“Out of Chaos;” Isaiah 45:18-24; Romans 14:1-12; September 14, 2014; FPC Holt

“Out of Chaos”
Isaiah 45:18-24; Romans 14:1-12
September 14, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Audio Available Here: http://www.fpc-holt.org/images/stories/downloads/9-14-14.mp3

As I preach today, I’d invite you to consider two questions:

W2014 9 14 Slide02here in your life do you experience the greatest sense of spiritual fullness? Where do you experience the most emptiness? We’ll reflect on this a bit later, but for now I’d like you to hold on to those two questions as we dig into our texts together.

2014 9 14 Slide03Chaos. It’s a word that’s used quite a lot. Maybe you’ve used it in reference to your own life: in the business of work, the start up of a new school year, or in the midst of a time of upheaval or transition.

I’m sure I’ve used the term a time or two in the last few months as I’ve transitioned from my last ministerial position, planned a wedding, and moved to a new state. The way we usually refer to the word “chaos” we mean overly busy or disordered. While this is certainly a valid definition for this word, it takes a different meaning when we look at it in Hebrew.

2014 9 14 Slide04In our passage in Isaiah, what we read as “chaos,” is the Hebrew word “toehoo.” “Toehoo” carries meanings of formlessness, confusion, unreality, emptiness. It also can be a figurative negative attribute as in being morally empty or purposeless.

It is the tenth word in the Hebrew Bible, setting the scene for the start of all creation. In Genesis beginning at verse 1, we read:

2014 9 14 Slide05“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was toehoo and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” This place of chaos provides the raw ingredients from which the entire creation came into existence.

2014 9 14 Slide06We read in our text from Isaiah (45:18) today, “the LORD, who created the heavens did not create it a chaos, [but] formed it to be inhabited!”

Our world and our lives have not been created for emptiness, but for formation and transformation in the fullness of God. Through God’s creative acts, the toehoo of Genesis is transformed into the fullness of creation: water and land, fish and birds, people and plants. In the same way, God desires to fill our lives with joy and peace, hope and love, grace and redemption.

2014 9 14 Slide07I came across an interesting historical study of this word, “toehoo” in an article by Professor of Theology, Catherine Keller called, “The Lost Chaos of Creation.” In this article she details out the history of translators’ exclusion of this word in the Genesis narrative for hundreds of years, with it virtually disappearing from theology by the fourth century, because it was thought to negate the theological understanding that God created all things from nothing. Those translators wanted to run from the chaos present at creation, from the mess that is so integral to our beginning. As the verse was added back into translations as late as the early 20th century it was confrontational to the theological scholars of that time.[1]

SLIDE 8 - DistortedIt is hard to hold in our heads the knowledge that we can both be created in God’s image and created out of chaos. It does not seem that God would choose to make this entire creation that God calls “good” out of what was chaotic, but yet, God takes all that is chaotic and unformed and transforms it into a beautifully ordered universe.

Similarly it can be hard to hold in our hearts the knowledge that we are both imperfect sinners and redeemed children of God.

As part of the Presbyterian pastor call process we’re required to write a statement of faith. And your Associate Pastor Nominating Committee was in turn required to read many a statement of faith. In mine I wrote:

2014 9 14 Slide09“Our Creator desires that we live into God’s intentions for our lives. God has joyfully set out plans for all of creation, and specifically for our lives, yet waits with a deep patience for us to respond, for us to be formed into who God has created us to be.”

If our beginning place as God’s creation is chaos, that is emptiness and lack of purpose, our fulfillment means being full of life and energized with purpose.

And so let’s revisit my questions from before.

2014 9 14 Slide10 First, where do you experience the most emptiness? What in life causes you to experience this toehoo, chaotic void? Are there relationships or activities that make you feel withdrawn from God’s fullness? Are there places in your life you need to seek healing or forgiveness so that you can better feel the grace, mercy, and love of Jesus Christ? Are there aspects of your routine that have become so routine that you struggle to experience God’s presence in the midst of them? How might you invite God into that experience, those perhaps unacknowledged relationships?

2014 9 14 Slide11And for our other question: where do you experience the greatest sense of spiritual fullness? Where do you feel the most fulfilled in God’s purposes? What relationships vest enable you to acknowledge God’s presence? How can you nourish and sustain these experiences of God’s fullness? How can you fill your time, your head, and your heart with the goodness God has shown you? How can you expand into the joy that God has in store for you?

While we seek to grow in our faith we can take comfort knowing that while our God created the world, God does not leave us simply to fend for ourselves. 2014 9 14 Slide12In fact, God sent God’s only son, Jesus Christ to come and live in this world among us. Jesus demonstrated how to live a full and purpose-filled life through his ministry and mission on earth, one which we are called to imitate.

Our passage in Romans reminds us of our eternal place in Christ’s care. 2014 9 14 Slide13We read in verses 8 and 9, “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again.” Christ died so that we may be saved from the chaos of sin and lived again so we might know God’s abundant power.

2014 9 14 Slide14God made us out of chaos, but does not leave us there. May our lives be filled with purpose in the knowledge and experience of God’s great love. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Catherine Keller “The Lost Chaos of Creation,” The Living Pulpit (April – June 2000): 4-5.

“Even the Wind and the Sea Obey,” Genesis 1:1-10, Mark 4:35-41; June 24, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

“Even the Wind and the Sea Obey”
Genesis 1:1-10, Mark 4:35-41
June 24, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

The other day I went for a hike on Mount Greylock, on the Bradley Farm trail. This trail is a “self guided trail,” with markers every once and a while. The numbers on the markers correspond with numbers on a brochure and each has information about that specific site.

One of the sites drew my attention to a big rock in the pathway. I looked at my brochure and it said, “The Mount Greylock range is made up of mostly grey-colored metamorphic rock (changed through heat and pressure), as in this boulder. According to geologists this rock here was created from what was once part of a muddy sea bottom hundreds of millions of years ago. Bands of translucent, white colored quartzite, formerly sand, are found here too.”

Reading this, I couldn’t help but laugh, you see, as I was driving up the mountain I was thinking about our scripture passages today, how to bring light and life to two very different passages. One, which we heard read from Genesis, discussing the formation of the world, and another, which we read together, speaking of a short narrative moment in Jesus’ ministry, both having to do with God’s ability to control the ocean.  And then my car stereo started playing a favorite song of mine, Paul Simon’s “Once Upon a Time There was an Ocean.”

The chorus to this song goes, “Once upon a time there was an ocean but now it’s a mountain range. Something unstoppable set into motion, nothing is different, but everything’s changed.”[1]

And now, here I was, about 3,400 feet above sea level, being told that I was much closer to being in an ocean than those 3,400 feet would have me believe.

Thinking of these large shifts in the ocean over a long period time I tried to picture the land around me in a new way. That the nearby butterflies were not butterflies at all, but rather they were seahorses, flitting about in a familiar way. And the fern along the path, bent in the wind as seaweed moved by a slight current in the ocean.

How different things seem when we look at them through the long lens of history. Amazingly, this is the very vantage point that God brings to creation and to our lives.

In our New Testament passage today, we read that Jesus and a group, widely assumed to be his disciples, are traveling across the Sea of Galilee on a boat, when a great windstorm arises and the water laps over the sides. While the disciples were frantic, Jesus was asleep on a cushion. They awake Jesus and say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He wakes up, rebukes the wind and tells the sea, “Peace! Be still!” The wind stops and it is entirely calm. Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” They were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Nowadays the body of water they were traveling across is called Lake Kinneret. It’s a large, shallow body of water, prone to very sudden violent storms. West of the lake are mountains that form a funnel around winds blowing in from the Mediterranean, creating volatile weather over the lake.[2] By their nature, these storms don’t last for long.

Let’s be clear, this storm was frightening, and no one could fault the disciples for feeling threatened by this seemingly all-encompassing storm, but by Jesus’ reaction we see that this fear was greater than that. Pastor and author David Lose offers this perspective, he writes: “maybe the issue isn’t that the disciples are understandably afraid because of the storm, it’s that they allowed their fear to overtake them so that they don’t come to Jesus and say, ‘Teacher, we need your help,’ but rather come already assuming the worst, ‘Teacher, don’t you care that we’re dying.’ This isn’t a trusting or faithful request; it’s a fear-induced accusation.”[3]

God has the bigger perspective, has seen the other side and knows that this storm will end.

I am reminded of a slogan that arose out of a tragic string of suicides particularly among LGBT youth in the late summer of 2010. In response to a number of students taking their own lives after being bullied in school, author Dan Savage created a YouTube video with his partner Terry Miller to inspire hope for young people facing harassment. They wanted to create a personal way for supporters everywhere to tell LGBT youth that, “It gets better.”[4]

“It gets better.” What I appreciate about this slogan is that it does not seek to diminish the current pain that anyone is feeling, but rather strives to instill hope for the future. Living with bullying and harassment is indeed a very violent storm, all encompassing when it is around you. And when it is around you, you’re not sure that it will end. But Dan Savage and a great many people following his lead speak out from the other shore, beyond the crashing sea, saying, “It gets better.”

In Hebrew there is a phrase that I feel encompasses this all surrounding stormy-ness: toehoo vahvohwho. In a literal translation it means chaotic void. It is found in the second verse of Genesis, which was read for us today. Beginning at verse 1, we read:

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was toehoo vahvohwho and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” This place of chaos, of desperation is our starting point. It is the raw ingredients from which our entire world came into existence.

Through God’s creation, this toehoo vahvohwho mess is separated out, dark from light, sky from water, land from sea. Creation, is inevitably an act of separating what is to become one from what is to become another. Even at a microscopic level we see this act, cells separating, particles pushing away from one another.

There is a story told that the great artist Michelangelo was once asked how he created his famous statue of David. He responded that he simply started with a block of stone and then chipped away everything that wasn’t David. And perhaps this is how we can view our own creation; our experiences sometimes chipping away at us, other times smoothing the rough edges, so that we can become fully who God created us to be.

Now, I am not going to stand here and say that our God is a God who would intentionally inflict pain to makes us better people, or to test us, or because we can handle it. But, I do believe that when we are in the midst of the storm we are to trust that it will indeed get better and to have faith that God’s will will be enacted by how we react to the storms of our lives.

There is an interesting moment in our Mark narrative today, where the disciples’ perspective is changed. In the midst of the storm they cry out to Jesus, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Once he has calmed the storm they are filled with great awe and say to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

In Jesus’ transformative act they are moved from one type of fear, that of panic and fright to another type of fear, that brought about by the awe and reverence of encountering something greater than ourselves.

“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” It’s a good question. Why would the wind and the sea stop at the command of a man? Well, we know that Jesus was more than a man, he was part of the Trinity, He was God incarnate. The wind and the sea obey God because God was the one who created them.

In our passage in Genesis, starting in verse 9 we read, “And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.”

The ocean became ocean by being separated from the dry land.

The hymn we will sing at the end of this service, “God Marked a Line and Told the Sea,” expounds on the meaning of these verses in Genesis. While I won’t read you all the lyrics, the first verse paints a good picture of the text, “God marked a line and told the sea its surging tides and waves were free to travel up the sloping strand, but not to overtake the land.”

As we know all to well, the seas have borders, until they don’t. Tsunamis have killed thousands, wiped out villages, crippled countries. Levee walls have burst, taking homes and lives in the wake. And we don’t even need to look beyond the borders of this town to know the devastation caused by flooding.

Why couldn’t Jesus ask the wind and seas to stop then? Were our prayers not strong enough? Why do such disasters seem to affect the people and places that can least afford such destruction?

We’re not given those answers.

We are, however, given these words in Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult…The LORD of hosts is with us.”

“The Lord of hosts is with us.” These are not empty words, but a promise lived out through the redeeming life of Jesus Christ and the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit. God is present in the midst of our suffering. God’s promise of salvation is an ever echoing, “it gets better,” “it gets better.”

Perhaps instead of being chipped away like Michelangelo’s David we could see ourselves like the ocean depth turned purple mountain range that surrounds us here in Williamstown. Maybe what we are undergoing is not a refinement, but a revelation. When we are able to trust in God’s greater perspective, God’s desire for good in our lives, we are able to see the possibility that though we may feel buried by oceanic depths, we are simultaneously a mountain range yet to be unveiled.

In both the joys and toehoo vahvohwho of our lives, all the raw ingredients of faithfulness are there. We must look to God’s creative hand, guided by eternal perspective to help us separate out what is to be from what is not to be. The words of Paul Simon might be right to call God’s great and beautiful act of creation, “Something unstoppable set into motion, nothing is different, but everything’s changed.” Glory be to God. Amen.


[1] “Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean,” by Paul Simon

[2] “Mark 4:35-41, Commentary on Gospel” by Sharon H. Ringe, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=6/21/2009&tab=4