For those who want a change from the Gospel
Epiphany 1/The Baptism of Christ – Genesis 1:1-5
Let’s start with a bit of Hebrew geekery – Gen 1:1 is a bad translation! There is no ‘the’ before ‘beginning’, and the word ‘beginning’ is constructed to show that it is the beginning of something, not just ‘the beginning’. So a better translation might read ‘When God began to create …’ We are used to the idea that creation happened ex nihilo, or starting absolutely from scratch, but a careful reading of the text won’t allow that here. Formless and void though it may have been, the earth was in some sense already there. So was darkness, and so were some waters over which the Spirit was hovering. One Jewish tradition taught that God had practised already, and had rejected 974 attempts before finally getting it just how he wanted with the 975th, which is where we live. Whether or not we like this idea (and it does have a certain appeal), it is clear that God had been at work long before the big bang which started things off here. He had already prepared the raw materials before the actual creation of our world began.
Today as we remember the Baptism of Jesus, which launched him into his public ministry, we can also see that work had been going on before the big day. The Bible is largely silent about it, as it is about the pre-creation cosmos, apart from the tantalising glimpse Luke gives us of Jesus aged 12. Of course this particular vacuum has been filled abundantly with legends, like that of Jesus bringing clay birds to life and striking neighbours blind. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas makes delightful reading (just Google it to see the text), but fortunately is not within our canon of Scripture. All we get is the big day when his ministry is launched, and an awareness that God has been at work in him before that.
The other thing to note about Gen 1 is that it is a deeply polemical work, in other words it is written for something, but also against something. The chapter is generally thought to be a part of what is called the Priestly Code, probably written after the Babylonian exile to give a logical and orderly account of the creation. But it was written in the context of a nation which for a generation or more had been living with a different story, that of the Babylonian god Marduk cutting the evil sea-monster Tiamat in half and using the two halves to make heaven and earth respectively. Clearly the writers were very familiar with this story, and the people for whom it was written would have been very familiar with it too; indeed some of them may have believed it, along with the pantheon of other gods worshipped around them, represented by stars, sun, moon, trees and so on. There are interesting echoes: the Hebrew words for the ‘deep’ in v.2 is related to the name of Tiamat, and the separation in v.6 reflects the cutting in half of the monster. In other parts of the OT God chops up sea monsters or otherwise destroys them. But then, in a deeply subversive way, God goes on to create sun, moon, stars and the rest. They’re not gods: they were spoken into being and put there by our God! This is the truth, and you’d better believe it!
Another passage (which I would have chosen for the Epistle today if they had asked me) brings these two ideas together. Paul wrote in Gal 4:
When the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.
God had been at work in and through his Son, but one day, on just the right day, the set time arrived, and Jesus manifested himself and began his ministry. But the word ‘repent’, with which that ministry began, means that his ministry was not just for something but also against something: all that is evil, unjust and destructive, all that we have put our faith in, all the myths which we have believed because all those around us believe them. Simeon had perceived this when he first me the baby Jesus. God had been at work in him preparing him for a ministry which would inevitably bring division, become a challenge, and call people to a crisis point, to a ‘make your mind up time’.
So Jesus’ baptism invites us to consider how God might already have been at work, in our lives, in our world, in the Covid pandemic, in Trump’s USA … and what we might be called to turn from in repentance so that the truth can restore our perspective and set us free.