He is There and He is Not Silent (Genesis 1:1-2)

About 3500 years ago, a whole nation of slaves — about 2 million people — got up in the middle of the night and escaped to freedom. They walked away eastward, into the deserts of Arabia. Men, women, children, old people: everyone, carrying everything they owned on their backs. They were led by a man — a prophet — named Moses, who had promised to lead them to a land of their very own.

During the third night after their escape from slavery, they crossed a sea which opened before them and closed behind them, cutting off all pursuit, and cutting off all chance to go back. And as the sun rose on that third morning, they found themselves in a wilderness without water.

And they immediately experienced an existential crisis: what are we doing out here?

Now, we all know that I am talking about the ancient people of Israel, and their escape from Egypt. If you want to read the whole story for yourself, you can find it in the Christian bible, in the second book, the book called Exodus.

But we also know that I am not just talking about the ancient people of Israel. Actually I’m talking about us. We often have this same experience: we finally get the freedom we want, the freedom we’ve been longing for all our lives — and then we have an existential crisis.

This happened to me quite early on. See, I had a girl-friend in highschool, in Indonesia. And she was the girl of my dreams, I can tell you! I had, literally, a million-to-one chance of marrying her — that’s what her guardian literally told me, to my face: million-to-one chance — and when we graduated I had to leave Indonesia, while she had to stay back, so my chances got even worse. But I’ve always been bad at math, so I wrote letters to her anyway. For two years (plus plus) I hand wrote letters to her, sending them across the oceans from America to Indonesia.

And every now and then my dad would say silly things like, “Ian, shouldn’t you be thinking about going to university? Shouldn’t you be thinking about your future, a career, maybe?”

And I would say, “Dad! I am thinking about nothing but my future! I don’t have time for uni, I’m too busy writing letters!”

Well, eventually, I did manage to marry her. Million-to-one odds! That’s like winning the lottery!

And about two weeks after winning the lottery, I had an existential crisis. I was twenty years old going, “Okay. Now what?”

Because life doesn’t stop even when you have achieved everything you want to achieve, does it? It goes on, and on, and on. And the things your dad used to say to you start to make sense: we’ve got to maintain this thing called “existence”. We can’t just live on dreams, we’ve got to worry about mundane things like food, and clothing, and the water bill.

At some point in each of our lives God leads us to this place in the desert with the ancient people of Israel, where we get what we thought we always wanted — and then suddenly every horizon looks the same. We arrive where we thought we always wanted to — but then we discover that we really haven’t arrived yet. We discover that we are finite points in an infinite wilderness. We discover that we really don’t know where we are going or how to get there.

And then we have an existential crisis. We wonder, “What are we doing out here? What’s the point of it all?”

Now, we all know that I am talking about the ancient people of Israel, and about us as individual people.

But we should also know that I am not just talking about us as individuals: I am actually talking about our whole late-modern culture.

Our culture is in crisis. All over the world, people are looking around and saying, “What are we doing here? Life is meaningless. What’s the point of going on?”

And in some ways this is very strange. Because for the average human being on the planet today, the world has never been a better place. There is this persistent narrative that tells us that the rich are always getting richer and the poor are always getting poorer, but apparently this is no longer true. In 1970, 60% of the world’s population lived in poverty. Today, only 10% lives in poverty, even though our population has almost doubled since 1970. Every day, 250,000 people are lifted out of poverty. That’s almost 2 million people a week! 87% of the world has electricity in their homes. As a race we are living longer and healthier lives than ever before.

And yet, somehow, we are more discontent than ever before.

Now, that seems strange, on the face of it. But really, it’s not so strange. Because winning the lottery can often be bad for you. Studies show that 70% of lottery winners run out of money within 5 years. They squander their new-found wealth! The same thing happens socially. Children who become superstars when they are young often die of addiction and suicide in their twenties. Why? Well, imagine what it must be like to be 12 years old and world famous…and then to be 22 years old and no one remembers who you are.

Success can be devastating, because once you have reached the top where do you go from there? Once you have arrived where you thought you always wanted, what is left to do? Our culture has arrived. We have been set free from the slavery of having to fetch water every day. We have been set free from the slavery of having to light fires every day just to feed ourselves. We have been set free from the slavery of wondering if our kids are going to die every time they get a fever. We take for granted freedoms that ten thousand generations of human beings only dreamed of.

And so here we are, culturally speaking, just like the ancient people of Israel: free from slavery! in the middle of a desert, with everything we own piled up around us…and somehow, as a culture, we are running out of water. We are running out of purpose and meaning.

Like the ancient people of Israel, we are looking around and in every direction all we can see is a formless and empty wasteland.

Like the ancient people of Israel, we can see the darkness coming, and we don’t know how we are going to live to see the dawn.

Like the ancient people of Israel, we look up, into the caotic deep of the cosmos, and all we can see is that we are tiny, and we are alone in the universe.

And so, like the ancient people of Israel, our late-modern culture is falling into despair.

So what now?

What can we say to one another that can restore meaning to our existence?

What answer can we give to those who say, “This is it! Once you have passed on your genetic code to the next generation, you have fulfilled your evolutionary purpose. There is no meaning beyond that.”

What answer can we give to those who come to us and say, “If there really is a God, why has he brought us out into this existential desert just to starve us to death? If there really is a God, why didn’t he do a better job?”

Well, this is how Moses began his answer to those questions:

[1] In the beginning God

The first thing we learn here, friends, is this: we are not alone in the universe. There is a God.

But that just raises more questions, doesn’t it? Because many people are convinced that there is a god of some kind. What we don’t know is what kind of god!

Are we talking about some kind of impersonal force, a psychic energy that permeates the universe so that everything is god, sort-of?

Are we talking about a being, a person?

Or are we talking about many persons, many gods?

Modern secular scientists believe in the first option. They would say that everything is built out of impersonal matter and energy. They would say that everything that exists is really the same, that on a sub-atomic level we are made of the same stuff that stars are made of.

Ironically, this is also the definition of pantheism: the belief that everything is god. Our late-modern culture actually believes in a kind of secular pantheism, where everything in the universe is matter and energy, and there is nothing else but the universe. Hindus would agree! It’s just that the words they use to describe it are different.

And on one hand pantheism sounds glorious! We contain the essence of god, and so do the stars! We contain in our bodies atoms that once existed in the heart of a dying star, and long after we are gone the atoms that were once us will go on to birth new stars. What a heritage! What a destiny!

But…that does not actually give meaning to our existence. That is an impersonal destiny. The fact that we are made out of the bits of dying stars doesn’t make us special, it makes us just like everything else in the universe. Particles are particles, we are exchanging them constantly, the atoms in your body right now are not the same atoms you were born with —

— and yet, somehow, you are still you.

This is the mystery that modern science cannot explain: if everything is made up of impersonal particles, then where does personality come from? It is clear that we are made up of particles; what is not clear is how those particles combine to create personal beings like us. Somehow personality is greater than the sum of the parts we are made of.

So there is a profound problem with believing that god is just some kind of impersonal force. If god is just an impersonal force, if the universe is nothing but impersonal matter and energy, then we are just impersonal biological machines. We think we are people. We think we make choices. But really we are just robots. The fact that we are different from one another is just incidental, accidental. Really we are all the same, made up of interchangeable parts.

Believing that god is an impersonal force actually deletes our individuality. Modern science is actually deleting diversity. And when you delete diversity, you also delete the meaning for our existence, because if we are all really just identical then why should I care if I pass on my genetic code or not? In the end my atoms are going to combine with your atoms and we’re all just going to turn into stardust anyway. So why bother do anything?

Our uniqueness as human beings is being lost.

No wonder our world is falling into despair.

But most human beings — for most of human history — have realized that this idea of god-as-impersonal-energy is really a very very bad idea. And so most human beings have believed that, since we are personal beings, then God must also be a personal being.

Actually, most human beings have believed that, since we are a wide variety of personal beings, then God must also be a wide variety of personal beings. In other words, generally, human beings have believed in many personal gods: polytheism.

And this has advantages. It explains our diversity: a diversity of gods gave rise to a diversity of people.

But it also has some significant disadvantages. For instance: racism is built in to this kind of system. Because, after all, the greatness of any given race is dependent upon the greatness of the gods who watch over it. My set of gods is greater than yours — otherwise why would I worship them? — so obviously my race must be greater than yours. But then if your race turns out to beat my race in some contest…that means my gods must kind-of suck. Which raises the question: are we allowed to switch gods? Well, sure! Because if your gods turn out to be pathetic then they really can’t stop you from leaving, can they?

So what happens is this: polytheistic people tend to worship power and dominance. They will follow any gods that have proven their greatness through war or fertility or prosperity or whatever else. And so for polytheistic people life generally only has meaning when you are beating the people next door, because how else are you going to prove to yourself that your gods are the greatest?

So there is a profound problem with believing in many personal gods. If there are many personal gods that explains where personhood comes from: we are not robots. We make individual choices. But now we have to use those choices to prove that we are better than the race, the tribe, the family next door…the person sitting next to us.

So believing in many personal gods supports our diversity, but deletes our unity. And when you delete unity, you also delete the meaning for our existence, because if we are all absolutely unique then we are also all absolutely alone.

And, ironically, our late-modern culture is not just pantheistic, we are also polytheistic. It’s popular to say, “Oh, all religions are the same!” but that’s really just another way of saying that there are many aspects to the pantheistic god-force, and I should be allowed to pick and choose which aspect I want to follow at any given moment. Hindus would agree!

But in fact, our late-modern cultures have gone further than Hinduism. We believe that every individual should have the freedom to make up a god of their very own. And since there are almost 8 billion people on the planet today, that means there must be at least 8 billion gods out there.

Friends, that is polytheism! That is polytheistic thinking, right at the core of our modern secular culture. It destroys unity. It leads to hyper-individualism, isolation, and loneliness.

No wonder our world is falling into despair.

So what we are finding is this:

Believing that god is an impersonal force elevates unity but crushes diversity, and our existence becomes meaningless.

But believing in many personal gods elevates individuality but crushes unity, and our existence becomes meaningless.

Every human culture, every human individual, lives in this tension between unity and diversity. And the kind of god we believe in actually affects which way we go. If we believe in a God that is an Absolute Unity…then we will tend to crush diversity. If we believe that each person gets to make up their own god…then we will tend to crush unity. And the truth is we are all a complicated mix of these tensions, moving in different directions in different areas of our personal lives and our collective cultures. We are all a little bit pantheistic, we are all a little bit polytheistic, depending on our concept of God at any given moment.

So what kind of God needs to exist, then, in order to resolve this tension between unity and diversity? What kind of God needs to exist in order to give meaning to our existence?

Well, he would have to be One God, a perfect unity. He would also have to be a Personal God, a perfect diversity.

Is that the kind of God Moses is writing about here?

Let’s look further at what he has said:

[1] In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Moses is describing One God, a perfect unity.

But this not a pantheistic God: he is separate from the physical universe. He existed before the physical universe, and we know this because he created the physical universe.

But that is not all he created. The literal translation of this verse would say, “In the beginning God created the skies and the land,” which sounds like he created “the physical skies” — galaxies and stuff — and “the physical land” — on planet earth. The physical universe. But later on in the creation story it becomes clearn that Moses is actually talking about the “spiritual” skies and the “physical” land. In other words, Moses is telling us, “In the beginning God created the spiritual universe and the physical universe.”

Which means that God existed before the physical universe, and he also existed before the spiritual universe. He is not just one among many spiritual creatures — angels or gods or whatever you want to call them. He is the creator of the spiritual creatures.

He is the One God, a perfect unity.

But is he also a Personal God, a perfect diversity?

Moses goes on: [2] Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

…this sentence will require some explanation for us. The ancient Israelites, when they heard this, would have felt the weight of it in their guts, but I am going to have to work a little bit to give us that same sense of terrible primordial majesty…

First, Moses uses this same word “land” again: the land was formless and empty. But this time he is not talking about the broader physical universe; he has zoomed in to the planet earth.

At the same time, even though he uses the word “land”, he is obviously not talking about dry land, because apparently everything is covered with deep waters. So Moses is describing a formless earth that is totally covered with deep oceans and darkness.

Or is he?

See, when we read these words, we read them very physically, because our modern science has trained us to think in purely physical scientific terms. But Moses’ main point here is not to describe these things with physical or scientific precision.

Moses’ main point is the Apocalypse of God: the Revelation, the Revealing, of who God is. Moses is writing this so that his people can know what kind of God has rescued them from slavery and led them into this waterless desert. He wants his people to know that their current crisis is no problem for their God.

So he tells them that the land is formless and empty. He is deliberately using words that normally are used to describe a lifeless wasteland — exactly like the deserts of Arabia. Moses is saying, “Look, people, you think this situation is bad, but let me tell you: in the beginning the whole earth was a wasteland: untamed, not fit for human life.”

And what’s more, there is darkness over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God hovering over the waters. And here, Moses is deliberately using words that exactly describe experiences the people have just had.

During their last days in Egypt, God told Moses to stretch out his hand toward the sky so that darkness would spread over the land. And darkness covered Egypt for three days.

It was also in the blackest depths of the night that God’s death passed through Egypt and took the lives of every first-born son.

And then, a few days after that, when they were trapped between the army and the sea, they saw Moses stretch out his hand again. They saw a strong east wind, a strong east spirit — same word! — part the waters so they could pass through in safety. And then they saw the waters close on Pharaoh and his army, and they watched them go down into the deep, never to be seen again.

So for Moses’ people, this idea of a darkness hanging over the land is a chilling reminder of God’s power over life and death. This idea of deep, life-devouring waters is a terrifying reminder of how God rules the forces of chaos. This idea of the Spirit of God — literally, the “Wind of God” — hovering over the waters is an awesome reminder of God’s power to deliver his people.

Moses is not trying to give his people a physical scientific description of the primordial earth. His people are in crisis! They have their freedom, but they have no idea what to do with it. They know they have a God, but they have no idea what he wants from them. They have been promised a very good land, but right now all they can see is a wilderness, formless and empty. So how does it make sense for Moses to sit down and say, “Hey! Let me tell you some interesting scientific facts about creation”?

No. Moses is a good shepherd. He can see that his people need help. And so here he is, saying, “Hey, let me tell you about God.”

The point of Moses’ creation story is not creation. The point of Moses’ creation story is God. The point of Genesis is the Apocalypse of God: the Revealing of who God is. In fact, Romans Chapter 1 tells us that the point of all creation is the Apocalypse of God, the Revealing of God: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”

And that’s what we have here, in the first two verses of the bible: the revelation — the apocalypse — of God’s eternal power and divine nature. He is the One God, and he is the Personal God. He has the power of creation and destruction. And existence itself tells us this. No one will be able to stand before him on the Day of Judgement and say, “I didn’t know you existed! I didn’t know you had the power of life and death!”

So here we are: we have One God — a perfect unity — who is also the Personal God — a perfect diversity — who has the power of creation and destruction.

But that actually makes our existential crisis worse, doesn’t it! Because, before we knew there was a God, we were just standing in the wilderness saying, “What are we doing here?” Now that we know there is a God, we know that we had damned well better be doing something to please him!

And that realization should throw us into a panic! Because how can we finite specks begin to understand even the tiniest fraction what such a God might require of us?

Thanks, Moses!

But, to be fair, Moses is just telling us what is true anyway. See, as a human race, we’re stuck in a Catch-22, damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t kind of situation. On one hand, we can refuse to believe there is a God — but that ultimately sucks all the meaning out of existence. On the other hand, we can believe there is a God, which restores meaning to our existence — but doesn’t tell us what that meaning is.

We need to know more about this God. The ancient people of Israel need to know more about this God.

And Moses has promised that there will be more.

So far he has described a universe in chaos, a world wreathed in darkness. Is it physical darkness? Well…maybe. Maybe not. But if we become obsessed with the question of whether it is physical darkness or not we are going to miss the whole point. See, darkness, in Moses’ writings, is not the absence of light, it is not the absence of God: it is the absence of God’s revelation of himself.

For instance, in the incident at the Red Sea, when the people were trapped between the Egyptian army and the water, God stood between the army and the people in the form of a cloud. And the side that faced the Egyptians was darkness; it produced confusion, chaos. But the side that faced God’s people was light and peace.

And later on, at Mount Sinai, God descended upon the mountain in the form of thick cloud and darkness, and he spoke aloud to his people, trying to introduce himself to them — but instead they were just terrified. But after Moses entered the darkness, and returned with the Law, the revelation of who God is, then the darkness was transformed into light, and it says that to the Israelites the glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain.

So what is Moses really trying to tell his people about the primordial universe? What is God really trying to tell us?

This is it:

In the beginning, God created the spiritual world and the physical world. We are not told about the condition of the spiritual world, that’s none of our business. But we are told that the physical world existed without the knowledge of God. God was there! He was present. He was hovering over the surface of the waters, he was involved in the movements of every particle, every atom. He knew the universe. But the universe did not know him.

That is why Moses tells us that darkness was on the surface of the deep: because God had already proven his eternal power and divine nature just by creating. But there was nothing in that creation yet that could know God’s eternal power and divine nature.

But then Moses told us that the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And we have already seen that this word for “spirit” is also the word for “wind”, and we have already seen how God used his Spirit to part the waters of the Red Sea and save his people.

But there is more. This word for “spirit,” this word for “wind,” is also the word for “breath.” We could translate this verse as the wind of God was hovering over the waters. We could also translate this verse as the breath of God was hovering over the waters.

Now, does God have lungs? Does he need to breathe?

No. But scripture tells us that he breathes.

Why does God breathe?

Well, sometimes he breathes in order to part the waters and save his people. Sometimes he breathes in judgement, to destroy his enemies.

But most often, God breathes in order to speak.

This verse Moses’ promise that there will be more. We are not going to be left guessing about what God wants from us. We are not going to be left guessing about the meaning of life. The knowledge of God is on its way, it is hovering over the waters, it is getting ready to speak.

So, practical application?

How does this ancient literature help us with our own late-modern existential crisis?

Well, we live — we have always lived — in a world caught between two poles. We treasure unity. We treasure diversity. But we are always sliding off on one side or another.

Sometimes we worship the gods of unity and equality and inclusivity, and then we end up crushing diversity and individuality, forcing people to accept the group’s standards.

Other times we worship the gods of freedom and individuality and self-sufficiency, and we decide that we would rather be alone than compromise with the group’s standards.

But whichever way we go we always end up in some kind of wasteland. Rich, poor, successful, not so successful — it doesn’t matter. Eventually we all look around and realize, “There is something missing here. What are we doing? Where are we going? What are we supposed to do?”

Well, practically speaking, what are we supposed to do in response to these first two sentences of the bible? What are we supposed to believe?

Believe this: there is One God. He is a Personal God. He has the power to create and destroy. And he has the power to speak. This is the only kind of God who can answer our deepest existential questions. Every other kind of god will lead you away into meaninglessness.

So what should we do, then? Do this: listen for the voice of this God. Ask him to speak to you, and he will speak. He is already speaking. And the reason he speaks is because he wants you to know him as more than just the God of Creation and Judgement.

Let me close with this promise: as you listen, he will speak. And as he speaks you will get to know him. And the more you get to know him, the more your life will have meaning. The more you get to know him, the more you will understand where you fit in this world (that’s the unity bit), and what you are called to do (that’s the diversity bit).

So let’s listen. Let’s listen for the breath of God hovering over the waters.

Let’s get ready for him to reveal himself.

Let’s get ready for his apocalypse.

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