“Out of Nothing”
June 10, 2007 - Second Sunday after Pentecost
Creation out of Nothing
Our belief that God created all things stands behind much of what we think and do as Christians. Yet we seldom discuss the doctrine of creation, except when it comes in conflict with competing views of the origin of the universe, usually for us a conflict with contemporary science. But creation is the starting point for the Bible and for ancient Christian statements of faith such as the Apostles’ Creed. Jesus Christ is the center of Christian faith, but we are called to believe in Him as the Son of God the Father, who is “the maker of heaven and earth.”
Our theology of creation is important because the Christian idea of creation is different from other religious or scientific views of how the universe began. The key to the Christian doctrine of creation is expressed in the formula that God created the world ex nihilo, “from nothing.” It’s not mentioned often in the Bible. Romans 4:17, Hebrews 11:3 and Job 26:7 are the only texts for the doctrine, other than the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 and the prologue to John’s Gospel. Yet it’s clear enough. God did not begin creating with any pre-existing material. He did not create like we create, using materials, tools, and patterns that exist before we begin to work. God speaks and creation happens. His only tool is His Word. His creation is completely His. He makes all of it.
So God’s creation from nothing is different from ancient mythologies and from contemporary cosmologies. In mythology the universe is created by a god or gods from stuff that existed before that god, sometimes the body of another god. In scientific cosmology the universe begins with a “big bang” which does not occur out of nothing, but from a “cosmic singularity” for which there is no cause or explanation. Or some cosmologists attempt to show that the universe always existed, that there is a “steady state” which has no cause and needs no explanation. In contrast, creation ex nihilo places the beginning of the universe squarely in the will of the One God, who created it with no help and no limitations from anything that existed before.
Practically, that means the creation is wholly an expression of God’s love. He created the universe because He wanted to create it. Nothing that exists had to exist or arose simply by chance. The world is a gratuitous creation, a product of grace rather than necessity or chance. Creation from nothing is our first glimpse of the overflowing love that is God’s nature, the love which ultimately brings Jesus to the Cross and to the Resurrection which redeems His beloved creation.
Creation ex nihilo teaches us that God can work even with nothing. What He can do does not depend on anything or anyone else. Situations that appear completely empty are the arena for God’s power. It is not by accident that Romans 4:17 connects God’s creation from nothing with the fact that He gives life to the dead. The creative power of God can fill any void, even the empty darkness of death.
“Better head for Jerry’s” is a familiar and well-loved advertising tag line here in Eugene. And Beth and I were more than happy to welcome a new Jerry’s home store to Springfield a few years ago. Our repairs and domestic projects became that much easier. Plants and garden supplies, plumbing parts or light fixtures, lumber and nails, it’s all right there in a huge store that stocks all the tools and materials we might need.
It’s totally different for God. When He made heaven and earth, He made no list of materials for a trip to the cosmic lumberyard. Nobody filled His order for a few gazillion hydrogen atoms, a celestial truckload of heavier elements, and a bazillion tubes of gravity to paste it all together. God didn’t need to head for Jerry’s, Universe Depot, or anywhere else. God began His creation with absolutely nothing.
So Genesis starts “In the beginning God…” That’s all there was in the beginning, only God. And then we are told God spoke, “Let there be light,” and the light shined. God spoke and the whole world came to be. Our recent look at the doctrine of God’s Word tells the same story. John chapter 1 says, “In the beginning was the Word…” God’s voice began everything that exists. His one building tool was His Word, and He used no materials.
Creation ex nihilo, creation from nothing, won’t make the top ten of popular Christian doctrines. We spend a lot more time thinking about the love of God, Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the promise of forgiveness and salvation. But believing that God created our universe from nothing is crucial to our faith. We must believe what it says here in Romans 4:17, that God “calls the things that are not as though they are,” if we want to believe what it says in Romans 8:39, that there is not anything which “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Suppose, as in Babylonian mythology or in Plato’s philosophy or in Mormon theology, that God started with something when He created. That He had materials to work with. Suppose there was some kind of stuff there before creation and all God did was give it shape and order. Or maybe start where science does and say there was a singularity that exploded in the Big Bang or that the material universe itself has just always been there. Just suppose that God didn’t start with nothing, but with something, and it changes everything about what God can and can’t do.
When we were first married, Beth made drapes for our apartment. She got a book and learned how to measure the window, sew in lining and form the pleats. She drew countless diagrams and visited dozens of fabric stores to find the right colors. And along the way she discovered that there were uncontrollable factors governing how she made drapes. She found a fabric pattern she liked, but then realized that to span our window, she would have to make seams. But to make the pattern match along the seams she would have to buy extra fabric. The material constrained her construction. And if God made the universe out of pre-existing stuff, whether formless matter as Plato said or a singularity as cosmology says, it would constrain Him too. If God used materials, they limit what He can do.
You architects and engineers among us would say the same thing. Using certain materials, be it wood, steel or concrete, means a building can only be so high, a bridge can only span so far. If you’re writing software, the programming language, the hardware platform and the bits of pre-existing code you use will all partially determine what your program can do. Materials create limitations, create factors beyond the control of the creative process.
But God created from nothing, so nothing limited His control over what He made. When God made heaven and earth, it was perfect, just exactly what He wanted it to be. It’s not perfect now, but only because God chose to give up control. Out of love, He created a world where some things other than His own will would have a say in how it went. He allowed chance to operate in the material realm and free will to operate in the human realm. But that was all God’s choice, not necessity. And when it comes to setting it all right, bringing the world back to the perfection God wants for it, there is not anything that will limit or stop God from doing what He intends to do.
The alternative is to believe that the world we live in is not all God’s creation. That at least some of it came from somewhere else, that God couldn’t and didn’t plan for it, that He’s not really in control. And in that case, you and I find ourselves in a world where some things don’t make sense, where events happen but have no meaning, where life is a dark mystery and no light penetrates the darkness. Like a forest so thick the sunlight never hits the ground.
Like a forest. Ken Kesey wrote a novel about one family’s encounter with the forest. Sometimes a Great Notion was made into a Paul Newman movie. It tells the story of a logging family on the Oregon coast trying to keep their business and their way of life against the odds in difficult times. It’s a story of events beyond anyone’s control.
A number of terrible accidents happen to this family and their community as they defy the union to keep working their logs. Their trucks are burned, one man drowns, another is electrocuted, and another has his arm crushed by a falling tree. At one point Newman’s wife tries to get him to stay home, to give up, but her father-in-law eggs him on to work. “What’s it all for?” she asks the old man, played by Henry Fonda.
“Well, don’t you know”, he says, “to keep on goin’, that’s what. To work and sleep and eat and drink and keep on goin’.”
“And that’s all?” she asks him.
“Honey sweet,” he calls her, “that’s all there is. That’s the whole ball of wax.”
If you don’t believe in God’s creation of the world from nothing that really is the whole ball of wax. You live in a world that has no point, a world of pointless accidents. You live in the world described by atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell:
Brief and powerless is man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow fall, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day.
It’s easier than we might think to believe that Ken Kesey and Bertrand Russell are right. That there’s nothing more to this world, than to “keep on goin’,” maybe thinking a few lofty thoughts along the way, but all of it coming to nothing in the end. It’s easy to find ourselves in that dense, dark forest of the heart and the mind where no sunlight ever touches. I have to confess that I’ve been wandering around in there quite a bit lately.
In Tolkein’s The Hobbit, little Bilbo and his dwarf companions find themselves in a literal dark forest. The terrible expanse of Mirkwood is a canopy of trees stretching for leagues and leagues, shutting out the sun and enclosing them in gloomy darkness for days. Their only hope, their one guiding rule is to stay on the path and it will bring them out. If they only have hope and courage and follow the path, they will reach the end of the forest.
But at one very low moment, with the food and water gone, the dwarves despair. They send Bilbo up a tree to get above the leaves and try to see the end of the horrible forest. But, “Gaze as much as he might, he could see no end to the trees and the leaves in any direction.” No way out, nothing.
Tolkien then wrote,
Actually, as I have told you, they were not far off the edge of the forest; and if Bilbo had had the sense to see it, the tree that he had climbed, though it was tall in itself, was standing near the bottom of a wide valley, so that from its top the trees seemed to swell up all round like the edges of a great bowl, and he could not expect to see how far the forest lasted. Still he did not see this, and he climbed down full of despair.
That’s how it is for us as Christians when we look round us and see nothing but nothing, no way out of whatever valley we are in. If we could only see it, the way out of darkness and nothingness is not far off at all. As Tolkien said more than once in the Hobbit, if we only keep up our courage and our hope we will come out into the sunlight once again.
Creation ex nihilo is mentioned at the beginning of Hebrews 11, in verse 3. The writer is about to begin the roll call of the greatest heroes of faith. Those who trusted God in the worst circumstances. Those who believed God for the impossible. Those who loved God enough to die for Him. But before writing down that list of the faithful, the writer stops to say that God created out of nothing, “that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” Faith, faith in the worst circumstances is the absolute conviction that God can take a whole lot of nothing, and make something out of it.
In our text today, specifically in Romans 4:17, Paul also tells us what creation out of nothing means to faith. He’s talking about Abraham as the father of everyone who believes, the father of faith itself. The God in whom Abraham believed, in whom he had faith, is “the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they are.” Both those thoughts in the same sentence: God gives life to the dead, and call things that are not as though they are. It’s the same thing, to take what’s nothing and make it something, to take the dead and make it alive. That’s how it all began. And that’s how it all continues. It’s what God does. He calls the dead back to life. He makes something out of nothing.
So verse 18 gives us this marvelous word: “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed.” Here in verse 19, Paul explains that Abraham first believed that God could bring children out of his old, “as good as dead” body. In Hebrews 11:19, we’re told that Abraham, when it seems the son God gave him was supposed to die, “reasoned that God could raise the dead.” He believed God could make something out of nothing.
We find the same truth in our Gospel lesson today. Here’s a poor widow woman. She’s already lost her husband, which almost always meant poverty and destitution in ancient times. Now her only hope, her only son lies dead too. She has nobody. She has nothing. And the heart of Jesus, which is the heart of God, went out to her. He reached out and made her nothing into something. He raised her boy from the dead.
Grace was a woman in the first church I served. She was never able to come to church while I was there because her body had failed her. She had been a tall, graceful woman, but in old age her spine curved over until she could barely stand. Sitting even in soft furniture was often painful. So I would visit and take her communion.
Grace knew about making things. She would always show me what she had been making. Her hands were strong and clever and she would make wonderful Christmas ornaments for children in the class her granddaughter taught. We shared communion and I would pray for her. Then her eyes would twinkle and she would take out a little index card and she would pray—a prayer she had made and typed out carefully before I arrived. She always included a prayer for me. That was Grace.
One day I had to go to the hospital to see Grace. She had pneumonia. She was dying. I took communion because I knew it would be important to her. But when I got there she was not. Oh, I found the room and she was in the bed, but she was not there. She was in a coma. I put out a hand and shook her gently. She didn’t respond. There was nobody there, nothing. I would have looked foolish then if anybody had looked. I took a bit of bread, dipped it in grape juice and touched it to those lips where nobody was home. I said, “Grace, this is the body and blood of Jesus Christ, broken and shed for you. May it be grace and healing and life for you. Amen.” I waited awhile. Nothing. So I left. There was nothing else to do.
The next day Grace woke up. A few days later she went home. She lived six more months, made more crafts, brought joy to her family and took communion from me again. She was nothing lying there in that hospital room and God made her something again for awhile. “He calls the things that are not as though they are.” He raises the dead.
That’s what it means to believe that God created the world out of nothing. It means to believe that any empty space or any absence is not what it seems. Because where there is nothing, God can work. He can bring life. He can call something that isn’t and make it be. He can call someone that’s dead and make her live.
I want you to look at your empty spaces. If you’re poor, look at your checkbook. If you’re lonely, look at your empty calendar. If you’re too busy, look at the weeks without a day of rest. If you’re missing someone, look at a grave, or an empty chair. Feel that nothingness deep down. I’m feeling empty spaces in my own heart, in my ministry here, in my life. But remember that’s where God began when He made the world. It all started with nothing and God made something out of it. Look at all the voids and gaps and absences in your life. God wants to fill them. God creates out of nothing.
God takes nothing and fills it with something. He takes death and turns it into life. He can fill the nothingness in your life and in mine. God changed the world’s nothing into something. And when through our sin the nothing snuck back into His creation, when our lives and our relationships and our hearts got holes in them, God came to us. He came into the world Himself to feel our emptiness. He filled peoples’ stomachs and healed their bodies. Then He let us hang Him up on a Cross and make holes in Him. He took all those holes, all that emptiness, and filled it with grace. As Philippians 2:7 says, Jesus Christ emptied Himself, made Himself nothing, so that we, so that His world could be something again.
God calls you by name and raises you out of nothing into someone. His grace is there for you. If you feel like your heart is empty, then it’s ready for God. If you feel like you’ve got nothing to offer, then He has something for you. In Jesus the power and grace that made a universe out of nothing are ready to make something out of you.
Creation ex nihilo is more than one flimsy step on the porch of theology. It’s a bench to sit down upon. It’s a place to rest. It’s hope. It’s a call to mission, a call to courage, a call to keep going forward in hope, knowing that God can make us what He wants us to be. And nothing can stop God—not even nothing can stop God.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj