Beginning with God
First Things First
There is a saying, “First things first.” Well, the first thing is God. Our passage from Genesis begins this way. It says, “In the beginning God . . .” The Bible begins with God. It begins with the account of God creating the heavens and the earth and everything in between: stars and insects, trees and galaxies, planets and animals, the birds of the air and the fish of the sea, not to mention human beings, us. In giving his account of creation the author of Genesis presupposes the existence and basic character of God as the one who creates all things and orders all things. He is the one who has made us. He is the one who has made everything. So if ever find ourselves wondering, where does life begin, Genesis orients us. If we are ever wondering what comes first, Genesis tells us. If we ever find ourselves wondering, where do I begin or where do I start in my own life, Genesis gives us a starting place: God. That is where we start. Or at least that is where we should start. Whatever our views of science and the Bible, of evolution and creation – questions that I am not going to address today – if this passage teaches us anything, it teaches us that life begins with God. God was in the beginning – and, in fact, God was prior to the beginning of creation. God has been on the scene long before we arrived and will be around long after we’re gone. God has always been and always will be. He is eternal. Life begins and ends with God. He comes first, not us.
Does it seem like I’m pointing out the obvious? You may think that this sounds like something we learn in our first days of Sunday school. Maybe it is. But I think that sometimes we need to be reminded even of the most basic aspects of our faith. Why? Because even as Christians we don’t always act or live like God comes first, do we? Just think of something simple, like how many of our sentences begin with “I” or have “I” as the main subject: “I’m going to do this today.” “This is how I feel.” How many of our thoughts revolve around ourselves? How many of our feelings are ultimately self-centered? Almost without thinking about it, we often, in our thoughts, feelings, and even actions, put ourselves first. But we really ought to put God first: God, as Scripture says, is the Alpha and Omega, which means he is the beginning and the end.
In The Message Eugene Peterson introduces the book of Genesis by saying: “First, God. God is the subject of life. God is foundational for living. If we don’t have a sense of the primacy of God, we will never get it right, get life right, get our lives right. Not God at the margins; not God as an option; not God on the weekends. God at center and circumference; God first and last; God, God, God.” He is trying to hammer home a point that we often find it hard actually to live out: “First, God.”
So when I look at our passage from Genesis this is the first thing I see: that God comes first, that he is before all things, and that because of this he ought to have first place in our lives. Look at it this way: if the first “day” would not have come into being without God, isn’t it also true that God still creates our days? Isn’t it true that apart from God our days would be nothing? Isn’t it also true, then, that our lives ought to bear witness to the fact that we wouldn’t even have life apart from God? If he was before us and if he is the one who made us, then shouldn’t he have first place in our lives? Shouldn’t our lives reflect what Peterson calls “the primacy of God”?
“The earth was a formless void . . .”
Now take a look at how God created the heavens and the earth in this passage. How does it describe the earth? It says that “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.”
Some scholars think that the Hebrew word that is translated “beginning” in our Bibles does not mean an absolute beginning of all things but the beginning of an ordered creation. In other words, this is what God was working with to bring a more ordered creation into being. However we understand that point, it does say something interesting. God took something that was without shape – a formless void! – something that was covered in darkness and he made something. God gave shape to that which was shapeless. God brought order to that which was chaotic and without direction. He gave form to something that was formless.
This says four things to me about our relationship with God. First, it tells me that without God’s creating and saving power in my life that I am a formless void. Apart from God I have no purpose and no direction and no meaning. The earth was completely without order and purpose and direction without God’s creative hand to shape it and make it what it should be. That was the position the earth was in before God began his creative work, and that is our position before we allow God to begin his creative and saving work in our lives: formless.
Second, it tells me that I cannot create my own life. I cannot make myself into what I should be. I cannot give shape and meaning to my life. Only God is the Creator. Only he can turn the formless void of my life into something that makes sense and is worthwhile. Did you know that the verb create in Hebrew only ever has God as its subject? In the Old Testament only God creates. Eugene Peterson, in his book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, comments on this. He says, “‘Create’ is a word that is used in the Bible exclusively with God as the subject. Men and women don’t, can’t, create. But God does. When nothing we can do makes any difference and we are left standing empty-handed and clueless, we are ready for God to create.” Only God can create something worthwhile out of me and my life.
The verb we translate “create” in this passage – as in “when God created” – is bara, and this is a term that also means that something fundamentally new and unique is being created. When God created the heavens and earth, he is bringing into existence something that never before had existence. What God creates is unique. And the same is true of us, you know. Just as he brought something fundamentally new and unique into existence at the outset of creation, he does the same when he takes the formless voids of our lives and recreates us. And so, the third thing is this: When God recreates and saves us, we become something entirely new from what we were before. And when he does, our lives will be as they never were. We are transformed. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ.”
My fourth point is this: He takes us and shapes us using the material of our lives as he finds us. Not only does God create something new and unique out of us and our lives, he does this with whom and what we already are. So for us God creates and saves and redeems us using the very stuff of our lives: our talents, our failures, our successes, our strengths, our weaknesses, and our past. He can redeem even the worst of ourselves and use it to his glory. He can take that which is formless and without order and give it shape and direction. For those that love God, nothing is beyond the pale of redemption. As Paul says in Romans 8: 28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
And God said, “Let there be light.”
Our passage also says that “darkness covered the face of the deep.” Not only are we each formless without the creative and saving work of God in our lives, but we are also in darkness. Without the presence of God in our lives, we also are in the dark. We can’t see clearly. Have you ever had to wander around in the dark? Sometimes when we wander about in the darkness, we can truly get hurt (and tell the story of Alisha’s fall). We all know that apart from Christ we wander around aimless in the darkness of sin, and that ultimately such wandering is eternally more dangerous than any fall. And we know that, according to John 3: 19, people love darkness rather than light – only God can create light. And in our passage that’s exactly what he does. God speaks, and there is light. God is only source of light for any of us. Only the light that God speaks into being can dispel the darkness. Only the light that God speaks into being can shine in the darkness and not be overcome by it. That light, as we know, is Christ, the light of the world (John 8: 12).
“While a wind from God . . .”
Our passage also says that “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The word for wind in Hebrew, as in Greek, is the same as the word for breath and Spirit. So here we have the Spirit of God present at creation, and when our passage says that the Spirit “swept” or “hovered” over the surface of the waters, the verb here has the sense of ever-changing velocity and direction – just like wind. This reminds me of what Jesus says about the Spirit to Nicodemus in John 3: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The ever-changing movement of the wind in Genesis – of the Spirit of God – is movement with a purpose, movement with a creative purpose, to bring life out of nothing, to give form to the shapeless, and to bring light into the darkness. Who is it but the Spirit who enables us to perceive Christ for who he really is? Who is it but the Spirit who is at work in our hearts, helping us to accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour? Who is it but the Spirit who makes applies the work of Christ to our lives?
A Desolate Place
In John 15 Jesus tells his disciples that “apart from me you can do nothing.” Our passage teaches us this too. While the image of the earth in verse 2 as formless and void is a little hard to understand and interpret in the Hebrew, one scholar mentions that when it says the earth is void or empty that this could possibly mean that the earth is desolate and unproductive. There was no life on the earth yet. No vegetation was being produced. There were no plants. There was no grass. There were no trees. And there was no fruit. Only once God began his creative work does the earth begin to produce anything. Look at Genesis 1: 11. “Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’” And then what happened? The verse ends with a great phrase: “And it was so.” It happened. When God speaks, when he acts to create, things happen. Fruit gets produced. The same is true with us, isn’t it? Can we be truly productive without God in our lives? Can we produce anything of eternal value? Without the redemptive power of Christ in our lives, we too are desolate, like the earth at the beginning of Genesis. But with Christ we are productive: we, by the power of God, produce the fruit of the Spirit that Paul talks about in Galatians 5:22, 23, and a harvest of righteousness, as it says in Hebrews 12: 11. This is God’s doing not ours.
But all of this is true only if and when God comes first in our lives, just as God was “in the beginning” in Genesis. Unless we learn to make God the priority he ought to be, unless we deliberately and willingly hand our lives over to him, then we will be left formless, desolate and in the dark. The question is: do you want to remain void and empty, without direction and purpose, wandering in the darkness of sin, or do you want God to take you and mold you, to make you into something uniquely you, to bring you, as Scripture says, “out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2: 9b).
In theology there is an important Latin phrase that gets used when we talk about the act of God creating the heavens and the earth: creatio ex nihilo. In English this means “creation out of nothing.” That was how the world began. There was nothing – and God created, brought something fundamentally new and unique into existence. Where before there was nothing, now there is something. That can also be true of us, when we come to recognize that it is God who comes first, and that is only God who can take all of our nothing and make it into something. When we find ourselves “empty-handed and clueless” as Peterson says, it is then that God can do something. When we come to the end of ourselves then God can begin. This is why it is so crucial to recognize the absolute primacy of God, and that everything begins and ends with him, that nothing can be without him. When we try to make our lives ourselves by our own strength and by the sheer power of our will, failure is inevitable and darkness will shroud all of our efforts. And only when all of our attempts to give form to our lives have stalled and come to nothing can God then do something. For only God creates.