Creation in The Saint John’s Bible

September 24th, 2013

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch

Genesis 1:1-25

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. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.  And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

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 and there was morning, the third day.

And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.’ So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’ And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’ And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

In the name of God; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

For the next 11 weeks, we will be hearing from the book of Genesis each Sunday as we work our way through the first eleven chapters of the Bible.  This isn’t typical, and in fact, we received special dispensation from the Bishop to do so.  The reason for this is to take full advantage of the unique opportunity we have before us to fully explore and utilize the presence of The Saint John’s Bible on our campus this year.

For one year, we have two volumes of the Heritage Edition of the Bible, a fine art reproduction that is so much more than just a copy.  These books are works of art and I encourage you to spend some time pouring over their pages.  Throughout the fall, we will focus on the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible.  Additionally, the +TEC presentations from 9:15-10:15 will focus on the rich stories of Genesis as seen from a variety of perspectives including art, literature, science, and technology.

What I hope to accomplish in this sermon, is to help us see the immense value and depth of the artwork in this Bible.  By entering the text in an unfamiliar way, we are forced to engage and wrestle with the words from a different place that hopefully jolts us out of any complacency we may have.

And so, today, I want to talk about creation and more specifically, the first twenty-five verses of the first chapter of Genesis.  Of all the disputed texts in the Bible, the story of creation is definitely in the top three.   The tension lies in the pull between science and theology.  On the one hand, we have the fashioning of the cosmos out of chaos in the span of six “days.”  On the other hand, evolutionary biology has demonstrated that it has taken billions of years for the earth, as we know it to come into existence.

This perceived divide is often used to justify one’s stance on the issue as either a believer and creationist or a secular humanist who employs science to declare God a hoax and delusion.  But, this isn’t necessary.  I can’t imagine that anyone in this room would be willing to entirely throw out all science in favor of a literalist interpretation of the Bible.  Likewise, I don’t imagine any of us would do the opposite and malign the Bible dismissing it all as fairy tale or whimsy.

In the making of The Saint John’s Bible, a group called the Committee on Illumination and Text took responsibility for working with the artists, primarily Donald Jackson, in selecting images and providing theological oversight to the project.  With this particular text, the committee sought to rectify this false dichotomy between theology and science and instead worked with Donald Jackson to bridge that gap.

When we look a little deeper, we see that the fields of science and theology are in fact asking different things.  Whereas science asks “How?” something like creation happened; theology asks, “Why?  Likewise, either field cannot fully answer the questions of the other.  In his book on the hermeneutics of The Saint John’s Bible, New Testament professor Michael Patella writes, “how these two fields of inquiry support and enhance each other is best done by metaphor which the full-page illumination attempts to develop” (p. 85).

This full-page image can be seen in small scale on the postcard in your pew, in the Bible located here in the front of the church, and in the framed print on the wall.

It shows seven vertical bands representing the six days of creation plus the Lord’s day of rest, running from left to right. The Hebrew lettering in the lower left corner spells tohu wa bohu, a term that means “formlessness, confusion, chaos, and emptiness,” best rendered in English by the phrase “formless void” (1:2).

As Professor Patella writes, “God breaks into this cold and empty chaos by causing light to enter the darkness.  How does God do so?  Astronomers and astrophysicists have developed the Big Bang Theory, which describes a moment – a nanosecond – in which an explosion sent all matter racing from its core.  Their estimates place the Big Bang twelve to fifteen billion years ago.

The Big Bang Theory is constantly being revised and honed as new evidence comes to the fore.  Rather than disprove what these scientists are saying however, the new information shows the delicate complexity of the theory and ultimately demonstrates the grandeur of God.  Scientific theories about the origins of the universe also honor humankind to whom God has given the abilities to probe and ponder the great mystery of God’s creation.  Once again we are left asking, “Why?”” (p. 85-86).

A swirl of blues and grays, the second panel presents the separating of the waters by creation of the sky (Gen 1:6-7).  It’s artistic rendering here echoes the worldview of ancient peoples who believed the earth to be a type of dome often referred to as the “firmament.”  Everything was located in the dome; field, farm, mountain, river and outside was chaos and water.  For the ancient peoples, and for us too I would argue, the area outside our “dome” can seem unbridled chaos, but it has always been God’s act of love that brings order out of that chaos.

The third panel sticks with the dome idea, but puts the water in order, thus creating dry land represented here with a satellite photograph of the Ganges Delta.  This is one of many clues that lets you place this Bible in it’s proper historical context at the dawning of the 21st century.

The fourth panel makes us confront an inconsistency in the narrative.  If God created light from the dark on day one, why are the sun, moon, and stars only appearing on this, the fourth day?  However you choose to reconcile this difference, it serves as a reminder that a theological interpretation of the text does better to examine the “why?” of the text rather than the “how?”

Why is the light on day one different than the light on day four?  Light is reflected here in gold.  And we know that whenever gold appears in an illumination, it represents the presence of God.  A broken gold thread runs top to bottom through the first panel and appears in small boxes increasing in number as we travel from left to right across the image.  Gold is light and in day one, symbolizes the love of God that penetrates the darkness and chaos.  By day four, the light in the form of sun, moon, and stars, lets us know that the chaos will not return.

Day five is bursting with life, both in sea and sky.  If you look closely, you will see fossil images of now extinct fish and birds in the air above.  Day six is the climax of creation when God calls into being all land animals as well as humans (Gen 1:24-2:1).  Prehistoric cave paintings supply the human images, as a way to acknowledge our evolutionary forebears.

As Patella writes, “Taken in its totality, this story of creation progresses in a hierarchy from physical and inanimate creation, through all the things necessary for a good life (ordered universe, lush vegetation, abundant sun and water) to mammals and, finally, human beings.  There is no doubt that the Genesis writer sees humankind at the top of the hierarchy, and the text strongly suggests that the same writer underscores gender equality.  Humankind is first created as a species and then differentiated between male and female” (p. 87).

We should all take note that day seven is depicted in patches of solid gold as God rests.  This day of rest belongs wholly to God and we do well to honor it by taking time for our own Sabbath rest.

If you take away anything from this meditation on an image, it would be this:

Across the seven panels of this grandiose image, the most striking feature besides the abundance of gold is the movement.  Great movement marks these images as if to say creation is ongoing; it is never static.

Where are the places that gold shines through and you recognize God’s presence?

and

In what ways do you see the perpetuation of God’s creation unfolding in your own life?

Patella, Michael, “Word and Image: The Hermeneutics of The Saint John’s Bible.”