“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.” So begins the most familiar creation story in the Bible. I say the most familiar because it is not the only one. And we do this story, and the other accounts, a great disservice whenever the claim is made that they are a scientific description of creation. The Bible wasn’t written to be a 21st century science book. If we demand that it be science, have we not made science our god – or at least an idol?
Maybe the desire to have this Genesis story be the TRUTH reflects a discomfort with changing scientific theories. We’re probably most familiar with the Big Bang theory. Some years ago, I heard a scientist suggest that it wasn’t just a Big Bang. The universe is expanding and contracting – he said—like an accordion. Others say, like an elastic band.
The trip I just took was an invitation to think about time, especially in relation to creation. We might begin by thinking about the lights in the “dome of the sky.” Mark Spence provided these beautiful pictures of the night sky. But what we see is something of the past. We travelled through parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona that reveal, topographically, the eons that have brought us to today. I went back to a book I read in seminary titled The Man Who Walked through Time, by Colin Fletcher. Near the beginning of the book he shared a schematic of the layers of time. The ages are, for us, unimaginable. The limestone at the top is a mere 225 million years old. The schists and granites at the bottom are 1,000 to 2,000 million years old.
Psalm 8 says: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth. You have set your glory above the heavens…When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars and all you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them.”
Fletcher wrote as he entered the canyon, “The figures are the trouble. For the Canyon has existed for a bare flicker of a nod compared with the rocks that it has exposed. The youngest, up at the Rim, are 200 million years old; the most ancient, deep down, more than one and a half billion. But our human minds at first reject the reality of such time spans.” He goes on to say, “..the real barrier to understanding is fear.” Human beings are late-comers to this wondrous creation.
Human beings are late comers to this wondrous creation. I think that’s hard to hear. Psalm 8 goes on to declare that God has made us a little less than God and given us dominion over the creation itself. “How can we be such a late development in the story of creation?” we might ask. And, in fact, many people hear the science and reject it outright. The sheer number of years seem to render us insignificant. How can we be a little less than God if we are such late-comers?
We were told a story—perhaps a “myth”—about the discovery of the Grand Canyon by white settlers. The story goes that a cowboy found it and declared, “Something big sure happened here!”
Something big! The Grand Canyon was created not in years but in millions of years. It was created as layer upon layer of sediment was deposited on sea bed floors. The sediment included micro-organisms that had died. Then the sediment was formed into rock, both through the pressure of added layers and through volcanic activity. Volcanic activity forced layers upward, sometimes twisting them – and exposing them to wind, rain, and running water that began to carve the layers.
We are left with wonders to behold. Canyons that are stunning in their barrenness that allows us to see the rocks in all their beauty and diversity. Canyons that are green in their valleys, but rimmed by glorious sandstones and limestones. Mountains that are stark, jagged peaks –some snow capped, year round. Others that are green and lush with clear air. The creation itself testifies to our God who delights in variety and diversity. We live in a world of deserts and gardens, of plains and mountains, of seashores and rivers and lakes.
One of the things we heard over and over again was that the scenes we were observing were not static. Change is still happening, yet it is at a pace we don’t easily see. We could see where rocks had fallen – recently in geological terms – yet hundreds or thousands of years ago in human accounting of time. (The rocks that look dark have what is called desert varnish – a chemical reaction that occurs over a long period of time. Places without the varnish were more recently exposed, when rocks broke away. Yet, that was hundreds of years ago – if not thousands!). One day we travelled through an area made fertile by a volcanic eruption. The soil was black like the eruption had been recent. The eruption wa 1,000 years ago.
We also heard of the damage that human beings have done. We saw the slag piles from mining ventures, the ugly scars that point to human presence. This world, given to us by God, given as a gift and a responsibility, is always changing. And we need to ask ourselves how we are living into the immense responsibility of having received so great a gift.
But, today, I want to look at time. This trip was a reminder that God’s time is not our time. In the book of Job, God answered Job’s complaints with questions. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding…Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness, that you may take it to its territory and that you may discern the paths to its home? Surely you know, for you were born then, and the number of your days is great!”
Our God is a patient God. The Psalmist declared God’s good intent in making us – and the earth itself tells us of God’s patience in readying a world that would welcome human life.
And that human life emerged in great diversity, reflective of the earth’s diversity. It emerged with beauty and creativity. Human society, itself, has those forces that forge new ways of being. Sometimes powerful forces bring about new communities, new cultures. Sometimes time erodes that which is not essential, bringing us back to the bedrock that is our foundation.
There is a tendency in our society today to look with disdain at the distant past. We think that all the conveniences of today are relatively new inventions. But, we are not that different from those who came before us. They, too, lived in communities. We may have much to learn from them, for many in our close communities feel isolated rather than connected. Those communities that came before us recognized their need for each other. Community is a bedrock of human existence, perhaps one that we need to rediscover for our own sakes and for the sake of God’s creation. The vision in the Book of the Revelation to John is not one of individuality, but one of the Holy City where all of humanity lives in relationship to God and to one another. Just as the layers of rocks were folded over on themselves as the millennia passed by, we can find answers for our future by looking to the stories of the past – how people lived, what worked and what did not. The Biblical witness gives us stories – not static laws – but stories of God found in the midst of their living, of God perceived in the successes and failures of generations. How does their wisdom speak to ours? How can the past help us live faithfully in the present?
Our God is a patient God. Fletcher, on his walk, looked at fossils of pre-historic animals. Those small organisms had become a part of the beauty that is the Grand Canyon. He noticed because he removed himself from the frantic pace of the world. He removed himself from its many distractions – and this book was written long before all that modern technology emerged that has the power to distance us from God’s creation and from other human beings. He paused. He wondered. He reflected.
He wrote: “When I had sat and looked for a long time at the tremendous expanse of rock sculpture spread out before me, I began to understand, more than just intellectually, something of how it had become sculpture. And I began to understand that the silence was not as I had thought, a timeless silence. It was a silence built of the seconds that had ticked away, eon after eon, as certainly and deliberately as our seconds tick past today. Just for a moment I glimpsed the centuries reaching back and down into the Canyon and into the past, back and down through the corridor of time that stretches silently away behind us, back and down into the huge history that seems at first to leave not meaningful place for [human beings]. And presently, when the fear had begun to subside, I saw that my decision to walk through the Canyon could mean more than I knew. I saw that by going down into the huge fissure in the face of the earth, deep into the space and the silence and the solitude, I might come as close as we can at present to moving back and down through the smooth and apparently impenetrable face of time. If I could contribute enough, the journey might teach me in the end, with a certainty no book can give, how the centuries have built the world we know. For I would see how the rocks had been constructed and how they had been carved. How life had mushroomed from simple beginnings into the complex and astonishing pageant we now accept so casually. How it had covered the rocks with a web whose intricate and interlocking structure all too often becomes invisible to us ‘civilized’ and estranged people.”
“And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas.” And God saw that it was good. Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening----