The Watery Abyss
Today, April 15th, is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the H.M.S. Titanic, the largest cruise ship in the world at the time of her launching. Several years ago, Janet and I travelled up the eastern seaboard of the United States from New York all the way to Halifax, Nova Scotia and St. John’s, New Brunswick. We visited the cemetery where the people are buried whose bodies were recovered from the icy waters and brought to North America. And the entire time we were struck by how the whole community is still committed to the memory of the Titanic and what her sinking meant to the rest of the world.
It’s interesting to note that in the cemetery, the graves are actually lined up in the shape of the gash than ran along the hull of the ship. The docents, those tour guides who lead groups of visitors around the city, are quite knowledgable about these things, telling stories at almost every grave, bringing the memory of each person back to life, at least for a brief moment while the visitors hang on every spoken word. All too soon, it was over and we headed back to the bus, and ultimately our cruise ship, to make the return trip to New York.
The next summer we went on a cruise around the British Isles. Ironically, although we hadn’t intended it that way, we ended up visiting where the Titanic was built, at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Northern Ireland from 1909-1911; eventually launched on May 31, 1911, the second large ship built at that yard for the White Star Line. And while we were expecting memorials to the Titanic there, frankly, the North American sites we visited were far more educational and informative.
This afternoon, I was watching the Smithsonian channel and learned that the problem with hitting the iceberg may have been related to what are called cold water mirages. It is possible that the lookouts who were on watch didn’t see the iceberg due to the meeting of warm and cold air making what is called a “soft horizon”, meaning that the huge chunk of ice would have been virtually invisible to the crew until just before impact. The commentator described the ship’s location, the drop in temperature from 56 to 32 degrees in less than half a mile, and the moonless night as a “perfect storm” of events leading to the sinking of the ship. In fact, he used an interesting phrase – he called it the perfect “killing zone of nature.”
Accounts from survivors talked about the churning of the water, people slipping under the surface for the last time and the ship finally breaking apart and heading down to the floor of the ocean, its final resting place, where parts of it still remain today. The final moments of the ship and her passengers have been referred to a deep watery abyss as the ship passed beneath the surface.
In the Scripture I am reminded of another deep watery abyss, and that was during the creation story in the beginning of Genesis. The book was written by Moses after the Jewish people had just passed through the Red Sea, safely, and then watched as their pursuers, the Egyptians, had the sea close in and kill them all, including their horses and other livestock. It must have been horrifying to watch the sea annihilate the the enemy just after God’s people had passed safely through. Moses, trying to familiarize the people with the constancy of God, started to write Genesis to affirm that the God who had just saved them from their enemies was the same God who had created the heavens and the earth.
That’s why the first few verses of Genesis mention the Spirit of God hovering over the surface of the “deep,” or “abyss.” To make sure that the people knew that God was steadfast and that He had created order out of chaos, in fact, out of nothing, Moses had to teach the people about the love of God. Especially after just witnessing God’s provision during the crossing of the Red Sea, the people would have connected with the idea that the God who had just delivered them was the same God who formed the original abyss that resulted in the creation of the earth, the perfect place for man’s communion with God.
The verse for tonight comes from Gen. 1:2, “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” In the Hebrew, we get the picture of a mother bird watching or brooding over the water, hovering if you will, for a pregnant moment just before landing. The people at the Red Sea, as well as those at the site of the Titanic would have identified with the idea of a cold, deep, watery abyss where it was difficult to tell up from down, left from right, the surface from the deep…..
Of course, in the tragedy of the Titanic, families were torn apart and the age of innocence ended in the world. And the question of why bad things happen to good people was certainly raised. But that’s a topic for another post. In the meantime, my encouragement tonight is to let you know that God is constant and steadfast. He never leaves us and God never forgets us. He is the same God who created everything in the beginning, including that deep, watery abyss that we read about in the second verse of the Bible. My prayer is that you will build a relationship with the living God, not only learning about the past but reveling in the future; knowing that God wants to spend eternity with you. Grace and peace…..