The First Sunday after Epiphany
Scripture Reading: Genesis 1:1-5
Six Days of Creation and the Sabbath
1 In the beginning when God created[a] the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God[b] swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
6 And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 8 God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
9 And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 11 Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. Read full chapter
- Genesis 1:1 Or when God began to create or In the beginning God created
- Genesis 1:2 Or while the spirit of God or while a mighty wind
“Words and Worlds”
Words, like human beings, have a lifespan. They come and they go. When’s the last time you heard someone use the expression “carbon copy,” tell someone not to “take any wooden nickels,” or moan that their team got a good “shellacking” in a game?
Every year, the folks at Wayne State University release a list of seldom-used words that they think deserve another chance. Anagapesis was first on their list for 2021. It means losing the feelings you once had for someone you loved.
They also included snollygoster, which is a shrewd, unprincipled person, and footle, to engage in useless activity or waste time.
Lake Superior State University’s annual Banished Words List does just the opposite. They look for words folks are quite comfortable with never hearing again.
Which word, do you think, came in first for 2020? If you guessed COVID-19, you’re right! Social distancing was close behind at number two. Two also-rans are “flatten the curve” and “new normal.”
I know we all look forward to the day when the word COVID disappears from our vocabulary. We aren’t only tired of hearing it. There’s more to it than that.
The Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel said, “words create worlds.” The kind of world that COVID creates is one of illness, anger, fear, separation, and death. None of us ever want to live in that world again.
Heschel’s daughter Susannah later said of her father:
Words, he often wrote, are themselves sacred, God’s tool for creating the universe, and our tools for bringing holiness—or evil — into the world. He used to remind us that the Holocaust did not begin with the building of crematoria, and Hitler did not come to power with tanks and guns; it all began with uttering evil words, with defamation, with language and propaganda. Words create worlds, he used to tell me when I was a child. They must be used very carefully. Some words, once having been uttered, gain eternity and can never be withdrawn.
Words create worlds. That’s certainly true in today’s verses from Genesis.
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.
The Genesis story doesn’t begin with God thinking. It starts with God speaking. God creates the world using words.
Our words create worlds, too—not physical worlds, mind you, but real worlds, nonetheless. These worlds are the lenses we look through as we interpret and filter events, people, opinions, and facts.
Those same lenses can also change how others see themselves, and so shape the decisions they make and the lives that they live.
Name calling is a good example.
I know, I know, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Bull manure! Name calling is one of the most hurtful, painful, and damaging forms of bullying there is.
Name calling tries to shape the world that others live in. It doesn’t matter what words you use. The hurtful, harmful message is the same. “You’re not good enough.” “You don’t belong.” “You’re worthless.”
Name calling eats away at self-esteem. Call a person “stupid” long enough, and they’ll start to believe it. Call someone “fat,” and they may see themselves as overweight even if they aren’t, sowing the seeds of a later eating disorder.
Name calling can make us give in to peer pressure, doing something we know is wrong just to fit in or to make the bullying stop.
Name calling can make people angry or withdrawn, lonely and despairing. It’s all too common, I’m afraid, to hear of young children who committed suicide because of cyberbullying and name calling.
Name calling opens the door to violence. If you really think you’re better than someone, why stop with name calling? Why not discriminate against them, or even kill them, as Hitler did to the Jews in Heschel’s time?
Name calling can even turn people into their own bullies, calling themselves hurtful names like “loser” every time they make a mistake.
Name calling can raise our blood pressure, affect our appetite, keep us awake at night or pound us with round after round of headaches or stomach aches.
Words create worlds—and, sometimes, those worlds are rings of hell that trap and torture others. It doesn’t have to be that way. God called creation “good.” We can use our words to create good worlds as well.
- We can build worlds that embrace the dignity of all people, worlds that recognize the value of every human life.
- We can build worlds where the needy are cared for, worlds that work toward the common good.
- We can use our words to create good worlds where racism, sexism, bullying and stereotyping don’t exist.
The writer of the book of James believed in the power of words to create worlds, too. He also knew that some of the worlds our words create are far from the good creation God intended.
In the first chapter, he writes, “If any think they’re religious, and don’t bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” That was just a warmup pitch. In chapter 3, he really tells us what he thinks.
A whole forest can be set ablaze by a tiny spark of fire. The tongue is as dangerous as any fire, with vast potentialities for evil. It can poison the whole body; it can make the whole of life a blazing hell.
No one can tame the human tongue. It’s an evil always liable to break out, and the poison it spreads is deadly. We use the tongue to bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those made in the likeness of God. Blessing and curses come out of the same mouth—surely, my sisters and my brothers, this sort of thing ought never happen.
Surely this sort of thing ought never happen. Since words create worlds, we need to use language that speaks to the equality of the human beings created by God, and words that express the truth, love, and mercy of Jesus.
On the first day, God brought order out of chaos and light out of darkness. You and I, friends, we can do the same, with the words we speak today.