Lent 2: Separating the Waters – making space for creation

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Throughout Lent we are working our way through the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book by Ruth Valerio, “Saying Yes to Life”, in our Lent Groups and on Sundays. This is based on the first creation story in the Book of Genesis. I am using my sermons to reflect a little on the theme for the coming week. On Ash Wednesday I spoke about God as creator; the creation being the action of his will and purpose. It is not random, or the product of warring gods, but willed and wanted, made for and from love. Last week we looked at Day 1 of the creation story,  at light and seeing this as showing God’s purpose and active presence. Today we move on to Day 2, where space is made for this purpose to get to work (Genesis 1:6-8). In our first reading, the passage set for this coming week, God is depicted as making space by separating the chaos waters. It is a profound image, but at its heart creation is made, not out of nothing, but out of God. God opens a space within God’s self and from this a very profound thought opens too. God is not out there, somewhere else, separate and remote, but rather the very space in which we exist and the prerequisite for our existence.

This makes God the foundation of who we are. Remove God from this equation and everything collapses in on itself, disappearing in a puff.  This is where our language sometimes trips us up as we talk of God entering the world, God intervening, God being found. All of these phrases are saying something important in their context, but they can play into the narrative that we are separate from God and that is not what Day 2 of the creation story offers to us. It is a remarkable piece of writing. Written in the Bronze Age, it nonetheless carries this profound notion that we only exist because God has made space for us. So the language of tearing open the heavens to come down, in Isaiah’s yearning which occurs around Advent (64:1-2), this becomes more of a thinning of the fabric of creation to reveal what lies at its core and heart. Here the Celtic image of thin spaces, where God is felt more keenly, is so important. And Jacob’s dream of a ladder with angels ascending and descending is such a ‘thin space’ moment in the biblical narrative (Genesis 28:10-19a). God does not come from somewhere else, but from deeply within, from the very essence of who we are. We only exist because of God. 

Remarkably this fits with where science has got to. So we can’t go flying into outer space and expect to find God in his cloud base. The theologian Keith Ward has written about this in mind-bending detail in a book on science and religion. He encourages us to look beyond even ‘Big Bang’ to what he thinks is the real question, that creation depends on God. God is not just the origin, but that origin, that creating means we are utterly dependent on God, who holds creation and this is the foundation of all that there is.  So in this remarkable creation myth, God opens up space for us to be and this still resonates today.

If that is the case, then it also means that we will only find our true identity, who we are, in God. Everywhere else where we might search is a distraction from this fundamental reality. As St Augustine put it in his famous prayer, now the Collect for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity:

“Almighty God, 

you have made us for yourself, 

and our hearts are restless 

till they find their rest in you”.

This was reflected in our Gospel reading where Nicodemus has a conversation with Jesus about being born again (John 3:1-17). Jesus tells him that unless someone is born from above, from God, they will not be able to see the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, and in John’s Gospel that is a symbol of being in the dark, without light, which if we think back to Day 1 last week means without the presence and purpose of God showing him the way, the truth and the life. He will only find his way when that light of God’s purpose and presence dawns for him; when he connects with the foundation of the universe and finds his true identity in the purpose of God. He will remain restless until he finds his rest in God.

Another of those confusing phrases is when we talk about finding God. God is not an item we can lose and pick up, so the parable of the lost coin rather confuses here. Rather when we find God, to bend TS Eliot’s phrase from his ‘Four Quartets’, we will arrive and know ourselves as if for the first time. We see through the light of God’s presence that we have discovered the purpose of the universe, that we exist because of God, and therefore we will discover who we really are. Here we will find and be found by the true meaning of everything.

This space of creating is made through separating waters. This makes water sacred, yet we turn it into a commodity. It is the foundation of life and without it there is no life. The origins of life are traced to the hydrothermal vents in the sea. Probes sent to other planets look for signs of water because that is deemed to be the prerequisite for any life forms to have developed there, or exist there. So it is significant that it is the separation of waters that make the creating possible. It makes observational sense. Water rises out of springs. Water falls from the sky. When you dig down you find water and the sea is below the mountains. Therefore water above and water below has a deep resonance for us and for our ancient ancestors. Water flowing, bubbling and active is a powerful symbol. It is a sign of blessing and when Jesus talks of giving living water to the woman at the well meaning she will never be thirsty again, while she wants to have this to prevent her having to keep coming to the well, she comes to see that he is talking about something much more profound (John 4:4-30). The living water is that which refreshes our deeper need for meaning and purpose, for our identity to be rooted and grounded on the foundation of everything.

With the separation of the waters our true identity is made possible and in this space-making for us lies our true identity. A sign and symbol of this, which also involves flowing water, is baptism. Through this we become children of God, heirs of grace, people who are forming into Christ-likeness. This ritual washing bathes us and revives us, anoints us with this commission to live as children of God, of hope, of purpose and thanksgiving. 

When we think of water, it is not too great a leap to be mindful of the climate crisis and its impact on water. The Environment Agency has predicted that in 25 years we could have a severe shortage in this country. And we are used to too much and too little of it already with the seasons bringing drought and flood. This will impact further on communities and where people live. Water brings life, it also threatens it as the forces of nature can overwhelm us. So our dependency on God, on the waters of life, brings a challenge to live in harmony with the natural balances of creation. If we don’t, we are in trouble.

Day 2 of the creation story, brings God making space for us, for creation to exist in his purpose and presence. We depend on God and we find our true identity when we recognise this and live in harmony with it, when we seek to grow in Christ-likeness. It is through the waters that we come into being and through the waters of new birth that we are born into new life in Christ.

Sermon for Lent 2, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 8th March 2020

About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus' (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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