The way it was meant to be:
A place for everything, and everything in its place
I’m continuing our little series of sermons on “the way it was meant to be,” featuring some thoughts on the cosmogony that opens the Book of Genesis. Today, we are looking at the second and third days of creation, and we begin w/ one of the most familiar sentences in the Bible, which contains one of the most un-familiar words in the English language:
And God said, "Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters."A “firmament.” Yeah, there’s a word you hear every day. “Hey, Bob, if you’re passing the firmament, bring me back something.”
So, wotsa firmament?
Well, it refers to the underside of a dome. From the outside, a dome looks like a helmet sort of thing, sitting on top of a building, but underneath, it fans out to cover the area underneath it, as a great canopy. The picture we are meant to see in our minds is of a wide earth bounded by a circular horizon, surmounted by this dome, this canopy, that we see from beneath. And the firmament – the dome, the canopy - separates the water that falls from the sky, the water in the atmosphere, from the waters below.
Two thirds of the surface of the earth is covered in water, of course, and ours is the “blue planet” because of it. After the dry land appears, the “waters beneath” can also refer to those that well up from the earth in springs and course beneath us in aquifers – “the fountains of the deep” as they are later called. As a picture, it’s not a bad sketch of the hydrologic cycle we teach kids in school: water evaporates from the surface and is returned as rain, and there is a unity between the waters above and the waters below.
In between, however, is where everything “happens.” So God is setting apart a place for things to happen, a place for life to make its appearance, where it can be sustained. God is ordering his creation toward that end.
Now, no sooner than you say this, but someone pipes up and wants to point out how ignorant all this is, and how it shows that the Bible is way out of date and unscientific, blah blah blah, yackety shmackety. And there are people who will accept that challenge and try to disprove what the scientific consensus has to say and their blather can be just as off-point and clueless as the first guy’s. I try to stay out of those arguments. But I know that a great many people, as soon as they start to master the Bible’s contents – wanting to understand and believe what it teaches in order to follow Christ – struggle at this point.
So, first, let me say that the Bible’s picture is not so very far from the picture modern astrophysics paints of our world. We, in fact, exist in a very thin layer on this earth – a place set apart from that which is above and that which is below.
The earth as a solid object is somewhat less than 4,000 miles from the center to the surface, and the atmosphere extends above it maybe 50 or 60 miles, and the earth’s thermosphere goes up to maybe 6,200 miles. So, judging the earth as just an object in space, you can say that it runs about 10,000 miles from its center to the farthest reaches of its envelope. Meanwhile, the deepest depths of the sea is only about five and a half miles, and the highest mountains are about as far in the other direction, and there are some birds who fly higher than that – meaning that life only exists in a band about 10-12 miles wide out of that 10,000 mile radius.
And, in fact, life flourishes only between the edge of the continental shelf, some 500 feet down, and the highest plateaus, some 14,500 feet up – a band about 3 miles wide. So, if you’re interested in geological processes – earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and so on – if that’s what you mean by things “happening,” then you’ve got many hundreds of miles – thousands of miles – to consider of interest. But if you’re primarily interested in life, in “history,” in what people do - if by things “happening” you mean, things that we can relate to and care about, then you’re talking about a band only three miles wide.
In other words, the scientific view of this earth whirling around in space is that everything that makes our planet habitable by people like us is floating upon the skin of a rather small soap bubble. Life as we know it does not exist outside that zone – or, zones like it, if they are to be found elsewhere in space. We are crucially dependent upon a place being made for us where the uninhabitable things above and the uninhabitable things below are drawn back. And in that tiny, special place, everything happens that matters a wet slap to anybody on this earth.
The affirmation of the Genesis story is that God planned and executed a place where things could happen – not just stars exploding and gases expanding and smaller bodies orbiting larger bodies, but where people could live who could desire to understand it, who could imagine a purpose for it all. Who could not merely exist, but live.
And about the time we get to this point in the discussion, some other wise-acre asks how we could possibly believe that we are the center of the universe. But the Genesis account doesn’t say that we are the center of the universe, only that God has made a special place for us - has ordered creation so as to make our life possible – and that he takes an interest in us. Not because we are so grand and powerful, but because he is.
You know, when I was a small boy, there were still people who said that, so far as we knew, life only existed here and nowhere else in all the vast universe. They couldn’t know that, of course, but they thought it likely, and they said that that meant we were a mere fluke. God couldn’t care about us, if he existed, and so the Bible’s story was so much beautiful claptrap.
Well, nowadays, there are all kinds of people who confidently tell us that surely the universe is full of life, and probably some of it is intelligent life. Once again, they can’t know that without evidence that so far hasn’t turned up, but they are very confident about it. And that means that any God we can imagine we be just that – our imagination – and that other peoples’ existence surely implies that the Bible’s story of a God interested in Earth is so much self-flattering hoo-hah.
So, if you’re following this argument, that means that if there’s life nowhere else but here, God doesn’t exist; but if there’s life elsewhere, God doesn’t exist. Have you noticed how that works? It doesn’t matter how the skeptic argues, the answer is always the same. And actually, in both cases, the skeptic is playing a trick of perspective – like the tourist standing in New York harbor holding his fingers like this, so that it appears the Statue of Liberty is only 5” tall and he’s nabbed it. Either God is too big to care about puny little us, or he’s too small to be the God of alien races as well as our own. But who says so?
The Biblical story is of a God who speaks the universe into existence, and who orders it minutely for his purposes. This is a God of vast power; every grain of cosmic dust is known to him, and all that he has made reflects his glory. Dame Julian of Norwich, a 14th Century mystic, had a series of visions as a teenager, and retired from the world to pray about them over the rest of her life. In one of those visions, she saw God walking amidst the void, with a thing in his hand no bigger than a walnut. And when she asked him what it was, he replied, “That is all that is made.”
I remember once calling upon a new family in the church I was pastoring, and there was a bright little five year old boy in that family, who asked me, “How come when I look up to heaven, I can’t see God?”
And I replied that all the things that we can see, even with our biggest telescopes – billions of stars and galaxies and all the vast reaches of space – are one, made thing, like a vast house. And all the doors are closed and all the windows’ curtains are drawn shut, so no matter how far we look in any direction, we cannot see outside the house that we live in. He asked, “Then where is God?”
And I said, “Oh, he’s outside in the yard. That’s where all the fun is. And some day, we won’t be shut up inside this house, this universe, like someone who’s sick, but we will be well enough to leave it, and go outside and play with God.”
Some people’s idea of God is too small, but it’s not ours: we worship the one who made all things. And we remember that he has made a place for us, just for us. He has purposes for us, and calls each of us by name. Each of us is important to him. And this vast, incomprehensible God, who made all things, by his own power emptied himself of his glory, became a tiny, frail thing himself – one of his own creatures - and suffered and died to redeem us when we had gotten ourselves lost, without hope in this world or any other. God is both high and lifted up, and the friend who came to save us, and also the tiny voice inside of us that assures us of his unfailing love.
It may be that life is common in the universe – but if it is, that is because God has made possible its being where it is, in each case. It may even be that there are other people in the universe, with thoughts like ours – although they would be so far away, we could never know. But if there are other people in the universe, then God is their God, too.
Then what of our story of Jesus, who came to earth? How could we presume that he could be their Savior, too? Well, Jesus himself never traveled more than a few miles from where he was born. And when he died and rose, he left behind only 500 witnesses to his resurrection – and only a couple dozen people who could say they had been taught directly by him. And yet, they went out to tell all Israel, and wound up converting the Gentiles, until there were Christians all over the Middle East and Europe and even in Asia and Africa.
And just over 500 years ago, when the Americas were discovered, people were shocked to learn that there were other people here – alien people! They wondered if they were human, and of course they were. And so, they said, we must tell them about Jesus, because he came for them just as much as he came for us. And I tell you, he came as much for anybody else out there in the universe, if there are any such. God has placed us here, in our own place, the only place we know where we can live and thrive, and he wants us to live to his glory.
All the things he has made reflect his glory. We should, too. To live for him, to obey him and serve him, is how we reflect his glory. The stories in Genesis are, in fact, arranged so as to make this point, for they are not an attempt to provide a scientific answer about how the world was made, so much as to tell us about the God who made it, and give us insight into what he wants, so that we might please him.
All that he has made reflects his glory, but mere matter and energy do so mechanically, vegetation does so only in its fecundity, animals do so in their ability to feel, and we do so (or are supposed to do so) by using our minds and our purposeful behavior to imitate him who has made us. We are not unwilling and unwitting participants in the great dance; we are meant to be willing and conscious participants, and in that is our joy. And in our joy in him we know his joy in us.
Blessed be his Name for ever. Amen.