February 18, 2018 – Pastor John McNeill
The story of Noah and the flood is a popular Sunday School story. Animals, a boat, rainbow. Seems to have a bunch of kid-friendly elements and today’s reading takes us right to the happy ending in which God promises that there won’t be any more floods that destroy the earth.
I know there are those who wonder about whether it is literally true. It’s one of those stories that is a little difficult to believe. Such a lot of rain, such a big flood, how do you manage the animals? The story is, I must say preposterous.
But the stories of a big flood are buried deep in the mythologies of several middle-Eastern cultures. There was a deep but perhaps cloudy memory of a catastrophe that needed to be talked about, understood in a story. Made sense of as humans grasped their cosmic place.
And this story represents the way the ancient Jews came to grips with it. How they comprehended it into their tradition and their understanding of God.
So whether you take this story literally or not, the big issue in my view is the content of the story and what it is trying to say about God.
And what it says about God is a difficulty – at least for me. To get right into the horror of it. The story begins:
11 In God’s sight, the earth had become corrupt and was filled with violence. 12 God saw that the earth was corrupt, because all creatures behaved corruptly on the earth. 13 God said to Noah, “The end has come for all creatures, since they have filled the earth with violence. I am now about to destroy them along with the earth,
I’m not sure to what extent this is a story for children. Unless it’s a story for children who we want to scare out of their bad behavior.
So how do we understand this story of God and Noah and the animals and the flood? There are some options.
- Who are we to question God? We will never understand God. God is a mystery.
- Yes, God is a mystery. But here’s a story that begs for understanding. Let’s not give up just yet.
- God can do whatever God wants to do. One of the advantages of being God. God is sovereign and we are not to stand in approval or disapproval, for God is in charge and we must simply accept God’s will.
- There is something to be said for either of these answers, I don’t think they will do.
- God wants to be in relationship with us. God wants us to engage God.
- Mystery and sovereignty are elements of God’s being, but more important, God desires our responsiveness.
- Part of that responsiveness is our attempt or our capacity to begin to relate to God’s activities on some level of understanding and agreement or assent.
- I don’t believe that God is about simply bullying us, or intimidating us or overwhelming us.
- So, a third possible understanding is that creation, which God had created to be a beauty, a glory, and a wonder, had gone sour, corrupt, and ugly. And it was the creator’s prerogative to destroy the creation if that did not meet the specifications. In fact, creation had become an offense to its creator.
- So just as you might crumple up a piece of paper on which you’d begun a drawing that wasn’t turning out right, or begin a piece on the piano that had been corrupted by too many mistakes, or tear up a sermon manuscript that was going nowhere for tomorrow morning, so God thought to get rid of the flesh that had become utterly corrupted.
- This understanding relies upon the idea that we understand that a creator has a right over the creation if it does not meet the intention of the creator.
- However, what about the intentions of the living things that God had created? Shouldn’t they have some value, even if they are going wrong and not fulfilling God’s purpose?
This leads us to a fourth:
- A fourth understanding would take account of this concern. We might say that not only was the creation displeasing to God, but things had become so bad that life on earth was not worth living. Living creatures were behaving so at odds with themselves and with one another, the earth was so filled with violence and corruption that life itself had become unbearable, and its destruction would be a mercy even to itself.
- In this way God’s destruction of all living things would be a merciful intervention to put them out of their misery.
- Imagine that the world had become a cruel concentration camp. In that event, it would be arguable that simply destroying it would be a compassionate act.
A form of euthanasia.
We can come to understand that God did not plan to send the flood upon the world out of anger, or punishment, or retribution for bad behavior. Instead, God understood the flood as an expression of compassion and mercy.
But then what happened? God did notice that there was one family that was not caught up in the general corruption. So, Noah and his family and a remnant of each of the animal species would be preserved.
God had not given up on the idea of creation as a whole, but only wanted to start over. And so, Noah and his wife and his sons and daughters-in-law were preserved.
God instructed Noah to build an ark that would carry that remnant into the future so that God’s creation would not be abandoned, but, rather, could begin again.
And the familiar story goes forward. Noah builds the ark. The remnant is gathered in. The rains come. The flood covers the face of the earth. The rest of the living things on the earth are destroyed and the remnant is preserved on the ark. When the flood waters subsided, those who were preserved left the ark and began life again on earth.
What can we take from this story?
God’s posture towards the world arises from God’s love. Even what comes across as judgment, is at its deepest level an expression of God’s mercy.
God provides a way to begin again and a path to healing. God does not give up on creation, but opens up a way toward compassion.
As Christians have looked at this passage over the centuries it has seen the ark as an image of the church which saves those who are on board from the corruption that infests the earth.
The waters that cover the earth are seen as a baptism that carries those on the ark into the safety created by the destruction of the violent that ruled the earth. The remnant is saved from destruction, and saved for the fulfillment of God’s intentions for life on earth.
But when all is said and done, according to the story, God also has second thoughts about the flood. Ultimately, even God understands that the flood was inconsistent with God’s love and mercy.
So God said:
“As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 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.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”
What strikes me here is that God is recognizing that human beings and the earth have their own integrity.
The earth and each person in it, has a status in its own right and it is not part of God’s plan to simply destroy it because it is not measuring up to God’s expectations – or even that there is great suffering and violence. Creation has its own integrity.
But God still has the problem of corruption, injustice, cruelty and evil to contend with. God’s compassion and mercy and love are still intact. But compassion must be wedded to respect. Respect for the integrity of creation and the fact that the world has its own sacred worth
And so we come back to that bind that we described earlier. God is in a bind. A bind of love.
We also know about this bind. The bind of love that seems forced to sit by and watch in frustration, anger, despair, fear, under which lies a grief that comes from love.
- Someone you love is on a destructive path.
- A child is making foolish choices.
- Your nation is behaving in a way that mocks the ideals of its heritage and its aspirations to justice and equality.
- Your denomination is taking positions that betray its ideals…
This bind of love ties us to God because we share this bind with God.
This bind of love ties us to God. Binds our hearts to the heart of God. In this way we discover the heart of God in ourselves. We cannot just make all things right.
So we gather Sunday by Sunday in this church, this ark, and we hear a word of hope, we pray the prayers of grieving or joyful hearts, and we sing the songs of the spirit trusting that God is at work and we are invited to be a part of that work, plan, story of love.
God invites us to be a part of this Rainbow Covenant of mercy. This covenant invites us to be a part of the unfolding of God’s mercy into a world that is marred by corruption and violence.
What does that invitation sound like in your life?
It gets harder and harder for me to keep up with the news. I don’t mean that so much is happening that it is difficult to pay attention to everything that the media thinks is significant.
What I mean is that it hurts my heart.
- After so many school shootings the NRA still keeps political leaders from outlawing assault weapons. That hurts.
- That Congress cannot find it in themselves to find a way to keep hundreds of thousands of people who were brought here as children and who know no other country as their own from being deported to a strange land? That hurts.
- That officials of the current administration are opening the floodgates to more pollution and environmental degradation and climate change. That hurts.
- That racism and economic injustice and sexual harassment and queer-bashing are flourishing. That hurts.
- The list could go on. And this is all on top of our own particular personal struggles and fears and heartbreaks that are sometimes connected to the larger tragic themes that play out in the news.
And in the midst of that hurt we could take the position: To hell with it. To hell with it.
Which is pretty much where God started out in the Noah and the flood story. To hell with it.
But the invitation in the Rainbow Covenant of Mercy points us toward a different posture.
The invitation is to be a part of constructing the ark. Not the ark that sails on the flood that has destroyed the rest of creation. But the ark that lifts us above bitterness and resentment. The ark that rescues us from hopelessness and despair. The ark that frees us to practice compassion and find companions who will be our partners in weaving new patterns of healing and reconciliation.
This ark is the communities of courage and justice and hope that will dare to work together to help one another to find solutions, to stand together, to support each other, and encourage one another to bring love and mercy into situations of hurt and frustration both large and small.
You do that already in many ways. Do your job, help your family, take political action, pray, when you offer a word of encouragement, make a financial contribution, when you help someone learn, when you do a kind deed, you are strengthening that ark that is preserving us to be a part of God’s project of transforming injustice or violence or evil into evidence of God’s goodness, truth, and beauty. The goodness, truth, and beauty that is God’s intention for creation.
We are – all of us – being invited into God’s rainbow covenant of mercy. That is already happening. We already a part of it. God is already shaping creation to reveal it.
Do not be discouraged. Take heart. Be on the lookout for all the ways you are being caught up into God’s rainbow covenant of mercy.