Scripture: GENESIS 9:8-17
There may well be no Bible story more familiar to children and to all of us than the story of Noah’s Ark. Countless pictures of arks adorn children’s bedroom walls. You can find any number of puzzles and books and toys that bring the story to life. And cartoons about the story abound. Here’s one: Noah is confronted by countless holes in the sides of the ark, and says ruefully, “Maybe I shouldn’t have brought the termites.” Or this: “Well, after forty days and forty nights, it appears I’m ready to go into the fertilizer business.” Or this: The two lions are the only animals left on the ark. One says to the other, “I’m still hungry.” This is a story many of us know well, and one that has seen more than its share of ribbing.
Full disclosure, and just so you know, this is not going to be a sermon in which you’ll receive advice about how to behave. You’re not going to hear a series of steps to a better life or suggestions about possible Lenten practices. In fact, this isn’t really a sermon about you and me at all. I tell you this because a wise person once suggested to me that it’s good to manage people’s expectations so they’re not disappointed by what comes.
So this is a sermon this morning about God. And we’re going to talk about God today simply by paying attention to that distinctive and head-scratching biblical story about Noah. Many of you will remember the broad outline of the story. It’s what we may have learned in Sunday School or absorbed from popular culture. This is the way we might sum it up: Human beings are a huge let-down to God. They’ve misbehaved atrociously. They’ve gone outrageously astray. So God, in a fit of fury, punishes the whole earth by inflicting on it a flood. The only one spared is Noah and, most famously, two of every animal on earth. They all climb aboard the ark, and together they spend forty days and forty nights aboard the ship, drifting through the seas. And we likely assume, when we ponder the story, that Noah is now to be on his best behavior, as a way of ensuring that God doesn’t do this again. That’s the way we tend to think of the story. That’s the way I learned it, and my guess is that, if you know it, that’s the way you learned it, too.
Let’s go back and look a little more closely, though. And let’s do that with the conviction that this isn’t just some cute artifact, but that this story really matters. My father, as some of you know, was a Bible scholar and teacher. He died some twelve years ago. As it happens, today would have been his hundredth birthday. At his memorial service, one of his former students, Elaine Hewes, quoted my father as saying that the language of the Bible “was intended to unsettle and surprise its listeners, undermining all narrow and preconceived ideas about God.” Elaine remembered my father saying, “All talk about God is supposed to do just this . . .. . It’s supposed to startle and burn and sing and lift heads . . .. All talk about God is supposed to sound like Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird Suite,’ and if it doesn’t sound like that, then it’s not talk about God.” Like that “Firebird Suite,” said my father, talk about God should “soar and lift and rub and wail all at the same time.”
That, then, is the way we shall attempt to approach the story of Noah and the ark. We will listen for its peculiar and distinctive notes, for the ways in which it “startles and burns and sings and lifts heads.” To do that, let’s look more carefully at some of its details.
In several places, the story veers some from what we think it says. We all learn, for example, that there are two of every animal on the ark (Genesis 6:19). This is the impression we have from Sunday School and endless pictures. As we spend a little time with the story, though, we see in another place that there is not just one pair of every animal, but seven pairs (7:2).
We learn, too, that Noah and his family and all the animals are on board the ark for forty days and forty nights. Actually, though, the rains fall for that amount of time, but then it takes eons for the flood to subside and the earth to dry up so the ark can land. It’s much more like a year that they live together on that tiny vessel.
While sometimes people get caught up in the historical likelihood of this tale, and wonder how all those animals could live on one ship, and whether there’s any archeological evidence for the flood and where the remnants of that ship might currently be, we’re not interested today in whether there’s any historical accuracy to the story. What matters is only the truer and deeper metaphorical level: what this story says about us and most of all what it says about God.
It’s the story’s conclusion that especially grabs us today. That’s the part we read a few moments ago. What we hear in these verses is a focus on two intriguing and evocative images: covenant and rainbow. That’s where we’re going to spend the bulk of our time today, because that’s where the story, as my father would say, “startles and burns and sings and lifts heads.”
First, let’s back up a bit, and reflect on why God has sent the flood in the first place. The popular explanation is that God is furious, that it’s seething anger that sends God into a total hissy fit and leads God to wipe out nearly the whole earth. It’s inarguable, of course, that God, in this story does something patently destructive. All but a few animals and a very few human beings are drowned in the waters. If this were all we knew of God, we would almost certainly run the other way as fast as we could.
It’s worth noting, though, that it’s not really anger that makes God do this terrible thing. What the story says is that God was “sorry” to have made humankind, and that God was “grieved” by everything that had gone so awry (6:6-7). It’s not rage that leads God to cause the flood. It’s grief. It’s regret. It’s sorrow. Because God has made the world as “good” (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31) and so loved everything in it, and has hoped for wonderful things for this grand holy experiment of life on earth, God is brokenhearted when everything goes so terribly wrong, and human beings despoil this spectacular earthly home. It’s not anger that brings about this drastic destruction. God is not acting as judge here. God is hurt to the core. This is despair we’re seeing in God.
And in this grieving process, God comes to a new realization. The love God has for this magnificent creation, even with all its faults, is so great that, in abject regret, God then makes a promise. What we’re told is that God is establishing a covenant with the whole earth.
Covenant is something of an odd word, used only sparingly in our world. The relationship I have with Federated, for example, is called a covenant. Wedding ceremonies are kinds of covenants. A covenant is not unrelated to a contract. They’re both agreements between two parties, and, in a contract, both parties usually have relatively equal standing, and each promises something to the other. If you and I have a contract for me to sell you a car and I take your money but don’t give you the car, then I’ve broken the contract.
A covenant, too, is an agreement between two parties. Customarily there are expectations on both parties. In a marriage covenant, for example, each person promises to love the other one in whatever circumstances life deals them. So, too, in the Bible, both parties usually have obligations. Covenants, in the Bible, are usually between God and human beings. And both have responsibilities. In these upcoming weeks of Lent, we’ll explore the depth and variety of these biblical covenants.
The covenant put forth today, though, has its own unique character. If we had any doubt about what this passage is focused on, those doubts would be put to rest by the fact that the word “covenant” appears eight times in the ten verses we heard. “As for me,” says God, “I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you” (9:9). And then, like a freight train, we hear again and again and again about this covenant, this agreement between God and Noah.
At the core of this covenant is a huge and decisive “never again”: “never again,” says God, “shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (9:11, 15). Three times God says, “never again.” The covenant is that never again shall God inflict on this beloved creation the sort of devastating chaos that God has caused in the flood.
God’s conviction and determination on this front are so thorough and far-reaching that, unlike in almost any other covenant, the only party in this covenant that has any expectations heaped on them is God. The only party that speaks is God. And the promises made are God’s alone. Nothing is expected of Noah. And, by extension, nothing is expected of us. Let’s say that again: nothing is expected of Noah or us.
This seems strangely counter-intuitive to us. We assume that if God is making promises to us, we’ll have to make promises in return. Both of us should be responsible to make this relationship work, right? ‘So tell us, God, what is it we have to do?’ And God’s answer is: ‘Nothing.’ As this first and foundational covenant, the one from which all the other covenants grow, the promise is completely one-sided. There’s no quid pro quo. The promise is in no way contingent. God’s “blessed assurance” is that, no matter what, “never again” shall earth be put in such jeopardy.
And the promise we’re asked to make in return is: nothing. We are simply to receive. If you have any Lenten practice this year, if you fast from chocolate or alcohol or too much screen time, if you take on a practice of kindness or patience or generosity, let that Lenten practice do this: let it remind you of the very heart of the God “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). With every practice of a Lenten discipline, come back, again and again, to this center: God has offered you and me a promise. And the promise is this: no matter what you and I do, no matter how much we have messed up, no matter how we have let each other and God down, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts” (Romans 5:5).
We’re going to put it this strongly: if you think there is anything you have to do to earn or deserve God’s love, you are way off the mark. It’s that simple. There is nothing, zero, nada that you and I need to do to merit God’s favor. That’s the covenant God establishes with Noah and with us. It is pure, unadulterated love, offered to you and me without price. It’s free. It’s bottomless. And it comes without any strings attached. And because it is so counterintuitive and counter-cultural, that truth startles and burns and sings and lifts heads.
And what’s the sign that goes along with that covenant? It’s the rainbow, of all things. It could have been the sun or the moon or a cardinal appearing in our backyard. But no, it’s the rainbow. A rainbow is, after all, a bow. As in bow and arrows. Not infrequently in the ancient world, God was pictured as a warrior God, one who fought the madness and chaos of the world using that aggressive weapon. When the rainbow appears, though, what God does is hang that weapon up in the sky, as if to say, ‘I’m not going to be that God any more.’ Remember, a rainbow is a bow that is always pointed away from the earth. Not only that, but the bow that appears in the sky is unstrung and there are no arrows. It’s as though God is saying, ‘I hang up that weapon of war. Never again will I be that warrior. I am simply, from now on, the One who loves.’ And of all strange things, the appearance of this rainbow is a reminder, not to us, but to God. When God sees that rainbow, says the story, God will remember that binding promise, that transcendent covenant (9:16).
One of the striking things about this tale is that God undergoes a sea-change in the story. In many ways, we in the twenty-first century are shaped by Greek notions of a God who is changeless—all-knowing and all-powerful and always the same. The God we encounter in the Bible, though, is something else entirely. The biblical God is One who reacts to human beings and to life. God isn’t static, but instead grows and adapts the way any of us do when we’re in a relationship. And in the story of Noah, God changes from willful to embracing, from destructive to totally committed and affectionate. God isn’t just some impersonal force, in other words, but is engaged by, and shaped by, the relationship God has with you and me. That realization, too, startles and burns and sings and lifts heads.
I said we weren’t going to make this about us and offer advice about how to live a more faithful and fruitful life, and I said this because the passage is so relentlessly focused on God and God’s unilateral offer of grace. At the same time, though, it would be negligent of us if we didn’t at least pose this question: what does it mean to live in a world in which it is that God who has shaped us and formed us? If God is like that, totally committed to us in love no matter how badly we may have messed up and missed the boat, then surely our lives will change, as well. How does God’s unconditional love for us alter the way we live our daily lives? Is there, for example, a parent we haven’t forgiven? Do we have a child whom we ride mercilessly? Is there a sibling or friend with whom we refuse to make peace? If God’s promise is unequivocal, needn’t we aim toward that goal, as well?
Finally, for us, of course, the rainbow has a contemporary resonance that it could not have had 2600 years ago. In today’s world, the rainbow represents the whole panoply of human colors and lifestyles and nationalities and ethnicities. In a world where impoverished people and immigrants and people of various races and colors and people who are LGBTQ are still stepped on and seen as lesser, any attempt to diminish or to enforce exceptional expectations or to impose a toeing of the line runs smack into the totally unconditional love of God, the over-arching and universal love promised in a long-ago covenant that is still incredibly current and life-giving.
That holy rainbow not only reminds God of that unalterable promise. It also reminds us who God is, and it calls us to live in that divine image. To live in this covenant this Lent is both our challenge and our invitation. May all of life be filled and enhanced as we receive the gift of that radiant covenant. May we startle and burn and sing and lift our heads.