the Babylonian story, the world is the result of conflict, but one dominant force, Marduk, brings a semblance of order by crushing his enemies. But those enemies, or their descendants, could rise up again at any time, so the only way to preserve order in the world is to keep the empire strong. Strength alone has triumphed and will triumph over chaos. So do unto others before they do unto you.
There are a lot of people today living out that creation story. People who believe that the world is full of disorderly forces: some allied with the ones you serve and some who are enemies of the ones you serve. Your side is on top, for now, but peace can only come through strength. This has been the message of empires throughout the ages: Babylonian. Roman. British. American. The world can be at peace when the mighty ones are powerful enough to crush any forces of disorder.
In our story, however, the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters. In our story, fear needn't rule, because we know without doubt that our God is charge. The moral arc of the universe may be long, but it bends inexorably toward justice. Our creation story gives us the confidence to respond to hatred with love, to bless those who curse us, to do good to those who hurt us, because we know that there are not many gods with many values, but one God of love who sits enthroned above the flood, who sits enthroned as King for evermore, who shall give us strength, who shall give us the blessing of peace.
Our creation story tells us that this is the world we live in: a world created by the will of our God, a world that at a fundamental level, despite all appearances to the contrary, is good.
Now today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. And Baptism is deeply tied to creation stories. Baptism is a ceremony of taking on a creation story. Making it yours. And beginning a new life shaped by living out the creation story of which you have just become a part.
The creation stories of the people of Babylon and Israel both start with the swirling waters representing pre-created chaos. In baptism, we use water to help plunge us into that pre-created, chaotic state so we can emerge into a new story. We say in baptism that we become a new creation, and that is exactly what happens when we take on, and thus start to live out, this creation story.
We talk about the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, but there is one God, and one truth behind them, and the truth into which we are baptized goes all the way back to creation: if we are with God, of what need we be afraid? The voice of the Lord speaks, and the world is as God says. Therefore, we can love without fear. We can serve God and others without regard for any powers of this world that oppose us, for the voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests bare, and in the temple of the Lord, all are crying, "Glory!" That is the story of creation. That is the song of the Psalmist. And that is the death and resurrection of Christ, into which we are baptized.
In the ways that matter, this story is true: indeed, this story is the Truth we need. Living out this story of creation means that we are free to live in love, for the word of the God of love is all-powerful. God said "let it be." It was, and God saw that it was good. Amen.