Formless and Void (Sermon on Genesis 1:1-2:4a)

Text: Genesis 1:1-2:4a

From when I first started reading them at age 12 until Book 7 came out when I was 19, I was—to put it mildly—a tad bit obsessed with Harry Potter. I often spent my free time theorizing about what would happen in the next book or comparing interpretations and predictions with other Potter fans. I daydreamed about attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and I made myself a costume so I could dress up as Hermione Granger for the Book 7 midnight release party at Barnes and Noble. I almost wish I could say otherwise, since it’s so corny and unoriginal to say this, but the Harry Potter series is my favorite book series—and I’ve read a lot of books. But they are wildly popular for good reason: in addition to the incredibly well-developed characters, fascinating storyline, and fun magical world, these books speak powerfully about real life.

As does all good literature, the Harry Potter series explores themes about the human experience and brings to light the ways people feel, think, and act, and the consequences of those actions. Seeing something happen in a fictional story can help us better understand our own lives because we can analyze and understand the fictional example and then apply those lessons to ourselves. We do the same thing when we read any text, including the Bible itself: one aspect of biblical interpretation is looking for the messages that the scriptural stories can teach us about life, God, and ourselves.

In the case of Harry Potter, it’s not surprising that there are infinite topics one could analyze through the lens of these books, since the seven books together total 4,100 pages in the U.S. editions. That’s a lot of material to work with! However, today I want to focus on just one topic, from Book 7: The Deathly Hallows. (This is my favorite of the books, by the way, followed by 6, then 4, but who’s keeping track?) Since it’s been almost exactly 10 years since this book came out, I won’t worry about spoilers—although I do maintain that if you haven’t read these books yet, they’re still very much worth reading!

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, we find our main character, Harry, in his worst situation yet—and he has been through a lot in these past 6 years. You see, Harry is known as “The Boy Who Lived” and even “The Chosen One” because he is the only person in the Wizarding World to have ever survived the killing curse cast by the powerful evil wizard Lord Voldemort. Harry’s parents died in the attack that he survived, at age 1, and Voldemort seemed to die (or at least disappear) in the attempt. Orphaned and living with his neglectful relatives, Harry had no idea of his own backstory until he turned 11. Ever since then, though, Harry has had to fend off attacks from a returning Voldemort and his increasingly bold followers, eventually learning of a prophecy that indicates it is he and he alone who must defeat this dark wizard once and for all.

As if that weren’t enough stress for a teenager, at the beginning of The Deathly Hallows, Harry’s whole world is crumbling. The wise and powerful Professor Dumbledore, who took a special interest in Harry and served as his mentor, guide and even father figure, is now dead. The Ministry of Magic, the wizarding government, is now completely in the hands of Voldemort’s minions, and the first order of business in this new regime is to put a price on Harry’s head. Meanwhile, innocent people are being tortured and killed, and witches and wizards who aren’t “pure blood” enough are being rounded up and robbed of their ability to use magic. And Hogwarts School, the first place in his entire life that Harry ever felt welcome and happy, is too dangerous to go back to. While on the run from the government and with the help of just his two best friends, Ron and Hermione, 17-year-old Harry faces the gargantuan task of defeating the most powerful wizard of all time, before even more innocent lives are lost.

Let’s take a moment and try to imagine what Harry is feeling. Close your eyes and let this situation sink in. Feel how your gut would react to that kind of scenario and pressure. How would it feel to have lost some of your closest loved ones, to witness rising violence and see your entire country nearing the point of catastrophe, to be separated from almost all your friends and mentors, and to singlehandedly have to try to come up with a heretofore unheard of means to bring down the most dangerous person in history?

You can open your eyes again. Maybe you felt a little bit of grit and determination there, which Harry definitely has, but it’s impossible to look at the position he’s in and not feel overwhelmed. All the pressure, the grief, the stress, the danger, the worry, the loss, the fear… If I were him, there’s a very good chance I would have collapsed on the floor in tears at the immensity of it all. The vastness of the task at hand and the utter lack of a clear way forward would likely paralyze me in fear and anxiety. It’s like standing in pitch blackness so deep that you can’t see your hand in front of your face, let alone a safe place to put your foot to take your next step. You may not have any walls or chains holding you back, but you’re totally stuck.

We all have moments like this in some way or another, and they can be debilitating. Maybe things were fine, but something happened to stop us in our tracks. Or maybe things were just hard to begin with, and the fatigue sets in such that we feel like we can’t keep going. The reality is that life is not always (or even often) easy. Countless things can get in our way, and we can find ourselves grasping for dear life at what feels like thin air.

When I was reading our Genesis passage for this week, the second verse really spoke to me: “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep,” (Gen 1:2). The Hebrew phrase תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ (tohu va vohu) has been translated in many different ways. The NRSV calls it “formless and void,” the CEB calls it “without shape or form,” and the Message (which is actually more an interpretation than a translation) calls it “a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness.” Whichever way you choose to think of it, though, the general gist is clear. And this, I think, is what Harry was in the midst of as he set out to try to defeat Voldemort one last time. A formless void. An immense emptiness. A lack of foothold or direction. Nothing to hold on to.

This is not a foreign story in our faith, either. Only a couple months ago, we celebrated Easter. But before the joy of Easter comes the grief of Good Friday and the despair of Holy Saturday. What better example of a formless void and immense emptiness could there be than the feeling the disciples must have had on Holy Saturday? Jesus—the Messiah, their teacher and leader and friend, the one in whom they had put all their hope—was lying dead in a tomb, executed in the most gruesome, painful, and shameful way possible. These disciples had left their livelihoods, their homes, and possibly their families to follow Jesus in the understanding that he was bringing about a new kingdom that would right the wrongs of this world. And yet the Roman occupation still stood strong, and was in fact responsible for Jesus’ death! What were the disciples to think? What clearer sign of the enemy’s victory could there be than them killing your leader? Jesus—the shepherd to their sheep, the vine to their branches, the bread of life—was gone. All those promises he made of a new kingdom of God? Forget them. The disciples must have been utterly devastated and lost, trying to decide if they should try to go back to their old lives as if this never happened or if they should somehow try to continue Jesus’ ministry even though he was so disappointingly gone. After knowing the incomparable Jesus the Christ, who or what could possibly fill this enormous emptiness they were feeling?

Well, there’s one easy answer to that question. Or three answers, depending on how you look at it! As we all know, Jesus was not in fact gone forever; he rose from the dead on the third day and returned to his shocked, awestruck, and at times (understandably) doubting disciples. So in that way, Jesus himself filled the void that his absence had left. But he didn’t stay with the disciples indefinitely; after 40 days, he ascended into heaven and once again left them without his physical presence on earth. All along, of course, God was there with them hearing their thoughts and prayers, although they couldn’t always feel it. So what were they to do at that point? They found out shortly afterward. The week after the Ascension, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came down upon them and inspired them to do amazing works of power! Still today, the Holy Spirit is present throughout the world, continuing Jesus’ work of transforming the world into the kingdom of God. In other words, our Triune God is the answer to the question of who fills that void. Whether in the form of God the Father, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, or all three together, God is the one who makes empty spaces brim with possibility. God is the one who transforms the dying into the living. God is the one who breathes hope and promise into even the darkest and most expansive abyss.

If we look back at that verse from Genesis, we read that “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.” That wind from God is the Holy Spirit. Even at the very beginning of Creation, the Spirit was there. And in the Spirit’s movement, life was breathed into the universe. The vast expanse of nothingness became something. And not only was it something, but it was good. It was light, it was shape, it was life, and it was abundance. The world that God created, with its incredible diversity of plants and animals, of stars and planets, and of billions of beautiful, individually unique human beings, God called “very good” (Gen 1:31). And remember, this complex, orderly, magnificent universe started out as an unruly, desolate expanse of darkness.

I think that normally when we read this passage, we tend to think of it on general terms of the Creation story and not so much on a personal level. After all, Genesis 1 is this beautifully poetic description of the creation of the whole Cosmos, and we are mere individual human beings—tiny specks in the fabric of the universe. This passage is primarily about the world’s history before humans ever entered the picture. And yet, the truths of this story are just as applicable to each of us as they are to the universe. The same God who took a vast, formless abyss of nothingness and transformed it into a splendid tapestry brimming with life is the God who loves and cares for you. The same Spirit who brought light to the universe can bring light into any and every dark situation life might throw at you.

The famous words of Psalm 23 echo this same truth: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me” (v. 4). In those dark valleys of our lives, those moments when it feels like we’re grasping at nothing but air, when the future looks as bright as an oncoming storm cloud, when all we can feel is that tohu va vohu or great emptiness… we are not alone. We are never alone. The Spirit of God who was present at Creation itself is always there, breathing life. The God who created abundance out of nothingness is standing guard over us with rod and staff. And Jesus our brother and our savior has promised, in his very last words to the disciples on the Ascension Day, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

In the case of Harry Potter, he finds these truths in the end as well, although it’s a secular fictional book so it is explained in different terms. He discovers that the answer for how to defeat Voldemort is right in front of him the whole time, in a book that Professor Dumbledore had left with him for that very purpose. And when the time comes to finally face Voldemort in battle, he realizes that he has within himself not only the strength for but also the knowledge of what he must do. (The book characterizes it as intuition, but I think it could just as easily be called the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.) The formless void is no longer formless nor void; the answers are clear, and he is not as alone as he thought! In addition to Dumbledore’s guidance that was with him even before he knew it was there, Harry finds in his most difficult moments that all of his lost loved ones are right there by his side. He realizes the way forward, and goes there in the strength given him by those who love him. And not only is he able to defeat Voldemort, but he does it through his own sacrifice rather than having to meet evil with evil and become a killer himself. There was a way where there had been no way. There was light where there had been darkness. There was hope and a new future when it looked like all was lost.

Here in the real world, we don’t have the luxury of magic wands or of happy endings in the same way as the storybooks; however, we have something even better. We have a God for whom bottomless emptiness is not a cause for fear but rather an invitation to create life! And we have a God for whom death is not the end! Our God not only conquered death once and for all in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, but our same God created the complexities of this universe and continues working through the Holy Spirit to breathe new life and possibilities into the darkest and emptiest parts of our lives and our world. Whether that be the fallout from a conflict or natural disaster, a health or relationship crisis, financial difficulties, overwhelming stress, or even the church’s transition to a new pastor, you are not alone. God has sent the Holy Spirit not only to comfort us, but to draw us forward: to be the lifeline pulling us through the darkness to safety. And when we get to the other side of the void, we can see new life emerging from the shadows. New life that is often as far beyond our wildest imagination as the entire created world is beyond a sea of nothingness! The possibilities are endless, but we can only see them if we take that step of faith in spite of the dark abyss around us. There may be nothing scarier than taking a step forward into the formless void, but we can do so in the full knowledge that the Spirit breathes life into our path and God walks with us every step of the way. Amen.

About carissalick

EL teacher, Christian, activist, learner, wife, mom
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