Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
This passage is very fitting for the season of Lent. The story of Noah is the story of God's judgment on the sins of humanity. As it's portrayed by its ancient writers, the story depicts an attempt by God to deal with the problem of sinfulness begun in the Garden of Eden. And the problem of our sinfulness is what ultimately, in the fullness of time, led God to the final solution—the one that we remember in this season. That is, of course, the gift of God's Son to live, die, and return again to live with us always through the Holy Spirit.
The sinfulness of humanity is so readily apparent. We need look no further than the family. In this most basic of human institutions, extreme difficulties arise because of sin—because of our willfulness and tendency to choose to do what we know is wrong.
The humor with which we talk about our families is an indicator of how familiar such problems are: A mother tells about her three boys. "My boys are very loyal to each other," she said. "When one of them misbehaves, the others won't tell on him."
Her friend asks, "How do you know which one to punish then?"
"It's not too hard," she replies. "When one of them does something wrong, we send all three to bed without supper or TV. The next morning, we discipline the one with the black eye."
Every parent wishes it were that easy.
Consider also the little boy who was given a fill-in-the-blank test on familiar sayings. One of them was "Cleanliness is next to (blank)." Cleanliness is next to... The little boy wrote in "impossible." He wrote more truth than he knew.
Such humor may help us avoid acknowledging the depth to which sin affects us. We sometimes feel perhaps a small part of the pain that God must feel for us. Occasionally, we are honest enough with ourselves to admit our errors, even when our intentions are good. Recall, for example, the line from "Gone With the Wind," when Scarlet O'Hara says despairingly, "Oh, it seemed so right when I did it, but it was all so wrong. If I had it to do over again, I would do so differently."
We are sinners. People may not take that seriously, but the Bible does. Many would prefer to interpret life psychologically or sociologically rather than theologically, blaming our upbringing or lack of opportunity for our problems. We have weaknesses and frailties. We're undisciplined. But the Bible tells us that it's more than that. The problem is sin. It's the innate, inescapable rebellion of the creature against the Creator.
If we take our Lenten discipline seriously and do more than satisfy ourselves with mere piety, we will inevitably recognize the violence and cruelty in which we participate. Lent is a time to discover the radical judgment that falls upon us all who in countless ways do violence to God's vision for creation. We all share in generating the hatred that infects the earth, in the misunderstandings that lead to national confrontation, in the failure of good stewardship that leads to starving people, tainted water, polluted air, and the direction of God's gifts to destructive purposes.
All of these considerations only serve to highlight the kind of sorrow that God felt when deciding to destroy the world and all that was in it, except for Noah and his family. It was, after all, grief—not anger, that God feels. It's unfortunate that we don't take the time to read the whole story. Let me quote the relevant bit—from chapter 6:
The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, "I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them." But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord. (6:5-8)
The story of Noah helps us to understand God's dilemma. Our persistence in sin is a grief to our God. God created us for love and harmony; sin brings malice, spite, and disunity. God created us for health and life; sin brings brokenness and death. God created us for joy and celebration; sin brings insensitivity and dissipation.
This story sets the stage for Lent. The grief that might have led to our total destruction sparks instead a radical divine intervention in human history. With Noah, there is a yearning on the part of God for a renewed creation. And in Jesus Christ, that new creation takes it full, redemptive, and liberating form.
It becomes clear very quickly in the Genesis story of Noah that the first solution could never work. As soon as they get off of the ark, Noah plants a vineyard and gets drunk. This is a story of the failure of punishment and of judgment as a remedy for sin. You can punish a child every time he or she does wrong, but punishment will not make that child a good and loving child. In fact, it's likely to do just the opposite. People who abuse children are more often than not abused themselves as children.
God is not an abusive parent. The God at the beginning of the story of Noah is foreign to us. But the story is not told in order to tell us how God "used to be." The story is told in order to make the point that God's love for us, God's covenant with us, are such that God would never even consider the possibility of destroying us. The God that we know is not that kind of God.
In Jesus, we see a God who is like the father who tells his son that he disobeys one more time, he'll send him to sleep in the attic with only bread and water for his supper. Of course, the child disobeys again, and is sent on his way. And then the father can't eat.
His wife tries to console him: "I know what you're thinking. But you mustn't relent. It would only cause our son to lose respect for you and disobey again. You can't break your promise."
Her husband replies, "You're right, I won't break my word—but he's so lonely up there." He kisses his wife good night, goes up to the attic, eats bread and water with the boy; and when the child goes to sleep on the hard floorboards, it is with his father's arm as his pillow.
God's love for us is not like a storm or a flood, but like a rainbow. God is not vindictive or vengeful. The God we know in Jesus is a loving God.
Now that seems to me an extremely worthwhile message. One that is too important to pass over during this or any season. We too easily give into the understandings of God that we hear tossed about in our world. God is too often portrayed as vengeful rather than loving, vindictive rather than compassionate. We read of and hear much too often of how the book of Revelation and its prophecies are coming to pass in this very day.
On the way to Richmond for a family gathering yesterday, I noticed a billboard just north of Martinsville with the words: "Avoid Hell. Trust Jesus Today." That kind of message disturbs me deeply. Why would people try to scare folks into belief? And what sort of God would they be encouraged to believe in anyway?
We suffer with a constant barrage of such pseudo-theology. There seems no escape from it. There's such widespread misinterpretation and misunderstanding. And it should grieve our hearts to hear people represent God as One who is fulfilling divine purposes for the world by bringing it to destruction, perhaps especially in Lent.
In the face of such tendencies stands God's word in Genesis. Here we're reminded of God's love, not God's cruelty. Two things are manifestly clear in this story. God will never destroy us. And God will never condone sin. If we bring about violence in this world, if there is hunger, if we destroy ourselves, it is clearly our doing.
It may be of interest to note a few things about the reference to the rainbow that stands as witness to the non-violence of God. The word "bow" is in fact the usual Hebrew word for the bow of war; in effect the symbol of war and wrath is transformed by God into a symbol of God's commitment to peace. Following the 1928 discovery of ancient Canaanite texts near a village called Ras Shamra on the upper Lebanese coast, we learned that this famous symbol is not original with the Hebrew authors. In one of the Canaanite mythological texts of the world's creation, older than Israel's texts by some hundreds of years, El, the high God, "hangs his bow in the clouds," after finishing the earth's creation, accomplished by a lengthy and bloody battle with other divine creatures. Though one can readily see the close connection between these stories, as usual the Hebrew authors have added their own theological spin to the tale and have made it fully their own, imbued with the ways of the God of Israel. (insights adapted from John C. Holbert — patheos.com)
Our God is a God of peace, love, justice, and grace. When confronted with our sinfulness, our God remains ever present to us, grieving with us and for us, and calling us to new life. Like the promise of the rainbow and the promise of baptism, we know that we can trust fully that God will bring us to new life—that God will love us and be with us to the end of the age.
May these insights into the nature of God may help us in our Lenten reflections. May they may help us grow in our awareness of sin and claim more fully the covenant of grace bestowed upon all of humanity in the days of Noah. And may the God of peace and grace become ever more dear to our hearts as we follow our Lord to the cross. Amen.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord, unto eternal life. Amen.