Sunday, March 5, 2006

Lent 1: A Covenant for Life and Love

Genesis 9:8-17

This story of Noah and the Ark can certainly perplex a preacher.
Even though it’s undoubtedly
the single most famous story in the Bible.
People who have never gone to Sunday School in their life,
can tell you Noah built a big boat when there was a flood,
and brought a pair of every animal into the Ark,
and after the flood went down a rainbow appeared.
The story is embedded into our cultural fabric.
It’s printed on the flannel PJ’s of our children,
on cotton sheets and pillowcases,
and on the wallpaper of nurseries everywhere,
including our nursery down the hall.
The most secular Americans have somewhere in their brain
a mental image of a huge round-hulled boat,
with a peaked roof,
and orderly rows of animals walking up a ramp
that leads up to the deck,
where other animals are waiting at the edge,
including, invariably, a couple giraffes
with their necks sticking high above the roof.
You all know what I mean.

But despite the fact that we have transformed this into something
simple and charming and whimsical,
it is actually one of the Bible’s worst horror stories.
And it raises some thorny theological questions.
Questions that, in fact, are so difficult
that we have mostly avoided them
and turned it into something suitable for nursery wallpaper.

What I hope to do this morning
is open the doors of our minds and hearts,
to embrace the theology revealed in this story.

Now some of you are skeptical.
Sounds like I’m asking us to embrace a theology of God
as destroyer of life,
as One who, in anger, would cause all his beloved children,
except one small family,
to die the most horrible death we can imagine,
not to mention, destroy the lives of all those innocent animals.
Well, I’m not. Not exactly.

See, one of the errors we make,
in reading ancient prehistory like this,
is asking the wrong questions of the story.
We approach it with a modern scientific world view.
So one of the critical questions is, “Did it really happen like that?”
And so some Christians today are almost obsessed
with finding the physical remains of the ark,
to prove their faith in the Bible is well-founded.

Or we make the mistake of approaching the story moralistically,
as if it’s primarily a story to teach us humans
how to treat other people,
how to relate to creation,
how to deal with evil in the world.
When human ethical questions
become the lens through which we view this story,
we get concerned about how God is portrayed,
and we try to wiggle our way out of having to deal with
a violent, vindictive God.

Well, I don’t want to dismiss those questions as completely useless.
There may be a time and place for the scientific-historical questions.
And there’s a time to ask human-centered questions of the story.
But I don’t think those questions get us to the heart
of what God wants to reveal to us in this scripture.

This is a story about God.
Like most scripture, it’s ultimately God-centered.
Scripture functions as God’s self-revelation.
It’s the product of human writers,
who wrote for the benefit of humans,
but it’s ultimately the “book of God.”
God is the main character.

So the first question we ask ought to be,
“What did the people of Israel learn about God in this story?”
Which helps us discover what we have to learn about God.

To most religions of the ancient world,
gods were distant, impersonal, powerful and vengeful beings.
They thought, we need to appease the gods, pay them off,
so we won’t be utterly wiped out.

The people of Israel had a different understanding,
and therefore, a different experience with God.
They, as a people, were building a mutual relationship with Yahweh.
A relationship built on love and covenant.

So as their experience developed,
and they began telling their stories,
and eventually writing them down,
we begin to get a beautiful and complex portrait of God.
They often wrote about God in anthropomorphic terms.
That is, they wrote the story as if God was a human like them.

So if we read the story of Noah with those eyes,
I think we can embrace it in a new way.
Imagine God with human characteristics and the story makes sense.

Here is God who walked and talked with Adam in the Garden of Eden,
who went to great pains to forge a loving mutual relationship
with humanity and creation.
Who was not just a distant and powerful creator,
but a lover and a confidant.
And the special objects of his love—men and women—
he invited into loving, covenant relationship.
He proposed. They married. They lived in love for a while.
But then they jilted him.
They betrayed his love.
They had an affair.
They essentially spat on God, and all God had done for them,
and turned toward another lover.
They loved themselves more. They loved pleasure more.
They embraced violence and hatred and greed.
And God was a wounded lover. God was angry.
God was in deep distress over this love gone wrong.
It says in Genesis 6 that God was sorry he ever created people.
In God’s distress,
he decided to destroy the world and start over.
And so he did, and we have the story of Noah and the Ark.
Which we all know so well.

And after the waters went down,
and Noah, his family, and the animals walked down the ramp,
according to Genesis 8, the first words out of the mouth of God,
were, “Never again... Never again.”
It sounds like God stood on the top of Mt. Aarat,
and surveyed the scene of utter destruction,
and was sorry all over again.
Or at least, this act of judgement was so deeply painful to God,
that God promised Noah, Genesis 8:21,
“Never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.”

We’re probably not comfortable with the notion that God would say,
“Whoops. Made a mistake.”
But in the biblical writers’ view,
God was quite willing at times, to change his mind about something.
Several times, scripture says God repented—turned around—
changed a course of action.
Now that’s a pretty human-like way to think of God,
but that’s how the biblical writers tried to understand
what God was up to.

In today’s reading, then, from Genesis 9, we wrap up the Noah story.
God turns his regret into a solemn covenant.
It’s as though God says,
“Don’t look back at this flood,
and draw the wrong conclusion about me.
I’m not about destroying life.
I’m about creating and sustaining life.
My heart is oriented toward you, my people.
I love you.
I want you to know that I will always love you.
No matter what you do to me.
I will keep loving you.
If you cheat on me again,
I will be faithful to you.
I promise to love and sustain you forever,
and I will never forget my promise.
Just to make sure,
I’ll put a rainbow in the clouds to remind me.
Whenever I see the rainbow,
I’ll think of this promise to you.
I am for you, not against you.”

Read this way, the Noah story is first and foremost, a love story.
It doesn’t deserve to be thought of primarily
as a story of God’s terrible wrath and extreme punishment.
It’s primarily a story of God’s decision, if you will,
to love the world without condition, and to redeem it.

And that’s precisely where we can make a real connection to this story.
The whimsical nursery-room picture of a boatload of animals
is a good and wholesome image, of course.
But we get to the theological meat of this story,
when we embrace it as a story focusing on the character of God.
God loves this world he created.
God is inclined toward this world; he will not turn his back on it.
He is drawn toward this world, even with all its brokenness,
its corruption, its violence.
God is drawn toward the world with love and compassion.
In Genesis 8 says, and I quote, “Never again will I punish the earth
for the sinful things its people do.
All of them have evil thoughts from the time they are young,
but I will never—never—destroy everything that breathes,
as I did this time.”

So God made a covenant.
And this is a huge covenant.
This was not simply a promise given to Noah and his family.
This is a covenant between God and every living thing.
Every living thing.
Apparently, God wants to makes sure we heard that right.
In this one short passage that Glenn read from Genesis 9,
it gets repeated eight times.
The covenant is between God and every living thing.
Take a look.
v. 10 – with every living creature; every animal of the earth
v. 11 – all flesh
v. 12 – every living creature for all future generations
v. 15 – every living creature; all flesh
v. 16 – every living creature
v. 17 – all flesh that is on the earth
8 times.

That’s a pretty strong theological argument
for taking care of the earth and all its living things.
Even animals are covered by God’s covenant love.

But it certainly is a strong argument
to affirm God’s deep and abiding and unconditional
love and longing for us human beings.
God is oriented toward us.
God, the lover and confidant, wants to be in relationship with us.
God is one who has been saying to his people
ever since the days of Noah,
in all times and all places,
“You are my beloved child.”
God said it through Abraham, through the psalmists,
through the prophets,
through the writers of the gospels and epistles.
Most powerfully, God said it to his own Son, at his baptism,
when Jesus saw the heavens torn apart,
as Barbara said in her sermon last Sunday,
“You are my Son, the Beloved.”
It was as much a declaration of Jesus’ divine nature,
as it was a declaration of his identity as one of us—
human children of God...beloved of God.

And that’s enough of a message for us to receive,
and try to digest,
on this, the first Sunday of Lent.

There’s a lot more that can be said,
and that will be said.
There are other covenants we will examine during this series.
The covenants with Abraham,
with the Israelites at Sinai,
and throughout the biblical story.
Some of them speak directly to our responsibility,
our task as God’s faithful people.

But this first covenant with Noah,
doesn’t make any direct demands on us.
It’s all about God.
It’s a unilateral covenant God makes
with all people...and all creation...for all time.
God promises to always and forever incline himself toward us.
If we can only begin to grasp the enormity
of God’s affection and love for us,
I think it would radically alter the way we respond to God.

Persons who experience the depths of the love of God,
both in their inward beings,
and mediated through other beloved children of God,
are a different kind of people.
They are a different breed of Christians.

People who open themselves to the deep love of God,
don’t come to church on Sundays,
just to get fed something inspirational,
to get something they need for their hectic week.
Rather, they come to give a gift of love to the One who loves them.
People who open themselves to the deep love of God,
don’t try to bargain with God,
to get out of tough situations in life,
or to get something they want.
Rather, they face the trials of life with God their lover at their side,
and assume God will stay there, suffering through it with them.
People who open themselves to the deep love of God,
don’t espouse faith only because it works for them,
because it answers their questions
and gives them personal meaning in life.
Rather, they espouse faith because it allows them
to give and receive love more fully.

No, if we practice our religion primarily in view of
what we personally get out of it,
we haven’t yet gotten it.
It’s all about God.
It’s about the covenant for life and for love
that God drew up,
that God unilaterally entered into,
that God has continued to reiterate ever since,
and most completely through Jesus Christ.

During this season of Lent,
as we focus on different aspects of covenant,
we’re going to be hearing some of our own covenant stories,
along with the biblical covenant story.
Today, we’ve asked Dick Benner to share a brief story with us,
about how he experienced this unconditional love of God,
during a recent, and continuing, trial in his life.

[Dick Benner shares story]

Those of us who, like Dick,
have experienced the love of God in times of trial,
know that sometimes the most eloquent prayer we can pray,
is also one of the simplest,
“Lord, have mercy. Kyrie eleison.”

Let us humble ourselves before God, our lover,
in a time of confession.
If you need the music, it’s #144 in the blue hymnal.

—Phil Kniss, March 5, 2006

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