The Words and Word of God that Create and Renew
Sermon preached by Teva Regule, PhD, as part of 2020 Antiochian Women’s Month at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA on Sunday, March 1, 2020
Glory to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit—one God. Amen.
"Will you be my friend? Come sit with me. I don’t like you. You are not my friend. You were mean to me. I am sorry. I forgive you…" These are some examples of the words one might hear in a classroom full of first graders, and perhaps, with some variation, in our every day adult lives as well. Words carry meaning. They communicate our thoughts and feelings, tell others about who we are and our relationship with them. The can be used to invite, teach, praise, demean, ridicule, forgive, heal, and give hope—to name just a few ways we use our words. In short, words matter! This month, as part of Antiochian Women’s Month, we will be exploring words—the words of God. In particular, we will focus on the words of God that create and renew and the words of the Word of God, Jesus Christ, that teach, forgive, heal and give us hope. We will explore what our Liturgy of the Word says about God, about us, and our relationship to God and one another. Today I will focus on the words and the Word of God that (and who) create and renew.
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…God said ‘Let there be light’…” (Gen. 1:1, 3). These are the first words of God recorded in the Judeo-Christian scriptures. They are also some of the first words that we hear at the beginning of Lent as well as the first words of Scripture read the Paschal Vigil on Holy Saturday. In the early Church and even today, Lent was and remains a period of preparing catechumens for baptism at the Paschal Vigil both physically and mentally. From the accounts of the fourth century (e.g. Cyril of Jerusalem), we know that is was a period of intense instruction. In particular, those to be illumined were given lessons in the Scriptures and the Creed. Today, we have retained this tradition, especially during the weekday services of Lent where we read large sections of Genesis, Proverbs, and Isaiah. So, what do these words of God have to tell us?
Many of us are familiar with the words of this first creation story in Genesis (Gen. 1–2:4a). God speaks creation into existence in six days—the light and darkness, the sky, the earth, vegetation, the stars, the animals and finally, humans. The words of God have power. And then on the seventh day, God rests. Scholars posit that this story was most likely composed during the Babylonian (modern day Iraq) exile in the 6th c. BC as it has resonances with the creation story of the Babylonians, the Enuma Elish. For instance, it uses some of the same structural components. The Babylonian narrative is written on seven tablets analogous to the seven days of creation and in both stories God speaks creation into existence, etc. However, the Hebrew people tell the story differently based on their relationship with their God. Unlike in the Babylonian narrative, the God of the Hebrews gives creation a qualitative distinction, proclaiming that it is “good” (e.g. Gen. 1:12). Furthermore, unlike in the Babylonian narrative where humans were created to be slaves to the gods, human beings in Genesis are considered the pinnacle of creation. We are considered to be “very good” (Gen. 1:31). We are made in the image of God and called to grow into His likeness—to become more God-like. For many of the ancient writers of the faith, to be made in the image of God means that one is endowed with freedom, our free will. This story shows that our God loves and cares for His creation and unlike Aristotle who believed that the world was not dependent on God, we believe that the world does have a relationship with God—one that continues to this day.
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures our God continues to speak to His people. For instance, God warns the first humans not to exercise their free will inappropriately by eating the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 3:3), God admonishes Cain for killing his brother (e.g. Gen. 4:9), threatens to destroy His creation but finds hope in Noah (e.g. Gen. 7:1), and makes a covenant with Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 17: 7–9). Although the world has fallen from its pristine condition, God counsels and guides His people through their trials and tribulations and ultimately becomes one of us, sending His Son, the Word of God to renew creation and draw all back to union with Him.
In the Gospel of John that we read on the First Sunday of Pascha (traditionally at the midnight Liturgy), the newly illumined as well as all the faithful hear the familiar words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...” Echoing the account in Genesis, John proclaims, “All things came into beginning through him…what came to be through him was life…” (Jn. 1:1–2). The Word of God becomes incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In the narrative, Jesus begins his public ministry by being baptized by John in the Jordan river. The Orthodox Church proclaims that Jesus’ descent into the water sanctifies or restores the waters. At the service of the Great Blessing of the Water, we say, “Today the nature of the waters is sanctified, and the Jordan is parted in two; it holds back the steam of its own waters, seeing the Master wash himself.”[i] The readings from the Hebrew Scriptures in that service speak of the wilderness and desert rejoicing and blossoming (Isa. 35) and the mountains and hills breaking forth singing (Isa. 55: 1–13). Creation is renewed. The readings also proclaim that the eyes of the blind and ears of the deaf are opened; the lame walk, and the tongue of the dumb sings (Isa. 35). Humanity is healed. The words and Word of God bring life and renewal. And we believe that this renewal continues to be accessible to us today.
At our own baptism, whether we are baptized as adults at the Paschal Vigil (as in antiquity) or, as for many of us, in our infancy, we become children of God. Baptism is our initiation into the Life of Christ. Through baptism we are born again of water and the Spirit (Jn. 3:5) and begin our Christian journey. We use the elements of our created world to encounter God. Because the Word of God has sanctified the waters, our immersion into water is life-giving. At the Blessing of the Waters for Baptism in the Byzantine rite we call upon the Holy Spirit to sanctify the waters for us—“But do You, O Master of All, [show forth] this water to be water of redemption, water of sanctification, a cleansing of flesh and spirit, a loosing of bonds, a forgiveness of sins, an illumination of soul, a laver of regeneration, a renewal of spirit, a gift of Son-ship, a garment of incorruption, a fountain of life.”[ii] We are then anointed with oil of reconciliation as a “seal of the Holy Spirit.” Finally, we receive the bread of Life.
The goodness of Creation is the basis for our sacramental life. It allows us to encounter God through the created realm. God has created by His words and by His Word, Jesus Christ, he renews creation and all of us, giving us the possibility for not only life, but as Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “Life in abundance” (John 10:10).
[i] Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. Liturgikon: The Book of Divine Services for the Priest and Deacon (N.Y.: Athens Printing Co., 1989), 440.
[ii] Fr. N. M. Vaporis, ed., An Orthodox Prayer Book (Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1977), 60.