10 Jan – Let all creation dance! – Genesis 1:1-5, Mark 1:4-11

The opening lines of Genesis – so familiar to us – are full of drama and energy – and even dance!

“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…” Or – as the word for wind is also the word for Spirit – “while the Spirit of God swept over the waters.”

Associate Professor of Homiletics and Hebrew, Valerie Bridgeman writes, “The word translated ‘moved’ or ‘swept’ is merahepet, a piel feminine participle, which could just as well be translated ‘fluttered’ or ‘shimmied’.” In the beginning the Spirit of God shimmied over the earth, swaying and dancing, strutting her stuff to create, to invite, to entice the world into being!

All this sounds beautiful and evocative and dance is a form of expression human beings and human societies have used for thousands of years to celebrate life, to affirm life and to create life. There is Chinese pottery from the Neolithic period showing groups of people dancing. Egyptian tomb paintings from 3,300 BC that do the same. The Bible and the Talmud make numerous references to dance and contain over 30 different dance terms. As recently as this New Year, Dr Kerrie Chant, the NSW Public Health Officer, was apologising for being a ‘party pooper’, for banning people from dancing.

But what if you can’t dance!

I am a reluctant dancer. It might be an innate lack of ability – too uncoordinated – or my personality – too introverted – or the legacy of my Baptist upbringing? Whatever it is, when I think of ‘dancing like nobody’s watching’ – with people watching  – I struggle.

The Christian musician, Ken Medema, describes going to a town in the south of the US to do a concert and the youth of the town throwing him a party in a fancy Southern mansion. They had a jukebox, he says, playing his favourites from the late 50’s and there were around a hundred kids dancing. But he – the guest of honour – wasn’t dancing. He also describes himself as an introvert and comes from a religious tradition that frowns on dancing and he was born almost completely blind. But halfway through the evening, a 14-year-old girl came and asked him to dance.

“I can’t dance,” he said.

“Yes, you can,” she said.

“No, I really can’t. I never learned how.”

“Well, I’ll teach you.” And she dragged him out onto the floor and they danced the rest of the night to Fats Domino classics.

And the next day he played this song in church…

She asked me to dance. I’d never tried dancing before.

I had visions of everyone laughing me right off the floor.

“No,” I protested, “it just wouldn’t be any good.”

She gently insisted. Finally, I told her I would.

Unforgettable. She was a fresh breath of spring on my cold winter’s day.

Unforgettable. She taught this singer to sing a whole new way.

And that is how the Spirit of God is described at the beginning of the world, as an unforgettable breath of new life, as an unforgettable song of joy, as a dancer delighting in and inviting life and hope and shape from the watery, primordial chaos.

It was an image that sustained the people of Israel during the upheaval and faith corroding chaos of their captivity in Babylon, when these words in Genesis were written, that God was the creator, that the sovereignty of the Babylonian empire was not the final reality, that God would continue to bring life and hope and shape into the world. And although they could not escape the daily reality of life in captivity, they could draw down on this brooding, incubating presence of the Holy Spirit themselves, as they tentatively found the new life and new hope and shape they needed as a community to continue being part of the movement of God.

And it is this image that is evoked again when Jesus is baptised in the river Jordan by John. As he comes up from the water the writer of Mark describes the Spirit descending, hovering, shimmying, and shaking all over him. God is again delighting in creation, “You are my beloved Son…”and again declaring that through Jesus the Spirit of God will continue to reshape, to reinvigorate, to revive the earth; that even when the steps of the dance take Jesus to the darkest places in our world, to the cross, to the tomb, to death; the Spirit of God will bring resurrection. The life of God will leap up again. The dance will continue.

What about now? What about the chaos and upheaval of the present time? Are we aware of the movement, the invitation of the Spirit, in our lives?

At the start of quarantine, Miriam and I binged on episodes of the BBC dance show, Strictly Come Dancing. I’ve never watched a dance show before; never been into Dancing with the Stars, but this most recent season of Strictly was fascinating. Firstly, for the Covid protocols they developed for it to happen at all! And for the sense of intimacy among the cast who spent a lot of  time together in quarantine or in ‘dance bubbles’, and without a studio audience. (There was a gorgeous moment where the ‘mean judge’ Craig Revel Horwood gave a low score and people booed, and he responded, “Ten people in a room don’t scare me!”) But the loveliest thing was the unlikely winner. The Guardian put it this way. “Who could have possibly predicted this awful joke of a year would deliver us Bill Bailey as its saviour?” Most of you know the British comedian and actor Bill Bailey. He was tipped to last for a few weeks, scraping by on sheer charisma before eventually bowing out. But according to The Guardian, “By some extraordinary fluke…the man could dance. More than dance, in fact. He was a whirlwind of unabashed grace.” And the report concludes. “We all desperately needed something…. We needed joy. And against all odds, thank God, [Strictly] delivered.”

It’s just a television show, but as we hear the Word of God for us this morning, perhaps we, too, can sense the movement, the dance, of the Spirit in our lives; as we hear and share stories of new life even during this pandemic; new interactions with neighbours, people reaching out to strangers, new and creative ways of offering support, the simple recognition that we need each other, that we need the Holy Spirit, that we cannot do this alone… In all these things we are finding the life and the hope and the shape we need to continue being part of the movement of God. We are discovering that even when the steps of the dance take us to the darkest places in our world, the Spirit of God brings resurrection. We, filled with the Spirit’s power, will be recognised as whirlwinds of unabashed grace.

The song I mentioned earlier, by Ken Medema, goes on to say:

God asked me to dance. I’d never tried dancing before.

I had visions of saints and angels laughing me right off the floor.

“No,” I protested, “it just wouldn’t be any good.”

God gently insisted. Finally, I said that I would.

Unforgettable. This was the coming of spring on my cold winter’s day.

Unforgettable. God taught this singer to sing in a whole new way…

May the Spirit of  God who has been bringing life and hope and shape to our world from the beginning, continue to bring life and hope and shape to our world though us.