The Big Splash

The Big Splash

Genesis 1:1-10

by Daniel Harrell

In the midst of this beautiful stretch of late summer sunshine, it’s easy to forget how 2011 has been among the most extreme years weather years in recent history. Unprecedented triple-digit heat and devastating drought fueling vast wildfires. Deadly tornadoes. Massive rivers overflowing their banks even this morning in Pennsylvania and New York. There was a billion-dollar blizzard last winter. Hurricane-triggered flooding in Vermont. And this without even mentioning bizarre earthquakes in Colorado and Virginia. The culprit in every case? Water. Water is the grease deep within the earth that lubricates tectonic plates. Water is the substance that energizes the atmosphere, moves with wind and falls as rain. Water is, quite literally, everywhere. That cold carton of milk you took out of the refrigerator this morning and set on the counter? Within a minute or two what showed up on the surface? Water.

Water is both mythic and real, monstrous and routine. It is spiritual too. So spiritual in fact that it keeps many Minnesotans away from churches all summer. As beautiful as this Meetinghouse may be, it still can’t compete with the lake. Water amuses our minds, inspires our souls, cools our bodies, quenches our thirst and infuses our language in ways that affect even your reaction to my words at this moment. Should my sermon fail to stir, what will you mutter over your pancakes and syrup? Man, was that a dry one! I should have stayed at the lake! Of course every preacher frets over preaching a dry sermon, but realistically that’s impossible for any preacher to do. This is because preachers, like all people, are made mostly of water. I weigh around 175 pounds, 105 of which happens to be liquid. That’s 12.5 gallons of homiletical hydration spewing forth from this pulpit as I speak.

Water is spiritual, and it’s Biblical too. From start to finish, water flows all across the pages of Scripture. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” but already present, it seems, was deep, dark water over which swept a wind from God. God sweeps water above and below, separating it into atmosphere and ocean. This same wind, or spirit as the Hebrew word allows, later sweeps water into a devastating judicial flood, into a divided sea for exodus, a miraculous fountain of relief in the desert, a mythical river flowing out of the Temple, wedding wine, a watery path on which Jesus walks, a stream of mercy gushing from heaven itself. Between now and Christmas I plan to wade us though these Biblical waters, trusting their power as metaphor and reality to wash us clean and to quench that thirst for righteousness by which, Jesus says, we are to be blessed.

As I begin with the beginning, I should say that I am one of those who reads Genesis 1 as more literary than literal. Given the evidence from creation itself, it’s highly unlikely that God fashioned the heavens and the earth over six 24-hour days four thousand years ago. As an ancient Hebrew book, Genesis isn’t set up to provide technical accounts of the chemical origins of the universe, nor does it try. Instead, Genesis 1 serves as a poetic preamble, a framework for divine revelation. Genesis shapes the way we understand Tabernacle and Temple, Ezekiel’s visions, John’s gospel-introduction, and Revelation’s conclusion. It’s imagery asserts God’s authority over all time and over all things along with his intention to reconcile all things in Christ. That Genesis and its reiterations are received as literary rather than literal depictions in no way diminishes their impact. To be literary is not to lie. For instance the prodigal son is true even if its not a true story.

The imagery and language of Genesis 1, are nonscientific; they offer a different kind of description of the universe in accordance with vocabulary and concerns pertinent to ancient Near Eastern cultures. These concerns could not have included those of modern science, nor of our modern scientific understanding of water’s properties. From the beginning water has existed as that wondrous molecular combination of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen; but to no one’s surprise, that information doesn’t show up anywhere in the Bible. Paging through Genesis 1, God’s creative activity is narrated topically instead of sequentially. Light shows up on day 1 and vegetation on day 3, but the sun doesn’t appear until day 4. In this way the creation narrative works a lot like the gospels do, focusing more on thematic unity than on a strict chronological sequence. The emphasis is on creation’s authorship and purpose (as well as its dissimilarity from the pagan creation accounts that were vying for ancient Israel’s affection).

Genesis was composed at a time when water, especially deep water, was feared as that primordial abode of terror and chaos. In ancient Babylonian and Egyptian creation myths, deep water is personified as a belligerent ocean goddess over whom the forces of good eventually prevail. In repudiating these myths, Genesis refuses to see water as personified or a competing power. In the beginning was God alone. Nevertheless, tapping into the mythic fear of deep water, Genesis portrays a deep shrouded in darkness, an earth formless and void—an obscure Hebrew idea that might be better translated as “total chaos.” This is the stage on which God acts.

The ancient Hebrews viewed dark water as ironically representing nonexistence. In direct contrast to a sinister monster, dark water symbolized chaotic nonbeing and disorder—the fertile ground from which evil emerged. Centuries later St. Augustine would argue that evil is essentially nonbeing, a parasitic power that hijacks its strength from the goodness it perverts. This might explain how that snake got into the garden. Sucking strength from its host, evil distorts justice into injustice, fidelity into infidelity, trust into distrust. The opposite of love is never hate, but indifference. We hate because we care—hate is love darkened by chaos. And yet if the Bible teaches us anything, it teaches us that the evil power we confront on earth is always a defeated power—no matter how contrary it may seem to our experience. As Psalmist sings: “the darkness is not dark to you;” O Lord, “the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” Indeed, atop Mt Sinai in that moment prior to his grand revelation to Moses, God went so far as to veil himself in darkness. This suggests to some that in Genesis 1, what looks like just another description of terrible primordial waste could in fact hint at the hidden presence of God preparing to reveal himself—something God’s spirit does so often in the dark spaces of every day life.

Thinking about Genesis and water this way, and thinking about this tenth anniversary of September 11, I couldn’t help but see connections. Today in New York City, the National 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero opens to visitors. The Memorial is comprised of two one-acre pools of dark, deep water, roughly the footprint of the twin towers. The pools are submerged thirty feet into the earth with four-sided waterfalls cascading into each pool. The deep holes are empty and void—reminiscent of the total chaos that reigned that day. The waterfalls pour inward, calling to mind both the buildings’ collapse, as well the continual tears shed over all that was lost.

I was in Boston that day, where the two planes that plowed into the World Trade Center originated. The planes were filled with Bostonians, the first with a man from our church. The phone call came late that night—a pastor needed to visit the young widow—to go and do what pastors are supposed to do. But do what? Say what? This was unprecedented. Not only had this widow lost her beloved husband, but their young son had lost his father. And like so many other widows, she was also pregnant with their second son. She was in shock and her extended family so shaken that they’d been unable to tell her everything—that it was a terror attack, that thousands had died, that the two towers fell, that there were four planes. But they also didn’t want her hearing about it from the news. So they asked me to tell her.

So I did and braced for that crisis of faith every minister confronts whenever a deluge of chaos hits: “Where was God? Why did He let this happen?” Those emotions were certainly present, but rather than push God away, this woman needed God to be close—she wanted a memorial service for her husband in church, as soon as possible, even though he didn’t attend much. Hers was a need shared by so many. We held a citywide prayer service the day after and were taken aback by the massive, anonymous and sorrowful surge that packed our large, downtown sanctuary. The same happened at every church that opened their doors. We planned the memorial service for this husband and father a few days later, and again the sanctuary was packed, surrounding the widow with hundreds of mourners, some of them strangers, trying to make sense of something that made no sense, seeking light in the darkness, creation out of the churning chaos, rescue out of the deep water.

Images of Genesis 1 were evident that day. Standing in the high pulpit, I looked out over a deeply troubled sea of grief and fear. But “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters”—translated in other Bibles as “the Spirit of God hovering over the waters”—a more hopeful image, I think, for people who feel like they’re drowning. Drowning people have no time for crises of faith. They need help and hope from God. They need air. The Hebrew word translated wind and spirit also means air, or more specifically, breath. Into the dark chaos at creation God breathed—four simple that made everything right: “Let there be light.” If darkness evokes that which is opposed to God, light is God’s salvation. “In Christ was life that was the light of all people,” we read in John’s gospel, an intentional reverberation of Genesis. Jesus is “the light who shines in the darkness, whom the darkness cannot overwhelm.”

And yet, on this tenth anniversary of 9/11, darkness still seems overwhelming. Two devastating wars. Economic recession. Persistent suspicion of anyone different. Homeland security. Terror alerts. Fractured politics. Fear for the future. Though 9/11 is a story we know by heart, its morals have been hard to hold. Boston College professor Alan Wolfe, this cynically wrote, “9/11 was this moment that we came together, and it lasted about three-and-a-half minutes. The country went from a brief moment of something like unity, to complete Balkanization, we see it in religion and in politics, like we see it in everything else.” Indeed, all those people who packed out churches after the attacks were gone by Christmas. Back to normal, just like we were ordered. And yet normal is nonexistent for the families and friends of the dead we remember this day—the passengers on the planes, those killed on the ground, the rescuers, soldiers and civilians, and (if praying for our enemies is to be obeyed) then even the deluded terrorists themselves. There is an ocean of dark water that has yet to subside.

In Genesis, God speaks light into being, but he doesn’t fully eliminate darkness—though he makes it less scary with stars. He doesn’t eliminate water either—or none of us would be here. One of the interesting facts about water: We only have this single allotment of it. No water is being created anymore, or destroyed either. Every drop on earth has been here from the start. Every drop has seen the inside of a cloud, and the inside of a volcano, the inside of a maple leaf, and the inside of a kidney, probably many times. Water is in everything and through everything, the same today, yesterday and forever. Just like Jesus—who calls himself “living water” for the world. Water that can evoke terror and chaos also sustains and gives life. Water symbolizes hope. We baptize with water, replaying over and over the hope of new creation that surfaces from the deep waters of evil, sin and death; new birth made possible by water’s cleansing power. For as long as humans have prayed, we have prayed at water places because water moves us to hope. People will pray today at the waters of the 9/11 Memorial. At Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City, people will pray near the baptismal font, where there will also be on display a grim piece of twisted I-beam from the twin towers. Like many of the memorial fragments, it has “SAVE” spray painted on it, a message to salvage crews that carries a meaning more profound than they would have intended.

We do tend to think of creation as in desperate need of salvation, subject to the fall—marred and messed up by sinners. Redemption is God’s response to human evil. Jesus flies down to mop up the horrific ruin we’ve made of God’s world. In the midst we wonder how God’s perfect creation could ever go so perfectly bad. How was it that people crafted in God’s image were so easily tarnished? Was God’s good work not good enough?

Maybe instead of creation being something good that went bad, a better way to think of it is as something started as good but just not yet done; incomplete and yet still due to be finished. What if redemption was not solely a response to human evil—but the intent of the plan from the beginning? At the end of the Bible, Revelation describes Jesus as the “Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.” Redemption was in the works from the start. Rather than God shooting creation out of some cosmic cannon with a big bang, perhaps we should think of God pulling creation from the future where the Lord already abides, toward its ultimate destination of new creation—redeeming it from the beginning toward a future so certain that the author of Revelation can speak of it as having already happened: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth, the first heaven and earth passed away,” he writes. What’s true for the creation is true for the creatures. In Christ we are new creations now, Paul writes, “the old is gone and the new has come.”

Dawn and I were out in California for a wedding a few months ago. Water made an appearance there in the presence of rain—something that hadn’t happened in that part of California in 130 years. While no bride wants it to rain on her wedding day, in this case it made for a more special day than it was already. Water is a special thing. Also present at the wedding was the young widow from our church in Boston. She’s remarried—to a man whose sister lost her husband on 9/11 too. Her second son was also there—he’s ten years old now of course. She has a new life. And she readily admitted it to be a good life. A clean start. A new beginning. A life for which, as hard as it’s been, she could honestly say she is thankful.


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