Sunday, 11 January 2015

Je Suis

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
11th January 2015, 11.00am

Genesis 1.1-5   
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,  2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  3 Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light.  4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.  5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Mark 1:4-11  John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  7 He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."  9 ¶ In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

One of the joys of travelling to work on the tube each day
          (and yes, there are some!)
          is that I have about half an hour each way
          that I can spend either reading a book on my Kindle,
          or broadening my horizons by listening to a podcast.

Many of my regular audio companions originate with Radio 4,
          and one of them is the occasional science series
          presented by Professor Brian Cox and the comedian Robin Ince.
The former rock-star scientist and the English-graduate comedian
          host a show with guest panelists
          taking a light-hearted look at issues relating to science.

Frequently, they also end up talking about religion.

This last week, I caught up with their Christmas special,
          which I listened to with interest,
          because one of the guests was a friend of mine;
                   she’s the professor in Hebrew Bible at the university of Exeter.
          The other guests were Brian Blessed, the Revered Richard Coles,
                   and the Astronaut Chris Hadfield,
                   who became something of  an internet sensation
                   when he performed the song
                             ‘Life on Mars’ from the International Space Station.

It was a whole Christmassy show devoted to science and the Bible,
          and it was great fun, not least because my friend, an outspoken atheist,
          gave full vent to her opinions on the relationship
          between science, the Bible, and faith.

And so we find ourselves in territory
          triggered by today’s reading from Genesis chapter 1.

It’s with some trepidation that I come today
          to speak about the story of origins from the beginning of Genesis.

After all, it’s surely opening of Genesis which,
          along with the book of Revelation at the other end of the Bible,
          generates some of the more fervent divisions within Christianity.

In my experience, It doesn’t take very long in ‘certain’ Christian gatherings
          for the subject known as ‘creationism’ to crop up.

And how one might answer the question ‘what do you think about Darwin?’
          can almost seem something of a test case
          as to whether one is a ‘proper’ Christian or not!

Well, it seems to me that with both Genesis,
                   and indeed the book of Revelation,
          a large part of the problems we find ourselves in with these texts
                   come from asking them to answer questions
                   that they were never designed to address

Many of you will know that I’ve spent quite a lot of time
          studying the book of Revelation,
and if we were to go there, to the end of the Bible
          with a view to discovering a detailed timeline of the end of the world
          we’d fairly quickly start getting involved in arguments
                   about issues like postmillennialism, amillennialism,
                   and partial rapture premillennial dispensationalism!
          And this would be because, I want to suggest,
                   we would be asking the text
                   to give us information that it wasn’t written to impart.

And similarly, if we turn to the beginning of the Bible, to Genesis,
          With a view to uncovering a detailed timeline of the beginning of the world,
          we’re fairly quickly going to start having arguments
                   about creation, intelligent design
                   and theistic evolution!
          And this is because, I want to suggest, we would be again asking the text
                   to give us information it wasn’t written to impart.

A bit of textual history for a moment,
          if you can bear with me…

The first few chapters of the book of Genesis
          took their current shape in sixth century before the time of Jesus.
They were written down by the Jews in exile in Babylon.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t older stories in there;
          stories passed down through oral tradition,
                   told from parent to child around the fire in the evening.
But Genesis as we know it
          reshapes and transforms those older stories
          to serve a quite new purpose
Which is to argue against the theological claims
          of the Babylonians.

The Babylonians claimed that their gods controlled the future,
          and they believed that their gods had defeated the God of Israel
          when the Babylonians had carried off the Israelites into exile.

The Babylonians had their own creation story,
          known as the Enuma Elish,
And it tells the story of how the human race,
          came out of the scapegoat killing of Kingu, one of the minor gods.

According to the story of the Enuma Elish,
          the chief God Marduk has just been attacked by the goddess Tiamat,
                   and so he summons an assembly of the gods
                   to ask them who instigated Tiamat's attack on him.
The gods turn on Kingu, saying:
"It was Kingu who contrived the uprising,
And made Tiamat rebel and joined battle."

The gods then bind Kingu, and sever his blood vessels.
          Then, out of his flowing, blood they fashion humankind.

Meanwhile, Tiamat meets her own sticky end
          as Marduk splits her in half, ‘like a shellfish’ we are told,
          and he uses her corpse to make the heavens and the earth.[1]

So, according to the Babylonian creation account,
          the cosmic and physical order is founded out of horrific violence,
          and the human race is born
                   from the blood of an accused and executed renegade god.

The Enuma Elish continues, telling how Marduk then organises the gods
          into their respective orders above and below,
          assigning them their different tasks.
They, in return, propose the building of a temple
          as a place for them to live,
          and as somewhere for Marduk to have his throne.

So, according to the Babylonian worldview,
          social order arises from the ritual execution of a victim,
and Marduk’s temple forms the centre of this social order.

And it’s against these claims that the Jews told their stories
          of God as the creator and lord of all the cosmos,
          who created the world out of love, not out of violence,
          and who watches over his creation,
                   working to once again make all things good.[2]

To the despairing exiles,
          the Jewish version of creation
                   declared that the God of Israel
                    was the Lord of all of Life

So the Jewish creation stories, at the time they were first written down
          were told to address a genuine theological problem,
which was where to find a ground for faith in God
          when the experience of life in exile in Babylon
          seemed so readily to deny the rule of a God of love.

Where is the God of love and goodness
          when the world seems ruled by gods of violence and war?

These stories certainly weren’t written down to provide twenty-first century readers
          with a scientific understanding of the origin of the universe,
                   nor to explain the emergence of humanity on the earth.
Rather, they were written to inspire faith in the one God of love,
          when all the evidence of experience seems to argue against this.
They are stories to tell that God can be trusted
          even when it appears evident that all is not well with the world.

And for those of us who look around at the world,
          and see the evidence of sickness, poverty, war and violence;
for those of us who see the world now
          much as the ancient Israelites saw the world of Babylon,
these stories still speak to us of a God who is at work in the world.

For those whose lives are in tatters, whose hopes have been exiled,
          these stories articulate the hope of a God at work
                   to bring new life from the dust of the ground;
          creating new hope, and offering a new dawn for humanity.

These stories offer to us the idea that a word has been spoken
          which transforms reality.
They claim that the word of God which shapes creation
          is also an action which alters reality.

And this isn’t an historical claim, but a theological one.

This word of God, spoken by the Father in creation,
          is, Christians believe, spoken again most definitively in Christ,
                   and spoken continually through the Spirit of Christ at work in the world.

The word that becomes flesh in Jesus, is the word of good news,
          the word of hope, the word of life-giving and life-creating power,
          bringing and shaping hope from the dry dust of life.

So when we come to read the beginning of Genesis,
          we need to meet this text on its own terms,
and not to seek to impose upon it our modernist language and ideologies,
          of ‘scientific history’, or of ‘mythic history’.

These are not historical stories, they are theological.
          So we need to meet these stories of creation
                    as stories of proclamation.

They aren’t stories which tell us ‘how it happened’,
          and to attempt to make them such
                   is like reducing the wonder of encountering a great work of art
                   to a discussion about the technique of the artist.

The concern of the Israelites in exile, of those who shaped these stories,
          was with God’s intent in creation, not his technique.
And so they gave voice to the good news
          that life in God’s well-ordered world
          can be a joyous and grateful response to what God has done.
Rather than the short and brutish response
          that the Babylonian worldview provoked.

This is the purpose of these stories,
          and I think we need to reject the seductions
                   of literalism and rationalism,
          to discover once again this good news
                   announced to the exiles in Babylon.

If we hear the text in this way
          we can leave the question of how the world came into being
                   to those scientists gifted by God
                   with the ability to explore such issues.
And we can turn our attention to the question
          of the good news proclaimed through these stories of creation.

The Genesis story offers a perspective on human existence
          that is not predicated on violence and suffering.
It offers an understanding of a cosmos created good.
          with the God of that creation committed to its sustaining and its redemption.

But of course, those of us who inhabit this created world
          are very aware of the fragility of the goodness of creation,
We know how easily the land can be over-farmed,
          how easily the natural resources of the planet can be plundered,
          how easily the perfect balance of ecosystems can be distorted,
          how easily one human being can turn against another
                   in hatred and violence.

In other worlds, we know how easily God’s good creation
          can be spoiled, distorted and destroyed.

And this, of course, is where we, the human race, come into the story.

We have our part to play in this story of creation.
          And the Genesis story, as it goes on, tells us
                   that human persons are honoured, respected and enjoyed
                    by the one who calls them into being.

We are born not from divine bloodshed,
          but from an act of divine love.

Humans are made in the image of God.

And in a world of Babylonian idols,
          of domestic gods and localised deities,
the Jewish assertion of one God,
          the creator of all and originator of humanity,
          stood out like a beacon in the darkness;
offering powerful counter testimony to the idolatries of Babylon.

If you want to know what God looks like, said the Jews,
          don’t look at an idol, or a statue, or a picture.
Rather, look at your neighbor, look at yourself,
          because humans are made in the image of God.

And lest we should think this issue,
          of whether it us appropriate to represent God as an image,
                   is an issue of the distant past,
          the disturbing reality is that it is terrifyingly and bloodily current.

The events in Paris this week show us
          that the debate over the representation of God and his prophets
                   is frighteningly contemporary.

The thing is, if the insight of Genesis is to be believed,
          not only is it true to say je suis Charlie,
          but it is also true to say nous sommes Dieu.

Not only do we share common humanity with the victims of Paris,
          but we are made in the image of God.

And this is true of us all, from satirist to terrorist.

We are not, says Genesis, born from violence and destined for violence,
          rather we are born from love and destined for love.
And as humans, created in love and gifted with free will,
          each of us had a choice as to whether we will live in love, or in violence.

Will we live according to the Babylonian creation narrative,
          or the Jewish alternative?
Will we oppose any representation of God that is beyond our control,
          or will we recognise our own place within God's good creation?

It is this same divine love for creation
          that we meet at the Baptism of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel.

God comes to his creation not in war or violence,
          but in love and new creation,
not in the waters of chaos,
          but in the life-giving waters of the Jordan.

The man who comes to John for baptism is the embodiment of God,
          he is Jesus, a human being,
          and he is said to be the beloved of God.

The act of public identification that
          is signaled by the mass adoption of the je suis Charlie slogan this week
                   is an echo of the act of identification
                   undertaken by Jesus at his baptism,
          whereby God declared solidarity, not only with Charlie Hebdo,
                   but with all those whom others would declare unrighteous.

In Baptism, Jesus declared not just je suis Charlie
          but je suis homme, ‘I am man’.
The son of man, in his baptism,
          undertakes the ultimate act of solidarity with sinners

The offensive image here
          is not some cartoon representation of the divine
                   in defiance of those who would see such a move as sacrilegious,
          but an incarnation of the divine in human flesh,
                   a rendering of God himself in the body of a man.

If Genesis speaks of humans being made good, in the image of Gold,
          the baptism of Jesus demonstrates God's ongoing commitment
          to divine-human reconciliation and reunion.

The original Jewish understanding of God’s self-disclosure as ‘I Am’,
          becomes ‘I Am Human’ in the baptism of Jesus.

The voice from heaven at the baptism is God’s declaration to the world
          that ‘Je Suis’ has become je suis un homme,
          ‘this is my son’, says the voice, ‘I am a man!’

And God declares himself well pleased with this:
          God-become-human, God in human form, is declared good,
          just as the rendering of humanity in the image of God,
                   in the original intent of creation, was also declared good.

The presence of God on the earth
          is found not in the violence of Marduk,
          not in the rending of the body of Tiamat,
          not in the scapegoating of Kingu,
but in the one who is baptized by John in the Jordan,
          in the one who takes upon himself the sins of the world.

The God of creation, who spoke creation into being, and declared it good,
          is still, it seems, at work to draw that creation back to himself,
                    in love and restoration.

The story of Jesus, which begins in Mark’s gospel with his baptism,
          is the story of the redemption of creation.

It isn’t a story to explain why humans are evil and creation is corrupt.
          Rather, it is a story that points to hope for good,
                    for the absolution and forgiveness of sins,
                    and the restoration of all creation.

So in a world where so many would seek to control God
          by declaring that it is their responsibility
                   to speak on his behalf,
                   to defend his honor,
                   and to police his image,
both Genesis and the baptism of Jesus
          offer us a powerful counter testimony,
where God takes the ultimate risk, again and again,
          every time a human being is born,
                   recommitting himself to the stuff off creation,
                   for better our for worse;
always seeking to bring good from the chaos of the world,
          and light to the darkness of our lives.

This is Good in human form,
          baptised in solidarity with the worst of sinners,
                   even and including those who would take up Guns in a Parisian street.

This is the scandal of God made flesh,
          and this is the offence of the Christian gospel
                   that finds its ultimate conclusion in the outrage of the cross,
          as God in human form not only identifies with humanity's sinfulness,
                   but takes decisive action to bring about
                   forgiveness and reconciliation once and for all.

So in a world divided, once again, on issues of religion,
          perhaps we need to discover, once again,
                   the scandal of the Jewish creation story,
          and to embrace, once again, the offence of the baptism of Christ.

All those of us who would follow Jesus on this path to new creation,
          are invited to join him in the waters of baptism.
And in so doing, we are invited to identify with him, as he identifies with us,
          and so to share with him in the renewal of all things.

Today, je suis Charlie, nous sommes Charlie.


[1] Hammerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, p.66; Tablet VI, lines 29-34
[2] A lot of what follows is from Brueggemann, Genesis.

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