In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day...
And so it begins. This rhythm of creation goes on: dry land, seas, vegetation, the sun and the moon, all the way to human beings. The chapter wraps up with verse 31: "God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day."
Have you ever paid attention to that strange phrase running throughout the story: "there was evening and there was morning, the -- day"? I've heard or read those words hundreds of times, but it wasn't until recently that I really noticed them. Why does it say 'evening and morning, the whatever day'? Why not 'morning and evening'? That's how we'd describe it in the US today. A day goes from morning to evening.
Of course it's pretty well-known that ancient Hebrews didn't think of days the same way we do. A day, for them, began when the sun went down--so a day ran from evening to morning. And in case you'd never learned that about Israel, it's plastered all over the creation account in Genesis 1. Evening and morning, a day.
Still, unless you were hoping to keep a traditional Sabbath, from Friday evening through Saturday 'morning', this little nugget never seemed particularly important to me. Evening to morning, morning to evening, we still sleep and wake at the same times, the meals fall on the same hours, the time clock reads the same--no big deal, right?
Last week it was pointed out to me that this is actually a really big deal.
In his book Working the Angles, Eugene Peterson points out this difference between the Hebrew notion of a 'day' and the way we usually use the word. When we talk about our day or yesterday, we generally aren't including the night hours in that. Night's just a time for sleep; it doesn't really count. Yet, in Genesis, a day
is the unit of God's creative work; evening is the beginning of that day. It is the onset of God speaking light, stars, earth, vegetation, animals, man, woman into being. But is is also the time when we quit our activity and go to sleep. When it is evening "I lay me down to sleep and pray the Lord my soul to keep" and drift into unconsciousness for the next six or eight or ten hours, a state in which I am absolutely nonproductive and have no cash value.
Then I wake up... and rush out the door to get things started. The first thing I discover (a great blow to the ego) is that everything was started hours ago.*
For me, night time is pretty unproductive--not much happens, not much is accomplished. But for the God who made the universe, sundown is the beginning of another day, the explosive launch from the start line, when his creating and sustaining works begin their daily race through all creation. When morning comes, and I drag myself back into the land of the living, God's already been at work for hours. God's work always goes ahead of us.
When we in the Church feel like we "get things started"--we 'start' reaching out to people, 'start' a new ministry, 'start' spreading the good news--we forget that God was at work long before we woke up, reaching out, ministering, spreading the gospel. The most sensible thing for us to do, Peterson points out, is to ask, "Where do I fit in? Where do you need an extra hand? What still needs to be done?" God has begun his work, and the Church is invited to join in, "to enjoy and share and develop the work he initiated."
And for Peterson, reflecting on this leads to another discovery:
[W]hen I quit my day's work, nothing essential stops. I prepare for sleep not with a feeling of exhausted frustration because there is so much yet undone and unfinished, but with expectancy. The day is about to begin! God's genesis words are about to be spoken again. During the hours of my sleep, how will he prepare to use my obedience, service, and speech when morning breaks? I go to sleep to get out of the way for awhile.**
There always seems to be more to do, more needs, more service, more opportunities--you can't possibly seize on them all. But that's okay. We're not meant to do it all. God is at work, before us, after us, in spite of us.
So don't worry. Get some sleep; rest from your work. Get out of God's way for a few hours. He doesn't sleep, neither does he slumber (Ps 121:4). Who knows what he'll get done by morning?
* Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Intergrity, p. 68, italics and bold print added.
** p. 69