What are the first words of our Scriptures—of Genesis—of the Old Testament? “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
Two things to note about this beginning. First, it was written in Hebrew, and the Hebrew word, many of you may know this—the Hebrew word in verse one, translated “heavens” (“in the beginning, God created the heavens …”) is actually no different from the word in verse eight after God created that dome in the midst of the waters separating the waters above from the waters below, calling “the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.”
Did you know that? That there’s no difference between the heavens and the sky? Some people think heaven is where God lives, and the sky is what we see when we look up, but in the Bible, there’s no difference—no spiritual reality separate from physical reality.
Second, notice that before we get to the story (or stories) about the specifics of God creating, we have this beginning statement encompassing all of creation—the sky and the earth. We get the details, but first, the first thing we get, is that God created it all, and that it’s all included in sky and earth.
When we think about the sky and the earth, the earth is created more to our scale—more to our size. We were just in the North Carolina mountains. I’ve been in the Rockies and the Alps that are even higher, but even the biggest of mountains, so big seen as they are, not so big when seen against all that they’re not. It’s the difference in looking at the mountain and looking at the sky.
That’s even more true when we think about the world we’ve built—constructed to our scale—our size. When I was young, we crossed the Atlantic twice—once on a big ship called the Queen Mary and once on a big ship called the Queen Elizabeth the Second. I don’t remember the Queen Mary, but I remember approaching the QE2 at dock, and looking so far up to see the top of the ship—so far down to see the end of the boat. It was overwhelmingly impressive—just so huge … until we got out to sea … when what I had seen as so big was seen all alone on the immensity of ocean against the immensity of sky.
It is against the vastness of the sky as backdrop that we build our most impressive buildings, but even the biggest, most impressive monuments and buildings seem small against the sky. Sky scrapers don’t. As impressive as they may be, they don’t scrape the sky.
It’s against that backdrop that we paint our celebrations, but the best fireworks we’ve ever seen pale in comparison to the glory of a storm, lightning against the horizon, the powerful forces of nature, hurricanes/tornados.
It’s into that vastness that we launch some of our most prized accomplishments, but the most advanced of our rockets and shuttles and telescopes in space indicate there is virtually infinite space beyond what we can get to and what we can see.
So sometimes I wonder, if the earth is created more to our scale, is the sky created more to God’s? Or maybe, it would be better to affirm that in the creation of earth (more to our scale) and sky (utterly beyond our scale), integral to creation is both transcendence and immanence, so that who God is, is what creation is.
Most of us walk looking not up at the horizon, but below the horizon—10 to 15 feet in front of us. looking down—not straight down, but angled down. In many of our urban and suburban contexts, it’s an effort just to look up to the sky. We lose the sky in busyness—in neighborhoods and buildings—strip malls and bill boards and neon. The immensity’s still there, but so much less obvious—less noticeable—minimized within the busyness.
Even when we find ourselves in places where we do see the horizon, we mainly look at the outline of it and what’s below. Going through my pictures, finding pictures of the horizon, I noticed how often I’ll just include a little bit of sky at the top of the picture—more interested in what lies below. The sky can overwhelm a picture!
Now, there are times and places it’s unavoidable—the sky. When a sunrise or sunset uses color to draw our eyes up. When the stars shine or fall. When the clouds are dramatic, or the lightning glorious ripping through the heavens. When you’re up in the sky—on a peak with a 360 degree view. When you’re above the clouds—looking down on them. When looking across a mountain range, or across an ocean, or across a prairie.
Surely it comes as no surprise that some such times and some such places make many people uncomfortable? The immensity of sky can be overwhelming.
Consider the fullness of the vastness, not the emptiness. Big difference. One of my standard, admittedly playful, questions visiting a church, in a new sanctuary, is: how many Scripture readers, how many pray-ers, how many preachers high is this sanctuary? And in my mind I stack one person on top of another on top of another to provide a measure of the space above the people. Is there space enough above to suggest another presence—another fullness—the fullness of a present beyondness? Is there room for God in this room or do we fill it?
There are the so very many different looks of the sky, and we speak of the many different moods of the sky. Everyone knows what I mean when I speak of an angry sky, yes? Dark, cloudy, stormy. The pre-scientific worldview imbued mood and meaning to the sky. And religious people interpreted the mood of the sky as the mood of God. Sky not so much as some kind of metaphor as some kind of immense language.
And our psalm speaks of the heavens telling the glory of God (Psalm 19:1-6). The passages we read from Jeremiah and Mark both write of the sky darkening (Jeremiah 4:20-28; Mark 15:33-38), and we are obviously to read that as an expression of God’s grief and anger and judgment.
But how many of you have flown in an airplane? And how many of you who have flown in an airplane have taken off in a storm, in rain, or even just on a cloudy day and climbed above the clouds into blue sky and sunshine? Or how many of you have climbed a mountain, starting in a cloudy valley and climbing high enough to break through the clouds?
Then you know how the sky honors the immediacy of changing circumstance while, at the same time, constituting so much more than what is apparent. So while the heavens were once translated as mood and meaning into the voice of God, now we know a larger truth—beyond any anger—beyond all tears, there is the greater truth of light shining in darkness.
We can’t really talk about the sky these days without talking about pollution—the filth we release into the skies. As bad as that is, within our context of vastness today—the perspective of the sky—all that’s not the earth, we should note that what we mess up, we mess up for us and for our children—we mess up for the earth—the things of earth, and there’s a haze in the sky over our biggest cities. The hole in the ozone layer in the skies above the earth allows more ultraviolet rays to penetrate the earth’s atmosphere. The acid rains fall and burn.
But again, within our context of vastness today—the perspective of the sky—all that’s not the earth, the sky includes so much more than our planet. To consider the depths of space—to consider time—because to look into space is to see time past. To know that what we see is time past and that we cannot even know the fullness of time present, what is earth—what is the here and now—that you are mindful of it?—if you’re not us and/or of the earth!
Yet even within the vastness of all that is, God mourns—God grieves our smog and the gashes we rend in creation.
It’s that whole God’s eye is on the sparrow thing—God knows the number of hairs on our heads (Luke 12:7)—except when thinking about the mystery of God, all the earth is like unto the sparrow—the hairs on our heads. God knows the blades of grass, the grains of sand, the stars … and even within the vastness of the universe, they all matter.
And so, even for us today, rejecting the idea that the state of the sky has anything to do with the state of God’s mood, with all we know that once we did not, it’s still true. We can say with integrity the word of the psalm: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. The heavens are telling the glory of God ….”