Genesis 1:14-19 | Mark 1:21-28
The earth has been completed; dry land has emerged, the sea and it’s destructive chaos driven back and constrained; and plants bearing seeds have covered the land. There are no animals yet in the story; not in the air or water or land; but the place is ready. Order has been brought to the geography of the cosmos.
But something is still lacking. Although the writer has used the language of “days”, of “evening and morning” to give shape to the poetry of the creation story, it is only here in the fourth “day” that God places lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night.
Even though light was the very first thing spoken into being on the first day, there seems to have been no order, no structure to the light– and just in case you haven’t noticed yet, the creation of structure, the imposition of order on a background of chaos, is one of the deep themes of the creation story.
So now here, in the fourth day, God’s work is to bring order to the light; to create day and night, giving each a great light, the sun and the moon, to rule over day and night, to keep the light of day separate from the darkness of night.
But the creation of day and night, and the bringing of order to the difference between the light of day and the darkness of night, is not all that’s happening here.
For the lights in the dome of the sky are signs not just of the days, but of the seasons, and of the years. The lights in the sky do not just mark day and night, they mark all of the basic units of time. For, of course, from the most primitive of times, people have known to read the skies, to tell time of day and time of year by the position of the sun and the stars.
Order has been brought not just to light, but to that most elusive of ideas, time.
For time is something which seems so obvious, so simple almost, but which proves to be incredibly difficult to pin down; it’s a slippery idea, resistant to definition. The great theoretical physicist, John Archibald Wheeler – a close collaborator with Einstein in his later years – described the scientific struggle with the idea of time like this:
“Of all obstacles to a thoroughly penetrating account of existence, none looms up more dismayingly than “time.” Explain time? Not without explaining existence. Explain existence? Not without explaining time.”
When it comes to understanding what time actually is, we really aren’t all that far past Ray Cummings’ oft quoted quip “time is what stops everything from happening at once”. Or, for that matter, Douglas Adam’s “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime, doubly so”
Of course, the Genesis story doesn’t answer the sort of questions that theoretical physicists want to ask about time – such questions wouldn’t even have made sense to ask in the worldview of the ancients Hebrews.
But the orderly structure of time was of crucial importance to them – more so, perhaps, than it is to us. Signs to mark the seasons are no idle curiosity for a people moving from a nomadic existence to an early agrarian society. Indeed, this step is a natural follow on from the creation of plants bearing seed; for of course, the management of seed crops is crucially dependant upon knowledge of the seasons – and survival in a farming community is crucially dependant upon the reliability of the seasons. As many of you will know far better than good old city born and bred me, when rains fail to come when the seasons say they ought, or come when they ought not, it is a very short path from inconvenience to disaster.
So this day; like all that has come before in the story of creation, boils down to a declaration of the benevolence of God. Darkness, with all its dangers, has been driven back by the creation of light; the chaos of the waters has been driven back by the creation of the dome, and the constraint of the sea to allow dry land to emerge; the plants, capable of reproduction, upon which the people rely, have emerged; and now, the orderly, reliable, pattern of seasons has been established.
Order has been brought to creation; the order upon which human survival, human flourishing, human society, depends.
And – ironically, given the whole futile science v. creationism debate – it is this very order upon which science depends; the whole scientific endeavour starts with the assumption that the universe has rules which do not arbitrarily change. Thus it is that Johaan Kepler – one of the greatest students of the order of the starts – could say that “all I have done is to think God’s thoughts after him”
Whether it be for our crops, our sense of history, our planning ahead, or our science, the orderly nature of time is fundamental to creation. The gift of the fourth day.