May 20 2007 sermon
May 20 2007
Easter 7, Year C
The Acts of the Apostles 16: 16 – 34 (Pp.1721 -22)
The Revelation of John 22:12-14,16-17,20 (P.1939)
The Gospel of John 17:20-26 (1680-81)
The God who created the world out of nothing and who, at the creation, brought order to chaos, is stronger than the power of nihilism and chaos yet today. God, not despair or destruction, will have the last word.
“The Alpha and the Omega”
Do you ever have trouble sleeping at night? Here’s a suggestion: Don’t watch the news before turning in. There’s enough real tragedy, pain and trouble in those broadcasts to keep anyone awake. Watch enough news, and pretty soon you have the sense that our whole world is on an unstoppable downward spiral.
But is that true? Is it possible that we are letting our mood as a culture and as a nation become the lens through which we look at the future? And does that jibe with our faith in God, our repeated affirmation that God, not evil, will have the final word?
WHERE THINGS BEGAN
We are talking, of course, a about how things will conclude – where history will come to an end --- which is the subject of our reading from Revelation. But for the perspective we need, we should first look at the things began.
The opening verses of Genesis talk about the creation of the earth. But the first two verses contain a riddle about how God went about his creative work. The puzzle comes about because the old Hebrew in which the Old Testament was originally written used only consonants with just scanty signs to indicate where vowels should go. And depending on which vowels the reader inserted, the text could read slightly differently. About A.D. 500, some Jewish scribes called Masoretes, while copying the old texts, began to add vowels and other marks to help readers of the texts. In the case of the first two verses of Genesis, however, enough vowels were added that the lines can be read two ways, each giving a slightly different meaning. Thus, when translators who create modern Bible versions do their work, they have to pick one way or the other to render the meaning into English.
Here, for example, is how the New International Version words the first two verses: “IN THE BEGINNING GOD CREATED THE HEAVENS AND THE EARTH. NOW THE EARTH WAS FORMLESS AND EMPTY…” In contrast, The New Revised Standard Version puts it this way: “IN THE BEGINNING WHEN GOD CREATED THE HEAVENS AND THE EARTH, THE EARTH WAS A FORMLESS VOID…” The New American Bible renders it “IN THE BEGINNING, WHEN GOD CREATED THE HEAVENS AND THE EARTH, THE EARTH WAS A FORMLESS WASTELAND…”
Do you hear the difference? The NIV rendition says that God started with nothing. He created the earth, and the earth he created was, initially, formless and empty.
The NRSV and the NAB, on the other hand, say that when God set out to create the earth, a formless version of it was already there. In that case, God’s creative work was to bring order to the existing formless version. (The implication is that God had previously created the formless earth.)
All of thee translations are faithful to the Hebrew text, which, as I said, can be read both ways. The NRSV, in fact, gives the other possible reading in a footnote.
Bible scholars even have names for these two different ways of speaking about God’s creation of the earth. The first one, which assumes God started with nothing, is called CREATIO EX NIHILO, a Latin term that means “CREATED OUT OF NOTHING.” That same Latin root, nihilo, appears in the word nihilism, which refers to a philosophy of non-meaning or nothingness, an extreme form of skepticism that denies all existence. The Latin root also is seen in the word annihilate, which, of course, means to destroy completely.
The other version of the creation, where the formless earth had previously been created, is sometimes called “ordering chaos.”
So, depending on which Bible version you read, God created the world starting either with nothing at all, or with a chaotic, formless primitive body he had previously created and upon which he now imposed order.
Now you might well say, “WHO CARS? EITHER WAY, GOD IS THE CREATOR.” And you’d be right. I’m explaining all this not to persuade you of one reading over the other but to suggest that there may be a reason the scribes made both readings possible. Both interpretations tell us something valuable about God that to applies to our view of the future.
STORNGER THAN NIHILISM
Either way, the creation story assures us that creation of this world was God’s idea. But consider the creation-out-of-nothing view. To say that God started with nothing and made something as wonderful as our world is to say that God is stronger than the power of nothingness. The philosophy of nothingness, NIHILISM, takes many forms, some of which lead only to despair and hopelessness, which is bad enough. Other forms, however, lead to violence and destruction. Political nihilism, for example, “IS ASSOCIATED WITH THE BELIEF THAT THE DESTRUCTION OF ALL EXISTING POLITICAL, SOCIAL AND RELIGIOUS ORDER IS A PREREQUISITE FOR ANY FUTURE IMPROVEMENT.” 1 Once we understand that, we can see that although some terrorists may be claiming their actions are faithful to some form of Islam or are intended to demoralize those they brand as enemies; at their root they are nihilistic.
They include no constructive actions at all. Their actions are not merely resistance; everything is destructive, and the attacks are aimed not just at those whom they may see as threats --- soldiers --- but also at humanitarian workers and even Iraqi citizens.
This nihilistic factor is one reason we can say unequivocally that terrorism, with its indiscriminate killing of people on the street, is wrong. Take any conflict around the world today – the Mideast, Darfur, Iraq, --- and regardless of who may have started the trouble or who wronged whom initially, terrorism, even if used by the party that was the non-aggressor, is evil because it is essentially nihilistic. It says, “THIS MAY NOT SOLVE ANYTHING BUT WE ARE GOING TO BLOW EVERYTHING TO HELL [and I am using that word deliberately] …WE ARE GOING TO ANNIHILATE EVERYTHING.”
Against all of that, we have a creation story that tells us that God is more powerful than NIHILISM. He takes nothingness and makes great worlds of it.
ORDER OUT OF CHAOS
Now consider the other creation interpretation, the bringing of order to chaos. This concept tells us that God is greater than the most chaotic circumstances of life, whether in our personal situation or in the complexities of the world. In fact, one sign of his “GODNES” is that he imposes order on the bedlam of godlessness.
One of the places where chaos shows its ugly head today is in the form of vandalism known as computer viruses. Those who create and unleash such destructive computer bugs aren’t seeking to improve anything or to contribute anything to the world. They simply want to create havoc in the lives of people they don’t even know. And for what? Who knows? The nature of chaos is that it defies logic.
There is also another whole meaning of chaos that is used in physics today. Called chaos theory, it posits not that certain physical systems are frenzied or wild in behavior, but that it is not possible to make long-term predictions about how they will behave. For four centuries, the laws of Physics said there was complete connection between cause and effect in nature. It was assumed that it was always possible to make accurate long-term predictions of any physical system so long as one knew the starting conditions well enough. But about 100 years ago, physicists discovered that such predictions were not always possible, that some systems in nature, such as the movement of air currents that affect weather, seem chaotic to the point that their behavior is unpredictable --- at least by human beings.2
Yet against all kinds of chaos, including the disarray in our own lives, the creation story tells us that God is the One who brings ultimate order and gives ultimate meaning to even that which seems nonsensical to us.
WHERE THINGS END
In summary, the bible tells us that in the beginning of everything, there was God, greater than the nothingness that preceded creation, and greater than the chaos and unpredictability that seems so much a part of life on this planet.
But what about how things end? Are the pessimism and despair of our day justified? Have NIHILISM and chaos gotten stronger in the meantime --- so powerful that they will one day undo God’s world? That’s what some who strap bombs to their bodies or fly airplanes into buildings or finance terrorism would have us believe.
But don’t believe it. Listen to the Bible. The first chapter of the Bible tells us about God’s intent at the beginning of this world. The last chapter of the Bible tells us of his intentions at the END. It is Jesus who speaks for the Godhead here? “SEE, I AM COMING SOON; MY REWARD IS WITH ME, TO REPAY ACCORDING TO EVERYONE’S WORK. I AM THE APHA AND THE OMEGA, THE FIRST AND THE LAST, THE
BEGINNING AND THE END.”
There is an air of benediction breathing through these final verses in Revelation. Jesus identifies himself as the “ALPHA AND OMEGA.” These are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, and they have the same meaning as the phrase, “THE FIRST AND THE LAST,” which is used elsewhere in scripture as a name for God the Father.3 In other words, though the speaker is Jesus, the title is God’s. Probably what this conveys is that in the new age, the distinction between Christ and God will not be important or even clear. They both are the one Deity.
The sense of ALPHA AND OMEGA is God is the origin and conclusion of everything. It symbolizes God’s sovereignty over the world and the completeness of his being, as in the modern phrase, “everything form A t Z.” But it also symbolizes that the God who overcame nihilism and chaos at the beginning remains over them at the end. Alpha and Omega means that the God who was at the beginning is the same God who is at the end. Some individuals may have chosen a path that leads them to hell, but God is not giving up his world to hell. Nor does he give up one of us who follow him.
So in the midst of the nihilism and chaos of this age, do not despair or give up. Continue to work for the kingdom of God and trust that the God who was there so powerful at the beginning is the same God was be there powerfully --- and in charge --- at the end. Amen.
3 See Isaiah 41:4; 44:6; 48:12.