Before We Begin

Sunday sermon from June 2, 2013
Texts: Genesis 1:1-5; John 1:1-14
Given at Amherst Presbyterian Church, Amherst, VA

Stephen Hawking opens his 1988 best-seller A Brief History of Time by retelling something of a famous illustration in the history of science. In his version, a well-known philosopher – allegedly though almost certainly not Bertrand Russell – had just finished a public lecture in which he described how the earth orbits around the sun which, in turn, orbits along with the collection of stars called the galaxy. Afterwards, in Hawking’s telling, “a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: ‘What you had told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant turtle.'” At which point the scientist dutifully and thoughtfully asks what the turtle is standing on. I like to think that the women here replied that the turtle was clearly standing on top of another turtle, and so on and back and forth. But at the very end, the final answer is never in doubt: “‘You’re very clever,’ says the old lady, “But of course it’s turtles all the way down!”

It’s a story about beginnings, of course – how did we get here? Where did the turtle come from? Where did the turtle underneath come from? How did they get to be standing there? Where, exactly, are they standing, all stacked on top of one another like that? Which is to say that it’s not just a story about the beginning of time; it’s a story about the beginning of knowledge, a story about the things underneath all the things that we think we know, a story about foundations. As I said last week, this summer at Amherst Presbyterian Church we will be reading and preaching and thinking and praying our way through the first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis, the so-called primeval narratives, the stories of the beginning of God’s relationship with humanity prior to the call of Abraham and the emergence of Abraham’s family as the centerpiece of the Genesis text. And as I said, one of the purposes of this exercise is simply to get us to read Scripture together, and one of the purposes of picking this text is simply that it seems a section of the Bible appropriate in length to the length of a summer. But the other reason for starting at the beginning is that it’s a story about beginnings — and not just about the beginnings of time, but really, about the beginnings of knowledge, about foundations, about the things underneath all the things that we think we know.

So, a story about beginnings, about how we got here. “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, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” But now we’re two verses in to the Bible and already we have a problem. “In the beginning when God created….” and yet there already seems to be a formless void, darkness covering the deep; did God create those, too? Or did God just kind of rearrange the things that were already there? We’ve barely begun and already the story doesn’t entirely make sense. But of course if you wanted a story about how we got here that made sense you might reasonably expect Scripture to say that in the beginning, a super-heated, super-dense region of matter experienced a massive outburst of energy, causing rapid expansion and forming the original molecular building blocks of the universe. That’s what we call the Big Bang, and by reasonable scientific consensus it is the prevailing explanation for how we got here, and frankly, next to that story, ours begins to look a little frail. And it goes on. Our story tells of the seven days of creation. But all credible scientific evidence points to the reality of the long, slow process of evolution. Our story tells of the fateful Garden of Eden and the mythical Arc of Noah, but despite what some corner of the internet might want you to believe, no modern archeological consensus exists to suggest any such location or any such thing. Frankly, next to emerging scientific narrative about the origins of the universe and of planetary life, our story begins to look a lot like turtles, all the way down; if the opening chapters of Genesis are really meant to answer the question of how we got here, then by any modern rational standard they have completely failed, and by any reasonable standard, we ought simply throw them out the window.

The only problem is that the text itself asks a very different kind of question. The opening of Genesis doesn’t present itself as the origin story for humanity; instead, it presents itself as the opening act of God. In the beginning, when God created. Before we were there. Before we began. Before the waters had been separated from the dry land, before the light had been separated from the darkness, even before the Spirit blew across the abyss; in the beginning, when God created. And so the question that emerges from this text is not so much “how,” not so much “how” God created — whether by speech or by hand, whether from nothing or from the void, whether through scientific forces we already observe – no, the question is not about how God created or how we got here but rather, simply, “why?” Why? Before any of it, there’s no need for creation, and yet God creates. The formless void, the darkness of the abyss, all of it seems content unto itself, and yet God creates. God, whom we worship as All-Powerful and All-Knowing, why create this?

Now, “why” and “how” are easily confused. I remember sitting in a philosophy class at one point in my education and having the teacher ask a kind of trick question, the sort of frankly dumb trick question that one finds in poorly-taught philosophy classes. The question was simply to ask us why we would go across the quad to the cafeteria for lunch o that particular day. And if you said that the answer was because you would be hungry and wanting something to eat, this purveyor of trick philosophy questions would instead reply that in fact you would go to the cafeteria because your brain relayed some series of signals down your spinal column alerting your knees and thighs and feet to make the contractions and movements necessary to bring you across the quad. And I will say now what I said then, which is that that’s not the answer to the question “Why.” That’s the answer to the question “How.” When it comes to the scientific question of “how” God created, Genesis 1 has little to no standing, particularly because it’s not even the question that the text asks. Instead, the question is, “Why?”

Of course, we ask this question all the time. The world is a difficult and broken place, in ways which perhaps this morning need no enumeration: in tragedies of mass scale, and despair much more intimate, in pain happening across the world and in the unsafe places of our own human hearts; how can we not ask why? Why did the storm hit? Because pressure systems collapsed upon each other in just the right moment given the surrounding atmospheric conditions? No, not “how”; why? Why did the disease work so quickly? Well, at her age the system simply can’t create the kind of antibodies necessary to fight back. No, not “how.” Why? How can we not ask? It is the most fundamentally human of questions, notorious enough even on the lips of toddlers; certainly, then, as well on the hearts and minds of the Israelites for whom this text was first formative. In the aftermath of slavery; in the midst of abject poverty; with enemies at every side and warfare an everyday reality of life, Israel nonetheless asks, “In the Beginning, when God created. Why? In the midst of exile, in the voice of lament, Israel repeatedly asks the question, “Why?” And yet the scandalous thing about the question “why” is that to assume it has an answer is something powerful indeed. The scandalous thing about the question “why” is that even to ask it is to affirm something like purpose. In the beginning God created, with purpose. Nevermind the mechanics. With purpose. And when the question passes our lips, as it has passed the lips of believers for so many countless centuries, the question “why” affirms a purpose for creation, even one that we cannot fully know or understand, a purpose that rested with God somewhere back with the formless void and the dark abyss, a purpose that existed well before anything we can observe or conceive; a purpose that existed well before we even begin.

Of course, as Christians, we view that beginning from a slightly different angle. It’s no coincidence that John appropriates the language of Genesis for his own account of the incarnation – that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word became flesh. It’s a history of creation centered on the promise and life and reign of Jesus Christ. Does John mean to imply that Jesus was already there alongside the formless void and the dark abyss? Perhaps; when we say in the words of the Nicene Creed that Jesus Christ was eternally begotten of the father, we agree with the victors of ancient arguments about this exact verse. But regardless of whether this is a story about the beginning of time, the opening of John, much like the opening of Genesis, functions as a story about the foundations of the world. And here, John not only asks the question, “why,” but in the person of Jesus Christ, he finds his answer. For John, this is nothing less than the great purpose of creation: that “in [Jesus Christ] was life, and the life was the light of all people; that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” For John, God created so that darkness might be overcome. God created so that the void and the abyss might be brought to order. God created so that the world might be taught and loved and served and redeemed by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; that the great purpose of God is redemption, the great end of creation and its great beginning, the great arc of history that bends backwards towards the cross and will yet bear us home. Of course, it’s not the answer to every question. We still ask why the storm has to hit. In the weeks ahead, as we read through some of the most famously harsh stories in Scripture, we will repeatedly have to ask why, and of course the entire answer has never been ours to have. But even the question gives witness to a purpose beyond our total comprehension, a purpose whose great arc bends, however impossibly, towards redemption.

Several weeks gone now is one of my favorite rites of spring, which is the annual running of the Kentucky Derby. Now, I have no personal or family connection with the institution of horse-racing. I’ve never been to a race. I’ve only once been on a horse, and at the time the horse was older than I was. But I love the Kentucky Derby, even though the relevance of the institution of horse-racing in a postmodern age seems each year more and more suspect. It is hard to imagine that if the Kentucky Derby did not exist we would resolve to invent it. So one could reasonably ask why it happens at all. What is its purpose? Does it happen because horse-racing is just the inevitable result of wealth needing some way to spend its money? Does it happen because racing through the dirt and the mud is genetically wired into the animals themselves? Does it happen because the Louisville Jockey Club and the Churchill Downs racetrack work year after year to put the event together? Surely these things are true, and yet they’re really only mechanics. The purpose – the “why” – is something different altogether.

I can tell you the reason I watch. I don’t watch it for the race, or for any of the overproduced backstories about the horses in the field; I actually watch for the moment just before the race when the University of Louisville marching band leads the entire gathering in a singing of “My Old Kentucky Home.” There’s something so joyous and connective about that moment, some tens of thousands of fans joined in bourbon-soaked unison. It celebrates the gathering. The resilience of the voices celebrate that we have made it once again through the winter. The words of the song celebrate the promise of some homecoming yet to be. For me it totally overshadows the actual race; for me, that moment is why we run the Kentucky Derby, that’s the why. Of course you still have to run the race; somehow, it would be empty without the race; nobody would come, it wouldn’t make any sense, something wouldn’t work. But the song. The song gives it purpose. Even before the race even starts, even before the horses even come into the arena, the song gives it purpose. So no matter what you think of the race. No matter whether you find yourself in the dust and the mud. No matter whether you are leading around the bend or stuck behind the pack. No matter your urge to be faster or stronger or wiser or leaner; no matter how you find yourself in the illusion that the universe might bend to your will, such has never the been the case, because God created with purpose. And that song still echoes. Sung even before we began, nonetheless it echoes through the dirt and the grime. It echoes through the constellations of time the purposefulness of God and the great promise of redemption. It echoes from the cross, it rings from the empty tomb, it thunders from the foundations of the earth, down there underneath all the turtles.

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