Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
2nd of December, 2018
Happy First Sunday of Advent! Happy New Church Year!
Today, the first Sunday of Advent, is Hope Sunday. As we do every year, we hear today a prophecy of the Second Coming of Christ, the Parousia. This year we hear the prophecy from the Gospel According to Luke, and it is just as violent as those we hear in the Years of Matthew and Mark: ‘People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.’ The gospel writers want to warn us to be ready, because Christ may come at any moment, and if we want to be among those who welcome his coming as our redemption, we need to live lives that will enable us to ‘to stand before the Son of Man.’ But we hear this warning on the first Sunday of Advent because it is also gives us ground for hope. The season of Advent, which looks backwards to the First Coming and onwards to the Second, reminds us that once upon a time God came and lived among us in Jesus. In the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving that we will pray a little later we will all say together: ‘Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again’. The gospel readings for the first Sunday in Advent might use the language of violence but they are describing the coming of Christ in glory, which is something to be celebrated.
This Advent we are journeying through the history of our faith by collectively creating a Jesse Tree. The stories that we will read this Advent take us from Creation to the birth of Jesus, and sneakily a little beyond that because we’ve added in the Magi. It might seem strange that I’ve chosen to reflect on the Creation story on this Hope Sunday. Hope normally looks forward, and reading the Creation story might seem to be looking back. But the Creation story looks forward, too.
The story of Creation told in the first chapter of Genesis has a balance and pattern that soothes and comforts and reassures. God overcomes the chaos that existed before creation. God speaks, and what God commands comes to pass. There is evening and morning, as day follows day. God looks at everything and sees that it is good. At the end God rests from all the labour, and blesses and hallows the day of rest. It might seem to have no relation to the messiness and chaos and unfairness of life as humanity experiences it; we might look at the goodness of creation as something forever destroyed by the shadow of the sin of Adam and Eve. And yet this story was written in a time of messiness and chaos and unfairness of life.
Most biblical scholars agree that this version of the creation story comes from sixth century BC, from the time of the Babylonian Exile. The Hebrew Scriptures contain writings from much earlier in Israel’s history, but its final form is a product of and response to the Exile, and this particular creation story, scholars believe, is one of the latest parts of the Bible to be written. It’s not meant to be a scientific treatise and trying to read it as science misses the point. This creation story is a theological exposition of who God is and who we are.
I’ve talked before about the Babylonian Exile and just how appalling it was for the people of Israel. For them the Exile meant that their God could no longer be worshiped in the Temple in Jerusalem. Their connection with God was severed: they were no longer living in the land God had given them; they were no longer ruled by God’s anointed king; they could no longer offer sacrifices to God in the Temple. God’s own people were slaves in a foreign land. Israel was estranged from God. They had to ask: were they still the people of God? Or had God deserted them?
It is in that context that this story of creation was written. It starts by describing the formless void, the absolute chaos, the darkness that covered the watery deep, before God spoke. The people of Israel were living in that chaos, in that absolute darkness, and in the midst of it they declared that they worshipped the God who brought order out of chaos. In the face of darkness they told of a God who spoke light, and there was light. When their identity as the people of God was challenged, they gave their faith to the God who said: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” They weren’t homeless exiles, they were people made in the image of God!
The creation story speaks of light and order and life not because it is ignoring the reality of darkness and chaos and death but in response to it. It looks at chaos and says that greater than all this is God the Creator. Not only that; God the Creator cares about humanity. Human beings are made in the very image of God and are given our own part to play in caring for God’s creation. This is the affirmation that the people of Israel made in the middle of their Exile. This is the affirmation that we can hold to when life is at its darkest and most chaotic – we worship a God who brings light out of darkness and order out of chaos.
More than that, as Christians we worship a God who entered into the darkness and chaos and lived it with us. When Jesus was baptised by John in the Jordan he did what all of us do in baptism, he symbolically entered the waters of chaos, symbolically drowned in them, and then rose again to new life. Every time we baptise someone we symbolically kill them and raise them to new life. For Jesus, of course, this was more than symbolic. God not only brought order out chaos, God experienced that chaos in love for and solidarity with us.
This is why the creation story offers us hope, and why it’s an appropriate reading for Advent as we look forward to the Parousia. The Creation story describes the world as it will be when Christ comes again – very good. We look forward with hope to the time when God will enter the world again and once more bring light out of darkness and order out of chaos. In the meantime, we are not left alone in the world’s mess. Just as God was still with the people of Israel during the Exile, God is still with us in our times of deepest darkness. In Jesus God entered chaos and experienced persecution and loneliness, and because of that we know we are never alone. In Advent we remember God entering the world in Jesus, and we look forward to Christ coming again, and for both that history and that hope we give thanks to God. Amen.