Goodbye 2020. Hello 2021.
An ending followed by a beginning.
We start the new year with the sincere hope that we’re reaching the end of a pandemic. We’ve finally reached the end of our negotiations with the EU; now we’re hoping for a new beginning.
Beginnings and endings.
So where shall I start? At the beginning, of course! With some wonderful opening lines.
The opening line of a story is often the most important (and sometimes the most memorable) of all. Here are some of my favourites.
"t is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
- Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen.
This one’s a real treasure; it manages to give us a witty, satirical comment on the nature of early 19th century society while also hinting at the plot of the entire novel. All in one sentence. We’re about to read a story about a wealthy single man’s romantic association with a woman, ending in marriage. Superb.
What about this one?
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
- The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway.
The writer gives us the main protagonist, the setting, and the problem which he must overcome. All in one sentence. No extra words. Sharp, precise writing.
And then this one.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
1984, George Orwell.
The first sentence of George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel is outstanding; it’s one of the most memorable in all of English literature. There is an uneasy contrast between the two clauses which compose the sentence. Cold day in April – nothing unexpected. But clocks striking thirteen? Something feels off. The two clauses grate against each other.
Sure enough, this isn’t a reference to a 24-hour clock, but an old saying about ‘lack of credibility.’ When a clock strikes thirteen, something’s wrong and we therefore shouldn’t trust anything that has come before. Notice ALL the clocks are striking thirteen. This will be a book about a whole society, one in which nothing is trustworthy. As it turns out, truth is simply what the state says it is. It’s a book with huge philosophical aspirations, and so well written, it deserves to be considered among the greatest ever written.
To this list, we must now add the greatest opening line of them all. I concede that John 1.1 is right up there, but only because of what came before.
In the beginning God created . . . boom!
Create. A verb with tremendous power.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth . . . boom, boom, boom! Can you not feel the explosive nature of the writing? In seven Hebrew words – the number seven symbolising perfection – we have an account for the existence of all things.
In the beginning. This book intends to take on the pagan view of existence – the cycle of birth and death endlessly repeating. Not in Genesis. Now history moves forward in a linear direction, destroying the pagan worldview with its narrative power.
Elohim – the Hebrew term designating God as creator.
Heavens and earth. The Hebrew words do not signify two distinct things but one – the entirety of the created order, the whole cosmos. The story of God begins with the creation of all things.
A story with a character this powerful, this transcendent, means the story itself is unique. It’s certainly no mere re-telling of the Babylonian creation myths. No, this Elohim will bestride every page that follows. How could it be otherwise? This isn’t a god. It’s THE God. The one and only creator of all things.
What a start to a book.
But there’s something else which is distinct in Genesis, and indeed in almost every book of the Bible. They all contain hints, rumours, suggestions of the ending. In fact, the first one appears right at the beginning. In Genesis 3, when God speaks judgement over the serpent, he says that Eve’s offspring ‘will crush your head and you will strike his heel.’ The story has only just begun, and yet the writer of Genesis is already hinting at the ending. I realise that the exegesis is disputed, but as Christians, we read these words and our hearts thrill to their meaning.
As in all the best stories, the precise nature of the words is left rather vague, inviting us into the story, to discover in the narrative flow their true meaning. Yet we who believe, we anticipate victory. We know that God will overcome the darkness.
Evil will not triumph. God will. The serpent’s head will be crushed.
How? We do not know. So read on, dear reader. Turn the page.
As we do, as we read the Law and the Prophets, we’re confronted with both judgement and hope, the twin themes of the Old Testament. Hope is where we find our ending. All that has gone wrong in Israel will be put right one day when a Mashiach, a Messiah, comes. When he comes, God will come and save his people.
And so he arrives in Bethlehem and does indeed save his people, though our definition of ‘his people’ is transformed, especially in Luke’s gospel. Here in the New Testament, we discover just how the serpent’s head will be crushed. We’re given our ending, foretold by the writer of Genesis.
But it’s not the ending we might have expected.
For we are still here.
And this glorious ending – hinted at from the beginning – lingers for millennia. The serpent’s head is crushed – sin, death and Satan are defeated – but the Kingdom of God’s Son takes time to find ultimate fulfilment. A very long time.
We live in that era – knowing the end from the beginning – but we do so in the knowledge that our God is victorious. Those of us who follow the Messiah, we may be crushed, beaten down by a virus; we may lose our jobs, our relatives, our people may at times be in despair, but we have our ending.
We have always had our ending because we had it right at the beginning.
Our God is victorious. We have a mighty saving God, who has already triumphed. As we enter this new year, let us hold onto this life-transforming truth. Let us share it over and over again with those we serve.
The ending of the story is already here. We are living inside it.
And what an ending!
Our God is victorious. He has overcome the darkness.
Let us serve him with joy in our hearts.
Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. Isaiah 46.9-10