On the first Sunday of this New Year our first reading comes from the first verse of the first chapter of the Bible. We may long for renewal in January, a new start. Given the scripture’s dim view of human will power, we are right to be suspicious of New Year’s resolutions. But, that doesn’t mean that we are without hope for renewal, for a fresh beginning, for things to get better. It’s just that our trust is in the God who makes all things new, rather than in ourselves, who seem to be experts at making all the same mistakes over and over again!
Our passage from Genesis talks not about re-newal, but about something entirely new. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 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. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.”
At the risk of turning this sermon into an English class lecture, I want to begin with a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins that speaks about God speaking light into the world. And not just God’s original “let there be light” but the renewal of light and hope that is ever present in the world. Hopkins was a 19th century English poet as well as a Jesuit priest.
Poetry is sometimes hard to absorb, so I will read it slowly, and with some comment. The poem is called “God’s Grandeur.” The first stanza opens with the emphatic declaration that creation shows off God’s great glory. Much like the psalmist how says, “the heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of this hands.” Hopkins then asks why we don’t recognize God’s authority (“reck his rod”), after which he describes the kind of blind and mundane toil that is human life.
So, here we go.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
We are all too familiar with the trod, trod, trod, seared, trade, bleared, smeared, smudge, toil of life. I read an article this past week about how people have lots of difficulty returning to work after the Christmas holiday. If you had a wonderful time with friends and family and food, it is hard to return to the grind. And even if your holiday was difficult, you still struggle with disappointed expectations and the return to the sameness of days. Maybe this is part of the reason that we are looking for some light, some renewal in the New Year.
In the poem’s second stanza, Hopkins asserts that God’s light and renewal are sewn into the fabric of creation, the dawn of each new day. Nothing that we do or don’t do can dim God’s glorious work.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
This stanza recalls our reading from Genesis this morning – the original creation, re-created with each new morning. Although no formal doctrine of the Trinity existed in the mind of the writer of Genesis, we see what Hopkins describes as the Holy Ghost brooding over the bent world. God’s wind swept over the dark formless void to bring light.
I love nature. I feel refreshed when I’m connected to nature. I get depressed in New York City by the endless urbanity of it. When people tell me that they are spiritual and not religious and that they find God in nature, I can sympathize. Certainly, God’s presence isn’t restricted to a church building. It is good and reassuring news that there lives the dearest freshness deep down in things.
But, there are some limitations with that reasoning. The first is that nature will kill you. The recent frigid weather is responsible for many deaths this past week. I mean, all the sudden everyone is talking about a “bomb cyclone”; I don’t know exactly what that is, but it sure doesn’t sound good. Yes, there is the sunset and the piercingly beautiful slant winter light. But there is also the hurricane; just ask Houston or Miami.
The second reason is that nature isn’t enough for us in our need for comfort and help in our day to day lives. God’s general revelation in nature is wonderful, but we need more than a witness to God’s glory when our own lives feel like a formless void shrouded in darkness. Sadly, Hopkins’ later life was marked by despair. The brilliant depicter of God’s grandeur also wrote, “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.” And because sometimes we all wake to feel the fell of dark, not day, thankfully, God gives us more than his handiwork; He gives us Himself.
We see this right from the beginning. The scripture says, “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” Again, we see the presence of the triune God in creation. God speaks light into existence; Jesus is the Word of God. Jesus was there in the beginning and is still here today.
I love Eugene Peterson’s version of what St. Paul says about this in his letter to the Colossians. “We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment.”
This New Year we may be on the lookout for God’s grandeur in our lives. Ironically, God’s grandeur is shown most fully in what is the opposite of grand. In the fullness of time, God gave himself to us in Christ, born in a manger. Jesus was born for us to die for us. The dereliction of the cross is God’s deepest display of grandeur, totally unrecognized at the time, but exactly what you and I need.
He is what we have needed from the beginning and what we need as we begin a New Year. For, as Colossians say, “all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross.”