A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
Sept 8, 2018
Gen 6:5-22, Gen 8:6-12, Gen 9: 8-17
Our Narrative Lectionary year begins today, not with the story of creation in Genesis, but with a story of destruction.
This story, where the earth is buried and drowned under the waters of a divine flood, is a part of our story and we need to remember our entire story, not just the uniformly happy parts. If we want to live authentic lives, open to transformation, we have to live into our whole story.
Chaos and destruction are a part of our story.
The divine destruction in the flood is a response to destruction and evil caused by humanity. God created the world to be good, beautiful, and a place of justice and peace. Humanity, on the other hand, seemed hell bent on destruction, from the moment we were left alone in the garden.
It is telling that by chapter 6 in the story of God’s people, they have strayed so far from God’s hope for them that major changes have to be made.
“The earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence…God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.” (Genesis 6: 11, 13)
In this story, the evil hearts of humanity are contrasted to God’s heart, which is grieved. The same word is used for “grieved” as is used to describe the pain Eve bears to give birth. Six chapters into the story, and humanity has contributed evil and pain.
We have broken God’s heart.
In the first chapter of his letter to the church in Rome, Paul writes:
“They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator….” (1:25)
This seems to sum up well the challenge of humanity as told in Genesis. We forget our relationship with the created world and with the One who created us.
It’s easy to read this story and wonder if God is vengeful. God buries the earth in water, deeper than the top of Mount Everest, after all. All of humanity is wiped out. All of the earth is wiped out, wiped clean.
A close reading of the text, however, reminds us that this is a story of a loving God, a God who doubles down on the promise to be in relationship with a humanity that has broken God’s heart and that has forgotten to be God’s.
Creation begins again with the people in the ark—people who are just normal people. There’s nothing perfect about Noah or his family. Noah is referred to as “blameless in his generation”, but some commentators point out his generation weren’t so great. They led God to flood the earth, after all. And Noah will have some trouble the minute they get off the ark. Noah is not a perfect man, but maybe he’s perfect in his human imperfection. That’s good news for us, right?
God’s not looking for perfect people. God’s looking for actual people, with whom to be in covenant relationship. God recommits to humanity. This first biblical covenant is all about God putting limits on how God will be in relationship with flawed and broken humanity from here on out.
The limits are set on God,
not on humanity,
not on creation,
but on God’s own behavior.
‘I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’
I read the news today, of course, and am struck by how humanity still seems hell bent on destruction.
Hatred directed toward each other instead of love and acceptance.
Humanity has not, it seems, changed.
Thankfully God did.
Promising, with a bow in the clouds, to forever more be inherently connected to us, God binds God-self to a covenant that shows us the depth, the height, and the width of God’s love toward us.
I know the waters subsided and Noah’s boat found land, but I confess many days I feel we are still on a boat, floating over the surface of creation, waiting to find land, mourning the destruction we have wrought, the loss we have endured, the regrets we cannot address.
40 days and 40 nights of rain falling, and falling, and falling.
Looking out the window and seeing the known landmarks of our lives sink under the rising tide of the deluge, leaving us in an unfamiliar seascape, no way to get your bearings, no sense of where the ship is headed because the rainclouds even block out the lodestars by which we navigate the world.
What do you do with that time of waiting?
After you’ve tended to the animals on the lido deck, of course?
The flood is a Sabbath, of sorts. A time to wait and to ponder and to recognize you are still alive, even as all you know has changed. A time to pause and wonder about our role in the mess we see around us.
Abraham Heschel, in his book on The Sabbath wrote:
“The Sabbath is the day on which we learn the art of surpassing civilization…
To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have so easily been turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, if independence of external obligations…is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for humanity’s progress than the Sabbath?” (p 28 “The Sabbath”)
After all of that waiting time, when you don’t think you can ponder one more thing or take it one more minute, the rain stops.
The silence on the tin roof of the ark must have been deafening after that long fortnight of rain.
It takes a long time for that much rainfall to subside. After the rain stops, Noah sends out birds to look for land.
A raven goes out, flies and flies and flies, but finds no land.
A dove is released the next week. She can’t find land either, and returns to the ark, likely grateful to find a place to rest.
They wait a week and send the dove back out. This time, the dove returns with an olive leaf, a sign of peace. There is land again. The waters are subsiding.
Seven days more and the dove is sent out. This time, she doesn’t come back. She’s found life and a new start.
She no longer needs the shelter of the ark, the confinement of the ark.
I’ve been thinking of the birds this week. And the supreme act of hope and faith involved in sending them out from the ark.
All you can see around you is water.
Everything you know is gone.
You have faith that this time of trial, this devastating flood, will subside. Such an act of faith, to believe in land when all you can see is water.
It takes time, though, for that faith to be rewarded with signs of life.
It takes even longer for the rainbow to appear in the clouds.
How we can live together on the boat, both while the rain is falling and once it stops and we’re waiting for it to subside? How can we find the confidence to leave the ark when it’s time, once we no longer need it’s shelter?
How can we support each other while we wait for the visible signs of hope? How can we hold hope for each other, when we forget what dry land looked like, and when we can only remember the destruction?
When we remember the rainbow in the clouds, and we remember how God made a promise to change and limit God’s own behavior on our behalf, does that change the way we live together on the boat?
God doesn’t promise humanity will change, that evil will vanish, or that life will be easy. God promises to be with us and for us in the midst of it all.
The rainbow is God’s promise that God will remember the Covenant that flows from the broken heart of God, a promise of presence, of relationship, of life, of hope. A promise born out of the vulnerability of God, who is willing to fall in love, again, with humanity, willing to endure the pain of another broken heart.
How can we be reminders of that for each other, when we’re waiting for the rain to stop?
When we’re wondering if the dove will return with signs of land?
How do our Sabbath practices help us be present with and for each other? How do our Sabbath practices help us step away from the race toward destruction we see on the news and turn back to looking for land and hope?
It’s easy to see the destruction of the flood. It takes faith to look for land.
I’m grateful to be on this journey with you. Let’s keep looking for land. Together.