Creation and Baptism, Floods and Doves (Genesis 1, Matthew 3)

In the beginning there was a timeless darkness, a primordial night shrouding an ocean of chaos. Apart from this chaos, there is a presence; holy, divine, a Spirit hovering over the waters. Ancient sages compared this Spirit to a dove hovering over her young, and as the Spirit hovered over the waters, suddenly Creation was called into life.

 This is how the Hebrew Scriptures begin, with the story of God creating the heavens, the earth and everything in them. It’s a familiar story, but it immediately establishes a tension with other stories from neighbouring lands. Many creation stories begin with the same primordial chaos and a divine culture hero warring monsters to bring the world into being. Genesis does away with this conflict; there is the chaos, and there is God, and he doesn’t need to go to war in order to create, he just speaks the words and the world appears. He is supreme over the chaos.

Reconcile that with science however you want, that’s not the point of this post. Instead, think about the chaos of the world, the darkness through which we stumble; prejudice, hatred, war, Aleppo, Charleston, slaughters at nightclubs. We’re surrounded by chaos, and often it seems like the chaos is winning. Heck, I feel like that right now. But those are the times we need to stop, to take a step back, to look for the Spirit hovering over the chaos and to see where the dove may lead us.

Because even when things are overwhelming, the hope of new life and new creation is still there, the promise of a restart, a rest a reboot. A few chapters after the creation story and the world is flooded, Noah and his family stuck on the Ark and praying for dry land. They release a dove, which flies over the water until it finds an olive branch, a sign that the world can start again, a sign that new life still emerges from the mud and the waves, a rainbow asserting that the tempest doesn’t get the last word.

Because amid the deluge and the whirlpools, the darkness and the rolling thunder, God is still there. Even when the monsters rise up from the sea and threaten to carry us away, God remains. He doesn’t fight the monsters, he commands them, like a pet. He goes fishing for Leviathans, and when Jonah is consumed by the waves, he’s swallowed a God-sanctioned behemoth who carries him to safety. The monsters may be terrifying, but they’re not God and eventually they come to heel.

(The name Jonah, incidentally, means ‘dove’.)

And when Jesus is baptised by John, the Son of God plunges beneath the waters, and as he emerges the Spirit descends, a dove once again. Because this isn’t just a ritual, it’s a rebirth of hope, the offer of resurrection, the chaos put on notice before Jesus walks the land, driving out demons and stilling the storms. He’ll go to the Cross, yes, the monsters of Empire and Dogma dragging him to a lynching, but even then the darkness does not win; it breaks out of the tomb three days later, creation begun anew.

Sometimes we need to just cling on to that hope, even it’s by our fingertips, even if the lifeboat’s taking on water.

Much of this post was inspired by the work of Pastor Jonathan Martin, but also a sense that the darkness and chaos are creeping ever closer, leaking through the edges of the world, threads beginning to unravel. That’s how it feels, at least, and I guess that it’s easy for those emotions to take hold. Maybe there’s always chaos before a recreation, maybe we plummet into the abyss before we’re reborn. Maybe the monsters need to scratch at our door before we learn to be brave. I don’t know.

But while the sun sets and the waters roar, hope still hovers; the light shines in the darkness because the darkness cannot overcome it, and the Spirit flies over the deep in the form of a dove.

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My Father Was a Wandering Aramean (Deuteronomy 26:5)

Many centuries ago, as the ancient nation of Israel coalesced around Covenant and Law, the people were commanded to dedicate the firstfruits of their harvest to God. And so, once a year, they would take these firstfruits to the priests, and recount the story of their people, beginning “My father was a Wandering Aramean…

It’s an evocative phrase, harking back to their ancestor Jacob. Jacob the trickster, Jacob  the hero. Jacob the conman, Jacob the man of God. And after he ripped off his brother, he made a life for himself in Aram, and then was forced to flee and flee again, a great famine driving him and his family into Egypt, then political oppression and slavery leading them into the wilderness before entering their Promised Land.

And so when Israel remembered their story, when they gave thanks for the lives they’d been given, they remembered where they came from, remembered that their’s was a story of escape and freedom and movement and migration.

And so, centuries later, would Jesus and Joseph have brought their offerings to the priest, would they have recounted their story: “My father was a Wandering Aramean…”

It’s a distant story, one of the great origin stories of Genesis. But it feels a long way away – what do these stories of Jacob escaping death and violence and famine mean for us?

Why should we think on the identification of a Wandering Aramean?

Arameans came from Aram.

Aram is now known as Aleppo, in Syria.

Joseph the Dreamcoated Oppressor (Genesis 47:13-26)

The Old Testament story of Joseph is great, right? Young man gets sold into slavery by his brothers but slowly rises from the ashes to become the second most powerful man in Egypt… Just in time to save his family from a devestating famine. You can see why they turned it into a musical; the coat thing is just the icing on the cake.

And then you read Genesis 47.

Famine has struck the land, but thanks to his visionary dreams, Joseph has been able to prepare Egypt for disaster by stockpiling grain. Only Joseph’s idea of famine relief involves everyone selling all they have to buy food. And when they’re out of money, he takes their land. And after he’s taken their land, he makes them work for their survival.

Yep, Joseph and his boss Pharaoh become very rich on the back of this particular act of philanthropy. This is the context in which Joseph’s family come to live in Egypt – little brother has pretty much enslaved the population

There’s a theory that the Bible’s story of liberation starts with Exodus, with Genesis serving as more of a prequel. This casts something of a dark light over the story of Moses, which is set about 400 years after Joseph. The Israelites are now slaves. Their fortunes were reversed.

You think there might be a connection?

There’s s lesson here – Joseph used the famine (and, I guess the divine insight into the situation given to him by God) to oppress the vulnerable of Egypt, and in doing so bound himself to a system that would ultimately result in his descendents being enslaved). And so God gets them out of Egypt, but hundreds of years later the Israelites decide they want a king and wise guy Solomon ends up making the same mistakes and the whole cycle of oppression then exile starts again.

It’s easy to create systems that we think are benefiting ourselves and our communities, but which end up oppressing those around us. And whether that’s through society and politics, or through religion and the church, a system that binds others also binds us alongside them. Problem is we don’t notice this because we’re reaping the rewards.

Until, of course, the day we turn around and notice the system is collapsing, and those people on the receiving end of oppression aren’t as sympathetic as we’d like them to be.

The easiest answer to this is not to oppress people in the first place. Trouble is, when you’re embedded in abusive systems, it’s hard to see that. That’s when it’s time to ask some searching questions: who isn’t represented on our boards and legislature and church councils? Who’s on the receiving end of our tracts and polemics and yes, our vitriol? Who have we weaponised our systems against? How do we start to beat those systems into ploughshares?

And when we’ve answered those questions, ask where God is at work among the people who don’t benefit from our dream coated utopia as much as we do. Because he’ll be there, on the margins, speaking to those we render voiceless, standing alongside those we wish were invisible. The question is whether we want to stand with him, or with the idols we’ve created in our own image?

The Law of Unforeseen Circumstances: Joseph, Pharaoh and Bad Decisions (Genesis 47:13-26)

Bourgeois_Joseph_recognized_by_his_brothersSo Joseph, the guy with the technicolour dreamcoat, has become right-hand man to the Pharoah. He’s been through slavery, imprisonment, false accusations and estrangement from his screwed up family, but now he’s the second most powerful man in the kingdom.

It’s not plain sailing, even at this point. There’s famine in the region, but thanks to his gift of prophetic dreams, Joseph has seen this coming. So he uses a seven year window to store up grain so that there’ll be surplus when the famine hits. Perfectly sensible plan.

Unfortunately, this is where things start to go wrong.

In a humane world, famine relief would be distributed fairly. But Joseph doesn’t live in a particularly humane world, so when the starving Egyptians come to him for help, he gets them to buy grain.

But then, when the money’s gone, and the people are still starving, Joseph takes their land in exchange for more grain.

And then, when Joseph’s passed all that land to Pharaoh, and the famine is still raging, Joseph takes the people’s labour in exchange for food. Sounds a bit like slavery.

And with all this he’s consolidating Pharaoh’s power and making sure a despot remains on the throne.

The story of Joseph is a much-loved Sunday School lesson – after all, kids enjoy colouring in his coat. But we never take about this bit, the bit where the hero of the story exploits a starving population to make money for his boss. And yes, in doing so Joseph saves the lives of his family, who also settle in Egypt, but did that really require the rest of the population being forced into servitude?

The story doesn’t end here, of course; flick forward a few pages and we’re in the Book of Exodus and the Israelites have become too numerous for the new Pharaoh, so he takes the matter into hand and puts those Israelites into slavery.

Now, this is the context of Israel’s big biblical story – liberation from Egypt, God busting them out of slavery. It’s baked deep into the scriptures. And yet one of the patriarchs helped get them into that mess in the first place. It’s hard to know what to do with this – the Bible has a habit of presenting its heroes with feet of clay (or, as Homer Simpson once said “Talk about a preachy book! Everyone’s a sinner…Except this guy…”), but that really pulls the rug from under the average Sunday School curriculum.

But there’s an eternal lesson here. Actions have consequences, often unforeseen. What seems to be a smart, pragmatic plan at the time can turn out to have awful ramifications. Bad things happen as the result of the best of intentions; when you’re trying to prop up a despot, REALLY bad things can happen. And generations further down the line have to deal with the mess.

But of course, the Bible is an ancient book, and couldn’t possibly have relevance for how we approach geopolitics today.

Did Cain Have an Identity Crisis? (Genesis 3:15)

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This post is inspired by a sermon I heard fairly recently but I can’t remember who gave it! I’ll update this when I find out.

Did Cain have an identity crisis?

He rocks up presenting God with an offering of fruit and vegetables and then next thing we know he’s murdering his brother and going into exile; frankly, Genesis 4 is depressing. But does Cain’s behaviour have its roots in something that happens earlier.

In Genesis 3:15, as Adam and Eve are thrown out of Eden, God tells them of the future: there’ll be hostility between the Serpent and Eve’s offspring, leading ultimately to the Serpent’s destruction. In Christian thought this is the Protoevangelium, the first hint of God’s plan of redemption that would culminate in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Straightforward enough, but here’s where the identity crisis kicks in – how might Eve and Cain have misinterpreted things?

See, Eden must have been a painful, recent memory casting it’s shadow over everything that happened after the Fall. And then Eve gives birth to Cain and maybe, just maybe, hope is reborn, maybe Cain is the offspring to crush the Serpent’s head. Maybe there’s even a chance to get back to Eden.

Thinking like that, is it really a surprise that Cain grows up to be a farmer? Maybe he’s preparing to return to the Garden. Maybe he thinks he can create a new Eden himself. Maybe his offering of “the fruits of the soil” is an attempt to return to God the Fruit that caused all this mess in the first place.

Lots of maybes, sure, but it would explain his rage against Abel, who is adapting to this new world as a nomadic herdsman and whose offering is acceptable to God. It may also help explain some of the tension Genesis shows between herdsmen and settlers. Even after Cain becomes a murderer he’s still trying to get the world under control by building a city.

When someone thinks they’re doing God’s will without actually involving God in the process, that’s dangerous. A crusade to crush serpents, empowered only by broken sinfulness is a terrifying thing. Hey, why wait for Jesus’s thoughts on things? Aren’t we capable of weeding out the Devil ourselves?

You’ll recognise those crusades by the trail of destruction left in their wake. Cain didn’t crush the Serpent, he crushed his brother instead.

And while this is a weird reflection in run up to Christmas, it’s relevant. The Christmas story presents us with kings and emperors trying to bend the world to their will, but real power comes in the form of a baby, in the actions of God and the true descendant of Eve destined to crush the Serpent. Let’s not second guess God, let’s just faithfully listen and learn and follow instead.

After all, Jesus is a way better Gardener than we are.