Sermon by Michael Jensen
If there’s one thing we might say about we human beings it is that we are extraordinarily creative beings.
I was reminded of this recently when I watched on YouTube the video of Steve Jobs introducing the iPhone at the 2007 Macworld conference. The iPhone is simply a piece of technology from the pages of science-fiction. I remember when the idea of a hand-held multi-function communication device was something that might belong to Batman.
But here, in our lifetimes, dreams have become reality; fiction has become fact. And how is it done? Well of course, as Steve Jobs brilliantly explains, the device hasn’t appeared out of thin air. It has evolved from the technology that came before it. The brilliance of the iPhone as a human invention is the way in which it brings together its different elements and combines them. It is a consummate human creation – bringing together the raw material of the earth and the ideas that have gone before it – the work of Faraday, and Bell, and Babbage, and Jack Kilby the inventor of the silicon chip – and yoking it all together to create a new vision and new possibilities.
The humanity of this kind of creating is that it is created from stuff that already exists. It is created by creatures who themselves are anchored in the material world. We are composed of stuff ourselves.
This is not the testimony of the Christian faith about the way God creates. From the earliest times, Christians have understood that God creates ‘ex nihilo’ – from nothing. It is a doctrine more inferred from a number of texts than taught explicitly in any of them. A number of passages affirm the comprehensiveness of God’s creative act – he created all things: Romans 11: 36 – from him and through him and to him are all things; 1 Corinthians 8:6 – there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things; Ephesians 3:9 God who created all things; Colossians 1:16 for in him all things heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible. ‘All things’ is the refrain: God created all things, and there is nothing created that he did not create.
And so, when we turn to the first 2 verses of Genesis and we come across the strange words…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… If we are to read this text theologically and biblically, we must understand this void, the formlessness, this shapeless darkness, as a way of speaking of nothing at all.
Nothing. And it’s nothing that we have a problem with really. No human analogy exists for creating something from nothing. As Shakespeare’s King Lear said to his daughter Cordelia: ‘Nothing? Nothing will come of nothing!’ This was actually taken straight from the old Greek philosopher Aristotle, being one of his fixed laws of the universe. And that’s right: something must be composed of something else which is composed in its turn of something else. Whenever we find this ‘nothing’ we want to make it a something. It’s an old habit.
One terrible mistake we may then make is to depict this ‘nothing’ as a chaotic darkness, a force of negation something like the creeping darkness of Mordor that needs to be rolled back, tamed and even overthrown for there to be order and peace. In the ancient mythologies of Babylon, the earth was depicted as formed from the slain body of the sea monster Tiamat who was killed by Marduk.
But God’s act of creation is not an act of taming the unruly and menacing force of nothingness. To think of it this way would be to give evil too much permanence – to give Satan a toehold in eternity which he does not deserve. As unthinkable as it is, nothing is, in theological terms, simply nothing.
What that ‘nothing’ means is that creation is not caused by anything except for the will of God. As the creatures around the throne say in Revelation 4:11: For you created all things and by your will all things were created and have their being. Creation therefore has no necessity as far as existence goes. It didn’t have to be here. Nothing in it compelled God or moved God to make it, because there was literally nothing in it. Nothing twisted his arm, or made the appearance of things inevitable. There was no pure logic that drove him to create.
And so, that’s what we see in the opening chapter of Genesis: that God creates simply by his command. What’s the significance of him using his words to create? It’s that his words do not come from somewhere else, or have an existence other than God. They come from within him, representing and signifying his intentions for the world. They have no other source of existence than him.
We need to draw three important points from this thought about nothing. The first is that because creation is not necessary, it has the force of a gift. The American theologian David Bentley Hart puts it this way: The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo speaks of a God who gives of his bounty, not a God at war with darkness. From the very beginning, in the very beginning, the creative act of God is marked by grace and generosity. It needn’t be so. But it is: and so, being is a blessing. It’s an excessively generous gift, a plentiful, delightful gift. It sure exceeds nothing.
Have you considered how blessed you are in your very existence? There was nothing inevitable about you other than in the plans of God. You yourself are entirely the handiwork of the divine creator. He needn’t have made you – he was under no compulsion to do so. But he did. He involved the bodies of your parents in your conception, of course, and their affections for one another, and their plans for a family such as they were. But the way he has made the creation to run reminds us just who is doing the creating. Mum and Dad had so little control over what you became, didn’t they – your eye colour, your gender, your personality. They had to create from the raw material they had. But not God: God knitted you together in your mother’s womb, as the expression in flesh of an idea that came from nowhere. And here you are, a possibility made actual, in possession of the precious and gracious gift of existence.
The main alternative to this is the lottery of chance and genes that is materialistic evolution – luck, in other words. If luck is the only force bringing us into being, you cannot say anything much about you existence other than it is what it is. But the verdict of God on his creation is that it is good.
The second thing that creation from nothing teaches us is that, if creation has an absolute beginning, in also must have an end. It has time, in other words, because there was not, and then there was. It has an Alpha, and so it must have an Omega. We are right, therefore, to seek a purpose in things. Things look like they have a purpose – and so they do. The world of things is not going around in endless circles. Nor is it on an endless bungy of expansion and contraction.
But the third important point that God’s creation from nothing teaches us is spelt out for us in Scripture, and it is this: the only cause for God’s creation is the Son of God. Nothing less than God gives creation its purpose. It is love for the Son that brings the Father to create. Hear Colossians 1:16: all things have been created through him and for him. And John 1:3: All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. In Heb 1:2, we hear of God’s Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. The Son of God was the agent, instrument, plan and purpose of creation, and him alone.
Now this sounds like a very abstract thought. But what it does is very concrete. As we seek for purpose and cause and meaning in the unbelievably complex world we inhabit, we are turned by Scripture to focus on the events of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Instead of speculating about what God may or may not be doing in the world, we have before us the life and death of the incarnate Son of God, which gives us a great clarity about what God is doing. What these statements about the pre-existent Son of God are telling us is that if we want to grasp the essence of all things we need to study the Jesus of history. And what God was doing there? Colossians 1:20 puts it this way:
…through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
The death of Jesus Christ was at the heart of God’s plan for all things – all the things that were created through and for the Son. The Son’s mission of reconciliation, which led to the cross, brings to pass the Creator’s plan for his creation.