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Beneath the Sheltering Sky

June 20, 2011

“Beneath the Sheltering Sky” Genesis 1:1-2:4a ; Revelation 21:1-7 © 6/19/11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The first chapter of Genesis contains some of the most familiar material in the Bible. Almost everyone knows the words with which it begins, at least in the familiar King James translation. So too the claim that the earth and the cosmos were created in six days of “evening and morning,” after which, on a seventh day, God rested.

But if this part of Scripture is highly familiar, it is also one of the most misunderstood and misappropriated. The approaches of both the fundamentalists and the progressives are wrong. Both are flawed, and in the same way. For all the very serious differences between literalists and liberals, when it comes to Genesis 1, they’re the same sort of people. Both knuckle under to the Western, scientific, technological perception of the world. The fights they have are family squabbles. Both are children of the Enlightenment, the Modern Age, which taught us that something is true only if it’s reasonable and verifiable by observation and can be demonstrated in a laboratory. Creationists know that people will accept scientific explanations, so they trot out a religion masquerading as science. Liberals want to show that religion is intellectually acceptable, so they prefer an approach that once again takes the scientific method as both its starting point and its judge.

But if neither popular interpretation of these materials is true to the authors’ intention, what are we to do? Perhaps (horror of horrors!) we are driven back onto theology and even liturgy and proclamation. This is truth known in poetry and story and song, not discovered in the lab or by the mathematician or through the lens of a telescope. The text is concerned not with technique, but with testimony; not with how, but with who. Let’s be clear on that last one. There was never any doubt in the ancient world that the universe as they knew it was of divine origin. The big question was which god or gods and goddesses made it. Was it Marduk, the god of Babylon? Baal and Astarte, from Canaan? Ra and Isis, of the Egyptian pantheon? Yahweh (or Elohim as he’s known in this text)? If a god or gods made the universe, shouldn’t he or they rule over everything and by extension, should not the nation that worshipped him or them govern on his or their behalf? So, you see, this first chapter of Genesis is really about politics and power.

And while the Genesis story is indeed about the past and beginnings, it is also (or perhaps primarily) about crises of the present and new beginnings. It is a liturgy of hope, of affirmation of the purpose of God for people who had lost everything, a subversive word spoken against powers that had laid claim to ultimacy. The authors of this sweeping creation account proclaim a gracious and sovereign God who alone defines what is real, what is true, what is good.

Again, who decided such things was up for grabs in the sixth century BC. That’s when the first chapter of Genesis was penned by a group of Jewish priests. Many of the inhabitants of the southern Jewish kingdom, called Judah, had been taken into exile by the Babylonians. Beloved Jerusalem lay in ruins, the Temple destroyed, the land laid waste. In those days when religion and politics went hand-in-glove, defeat in battle also meant the discrediting of one’s god or gods. The world of the Jews had quite literally fallen apart; every perception of what was true had been called into question; every assumption about the future proven false; every affirmation about their God now the subject of doubt and ridicule. A life that once had shape and definition was now formless and disordered; where their God had lived—in their hearts and in heaven—there was now but a void. Emptiness.

How were such people to find hope and life again? That was the question that plagued the priests, who were also pastors, as they sought to offer care to their people and deal with their own anguish. The answer they found was to go back to the beginning of everything and celebrate in liturgy the God who is intimately bound with creation, yet is distinct from it, and thus cannot be defeated by any creature. He whose very Word brought the worlds into being was not bested by the Babylonian deities. He was still there, hidden perhaps, but the recitation of the great story of creation would evoke fresh hope in the people, the assurance that one day this creative, covenanting God would bring a new creation.

That’s quite a claim for liturgy, for worship! But the praise of the Creator then and now is an act of subversive imagination. The Babylonians, as the superpower of their day, claimed ultimate power for themselves and their gods. “We’re Number One,” they said, “so we can do whatever we want to whomever we want however we want whenever we want, and no one can stop us or hold us accountable.” The evidence seemed to support their arrogant assertions. But in the praise of the One who began it all, the Jews said “No. That’s not the way it is.”

Walter Brueggemann has called such action the dismantling and delegitimation of pretentious power (Power, Providence, and Personality: 111). (No one ever accused Brueggemann of using small words!) “This liturgy cuts underneath the Babylonian experience and grounds the rule of the God of Israel in a more fundamental claim, that of creation…. Its affirmation is this: God can be trusted, even against contemporary data. The refutation of contemporary data may include sickness, poverty, unemployment, loneliness, that is, every human experience of abandonment (Genesis: 25).

“Things fall apart,” said the poet. “The center does not hold.” So, suppose someone has lost his or her job, unjustly accused of wrongdoing. He or she is crushed, depressed, unsure where to turn now. Nothing seems to be happening for him or her that is positive and good. Or say there is a couple who have lost their home through foreclosure. They trusted the lender when they were told they were pre-qualified, but now their mortgage is under water. Then there are the folks who have suffered the ravages of tornado, flood, fire or drought and have lost their homes and their livelihood, even a loved one. Or how about the man experiencing a radical change in lifestyle following surgery; the woman whose only child has turned his back on her; the teenager who has been bullied by friends and/or rejected by family and is thinking about suicide; the older person who’s had to surrender the keys to the car and his or her independence after yet another accident; the sexually active college student who finds out she’s pregnant, but her boyfriend doesn’t care; the adult child faced with decisions about and for an aging parent whose life is lost somewhere in the fog of Alzheimer’s?

Surely these are folk whose world has fallen apart, who are experiencing chaos and disorder, discontinuity and disorientation, the sense that the world is a terrible place to live. But there is good news for them and for us in the liturgy of creation, just as there was for sixth-century Jews. Within the very fabric of creation, woven into it by the gracious Creator, is continuity. Season follows season. Day follows night. The species reproduce after their kinds. Life goes on.

And there is goodness as well. God has pronounced it so, and all the terror and turmoil of our world today cannot rob his creation of its fundamental character. He pronounces his blessing on what he has made: it is “very good.”

Finally, there is order that subdues chaos. We tend to think with the New Testament that God created out of nothing. And that has become the dominant view. But this text disputes that notion. For the priests, God imposed order on a swirling, threatening chaos. (You’re wondering who created the chaos. The ancients would not have asked such a question.) And for the Jews, the ultimate in disorder was the sea—the waters, ever-moving, ever-changing, threatening to overwhelm the land. They never were a seafaring people; it’s a wonder any of them ever became fishermen!

So for the Jews, when God harnessed chaos, he dealt with waters believed to be above the flat earth, waters that were on the earth, and waters under the earth. It was in this subterranean sea that the pillars that held up the flat surface of the world were sunk. As for the sky, it was a shelter, a brass dome containing the sun, moon, and stars. It kept chaos at bay. So, too, with the land. It limited the power of the waves.

Writer Paul Bowles captured this notion in his 1947 novel The Sheltering Sky. His character Katherine Moresby has endured great heartache and deprivation in the Sudan, and has gone nearly insane. About to board a plane, she has a vision. Bowles writes:

The sudden roar of the plane’s motor behind her smashed the walls of

the chamber where she lay. Before her eyes was the violent blue sky—

nothing else. For an endless moment, she looked into it. Like a great

overpowering sound it destroyed everything in her mind, paralyzed her.

Someone had once said to her that the sky hides the night behind it,

shelters the person beneath from the horror that lies above. Unblinking,

she fixed on the solid emptiness, and the anguish began to move in her.

At any moment, the rip can occur, the edges fly back, and the giant maw

will be revealed (328).

Sometimes there is a rip in the sheltering sky, and chaos breaks through. The waters pour down with all their disorienting, destructive fury, inundating everything as in a tsunami. But the claim of the priests, put forward to exiles then and exiles now, is that in liturgy the tear is sealed again, and the waters held back. In the praise of God the Creator, we come to know somewhere and somehow within our deepest being that there is and will be continuity, order, goodness, and blessing. We say that the same God who created is the God who keeps on creating as he sustains the creation, including us. In turning aside from our normal activity to this strange occupation known as worship, in resting from our labors, we affirm that the order and continuity of the world do not depend on our ceaseless striving, but on a God who is so confident in what he has done that he can rest. And in work, fulfilling our calling as God’s image-bearers, we worship as well. For we join God in bringing in that day when chaos will be subdued, when saints will all join together in praise around that calm, glassy, sea.

And through it all, we express our faith that:

In the beginning there was God

in the middle there is God

in the end there will be God.

Alpha and Omega.

Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.

Amen.

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