Upon the Face of the Deep

A Sermon on Genesis 1.1-5 Preached at the Ordination of a Deacon

David Widdicombe

Michael Polanyi, the Hungarian-British polymath, professor of physical chemistry at the University of Manchester, was one of the most distinguished philosophers of science in the 20th Century. He was the grandson of the Chief Rabbi of Vilnius and a convert to Roman Catholicism. This is what he said about the Scriptures:

The book of Genesis and its great pictorial illustrations, like the  frescoes of Michelangelo, remain a far more intelligent account of the nature and origin of the universe than the representations of the world as a chance collocation of atoms. For the biblical cosmology continues to express – however inadequately – the significance of the fact that the world exists and that man has emerged from it, while the scientific picture denies any meaning to the world, and indeed ignores all our most vital experience of it.[1]

What is this intelligent account? The theme of Genesis One in a single sentence is this: The mighty God through the power of the Holy Spirit and the authority of his eternal Word creates a universe ordered to the good, the true, and the beautiful.

But that is not how we experience the world, at least not all the time, and for some of us, not often. Genesis One just doesn’t seem to describe the world we live in; this first creation account seems to move in a single inexorable majestic direction. Verse two, however, constitutes something of an exception and comes closer to what we all encounter when life goes seriously wrong. ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’, is immediately followed by a powerful note of tension: ‘and the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep’.

The Deacon’s role in the Church of Christ is to take the gospel of the mighty God to those whose world is neither good, nor true, nor beautiful, a world made formless by pain and fear and oppression, a world made formless by exhausting, pointless labour, poverty, and hunger. For far too many people the world seems to be devoid of goodness, meaning, and pleasure, a darkened world all heartbreak and no hope. The Deacon in the Church of mercy is to take the gospel to the sick and the dying, the prisoner, the hungry, the homeless and the forgotten, to those who live in the darkness of despair.

The world, in our experience, often threatens to fall back into the chaos of the waters. Genesis 1.2 adumbrates a moment of chaos on the way to a glorious creation. Or, for those who suffer, does it describe that last consciousness of the dissolution of all hope and meaning before the final descent into nothingness, the creation running in reverse?

This verse is the great theological creational statement of that candor of despair that runs throughout the Bible. Long before any modern cosmologist, the Book of the Prophet Isaiah had warned that the earth must one day vanish away and it ‘shall not be remembered nor brought into mind’. Tying this prediction to the promise of a new heaven and a new earth in no way lessens the stark metaphysical, vertiginous finality of that uncompromising phrase. The Psalmist also had pause for thought: ‘When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?’ Centuries later the great thinker, Pascal, was to write: ‘[I feel] engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which know nothing of me, I am terrified. The eternal silence of these infinite spaces alarms me.’ If the Psalmist was not terrified, it was not because he did not know what the issue was. St. Paul was profoundly aware of the groaning futility of the cosmos, not to mention the pessimism of the Book of Ecclesiastes. The point is made most hideously obvious when the Bible expresses the reality of personal suffering. In Psalm 6 alone we read: ‘I am faint.’ ‘My bones are in agony.’ ‘My soul is in anguish.’ ‘I am worn out from groaning.’ ‘All night long I flood my bed with weeping.’ ‘My eyes grow weak with sorrow.’ There are moments in the Psalms when it seems that the night’s black heart envelopes all and life is reduced to a formless chaotic torture.

Acknowledging the enormity of the difficulty posed by the finite and broken character of the cosmos the Bible, however, provides an authentic comfort that does not undermine the reality of human despair.

In its first verse the Bible declares that this is the good creation of an Almighty Creator. Life is not a meaningless accident that somehow emerged from an original watery chaos. Verse two of Genesis is the second thing that is said. The creator-God of verse one stands between the dark chaos and the nothingness to which it might, left to itself, return.

Professor Antony Flew was the author of over thirty philosophical works that set the atheist agenda for the latter half of the last century. His essay, ‘Theology and Falsification’, became the most widely reprinted philosophical publication of the century and was required reading for a generation of university undergraduates. Shortly before his death, however, he changed his mind and wrote a book entitled, There Is a God. Arguing that the rationality of the universe is evidence of a divine mind, he points out that many contemporary scientists have come to just this conclusion. Among the many contemporary statements of this view, he reverts to an older, classic assertion of the case in summation:

[Reason tells me of the] impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man … as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist.

The author? Charles Darwin.

But, from the point of view of the one who suffers, this does not take us very far. Contemporary atheism posits a more benign God than Christianity does. A benign God, the atheist argues, could not have created the world that we know, the kind of world that requires us to practice works of mercy; there is too much suffering, there is therefore no such god. But this overlooks a more obvious possibility. Almost thirty years ago, one of my mentors in the Christian faith held a conference in Toronto that brought together several leading physicists and theologians. What was the conclusion of the discussions? I asked him. One physicist had summarized the general view of the scientists by saying: there is a god but he does not give a damn about the sparrow. Atheism is neither original nor terribly interesting by comparison. This alternative is a view the Deacon must take seriously. For it is this view that the biblical tradition sets out to combat, a view at once more plausible, more compelling, and more tragic than the view that there was no mind involved somehow in the existence of the laws of nature.

The author of Genesis addresses this issue before he has even finished fully stating the problem. Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, with a perceptive pastoral trinitarianism, offered King James this magnificent translation: ‘Darkness was upon the face of the deep and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.’ There is a word in the Hebrew that means ‘surface’ but William Tyndale had elected to leave it untranslated and many modern translators are content with ‘surface’. But Andrewes wanted something more descriptive. The waters of the deep have a face and, even as the threatening darkness lay upon them, the Spirit of God moves over them, caressing them in that mysterious night. The darkness itself neither moves nor has a face. But the waters and the Spirit have an affinity. As the face of God is perchance reflected in them so they are something to be cherished and caressed.

There is a story about a little boy who, sensing his Mother’s presence in the darkened doorway long after the lights had been turned down, called out: ‘Is your face turned toward me Mother?’

There is a god. The question is: is his face turned toward us?

In the Gospel reading this evening, in another story of beginnings, ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God’, Jesus has just been baptized in the river Jordan by John. Immediately, says St. Mark, the Spirit drives him into the wilderness. The Son of God first must go beneath the waters of chaos, the whelming flood that is the burden of human evil, and then must immediately be driven into the formless void of an almost endless suffering of temptation to deny the benevolence of God, a suffering that will only end with Mark’s searing account of the night of Gethsemane, the return of darkness from the sixth to the ninth hours on the following day, punctuated by Jesus’ final words of God-forsakenness.

In this inverted creation story, the chaos is not the second thing, it is rather the first thing and the last, baptism and temptation – Jesus comes to do battle. But in the middle of this new creation account, with its candor of despair, comes the caress upon the deep. The commanding Spirit of the wilderness first descends as the Dove so tenderly described in the story of Noah and the flood, and God declares: ‘This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.’ This declaration about the Son made here at the very beginning of his ministry conditions everything that is to follow; it is the taproot of the Christian faith. Soren Kierkegaard expressed it memorably. Commenting on the severity of his eccentric upbringing in the hands of a tormented and deeply religious father, Kierkegaard acknowledged how powerfully the gospel can be rooted in a child.  Whatever the evidence may otherwise suggest, and it surely does suggest otherwise, it is nonetheless for the man, as it was for the child, ‘a thing already decided, that God is love.’ Just so it was decided in the beginning, according to St. Mark, that the man of sorrows was, from the beginning, the beloved and on that fact hangs the destiny of the universe. The Holy Spirit will care for the sparrow.

In dealing with the issue of the chaos of suffering, we must also consider the fact that the created order is structured by the eternal Word of God. Ten times in the first creation account we read, ‘And God said…’ Ten is the Hebrew number of fullness, abundance, and plenitude. This is a story of grace abounding, the grace of being. We also read: ‘And the evening and the morning were the first day.’ There are seven days of creation and seven is the number of perfection. The number crops up repeatedly in the first creation account. For example, there are seven Hebrew words in the first verse and there are exactly fourteen in the second. Creation, in other words, is a plenitude of perfection, complete in every way, lacking nothing. The gift of being is replete.

The numerical repetitions in the text – and there are many more of them; the symmetry of the two matching triads of days – the first dealing with the formlessness in three days of separation and the other with the void in three days of adornment; and the painfully obvious absurdities (if taken with a non-symbolic literalism) of an otherwise stunning literary masterpiece  were enough to convince St. Augustine, as it has convinced many other theological interpreters of Genesis both before and since his great commentary, that Genesis One is a profound spiritual meditation upon the order in which the creation was made and in which it persists.

In one of the more pleasing statements of his oft repeated insistence that creation had to be an instantaneous creation of potentialities that would evolve over time, Augustine wrote: ‘scripture could divide in the time it takes to state them what God did not divide in the time it took to make them.’ Form and substance can be expressed separately, but they were not made separately, as in the mind of God they were not thought separately. For the theologians of the early church, the God who creates time did not require seven days in which to do it. Genesis One, then, is a scientific account if we mean that there can be no laws of science where there is no order. For order is the point the text wishes to make. The earth is no longer without form and void and darkness is no longer upon the face of the deep.

Why does this matter? It matters because it is not our suffering alone that terrifies us. We are afraid that that infirmity that is the loss of sensible structure and the light of meaning, the chaos threatened by our suffering, is the final word. But it is not. The Word of God is the final word; the cosmos is rational.

‘And it was very good.’ This is the promise and pronouncement of God. The Greek translation of the Hebrew makes it clear that there is an aesthetic dimension here. The creation was beautiful, superb, splendid in every way. Where there once was chaos there is now a well ordered cosmos. The forces of darkness have been pushed back before an advancing light powered by the immutable, omnipotent Word of God.

When the Deacon goes from the altar to the world in a prophetic way, bringing Christ to those for whom He gave His life, she cuts with the grain of the universe. Her ministry is never less than a practical incarnation of the presence of the man of sorrows with those who suffer the disintegration of order, and who suffer its loss precisely because they have known its presence, and have known it because it is really there but can no longer be seen or touched. Her ministry is that of the Spirit who hovers above the deep, caressing the face of the fevered waters of chaos and sorrow. It is the ministry of the Dove that descends upon the beloved one, the well pleasing one, the suffering servant. She goes because this is God’s good creation, cherished by the  Spirit, ordered by the Eternal Word. Her work is her reasonable service. She brings the good, the true, and the beautiful to those whose world is turning toward the chaos. She comes because she has a gospel, because she is a woman of hope, because it makes sense to her to be faithful. She comes because she the takes the question seriously: There is a god, but does he love the sparrow?

There is a gravestone in the burying ground on the west coast of Harris, in the Outer Hebrides, that marks the last resting place of a man thrown from a fishing boat. He was but twenty-four years old. There is an engraving of his boat on the headstone and this quotation from Psalm 77: ‘Thy way is in the sea, and thy path in the great waters: and thy footsteps are not known.’ There is an unreasoning cruelty engraved in the inscrutable, seemingly granite face of the universe, a fact the Psalmist was not inclined to hide. When asked about the accident, the boy’s father told his questioner that he should consult the Psalm from which the quotation was taken. There he read this grim lament:

Will the Lord cast off for ever? and will he be favorable no more?

Is his mercy cleane gone forever? doth his promise fail for evermore?

Hath God forgotten to be gracious? hath he in anger shut up his tender mercies?

And I said, this is my infirmitie …[2]

There is hope in the Psalm but it is most surely no cheap consolation nor suppression of experience. The Psalm is harrowing in its detail – my sore ran in the night, my soul refused to be comforted, and heartbreaking in its comfort – ‘I will remember the years of the right hand of the most high’, as if to say, I have no future; memory is now all there is left to me.

This is the one to whom the deacon goes. She must take his plight and his question seriously. But the mighty God, who through the power of the Holy Spirit and the authority of his eternal Word creates a universe ordered to the good, the true, and the beautiful, cares for the sparrow. And so the deacon must place the caress of God upon the face of the deep.

The Rev. Dr. David Widdicombe completed his D. Phil. Degree at the University of Oxford where he studied with Prof. Oliver O’Donovan and Prof. Rowan Williams, now Archbishop of Canterbury. He is the Rector of St. Margret’s Anglican Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

[1] Personal Knowledge, 284.

[2] This story is told in Adam Nicholson’s book, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible.


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