Sunday, June 25, 2023

The Light Shines in the Darkness

Scripture assures us that “God is Light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). He's “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning” (James 1:17). The Psalmist says God is “clothed with splendor and majesty, covering [himself] with light as with a garment” (Psalm 104:2), while Paul adds that God “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:16). In his very eternity and essence, God is Light. But in his eternity and essence, we also meet one whom the Church describes as “Light from Light, true God from true God.”1 We hear of “the eternal generation of uncreated Light from unbegotten Light.”2 And this is God's eternal Word, his only-begotten Son, “the True Light” with whom God dwells in that unapproachable light (John 1:9). So eternally, as the Father looks on the Son in the Spirit, and as the Son looks back in the Spirit on the Father, eternally they see each other as the True Light  and see that they are Perfectly Good! “Light is beautiful in itself,” and of no light is that truer than the Eternal Light which is God, the inspiration for all light.3

Before anything else, then, when we read “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3), we think of “God's own light,” the “pre-existent light,” “a primordial divine brilliance” that's now “made perceptible in the created world.”4 Here, now, by and through and with his Word which is Light from Light, God reveals his Eternal Light to his creation in time, from the beginning, for “light is the beginning of creation.”5 God is Light, because God is Truth and Goodness and Beauty; God is Light, because God is in himself perfectly clear, perfectly simple, perfectly pure; and God, as Light, manifests himself to his creation. It's the first act of revelation.

And in his light, creation discovers light. Jewish tradition had it that “on the first day, he created... all of the spirits which minister before him.”6 Christians throughout the ages debated exactly when angels were invented, but nobody seems to think the angels showed up after God said 'Let there be light' and there was light. After all, angels could be defined as “secondary spiritual lights that possess their illumination from the First Light that has no beginning.”7 So God “made for himself hosts of glorious beings in the high place..., a chamber of light with children of light who delighted within..., and there was light, and the hosts were moved to shout out.”8

But no sooner were they created in the light than, the very next instant, they were given a choice: either they could turn themselves fully to God and receive a fulfillment beyond themselves by grace, or they could try to dig up a fulfillment for themselves out of their own nature, as if they were lights in themselves.9 Would they thrive best supernaturally or naturally? Choosing the first option would be an act of love – love for God, love that takes them out beyond the limits of themselves. And most did that. They were “light that had turned back to [God],” and so God gave them “a confirmation of their blessedness,” instantly granting them eternal life in the light of God – they came to see God as God really is, and with that beatific vision, they could never fall.10 “Thus the angels, illumined by the Light that created them, themselves became light.”11

On the other hand, the angels – in that first instant after their creation – could have chosen to react by turning to themselves to seek their fulfillment. That would not have been love for God. It would have been pride. And some of these spiritual creatures took that path. One instigating angel, followed by a vast number of others, freely and pridefully chose not to abide in God's Light, but to try to light their own way naturally instead.12 And when an angel chooses anything, there's no reverse course, only full-speed-ahead. Confirmed in their rebellion, they instantly turned from the First Light which is God, and so became darkness. “Then the separation of the holy and the unclean angels took place where Scripture says: 'And God separated the light from the darkness' [Genesis 1:4].”13 For, as Paul asked, “what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14).

Speaking of darkness, when it comes to the material creation that popped into being at God's command, we last Sunday discovered that there were three problems that needed to be ironed out with this raw world as it initially existed: the darkness, the inhospitability (tohu, 'formless'), and the vacancy (bohu, 'void'). And the whole story of creation Genesis 1 tells is, from here on out, all about how God goes about remedying those characteristics of the raw world.

So to begin, “the Creator of all things by his word instantly put the gracious gift of light in the world.”14 God just willed that the initial darkness be fixed. So suddenly, with God's wish being his command, there was light, just as he wanted. Now, to be honest, we even today don't totally get what light is. On the one hand, light is an electromagnetic wave, a propagating disturbance that oscillates the fields it passes through. So each wave of light has a wavelength, a distance over which it repeats, the inverse of which is its frequency. What we see as light is electromagnetic waves with wavelengths between 380 and 750 nanometers. Radio waves are the same kind of thing as the light we see, the only difference being they've got much longer wavelengths and hence lower frequencies. And X-rays are the same thing, too, just on the other side – shorter wavelengths, higher frequencies. On the other hand, electromagnetic interactions are carried by particles called photons. These are some of the most basic particles there are. A photon isn't built of anything, doesn't weigh anything. Nothing's faster. And any time a particle drops to a lower energy level, it rids itself of that excess energy by throwing off a photon or two.

In the standard scientific model of the early universe, a whole lot happened before the universe's first second had wrapped up. The first tiny particles of matter and antimatter kept wiping each other out, with surviving matter barely a billionth of what could've been, what had been. Everything else went kaboom, releasing photons each time they did. Before that first second was up, scientists think, it was literally a trillion degrees out there everywhere; and not only that, but the entire universe was “aglow with an unimaginable brilliance.”15 After all, for every proton or neutron that managed to form, there were about ten billion photons.16 So in every direction you'd have “seen only a glowing fog... bright as the surface of the sun.”17 And that stayed the case, scientists say, for hundreds of thousands of years, until finally energy levels dropped enough to let actual atoms survive. They cleared the way to let the light pass through, dispersing it and bringing about a 'cosmic dark age' until the first stars.18 Or, to put all that more simply: “There was evening, and there was morning: one day” (Genesis 1:5). But even so, the stretched-out remainder of the original light of creation's dawn is still out there, faintly soaking the entire universe, even right here. Scientists found it in '64 and called it cosmic microwave background radiation – the light of creation running wild forever.19

As much as we know, or think we know, “light is simultaneously familiar and mysterious.”20 Which, when you think about it, is pretty fitting, if the light all around us points us to the God who is also always simultaneously familiar and mysterious. We struggle to wrap our minds around how light is both particle and wave, without there being a contradiction; we struggle to wrap our minds around how Eternal Light is three persons in one God, without a contradiction. But he engages us, shines on us, becomes intimately familiar with us.  And “it is this God alone who made light from darkness, who brought light out of his treasuries,”21 who “uncovers the deeps out of darkness and brings deep darkness to light” (Job 12:22).

And so God “has inscribed a circle on the face of the waters at the boundary between light and darkness” (Job 26:10). To this day, the alternation of light and dark keeps going, and for the kind of existence we live, both times of light and times of dark are essential. Up in the Arctic Circle, they deal with conditions called midnight sun, where during the summer the sun never quite sets below the horizon, and polar night, where during winter the sun never quite rises above the horizon. The midnight sun's constant light can provoke anxiety, restlessness, inability to sleep, to the point where the most violent suicides in Greenland happen in summer.22 Similarly, people who've lived in total darkness for extended periods risk messing with mood and metabolism, dealing with hallucinations, even strokes.23 As one early Christian summed it up, the light of day “assists humans with work and industry, brings visible things to their attention, and prompts them to sing the praises of their Maker,” while the dark of night “gives rest and renewal, and relieves the weariness caused by labor.”24

Early readers of Genesis commented especially on how light is a prerequisite for recognizing beauty.25 If you doubt it, tour an art museum with a blindfold on, and see how impressed you are. We might add that without the gift of light, none of the forms of life we're familiar with can grow. Extinguish all light, and soon you won't have plants; and when you don't have plants, you won't have animals, and you won't have me and you. In all these things we take in to survive, we're eating the fruit of light, and that light becomes our life.

In a similar way, down through the ages, the Eternal Word of God continued to be, like John says, “the True Light who gives light to everyone” (John 1:9). In all human culture, wherever there's ever been anything true and good, any beauty or life anywhere, that light comes from the True Light. That's why, even in the most depraved societies and most disturbed religions, there are always traces of light – and some early evangelists appealed to these lights to remind pagans of the True Light, and held that those who'd lived and died reasonably in the light they had were thereby following the True Light, and hence Christians without knowing it.26

But in a very special way, though giving light to everyone, the True Light called himself “the Light of Israel” (Isaiah 10:17). For they, as the chosen people to whom he revealed himself personally, could profess him by name as “my light and my salvation” (Psalm 27:1), and say: “With you is the fountain of life: in your light do we see light” (Psalm 36:9). They could find no higher blessing than to wish the LORD's face to graciously shine on you (Numbers 6:25). Theirs was a spirituality of striving to “walk before God in the light of life” (Psalm 56:13), and that meant living by his lawful word, “for the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light” (Proverbs 6:23), “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). And “the path of the righteous” who follow it is “like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day” (Proverbs 4:18).

Israel was chosen for a purpose: to be “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). And they were promised that “if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness” (Isaiah 58:10), “and nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isaiah 60:3). But although they postured as “a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness” (Romans 2:19), the recurring scandal of their sins meant that they failed to be much light to the nations. Yet the righteous among them never stopped praying to God, “Send forth your Light and your Truth!” (Psalm 43:3).

Then, nine months after the Spirit of God hovered over Mary's womb (Luke 1:35; cf. Genesis 1:2), “those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone..., for to us a child is born, to us a son is given” (Isaiah 9:2,6). That was when “the True Light which gives light to everyone was coming into the world” (John 1:9). The True Light had become flesh. “I have come into this world as Light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness” (John 12:46). “As long as I am in the world, I am the Light of the World” (John 9:5). “While you have the Light, believe in the Light, that you may become sons of light” (John 12:36). But “this is the judgment: the Light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their works were evil” (John 3:19). “We must work the works of the One who sent me while it is day,” Jesus said, because soon “night is coming, when no one can work” (John 9:4).

For when Christ was crucified, “there was darkness over all the land” (Mark 15:33). Yet even from the cross or tomb, Jesus could've prayed the words of Micah: “When I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the LORD will be a light to me.... He will bring me out to the light” (Micah 7:8-9). And so, just as light was born on day one, so “the first day of the week” found Jesus no longer in death's darkness (Luke 24:1). On Easter morning, it became clear just how “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5)! And “by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light” to the whole world (Acts 26:23).

After the Light had risen to heaven, a persecutor of the Light was on the road to Damascus, when he “saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me,” he said (Acts 26:13), and in that moment, “God, who said 'Let light shine out of darkness,' shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). The voice from this glorious face tasked Paul's with a mission: to go “turn [people] from darkness to light” (Acts 26:18), much as the other apostles were doing. But until Paul was at the brink of baptism, “darkness fell on him” (Acts 13:11), illustrating his spiritual condition until that light from above would make him new (Acts 9:18).

And what came to Paul on the Damascus Road comes to you, too. “At one time you were darkness,” he says, “but now you are light in the Lord” (Ephesians 5:8), when “God supplied the Spirit to the water as... a baptismal font, and immediately thereafter commanded, 'Let there be the light of illumination,'”27 because the Spirit there infuses a gift of a supernatural faith, and “faith is the first light of the soul.”28 “Delivered from the domain of darkness” (Colossians 1:13), now “you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15), “for you are all sons of light, sons of the day..., not of the night or of darkness” (1 Thessalonians 5:5). And so the Church is now “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14), “chosen... that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). So “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them..., for anything that becomes visible is light” (Ephesians 5:11,14). “If we say we have fellowship with [God] while we walk in darkness, we lie” (1 John 1:6). Instead, “walk as children of light, for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true” (Ephesians 5:8-9), and “if we walk in the light as [God] is in the light..., the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). “Let your light shine before others,” then, “that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

And now “the night is far gone, the day is at hand” (Romans 13:12) – “the darkness is passing away, and the True Light is already shining” (1 John 2:8) – for “when the Lord comes” again, he “will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness” (1 Corinthians 4:5). Then, as in bright heaven above, you'll be welcomed to “share the inheritance of the saints in light” (Colossians 1:12). “You who have experienced pain: Fear not! For there shall be a healing medicine for you: a bright light shall enlighten you, and a voice of rest you shall hear from heaven.”29 To the children of light will then come true the ancient promise that “the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory” (Isaiah 60:19). At last “night will be no more,” having hit the end of its usefulness, “for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5). That's how the Bible ends, much as it began: with the Eternal Light being all in all, shining as one eternal day – only, this time, with us basking in it in perfect bliss, made brilliant to gaze forever on the True Light and radiate his own glory!

See, that's what this has promised from the beginning. Who knew such familiar verses held so much revelation, so much guidance, so much unsurpassed hope?  In hearing Let there be light, the whole mystery of salvation has been set in motion!

We'll end today with this blessing from St. Basil: “May the Father of the True Light, who has decked the day with the heavenly light..., who has made ready the peace of the future age with a spiritual and never-ending light, illumine your hearts in a knowledge of the truth, and preserve your life without offense, allowing you to walk becomingly as in the day, in order that you may shine forth... in the splendor of the saints for my exultation in the Day of Christ – to whom be glory and power forever! Amen.”30

Bright Father of All Lights, you who are Eternal Light begetting Light, you who have created lights spiritual and physical: Send forth your Spirit of light and truth in us today!  Task your angels of light, we beg, with our guidance and protection, and brighten and intensify them in their holy endeavors in your service.  Shine your own great light onto our hearts from above, and fill our whole selves, soul and body, with your light.  Make us children of light, entirely light in you, as your angels above are light in your light.  Let us see all light in this world around us by your light from above.  Let us walk in the light as you are in the light; and as we walk with you in light, lead us to your full light eternal.  We ask this only in the name of the True Light who came into the world for us and for our salvation, who is truly Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the brilliant unity of the Holy Spirit, God forever and ever.  Amen.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Abyss and Inspiration

Over the past two weeks, as we've begun to sink into this book of beginnings called Genesis, we've gotten our dawning glimpse into eternity, at a God who is eternally Love shared by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – one God in three distinct persons, each and all the same pure Existence, the same pure Goodness, the same pure Knowledge and Power and Life and Happiness and Glory. And this God would still have been Happiness and Glory, Goodness and Love, had he chosen not to create anything, had remained home alone in the eternity which he himself is. But that's not how things played out. Instead, he freely loved the universe into existence out of nothing. He simply willed to share the goodness of being with things. And so, out of nothing, “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).

But now, as we inch forward, we find that this world as it first exists at God's command is not anything at all remotely like the world we know. It's incomplete, it's unready, it's raw. And we find three main words that describe it, or at least the part we're talking about: the earth, the waters, the deep. In fact, this picture is all so foreign that it's a bit hard to know what to make of it, isn't it? Some in the early church pictured this as though the earth is basically the earth we know, but “concealed by the water,”1 “inundated by a deep flood,”2 like the ocean floor.3 But at the same time, other Christians pictured it as though the earth and the waters and the deep were the same thing, blended together in a big muddy ocean of sediment: all that “mixed-up material” not yet “sorted out and formed,”4 “all the elements jumbled up together.”5

In more modern times, trying to picture how we can envision Genesis in our day, some Christians have drawn parallels with the stories scientists tell us of the history of our world. Some have compared this original 'deep' to the molten or gaseous early earth, “a poorly defined mixture of solidified compounds, molten liquid, and gases swirling” through space.6 Some look back further, to the theorized first fraction of a second after the Big Bang, when matter only formed what scientists describe as a “free-flowing quark-gluon plasma,”7 a “quark soup,”8 a dense fluid state throughout the whole universe in which the most basic building blocks of matter were unconfined, flowing all jumbled together in a universal deep. And still others look all the way back, to the scientists' tale of an infinitely dense beginning point, a singularity awash in possibility on the quantum vacuum.9

Whatever else we might compare the 'deep' or 'earth' to, listen to how the Scripture first introduces what God has just made: “Now the earth was formless and void” (Genesis 1:2). Those words make a cute little rhyme in Hebrew: the earth was tohu-and-bohu. Now, the word tohu shows up plenty in Scripture. It can describe a city reduced to rubble, like when Isaiah says that “the city of tohu is broken down; every house is shut up so that none can enter..., the gates are battered into ruins” (Isaiah 24:10, 12). It can describe the desert, like when Job says that God's judgment takes great people and “makes them wander in a trackless tohu” (Job 12:24), or when Moses sings that God found Israel “in a desert land and in a tohu, a howling wilderness” (Deuteronomy 32:10). In other words, the tohu is a place that's dangerous to set up shop.10 Isaiah loves this word as an insult, describing idols and their lovers as tohu (Isaiah 40:17; 41:29). Tohu is a desolate place, an inhospitable environment, something broken and unproductive, serving no purpose or value.11 And one scientist writes that the early universe was “devoid of structure, nor was it obvious that there would ever be any structure.”12

Bohu is a trickier word, since it only shows up in the Bible as an addendum to tohu. Isaiah threatens Edom that God would “stretch the line of tohu over it, and the plumb line of bohu” (Isaiah 34:11) – making it a haunted wasteland, devoid of human life, but given over to creatures of the night. Jeremiah, previewing the destruction of Jerusalem, laments: “I looked to the earth, and behold, it was tohu and bohu; and to the heavens, and they had no light” (Jeremiah 4:23). He's pointing back at this verse, saying that the loss of Jerusalem will be like rewinding to when things barely existed at all. The basic idea of bohu is probably something empty and bare, unfinished and unfurnished, like a house after you've moved out. The earth was a desolate wasteland, a vacant house, “formless matter” (Wisdom 11:17) in a “gaping, empty, and void space.”13

But as if that weren't rough enough, Genesis adds one more fact: “and darkness was upon the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). There was no light anywhere. Nothing could be seen. It was all impenetrable and invisible, mysterious, empty of any beauty yet. Everything was darkness, desolation, devoid of any real features at all, any clear indications of its goodness. It clearly wasn't anywhere a loving God would put us and tell us to live. This was a world that couldn't be lived in, that wasn't alive. As one Jewish writer put it in the first century, back then “darkness and silence embraced everything.”14 Lifeless as a tomb. One early reader got the impression of “something murky, always in twilight, deep, depressed, misty, and bearing darkness everywhere.”15 Others have called it simply “a sterile nothingness,” shrouded in unremitting darkness.16

And sometimes that feels familiar. Because, as the prophets feared, these things – tohu, bohu, and darkness – can come back and impinge on our lives today. The psalmist cried that the brokenness in his relationships had made his companions “darkness” (Psalm 88:18). Jeremiah lamented that suffering and confusion can make us “dwell in darkness” (Lamentations 3:6). Darkness descends into our lives in our obscurity and our uncertainty. Think of all the times you've been unsure what to do, who to trust, where to turn. Think of all the times you've been screened off from the truth, kept in the dark. Think of the times in your life when a gray fog has seemed to settle on your heart, clouding your vision, sinking you down to the depths beneath your soul.

And then there's the bohu in our lives. Our lives can be depopulated as what we love moves away from us. It might be a grievous loss, perhaps the death of a loved one – a parent, a spouse, a child, a friend has died, they're not in your life any more in the same way, and that crushing void you feel, that's bohu. Or there's a relationship you've gotten cut off from by distance or disfavor, and it feels so strange and so lonely at times. That felt absence, that vacancy – there's the bohu. Or it could be a privilege or position you've lost. You've moved and been uprooted, you've been fired from your job, you've had your license revoked. That choking inability, that invasive insecurity, that phantom pain you feel in what's not there any more – bohu.

But there's tohu in our lives, too. Isaiah says that God “makes the rulers of the earth tohu” (Isaiah 40:23), that he strips them of their status as counting for anything at all. And so too, we might have stripped from us not just a thing, a place or position, but our sense of identity and meaning and purpose. You used to feel a vocation, a calling to do this or that, but you can't do it any more. You used to have bearings on who you are, what you're here for, what you're doing in life, but now that's damaged or destroyed, and you're adrift in the deep, unsure which way is up. Your landscape of meaning, the world you navigated your way in, has crumbled. It's become a more dangerous place inside your head, less fit for your soul's habitation among those thoughts of the night. And suddenly all those anchoring truths you used to tell yourself feel more like fairy-tales from a future that may never come. Whether you hurt or whether it's just numb, you wonder what it all matters. There's the tohu. And whether you're dealing with the darkness, with the bohu, with the tohu, or all three, you might find yourself in an “unbearable feedback loop of exhaustion.”17 You can tell it's no way to live. Have you ever been there?

So much for the abyss. We could use the inspiration now, couldn't we? Because this verse is not done. Yes, the earth in the beginning was tohu and bohu. Yes, the face of the deep was covered in darkness. But the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). When the deep was in darkness, when the earth was tohu and bohu, that didn't mean God's Spirit was far away, that God had removed himself from the situation the raw world was in, that God wasn't involved and had no plan. God wasn't absent from this dark desolation in the slightest. No, God was there, presenting himself face-to-face with the matter of creation, even in the dark. The darkness is no proof of God's failure. The vacancy of the house is no vacuum and void to God. The most desolate and inhospitable places are as open to God as any garden.

God has not left the matter of the world alone, has not deserted the deep, hasn't let the desolate earth go its own way. He's engaging with it. The question is, how? The Egyptians might have said that God owed something to the deep. The Egyptians looked back on “the uniform darkness, ocean of the gods,” a “place void of sky and void of land,”18 and declared that “the Waters... evolved” so that the first god rose out of them,19 “evolved out of the flood, out of the waters, out of darkness, out of lostness.”20 But that's not the picture in Genesis. The Spirit doesn't emerge from the deep, doesn't evolve from the waters. The Spirit comes to face lostness, not to flee it.

The Babylonians looked back on the deep as a vicious monster, a universe-sized threat that the gods needed to shatter before hope could begin. To them, before heaven and earth, there were “mingled waters” which gave rise to the gods, but which then “organized battle against the gods,” so that the gods ultimately had to kill them with a mighty “evil wind.”21 Only the destruction of the deep and its darkness, only the violent shattering of the original reality, could allow a new world to triumph – or so said the Babylonians. But that's not the picture in Genesis either. The deep may be dark, but it's not aggressive. It's “still, motionless, receptive, waiting quietly in the darkness for the Creator's next step.”22

How does God's Spirit behave with this receptive matter of creation? God's Spirit – a holy wind, not the evil wind of Babylon – behaves like a soaring, gliding, circling bird. The verb here might sound predatory, because to the Canaanites, it was their word for the circling of a hawk or a vulture.23 But in the Bible, it's much more likely to picture how a mama eagle finds her nest and tends it devotedly, raising her eaglets with lots of love. It's the word Moses uses when singing about how, when God had found Israel in the tohu, “he encircled him, he cared for him... Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions, the LORD alone guided him” (Deuteronomy 32:10-12). This is not a story of violent intervention to fight the deep and its dangers.24 This is a story of God's Spirit gently rousing and pushing, supporting and shepherding. This is peaceful nurture of the deep and desolate earth toward hope. The dark world is shown to be putty in the hands of God. Much as the Scriptures took their origin when “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21), so the very depths of all creation were being carried along by the Holy Spirit, waiting to hear God's voice. Nature is nurtured, nature is inspired.

And so God's Spirit looks down on this creation, stares the desolate and dark deep right in the face, and watches over it, shapes it, stirs it to growth. It's the Spirit of God that imparts dynamism, motion, on what would otherwise be a very dreary and dull abyss.25 It was God's Spirit who drove the inflation and expansion of the universe behind its austere face, God's Spirit who coalesced interstellar dust to form the earth, God's Spirit who alights upon the face of the deep, “preparing the nature of the waters for the generation of living beings.”26

And when we read here of the Spirit brooding like a bird over the waters, we should remember that story told often in the Gospels, where “when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold..., he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him” (Matthew 3:16). Jesus, in submitting to John's baptism, showed the Spirit hovering on the waters again – and he was the place where it happened. In his ministry, he'd go on to describe baptism as being “born of water and the Spirit,” without which a person “cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). So naturally, when Jesus' followers read Genesis, this verse stuck out to them, that “already at that time, baptism was being foreshadowed”27 – that “the Holy Spirit... represented beforehand the grace of holy baptism” by sanctifying the first waters.28 The entire world we know began, then, as not just any waters, but as a cosmic baptism, superintended and sanctified by the Spirit's energy: “The nature of the waters, having received holiness from the Holy, itself conceived power to make holy.”29

And so, when we were “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5), we returned to the very dawn of creation, to the root of the universe. We were buried in that original abyss of dark waters, the deep on which the Spirit of God stirred the prospect of order out of chaos, motion out of sterility, life out of the void. Our beginning in the life of Christ is nothing less than the birth of the universe itself. And if the Spirit's energy is what caused, as the scientists describe it, the universe to multiply its reach by a billion billion billions in the tiniest fraction of a second, then what growth in grace is the Spirit's energy not enough to supply in you, if you're as receptive as the deep? For the Spirit of God hovered over the waters where our Christian life was born. Jesus promised no less.

Out there in the world, there are lives that have fallen under the dark shadow of sin and death, draining them of vitality, bringing destruction and ruin, making them formless and void. And yet, wherever sin has introduced a moral darkness and desolation, the Spirit is circling, fluttering, having been sent into the world to “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment,” like Jesus said (John 16:8). Even while darkness rules, even while unbelieving souls are yet sterile and empty, even when the world seems most graceless, the Spirit of God is already there, working undercover by brooding over each sin-soaked heart. There's hope for the darkest!

And we, too, even as Christians, even when we're living right, may meet in this life with a darkness, with the tohu and bohu, with chaos in our minds and hearts and circumstances. But there, too, the Spirit of God is circling, hovering, fluttering, nurturing, brooding. So when your mind is confused and all your thoughts and anxieties are mixed up, the Spirit of God is circling over your confusion, offering to be your order. When your heart feels like rubble and your emotions seem empty as the vacuum of space, the Spirit of God is hovering over your heart, breathing forth compassion from above. When you can't see past the cold obscurity and the gloomy grief, the Spirit of God is brooding warmth and possibility and life. When circumstances seem at their most chaotic, the Spirit of God is nurturing, gently prodding. When the apparent absence of God chokes all things in the stifling silence that shrieks louder than words, then and there is the Spirit stirring, setting plans in motion until the all-swallowing abyss is swallowed up by an even more bottomless hope. Tohu and bohu were never God's ultimate plan for the world; neither will he abandon you in fruitlessness forever (cf. Isaiah 45:18). And so, in the most desolate night when all is confusion and chaos, still even then, “to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6). Therefore, “praise the LORD from the earth..., all deeps!” (Psalm 148:7).

So “may the God of Hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing,” even when things seem perilous and pointless, fruitless and formless, vacuum and void, “so that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13). Yes, even then, may you abound in joy and peace, in faith and hope, as the Spirit of Love hovers ever-near – for in your darkest and most desolate, no less than at your brightest and most fruitful, you will never be alone. Thanks be to God! For from him and to him and through him are all things. Amen.

Gracious God, you who created all things from the beginning, you breathed forth your Spirit on what you had made when it was still imperfect, unfinished, unready, raw, and dark.  And in what would have been hopeless and helpless, you stirred and hovered and baptized all things into love.  Your Spirit is the life of all that exists, and certainly the life of our souls.  So take not your Holy Spirit from us!  As we were baptized in the deep your Spirit sanctified, so let the same living waters now well up in our hearts to life.  When the darkness deepens, Lord, with us abide.  Abide with us in chaos and confusion, in trivial tohu and bereaving bohu.  Breathe forth your Spirit, hover over us, make us new.  Stir us beneath the surface by your love, evangelize and energize us for your holy purpose, and make us not a sterile nothingness but a fruitful new creation.  Catch and carry us along until all is very good, all is very best, in and for and from us, as we become at last, finally, fully in Christ.  Amen.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Deus Creator Omnium

Here's one for you: Why did the scientist say to his readers, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe”?1 Well, the answer goes back almost a century, when a Belgian physicist named Georges Lemaitre put forward his brand-new theory. He'd already published a report showing that the universe was not some static system like they used to think; it was getting stretched further apart. Now, in 1931, he drew out the implications in just four paragraphs: if you rewind the clock enough, the whole universe begins at one initial point, “a single quantum” which marks “the beginning of the world.” Lemaitre imagined it as “a unique atom, the atomic weight of which is the total mass of the universe.” And so “the whole matter of the world” was “present at the beginning..., a little before the beginning of space and time.”2 The whole universe – all matter, energy, space, time – can be drawn no further back than that original beginning from which it grows.

When Lemaitre said it, it was such a crazy idea, an unsavory suggestion, one that skeptics thought “smacks of divine intervention,” smuggling religion into the halls of science.3 It sounded way too much like Genesis – and it didn't help that Lemaitre was not just a devout believer, but an ordained priest! Years later, a persistent skeptic scoffed at Lemaitre's theory for being “based on the hypothesis that all the matter in the universe was created in one big bang at a particular time in the remote past.”4 He kept repeating the remark, and his mockery of Fr. Lemaitre's theory as “the big bang” stuck. But, to the scoffers' dismay, it's become part of the standard scientific account, so that even Stephen Hawking confessed that “almost everyone now believes that the universe, and time itself, had a beginning at the big bang.”5

And so, back to that remark from earlier. To make an apple pie, you need things like wheat and apples. But to make wheat and apples from scratch, you'll need molecules you've got to build up from atoms like carbon and oxygen. To cook those atoms from scratch, you'll need some stars. To make the stars from scratch, you'll need hydrogen and helium. And how do you get those from scratch? The scientist, Carl Sagan, explained that they were “made in the Big Bang, the explosion that began the Cosmos.” So that's why, “if you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”6 Now, Sagan himself – out of his philosophical poverty – tried his floundering best to backtrack from the notion that the universe really had an Inventor; he hoped, somehow, maybe, “the universe has always existed,” so there wasn't really that pesky absolute beginning after all.7 Plenty of people, even among scientists, remain desperate to escape these facts, because, no matter how you slice it, if all things trace back no further than that infinitely dense beginning state, then that cries out for an explanation which can't be found within universal space and time, or at nature's furthest boundaries, at all.

And when we're dumbfounded by what can't even in principle have a natural explanation, Genesis steps up to the plate, shouting in our dumb ear: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1)! Last Sunday, we traced all manner of things upward and backward to this unique God who is pure Existence, Goodness, Life, Knowledge, Happiness, Power, and Love. And from the revealed truth that “God is Love” (1 John 2:16), we realized God must be a Trinity – he exists eternally as a Lover called Father, a Beloved called Son, and a Love-Between-Them called Holy Spirit. This eternal life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as one God in three distinct persons is the eternal prelude playing 'before' Genesis opens. There's no one else but God.

And then, suddenly, there are “the heavens and the earth.” The ancient Israelites didn't have a single word in their language that meant the whole universe. They had to get around that with a way of speaking where you can sum something up by referring to its opposite extremes.8 So, to the Hebrews, one extreme of the world they lived in was the earth, and the other extreme was the sky above. So to talk about 'the heavens and the earth' means “the whole of creation,”9 “the totality of cosmic phenomena,”10 “everything that exists,”11 “all things apart from God.”12 That covers “all things visible and invisible.”13 The spiritual realm is included, and so is the physical world. When Genesis says “the heavens and the earth,” nothing isn't included in that except for God.

And in the beginning, God “created” all these things. The word Genesis uses is a verb that never takes anyone but God as its subject. And the Bible uses this word for 'create' sparingly, only for steps that are truly “novel, extraordinary, and effortless.”14 And that's not something you and I can do. In the biblical sense, we aren't creative. We can make things, build things, devise things, dream things, but “only God can create.”15 And it applies especially here at the beginning because God is inventing the universe. And he's doing it truly from scratch. There are no ready-made ingredients lying around to cook up the universe from. “He himself invented the matter of his work,”16 this “basic material... out of which all the things would be made,”17 since previously it did not exist.”18 He made all of it from nothing, not out of anything – no material cause at all.

That was an explosive idea. Some of Israel's neighbors had stories where their gods built the universe on the back of a terrible war: violence, conquest, dismemberment – that's where heaven and earth came from. Others told stories where the universe flowed forth in sensual and graphic ways: fluids, fertilization, pangs of labor. But in Genesis, heaven and earth are brought into being not with war but in peace, not in sensuality but in purity.19 How'd he do it, then? “By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (Hebrews 11:3). God simply “calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). “For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm” (Psalm 33:9). With the will of God does absence yield to presence, eternity embrace time, space and substance surrender their unreality. God calls, “Let there be!” – and say no more, bang! there it be!

But to say that “the world was created by the word of God” is to say more than we thought. Because the Word was in the beginning with God, and was God, and then the Word took on flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth (John 1:1, 14). And his name is Jesus Christ. The New Testament very plainly unveils that Jesus is the One “through whom [God] created the world” (Hebrews 1:2). “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible... – all things were created through him and for him, and he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17). That's a wild thought! When Jesus was being born in Bethlehem, and growing up in Nazareth, and walking the fields of Galilee, and being nailed to the cross outside Jerusalem – that was the uncreated Creator of everything, the One whose idea it was to have angels and atoms and apple pies.

And so we know that, whenever we hear that “God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:10), it's because God only makes good things. Paul writes that “everything created by God is good” (1 Timothy 4:4). And how could it be any other way, if the Word that calls each thing into being is the same Jesus we know and love? There is no thing in all God's creation that isn't good so far as it exists. A far-off galaxy? It's good that that exists! The land under your feet? It's good that that exists! Your body? It's good that that exists, too! All these things are good, even if something about them no longer works right or has some unpleasant features. God makes all things good, and nothing that's not good.

And God “made things by his own counsel and free will.”20 God created each and every thing he created – time and space, matter and energy, cherubim and cockroaches, galaxies and gingko trees and gophers – freely, not under any inner or outer compulsion.21 He decided freely in favor of all these things, when he could easily have not, easily have remained blissfully content in eternity with his Son and his Spirit. But freely God “created out of a superabundance of goodness,” willing there to be creatures who could “benefit from his goodness and share in it.”22 He did it to extend his love to a creation. A Jewish writer around the time of Jesus' earthly ministry prayed to God: “You love all things that are, and loathe nothing you have made, for you would not fashion what you hate” (Wisdom 11:24). Everything that exists? God loves it! God wouldn't have made it if he didn't. God didn't just speak you into being; he loved you into being. Love is what made you, love is what keeps you, the love of God is your very heartbeat. If you ever need proof God loves you, check if you exist – question answered. And so it is for all that exists: it's a manifestation of God's love. Space is the love of God stretching, time is the love of God counting. Every creature is simply, purely loved into being by God who is Love.

And because love is relational, God isn't merely a Creator 'from the outside.' He's a Creator who doesn't stand far off from what he's made. He can't: nothing could stand without his continued touch of love. God is, we said, Existence himself. And so for anything to exist is for God to be lending it existence at the core of its being – God loves each thing from the inside. He surrounds and suffuses each thing he has made. That's why Joshua can say that “he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Joshua 2:11), why Paul can proclaim that “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17), “and no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed” (Hebrews 4:13). Loaning existence to every span of space, every moment of time, every particle of matter, every wave of energy, “God must exist... intimately in everything.”23 In this most fundamental sense, God may just be closer to you than you are to you. Like Paul says, God “is actually not far from each one of us, for in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28).

Now, if God made all things out of love, and God is Love, then God made them for himself. Paul says that God the Father is not only the one from whom are all things,” but also the one for whom we exist” (1 Corinthians 8:6). And of Jesus Christ, he adds: “All things were created... for him” (Colossians 1:16). God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is the point of why you and I and anything else exists. What's a person for? For God. What's a peacock for? For God. What's a proton for? For God. There is no thing that was not created for God, that does not exist for God, that does not have God as its ultimate goal and good.

And if that's true, then God – as creator and goal of each and every thing – has absolute rights over all things, because they're his both in origin and in destiny. That's why Moses taught that “to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it” (Deuteronomy 10:14), why King David prayed: “All that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours” (1 Chronicles 29:11), why Paul reasoned that “the God who made the world and everything in it” must therefore be “Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24). “If God made everything, then he owns it and is in charge of it.”24 “Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, 'He did not make me,' or the thing formed say of him who formed it, 'He has no understanding'?” (Isaiah 29:16). “Has the potter no right over the clay?” (Romans 9:21). God made all things for his own purposes. No inch of space or moment of time isn't made by him and for him, and any other treatment of it would be illegitimate. Every use of your powers of body or mind – your actions, your will, your thought – is equally made by him and for him, in holy love. And so any use that deviates from holy love is both a violation of God's rights as its Creator and a betrayal of our very own selves, falling short of our own true purpose, resisting our best destiny. Off-label use of our faculties is no good for us, or for anything else.

For when any created thing behaves as though God weren't its maker and owner, when any created things veers away from the purpose for which he made it (which is for himself, for love), then it behaves against its creation. It acts as though some other thing – some fictitious thing or some created thing – is a god to rival God. But the prophets remind us, in their usual stark way, that “the gods who did not make the heavens and the earth shall perish from the earth and from under the heavens” (Jeremiah 10:11). God made all things for himself, which is to say, for Love. But false loves, distorted loves, misappropriate and arrogate God's purposes to themselves. So every love that isn't at the root of creation, or reflective of the love that is, is destined for a downfall.

Because God created freely as an act of love. And that makes creation a gift – a gift from God and to God, in the final scheme of things, but also a gift to itself and us. Creation is a gift to creation, “the gift of existence.”25 Everything that exists is a gift! Not even the apple pie in your oven is anything other than a gift from God. After all, he first had to invent the universe so you could have it. And such gifts call for a fundamental attitude of gratitude.26 Through our hearts, through our lives, the universe can be grateful to its “faithful Creator” for itself (cf. 1 Peter 4:19). I think Chesterton said it best, a century ago this year, when he wrote:

This sense of the great gratitude... was not a fancy but a fact. … That we all depend in every detail, at every instant..., is not an illusion of the imagination; on the contrary, it is the fundamental fact which we cover up, as with curtains, with the illusion of ordinary life. … He who has seen the whole world hanging on a hair of the mercy of God has seen the truth. … The great saint may be said to mix all his thoughts with thanks. All goods look better when they look like gifts. … It is the discovery of an infinite debt. It may seem a paradox to say that a man may be transported with joy to discover that he is in debt. … Debt and dependence do become pleasures in the presence of unspoilt love. … It is the highest and holiest of paradoxes that the man who really knows he cannot pay his debt... will be always throwing things away into a bottomless pit of unfathomable thanks.27

Faced with the infinite debt of being a creature, a creature loved into existence by God, a creature loved into the good by a God who has only the good purpose of love for all things – what else should we do, what else is good to do, what else is beneficial to do, but to leap with our lives into that bottomless pit of unfathomable thanks? “Let us glorify the Master Craftsman for all that has been done wisely and skillfully,” wrote St. Basil, “and from the beauty of visible things, let us form an idea of him who is more than beautiful.”28 Or, as the angels sing in Revelation: “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created!” (Revelation 4:11). God first invented the universe, and so he is worthy of praise, worthy of thanks, worthy of admiration and adoration. For “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Let us adore with thankful lives the Creator Love that loves us into being! Glory to God! Amen.

Almighty and Eternal God, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, as one God you willed all things to exist, and they were created.  None but you could have done this.  Out of your goodness, out of your love, you created all things out of nothing.  Time and space themselves, matter and form and energy, things in heaven and things on earth, things visible and things invisible - you spoke your word, and they came to be; you commanded, and there they were, established by the power of your love to be loved by you and to glorify you with their being.  You encompass all things, you exist intimately in all things, you share the goodness of existence with all things that are.  You are Lord of all creation, of heaven and earth, and your every work is the giving of a gift.  What can we do but thank you?  What should we do but praise you?  What is there for us but to worship you in adoration?  We believe in you, God, for the Creator can do all things.  We hope in you, God, for the Creator is faithful to all things.  We love you, God, for the Creator is the good of all things.  And you are more than wise, more than beautiful, more than true, more than good.  So we give you boundless glory and honor and power, to the extent we as feeble creatures can, for you are worthier than worthy!  Thank you, Most Holy Trinity, for the gift of existence.  Thank you, Creator, for all your creation!  We pray and praise you through Jesus Christ, your Creating Word, our Redeeming Lord.  Amen.

Sunday, June 4, 2023

An Eternal Prelude

It's time to get back to the beginning. The Bible falls into two big parts: the Old Testament and the New Testament. The twenty-seven books of the New Testament all unfold the shining splendor of the new covenant between God and his people through Christ, who makes all things new. But before the New Testament comes the Old Testament, a collection of equally inspired books that emerged as part of God's dealings with his creation before Jesus arrives in the flesh. Our Bible has thirty-nine Old Testament books, for a total of sixty-six altogether. Actually, most Christians on earth today use bigger Bibles with a few extra in the Old Testament. But all Christians agree that, just as the Bible starts with the Old Testament, so the Old Testament starts with the Books of Moses. These are called the Torah, the Law. Paul defended the gospel “both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets” (Acts 28:23). When Jesus walked the earth, all his neighbors agreed – even if on little else! – that this collection was the core of scripture. The psalmist calls the Law “perfect” (Psalm 19:7).

But if the New Testament is built on the Old Testament, and if the rest of the Old Testament is built on the Law, none of scripture makes sense without it. And if that's true of the Law, it's extra true of the start of the Law. Because this Book of Moses is actually five books – that's why it's also sometimes called the Pentateuch, 'five scrolls.' And the first of those scrolls of Moses is a book our Jewish neighbors call after its first word, Bere'shit, but which Christians usually called by its Greek and Latin title: Genesis, 'origin.'

Some have nicknamed Genesis as “the Old Testament of the Old Testament.” It's the cornerstone of all of Scripture. There are few (if any) themes in the Bible that don't crop up for the first time in Genesis. Genesis is the seed from which everything else grows. If you were to delete Genesis and all its stories and themes from your Bible, the other pages would, more often than not, crumble to dust, unable to stand without what Genesis began. Genesis pulses and breathes and grows throughout everything that follows. Genesis tells the story of creation – where it all came from, who it's all by, what it's all for, how it all went wrong, and what's being done to fix it all. Genesis reveals who God is, what the world is, and what and who you were, are, and could be.

And that's why Genesis is worth more time than we usually give it. So we're going to give Genesis its due, give Genesis its time – especially the beginning. Starting next week, as we wade into the waters of creation, we're praying to learn all Genesis has to teach us. So we're hitting the rewind button now. Back from the world we know. Back past apostles on the move and an empty tomb, back past Calvary and Bethlehem, back through sages and prophets, priests and kings, promised lands and desert mountains, parted seas and a brother sold, wrestling matches with angels and sons tied up for sacrifice, towers and arks and floods and fields and gardens, to where we first lifted our eyes to the skies. But we're going to keep rewinding, watching in reverse as animals and plants unsay their first hello, as stars wink back out of the sky, as the earth melts away beneath our feet, as the first light retreats into the void and space and time collapse to a point. And we won't lift our finger from the rewind button 'til we leave words behind... and peer beyond the Bible's beginning.

We can reason out some clues of what we must find when we've rewound so far through the Bible that we've been thrown off the first page. We look at ourselves in the mirror, and we know we sometimes do what's good, we sometimes do what's less than good. But these standards and obligations and values aren't free-floating in the universe. They have to come from somewhere, be rooted in something. Rightness, value, our conscience – from all these, we can reason backward and upward to a Perfect Good, a Good that's the source and summit of all goodness, which causes goodness in the universe and which has the right to command right and wrong.

We look around at the universe, and if we open our eyes and ears to it, we're overwhelmed by a sense of beauty, of splendor. And that's not just in environments we find it easy to live in. Even deserts, tundras, the sea floor, the spangled skies of night – they take our breath away, even as they take our breath away. This is a world of beauty beyond all necessity, and a world of beauty-makers, of music, art, and love. And so from all this beauty we reason our way back and up beyond the universe to a Perfect Beauty, “the most beautiful of all beauty.”1

We look around us and see a consistent universe, where things don't just behave randomly, but instead conduct themselves lawfully. You drop your pen for the hundred-and-first time, and it'll fall, same as the first hundred. You can even work out the math to describe how fast it'll go, based on the gravity of the earth, because this law of creation keeps describing it. And from this lawful consistency, we reason our way backward and upward to a Power in whose hands the whole universe lies, and who guides things consistently toward their goal. As was said long ago, “the very coherence, maintenance, and governance of creation teaches us that there is a God.”2

We look around at a universe finely tuned to allow our existence, when almost any universe with randomized parameters would exclude us. If the balance of one particle to another had been just a little off, if the universe had grown a little too fast or too slow, if the strength of this or that fundamental force of physics had been a little stronger or a little weaker, stars couldn't exist, the earth couldn't exist, we couldn't exist. It had to be just right for us to exist. For it to turn out just right by chance is so inconceivably improbable as to be absurd, so from that, we reason backward and upward to an Intelligence beyond the universe which wanted us to be here.

We look around at a universe full of things that change, things that begin, that didn't have to be. You weren't always around; you had to come from somewhere. You didn't just happen; you were conceived and born – and could have not been. The same was true of your parents. The same was true of the earth you're on. The same was true of the sun our world orbits. The same was true of the atoms it's made of. The same is true, in fact, of space and time itself. These are things that begin, and could have not been. And we understand, from all these examples, that anything that begins has a cause. From that, we can reason backward and upward to a First Cause without beginning, a cause of all things, a Necessary Existence that shares being with the universe.

All of these things are as St. Paul said: “What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes – namely, his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly perceived, from the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:19-20). And what's more, instinctively we're made to know, even without reasoning our way there, that there is a God. To the extent we're functioning properly, without interference, we by nature are believers. As it was said a long time ago, “The knowledge that God exists has been naturally implanted within us.”3 In the words of Ecclesiastes, God “has made everything beautiful in its time” and “has put eternity into man's heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

The Bible begins with those familiar words I think it's safe to say we all know: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). And this tells us that the root of all things isn't impersonal, isn't mechanical; the root of all things is personal. We aren't flukes reacting by accident to a cold, unfeeling world around us. We're persons living in a world that is rooted in a personality, and it's to that personality that we're called to respond with our lives. But in the creation stories told by many of Israel's neighbors, they first had to narrate where their gods came from, because those gods were just part of the universe they saw around them. That's definitely not the case with the God we meet in the first line of Genesis. He isn't part of the world. The word used for 'God' here is plural for the sake of intensity, but all the verbs are singular. There's only one God. “God must be one,” the early Christians argued, “because that which is God is supreme, but nothing can be supreme save that which is unique.”4 There a unique supreme God who is beyond the universe, not part of it.

Unlike the many gods mentioned in pagan creation stories, this unique supreme God was actually already there in the beginning, already there 'before' the beginning. But God had no beginning. The early Christians said that “there was nothing co-eval with God: he was his own locus, he lacked nothing, he existed before the ages.”5 Matter and energy had a beginning. Space and time had a beginning. For “before the beginning of time, there was no time. God, after all, made times...”6 And in that eternal state with no space or time, God is still there. Isaiah calls him “the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity” (Isaiah 57:15).

See, God didn't have to create. He chose to create, but he didn't have to. There didn't have to be things, didn't have to be space and time.  There's an old turn of phrase: “And who is he when he's at home?” Who is that person – and who is he really, when nobody else is around? Well, who is God when he's at home in eternity? Who is God when he's home alone without a world?

For starters, God is existence itself. “There is nothing more characteristic of God than to be.”7 “God... is not only his own essence, but also his own existence.”8 God doesn't just fit in the class of things that exist. He's not merely the first thing there is. He's not even an eternal thing. He's more than a being; he is being, he's existence as such, existence that doesn't need to be qualified. He's also goodness itself. He exists by nature, he has every perfection there could be, he's the ultimate goal of anything that exists – and there's no goodness better than that. So God himself is the standard by which anything could be said to be good.9

God has been called “a good which is alone simple, and therefore alone is immutable.”10 God isn't made of parts, isn't made of matter, isn't subject to change. His existence and his life have no limits at all. That's what eternity is all about: God has the instantaneously-whole and total possession of unending life. God doesn't experience his life piece by piece, like we do; God has it all at once. And this unchangeable fullness explains why, if God makes times and places, he could never be distant from any place or any time. “God is... not within a place, for he himself is his own place, filling all things and transcending all things...”11

So in eternity, God is existence itself, goodness itself, immaterial and immutable and simple, unlimited by place or time or anything, having his whole life in one instantaneously total possession of himself. And if his existence can't be qualified or limited, then neither can his knowledge. God “has knowledge in the highest degree,” because “God knows himself through himself.”12 Because God knows himself perfectly, and because anything else that even could exist would have to come from him, God knows everything that could or would ever happen if he creates. There is nothing God doesn't eternally know. “Oh, the depth of the... knowledge of God!” (Romans 11:33). And just the same, God's power can't be qualified or limited. “God's active power is infinite,” for “his power has no limits.”13 God, knowing all things, has power enough for all things. There's nothing he cannot do. “The surpassing power belongs to God” (2 Corinthians 4:7). “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Revelation 4:8).

Learning from reason and revelation, one early Christian described God like this: “God is... an ever-abiding nature without beginning and without end, immortal, perfect, and incomprehensible. … There exists no one stronger than he. … He is altogether wisdom and understanding, and in him stands fast all that exists. … He doesn't require anything from anyone, but all living creatures stand in need of him.”14 Another early Christian explained that “the form of God is ineffable and inexpressible..., for he is in glory uncontainable, in greatness incomprehensible, in loftiness inconceivable, in strength incomparable, in wisdom unteachable, in goodness inimitable, in beneficence inexpressible.”15 You'll notice a common theme there: all the words that start with 'in-' or 'im-' or 'un-.' The most startling thing about God is his beyondness. Another Christian writer once said: “Arouse your understanding and seek to comprehend the totality of God in your mind; you hold on to nothing. This totality of God always has something over and above your power of comprehension. … In speaking of him, even speech is silent.”16 Anything we say about God is at best an analogy. We may reason our way to his doorstep, may learn what he chooses to reveal, but he's infinitely more than any created mind can get around.

Another thing worth saying about God in his eternity, even if only by analogy, is that he's happy. One theologian defined happiness as “the perfection of an intelligent being conscious of its plenitude in the good it holds.”17 That is, happiness is what you have when you've got something good, it's fully good, you can't lose it, and you know it. Well, God has himself, the Perfect Good, infinitely and can never lose himself, and he knows it. So “happiness is God's above all,” for “whatever is desirable in any happiness whatever... wholly and most highly pre-exists in divine happiness.”18 God, in being God, is eternally happier than any moment of happiness any of us has ever experienced. And so even had he not created anything at all, he could not have been lonely.

He wouldn't have been lonely because God alone is never alone in himself. One of the most profound lines in the Bible seems like the simplest: “God is love” (1 John 4:8). It's not just that God loves, as if love were an act he happens to do. It's not just that God is the most loving of all, either. But love is the word that characterizes most perfectly who and what God eternally is. Now, here's the thing: if God is eternally and essentially Love, then who does God love when God's at home alone? Who would God be loving if God never created?

I'll tell you. Eternally, God thinks lovingly about himself, and the thought he has about himself is himself. And that perfect thought is called the Word. And the Word is a fully divine reality, is God's eternal reflection of God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” John tells us (John 1:1). God generates the Word eternally, so we call the Word also the Son. And the Word or Son is “eternally begotten of the Father before all ages, true God from true God, begotten but not made, of the same essence as the Father.”19 Equally eternally, the Father and the Son breathe forth their Spirit through their love for each other. How? It's incomprehensible, a mystery. But, as one modern teacher summed it up well, “there must exist a love in God that transcends the mere love of mutual happiness, and this can transpire only if there are three persons in God, where the first two persons share in a self-less love of the third person.”20

So as Christians, “we believe in one true God – the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit..., the one Trinity..., one indivisible and undifferentiated substance, strength, power, and majesty.”21 We say God is Love because God, alone in eternity, is not alone within himself, because he is the Trinity: the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, each of whom is entirely the one God. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share the one Love that God is. These three distinct persons in one God are one and the same power, one and the same goodness, one and the same happiness, one and the same eternal life. And none of that depends on creation. Had God not created, God would still have eternally been this supremely happy, eternally good life of internally shared love.

But this triune God is worthy of worship and glory even if there's no one outside them to give them. Because this worthiness doesn't come from anything God freely chooses to do, including create. Jesus says he and his Father shared “glory... before the world existed” (John 17:5), glorifying each other (with the Spirit) in the timeless, spaceless eternity where there was only God. That's what they did in eternity: glorify and love each other. And if God creates, then that creation is the free overflow of God's glorious love outward from himself, calling things into existence by sharing his love and goodness with them in their measures, so that we – in knowing, loving, and glorifying Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – can reach our highest goodness and happiness in him. And that, we'll begin to explore next Sunday. But we've said this today, on Trinity Sunday, because apart from a disposition of faith in this God who is Existence, Goodness, Life, Knowledge, Power, Happiness, Love, and Glory, this God revealed as Father and Son and Holy Spirit, Genesis – or anything else in the Bible – would be totally senseless. But in glimpsing this God, we're now prepared to read it all. So for today, we stand at the dawn of Genesis and peer back in absolute awe at this eternal “God in three persons, blessed Trinity!” Amen.