30 January – Nothing about tomorrow is necessary

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Epiphany 4

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71
Genesis 1:1-5
Luke 4:21-30

In a sentence

We are, as a congregation, at a moment of creation which – if it truly reflects the creative activity of God – is a moment of radical freedom.

The first few verses of Genesis describe what Christian doctrine has come to call God’s creation “out of nothing”. The problem with this is that there is, in fact, not “nothing” in the text but a “formless void” and a “deep.”

“Nothing” is, in fact, impossible to conceive. Try for a moment to think of nothing. It’s like trying to imagine ourselves dead. We imagine ourselves being dead and experiencing that we’re dead, which we wouldn’t be doing because we would be dead, and the dead don’t experience anything. Thinking nothing is like this: nothing always looks like the somethings of the world.

The Genesis text, then, mythologises here not because it is primitive but because the radically creative act it wants to describe requires this kind of trick. We do the same today even in modern physics, when we talk about black hole singularities or invoke the mathematical idea of zero. Like biblical myth, these are kinds of “placeholders” for impossible thoughts that seem necessary – or at least useful – to think.

Because Genesis has to talk about nothingness in thing-ness terms, it speaks not in terms of quantity – whether there is something or nothing – but in terms of quality: form or formlessness. “…the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…” In this, the earth is a “nothing-something”. It’s “there”, but not in any useful or meaningful sense. Creation out of nothing happens when clay takes form as a pot, noise resolves into a melody, or a dead thing stops being dead: when sense drops out of nonsense.

This understanding of nothingness matters for us right now in this place because there is just such a “nothingness” standing on this property, from which we are about to turn in search of a “something”. Perhaps this seems too harsh a characterisation of Union Memorial Church. Yet the point here is not to offend, or to denigrate what it has been for the last 140-odd years. The point is to understand where we are in our need to make decisions and the theological – “faith” – nature of those decisions.

What Genesis says about the “nothing-something” of the earth “prior” to the moment of creation can be said about UMC. It’s “there” but it is not there in any useful or meaningful sense. Again, this doesn’t mean that UMC has not been important but only that its future is now closed to us. While it still has a diminished form, Union Memorial has proven to be a “deep” from which we’ve been unable to extract what we need.

This is a painful reality. But if it is true, the Genesis way of speaking of the beginning of all things enables us to re-cast where we are now, such that we are not at a point of radical loss but at a creation moment.

This way of seeing things matters for what could happen next because an essential dimension of creation out of nothing is that it is not necessary. It is not necessary, in the sense that it is an effect without a cause. The world did not have to be, and it did not have to be like this. The primal nothingness does not have the seed of the world resting within it, about to burst out. It is not an equation that unfolds into the laws of physics from which everything eventually comes to be.

To put it more concretely, creation out of a deep void is an act of utter freedom – the freedom of God to create or not to create, to create us as we have been made, or differently. Or, we might say, it is good and proper that there is no necessary link between our formlessness today and our form tomorrow. We are, as a congregation, at a moment of creation which – if it truly reflects the creative activity of God – is a moment of radical freedom. And so anything is possible

And yet, freedom is corrupted for us: we cannot be radically free if this means everything which has gone before us be counted as nothing. We can’t really cast Union Memorial Church as a formless void because history is continuous. There are no true beginnings in history – everything has something before it. That is, we remember. And, on the conviction that what we have been has been good and godly, we want the next thing to be kind of the same. Yesterday – how we were – this is our nothing-something: it is nothing in that it is gone; it is something in that we don’t simply forget it. The problem becomes that we are a UMC-shaped congregation trying to fit into what has to be a non-UMC-shaped hole.

We are not, then, radically free. And we will experience this unfreedom in two closely-linked places. First, a tension before God: will we make “the right” decision? Freedom demands responsibility, which requires decision, and we always think about decisions in terms of risk: what if we make the wrong choice? This opens up fear and anxiety before God.

Second, the compromise we’ve all agreed upon just by turning up here each week until now has to be renegotiated. And so we will experience unfreedom in tensions between each other: we value the past differently and so would create different futures if we were God.

These two points of tension are inseparable because, of course, what I finally think God wants I hold to be good not only for God and me but also for you. What does faithfulness look like when our freedom is compromised like this?

We heard another creation-out-of-nothing story this morning, although it didn’t sound like one: God’s call to Jeremiah. Hearing God’s call, Jeremiah responds, “I am only a boy”, which we might paraphrase as, “I am a formless void”. Yet God has already answered this objection before Jeremiah makes it: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you…”. That is, it is not you yourself, Jeremiah, but my knowledge of you that will make these things possible. It is not what you know or how good you are, but my call that will matter, for your ministry will be a creation out of nothing.

This holds for us all and is why we baptise infants. A child might be baptised before she has manifested anything other than a capacity to breathe because in baptism the most fundamental thing we declare is that, without God, we are formless and void, and we come into being at the call of God. The baptismal waters are a wet “Let there be…and there was…”

And it is the same with adults. Of course, like an infant, an adult presenting for baptism is not nothing. Yet in that baptism, he looks forward to what God will make of him, not to what he will make of himself.

As for individual children and adults, so also for congregations: we are together now at a baptismal moment. We are not nothing but tomorrow will be a new giving of form to all that we have been, a re-creation of what we are. What happens next has not been pre-determined by what we have already been, if it is this God who is making us.

None of this tells us what to do, but only indicates the spirit in which we will act if God truly creates in freedom and we are children of this God, being the expression of that freedom. The obvious needs in what confronts us have to do with accommodation, continuity and identity, and self-determination. Such things are about what we have already known. Any community needs these things, and so they are not problems in themselves.

Just as important yet much less obvious is that, as we step forward, it is into a deeper Christian identity in Godly freedom. This will be freedom from things we’ve turned into the stuff of God but which really are not and so can be allowed to lapse into nothingness. Christian freedom is freedom to be wrong, and so it is freedom from fear of judgement and the temptation to judge.

We need such freedom, of course, not only in relation to the future of MtE but also in our own personal lives. Mr Palmer and his United Australia Party are right that we are in desperate need of freedom, even if they seem to have no idea what that means.

To be free after the freedom of the truly creative God is to be free to create what is not necessary to carry but will nonetheless be good, and even very good.

Let us, then, in our life together and in the lives which are just our own, imagine not only what seems to be necessary our past into the future but also what is not necessary – a creation out of nothing which comes as light in darkness, life to the dead.

This is God’s new thing among us, which we and the world desperately need.