Being in the wilderness gives you an acute sense of your own vulnerability. One day, as we made camp, we were startled by a black shape and a sudden crashing through the undergrowth. It was a black bear, and it had been in the bushes less than fifteen feet from one of our tents. Fortunately we startled it as much as it startled us, and it ran away in a safe direction. In such a remote area, you develop an acute sense that humans are not at the top of the food chain.
We are vulnerable for other reasons as well: a rock slide, a stumble in a steep place, a flash flood in a narrow valley – there are many ways you can get seriously hurt in the wild, and being so far from medical care, you gain an acute sense that nature can be cruel and callous. This is the other side of creation. Most of the time, the natural world is relatively reliable and predictable, but sometimes it is horrifyingly chaotic and destructive. Tectonic plates shift, volcanoes erupt, storms ravage, random mutations cause cancer or birth defects, infectious diseases devastate populations. This is the dark side of the created order.
It is no accident, therefore that the Bible begins with storm and chaos and darkness and deep. The story in the first chapter of Genesis is not abstract statement, but pastoral message addressed to a people in exile, to a people in chaos. When the Babylonian armies swept through Jerusalem in 587 BC, destroyed the temple, murdered thousands, put many of the rest in chains and transported them hundreds of miles to the northeast, it created the greatest crisis in Israelite history.
And to that experience of chaos and storm and darkness and deep, a voice speaks: “Let there be light! Be still!” It is the powerful voice of God, ordering creation. God is no longer understood as a tribal god who had chosen Israel, but as the power behind all that is, the one who can call all creation into existence. The liberating God is now revealed as the power behind creation. God’s power does not demand, but invites. It is not oppressive power, but gracious power. It is an astonishing proclamation. To a people in chaos, torn by doubt and worry and disillusionment, the story speaks of a powerful, gracious word of God which can order chaos, bringing light out of darkness, solid ground under our feet, and variety out of oppressive conformity.