In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
These are the opening words to story of God’s work in the world as recorded in scripture. In the beginning, God created, and what God created was formless and void and there was darkness. Darkness and the Spirit of God hovering.
That Spirit of God hovers over all the stories we find in scripture because the scriptures are at work telling us the ever-unfolding story of God’s presence and activity in the world. It is a story that is steeped in darkness over and over again, and a story that exposes God’s relentless pursuit of peace and justice, of shalom – a thriving life, for all of creation. This is a pursuit that God does not carry out alone. Instead, God has, for millennia, invited and continues to invite people to join in the work of creating peace, justice, and shalom in and for the world.
That same Spirit of God is hovering in the Isaiah text today:
The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me,
That Spirit that hovered over the deep and then set about the work of creation is at work here too, once again, bringing about something new:
the LORD has anointed me:
God has sent me to bring good news to those who are poor;
to heal broken hearts;
to proclaim release to those held captive
and liberation to those in prison;
to announce a year of favor from YHWH,
and the day of God’s vindication;
to comfort all who mourn,
to provide for those who grieve in Zion –
to give them a wreath of flowers instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of tears,
a cloak of praise instead of despair.
These are words of hope, of comfort, of transformation. They are a cause for joy and rejoicing. And in their original context, they were especially meaningful for a people who had been in exile as they returned home, to Jerusalem, to rebuild their holy city. They are words that we long to hear in our own time and place. We long to hear good news, we long for healing, for release, and comfort. And we can hear those messages in this scripture – we can even embrace them and make space for them in our own lives. Yet this message isn’t a message for us to simply receive and linger in. It is also a message for us to participate in.
The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me: to take part in the story of God’s work in the world as it arcs towards shalom for all of creation.
We are not only recipients of the words of comfort, hope, and joy from this text, we are also empowered to share that comfort, hope, and joy with others by joining in the work of creating a world actively rooted in and sustained by God’s peace and justice so that all things do not simply survive, they thrive. In living out love, we join forces with that hovering Spirit, becoming co-creators of healing, freeing, life-giving moments even in the presence of brokenness, captivity, and oppression.
To be a creator can be daunting. In the first moments when I start making a new piece of art, I always seem to find myself at a crossroads of fear and exhilaration. Looking at a blank space and knowing that something is about to be created is scary. What if it doesn’t work the way I envision it in my head? What if it turns out ugly? What if I fail completely? Cutting across that path of fear is the path of possibility. What will come of this exploration? What might I discover in the process? What if I find a composition that is balanced and the outcome is unexpectedly meaningful? It is with that fear and possibility in tension that I have to make a choice – will I step back and not create because I am afraid of what might come – or – will I step forward and engage in the process to see what I might create and discover?
I’ve been reading the Neverending Story, a fantasy novel by Michael Ende. It is a curious tale about a young boy named Bastian Balthazar Bux. In his personal life, Bastian is not a confident adventurer, instead, he suffers the effects of bullying at school and lives with the on-going grief of having lost his mother at a young age. He finds escape from the confinement of his own life in books. The book tells the tale of Bastian reading the Neverending Story – an epic saga about a land called Fantastica, which turns out to be a book like no other Bastian has read. Instead of simply reading the story, the further he gets into the book, Bastian finds that he, himself is a character within the story and that he has to make a choice about whether or not he will enter the pages of the book as a participant, or stay tucked away in the attic as a reader.
As Bastian lingers over his decision, vacillating between fear and exhilaration at the thought of becoming an active participant in the story, Fantastica itself is dying. It is stuck in a loop, repeating its own story over and over again, each time getting to the moment where there is an opportunity for Bastian to enter the story and change the trajectory. Each time Bastian fails to take action the tale starts again from the beginning and the world of Fantastica crumbles a bit more as it lives in the tension of its suffering state while attempting to cling to the hope of the possibility of change. By the time Bastian has witnessed enough suffering and finally chooses to enter the story and take action, all that is left of Fantastica is a small grain of sand.
And yet, that small grain is enough. That grain, in Bastian’s hand, becomes a seed that grows into a new Fantastica that expands as Bastian courageously takes up the task of joining in the creation of something new. [And don’t worry if you think I have now spoiled the book for you – the tales that come in the process of rediscovering and creating Fantastica are more than half of the book – so there are more lessons to be learned if you desire to read it.] As I said earlier, being part of creating something can be scary stuff. It is an unknown path. Sometimes the things that come from it are indeed ugly and sometimes there are outcomes of unexpected and unfathomable beauty.
We don’t have to choose to participate in the story of God’s love in the world, but if we hesitate and sit back the hurting, suffering, oppression, and captivity that are a very real part of the world for all of us, in so many different ways, has the opportunity to linger and repeat itself over and over. And beyond that, when we fail to take action to change paths of suffering, we have the potential to become contributors and participants in the oppression of others. When we step into the story and join in the creative work of the hovering Spirit we embrace the possibility that there can be a break in cycles of pain, injustice, and isolation. Through love and action, we fuel hope and foster joy as we offer a new opportunities for life and connection.
And if that feels daunting and overwhelming, listen to this, again from Isaiah 61:
My God clothed me with a robe of deliverance
and wrapped me in a mantle of justice,
the way a bridegroom puts on a turban
and a bride bedecks herself with jewels.
God does not invite us to participate in the story of Love in the world and then abandon us to flail. God equips us, empowers us, anoints us, and journeys with us to see it through. And God gives us role models of faithful living to help us learn and encourage us in the unexpected journey towards God’s shalom. Jesus, whose birth we wait for and celebrate in this season, is a role model for us, and he too had role models of courageous faith in his life in his mother Mary and his aunt Elizabeth. Professor Jan Cather Weaver, of United Theological Seminary, puts it like this:
Mary and Elizabeth were women living in a time when, not unlike aspects of today, religion had become fossilized, seeking to control society rather than transform society. They, however, sought to live radically faithful lives in response to the call from their God. Not unexpectedly, these women lived lives like those of their soon-to-be-born sons. Do we think John and Jesus just “knew” how to live radically faithful lives? How to be preachers? How to be as eloquent as the Magnificat? How to be healers? John and Jesus knew how to live radically faithful lives because they were sons of two women who had faithfully faced a terrifying yet expectant reality.
A life of faithful participation in the story of God in the world is not meant to be easy. It doesn’t instantly remove the challenges, injustice, suffering and oppression that are woven into the times in which we live. It never has. Mary and Elizabeth testify to that in their willingness to joyfully carry and birth children in the midst of culturally challenging realities. The exiles who were offered the words of comfort and inspiration from Isaiah were returning home with hope of newness restoration and yet they returned to a city still in the throes of power struggles, there was no refurbished temple awaiting them, life was complicated. And yet all of them clung to the comfort, the hope, the joy that God was with them and that God’s presence is one that is always turning towards justice, towards restoration, towards shalom.
In this season of Advent we are once again waiting expectantly for the in-breaking of God’s presence into the world in new and unexpected ways. This is a time in which it is easy to feel overwhelmed by darkness, by the seemingly formless voids surrounding us. Yet advent is a time that calls us to attention, it reminds us to look up and around for signs of the hovering spirit willing and waiting to join with us to create something new even in the face of darkness.
In the beginning, surrounded by darkness and the formless void, the Spirit said:
And it was.
And it was good.
The calling forth of light wasn’t the end of creation, it was only one step in a longer, ongoing process, but it was a moment of goodness, of hope, of joy. Likewise, our actions to offer support and messages of hope, solidarity and comfort to those in need around us are not resolutions to the root cause of suffering, but they are seeds of hope, joy, comfort, and justice.
- When I drive down the streets of my neighborhood and see rainbow flags bearing the slogan: “No Hate in 21228”, I know that my queer family is not fully protected from those that might choose to do us harm, but those flags offer me moments to take a deep breath and remember that there are those who choose love and support first and I take comfort and experience joy in that.
- In the past two weeks as Antonia Alvarez has fasted and protested outside of congress on behalf of her Dreamer kids at risk with the repeal of DACA, visits from Cindy, Katrina, Beuford, Corinna and others didn’t create a new Dream Act to ease the fear and danger they are living under, but those visits offered Antonia encouragement, support, and a reminder that not all in this country are on a bandwagon to see her kids deported to a country that is not their home.
- When we offer words of love, support, and sympathy to friends or beloveds who are going through times of grief, we don’t take away the pain and transition in which they are living, but we are, in those moments, bearers of light, and as artist and author Jan Richardson puts it: it is no small thing to bear witness to the light when everything seems dark.
The Spirit of the LORD God is upon us, because the Lord has anointed us: to take part in the story of God’s work in the world as it arcs towards shalom for all of creation. That is good news, it is hope and joy and seeds of justice. Rejoice, for the one who calls you is trustworthy, and will see this through. May it be so!
As we sing the song of response we want to offer an opportunity for anointing.
No matter where you are on the path in this moment, whether you are in need of words of comfort, hope, and joy, or in a place of energy and action able to offer those words to others, you are invited to come forward and receive anointing for the on-going journey and a reminder that what we wait for in this season, is already in our midst: Emmanuel: God with us.