Sunday, March 1, 2009

(Lent 1) The Great Flood: a Love Story

Lent 1: God provides for creation
Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

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There aren’t many Bible stories like the one we read in Genesis today.
I’ll bet you could go to just about any public place
in this country right now—
city sidewalk, park, shopping plaza,
talk to the first random person you meet,
and I think you would find,
even in this secular, post-Christian, biblically illiterate culture,
that chances are extremely high
that person could recite the basic elements of this Bible story.
They’d probably get some details wrong—
might even get Noah and Moses mixed up.
But they could tell you that Noah built a big boat called an Ark,
and brought two of every animal, male and female,
onto the boat,
and then there was a big flood that destroyed the world,
except for those on the boat,
and after it was over, a rainbow appeared in the sky.
Nine times out of ten, I bet. They’d get it right.
People know this story.
They’ve been exposed to it since infancy.

You want proof?
Walk into one of our local temples to the god of American consumerism:
Super Wal-Mart, Target, Penney’s, take your pick.
Walk the aisles, and count how many times you see
this story depicted on children’s products—
toys, books, bath towels, pajamas, wallpaper.

I don’t think you can say that about any other Bible story. Period.
Everybody knows this story.
But . . . do we know this story?
I mean, really know it to the point
where the truth of this story lives and breathes in us?
I invite us to open ourselves anew to this story,
and ask it the questions that need to be asked.

I put it that way, because we often ask other questions of it.
People have been obsessed about whether it’s literally true.
Some Christian organizations have spent millions
trying to prove this story historically and scientifically.
Some claim they’ve found the ark.
Those questions might be fascinating to think about.
They just aren’t the right questions.
Because this primaeval story
is not about science or about history.
It is a story about God.
It is a story that has been given to us,
and told and retold through the ages,
because people want to know . . . need to know . . .
what kind of God is it that we have?
What is God’s character?
What is God’s relationship to us, human beings?
Those are the questions this story is intended to answer.

But as soon as we frame the question that way things get complicated.
That’s an even more thorny and difficult question
than questions of history and science.
Who is this God who would destroy the whole world
and every living thing,
after he created it and called it very good,
just because he got mad at us human beings?
Is this a God of love . . . or not?

I just invited you to open yourself to this story in a new way.
Well, I want you to come to know and experience
this story of the Great Flood,
first and foremost, as a love story.
It is a love story in the classic sense,
with the usual plotline . . .
the first falling in love,
the disappointment, betrayal, and anger,
the deliberate rebuilding of trust,
and starting over with a new appreciation for each other.

It helps us to see this,
if we realize what was going on here
with the original tellers of the story.
Here, as in many other Bible stories,
God is anthropomorphized.
That’s a long word with a simple meaning—
God depicted as human.
And that’s really about the only way we puny human beings
can get any sort of handle on what God is like.
We have to compare this huge, ultimately unknowable God,
with something we do know.
And this is not just something we do to God.
God does it for us.

If scripture is inspired by God,
then God must have inspired the anthropomorphiz-ing.
I’m just trying to see how long I can make that word.
See, God wants to be known.
God is a God of revelation.
So God not only allowed us humans,
but inspired us humans,
to see, and to record, our impressions of God,
even if those impressions were only partial,
and came in bits and pieces,
and were refined and improved and clarified over time.

So if we look at these ancient texts that way,
instead of reading them like a science textbook,
they not only come alive,
but we can embrace the truthfulness of the whole story
more completely and with more gratitude
for these Holy Spirit-inspired Bible story-tellers.

So . . . what makes this terrible story of death and destruction,
a love story, of all things?

Well, stick with me.
Let’s look at it as God-inspired human story-telling
that emerged from a particular point in time,
that opened up the story of God a little bit further,
that unraveled more of the mystery.

This story emerged at a time when Israel’s understanding
of their One God Yahweh was very limited.
The only thing they had to compare to,
was the way nations around them understood their gods.
Other nations had their own ancient stories of great floods.
In some of those stories, there were many gods,
in conflict with each other,
and this battle between the gods produced the floods.
Suffering humans were barely a blip on the radar of these gods.
The destruction of human life was merely
collateral damage in the war between the gods.

But the story that Israel was given, and that we’ve been given,
through the gracious gift of God-inspired scripture,
reveals a very different kind of God.
Even though it’s written from a human point of view,
and paints God with human characteristics,
the God-inspired truth comes through.
It reveals a new and profound truth about the One God,
the Creator of the universe.
This God loves his human creation . . . loves them,
and longs for them to live in right relationship
with God, each other, and the world.

The God of our Bible is a passionate God.
God feels . . . deeply.
And in looking at his human creation before the flood,
God was deeply pained.
The very people God created in order to love him,
and be loved by him,
were not only refusing to love God,
they did not love their fellow human beings.
Gen. 6:11 says the earth was “filled with violence.”
They were wasting their priceless gift of humanity.
This was deeply painful to God, we are told.
Gen. 6:6: “The Lord was sorry
that he had made humankind on the earth,
and it grieved him to his heart.”
So in God’s deep despair,
God made the fateful decision to destroy this corrupt life,
and try again.

And we know the story. It rained for 40 days and 40 nights.
Flood waters covered the earth,
and destroyed every living creature,
except those on Noah’s boat.
Eventually, the water went down,
and Noah, his family, and the animals with them,
came off the boat and got ready to start life all over again.

Noah built an altar of thanksgiving to God, we are told in chap. 8,
and this God (portrayed as someone with eyes and a nose)
looked down, and smelled the sacrifice (v. 21).
And the implication is that God also looked around
at what was left of his beautiful creation.
And God was once again struck with regret.
Or at least, with deep sorrow at the gravity of destruction.
Five times in just a few verses, God says, with feeling,
“Never again . . . never again . . .
never again will I do what I have just done.”

First, God was sorry he had made humankind.
Now, God sounds sorry he had them destroyed.

We naturally feel a bit uncomfortable with a God who says,
in essence, “Whoops! My bad!”
But God is portrayed numerous times in scripture,
as one who repents, who changes his mind,
who alters course.
Of course, this is the human angle on the divine will.
But by telling the story this way,
we are reassured of God’s most essential characteristic,
God’s core nature is love.

If God is so pained by the violence of human beings,
and so pained when they are destroyed,
it must mean that God is really invested in us.
God must really love and care about who we are,
and how we live with him and with each other.
God is not a remote, cold, and uncaring deity,
who gets into random battles with other gods,
and who hardly notices when humans suffer as a result.
No, God owns what God has done.
God grieves over human suffering.
Whether the suffering was brought on by their own violence,
or whether the suffering was brought on by God’s judgment,
either way . . . God grieves when God’s beloved ones suffer,
or when they fail to live up to their created beauty.

God . . . the Creator of the Universe . . . is invested in us.
Think about that!
And think what a profound . . . and world-view changing . . .
revelation that was for the people of Israel
who heard this story for the first time.
And whose only prior notion of God came from stories
coming out of Egypt and Babylon and such.

In the flood story, the truth about God comes out.
God loves them.
And God loves everything God has created.
In Genesis 9, God is essentially saying,
“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. And 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.”

When you read it this way, there is no denying it.
The flood story is a love story.

It’s not true to the story, to read chapters 6-8,
and conclude that the main purpose of this story is to reveal
God’s terrible wrath and power to destroy.
This is a story about how God came to decide, literally,
to love the world without condition, and to redeem it.
When you read the first nine chapters of Genesis, creation to flood,
you see a story with lots of interesting twists and turns.
Love and fellowship . . . and murder and deceit.
But in all its complexity, it is finally, ultimately, a love story.
God, the lover, is jilted and betrayed. Repeatedly.
But in the end, it’s not God’s anger, judgment, and regret
that defines who God is.
It is God’s decision to love and redeem.
It is God’s choice to make a covenant,
and provide a way to be restored.

This story of the Great Flood teaches us that
God is inclined toward this world; he will not turn his back on it.
God is drawn toward this world, even with all its brokenness,
its corruption, its violence.
God is drawn toward the world with love and compassion.

And out of this love, comes a covenant between God and all creation.
This is huge.
This is not just a promise for Noah and his descendants.
This is a covenant between God and every living thing.
Every . . . living . . . thing.
And God made sure we heard that right, in Genesis 9.
In eight verses it’s repeated eight times.
Listen [count]
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 one strong theological argument
for loving and caring for the earth and all its living things.
Every living creature is a part of this covenant with God,
and is an object of God’s love.

And it’s certainly a strong argument
to celebrate God’s deep and abiding and unconditional
love and longing for us human beings.
God is oriented toward us.
God leans toward us.
God, the lover, wants to be in relationship with us.
God has been saying to his people ever since Noah,
“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,
in the gospel reading this morning,
“You are my Son, the Beloved.”
After which Jesus was thrust into the wilderness of temptation.
But he went there with those words ringing in his ears,
“You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

The wilderness is real, for Jesus and for us.
The judgment that comes with rebellion is real,
in Genesis and now.
The suffering we heard described by the apostle in 1 Peter is real,
both for the righteous and the unrighteous.

All that is real.
But just as real, and just as important
in this season of Lent,
and in this season of global anxiety, fear, and violence,
is . . . the love of God—
the unending, unconditional, unfathomable
love of God for all human beings, and for all creation.
Let us walk whatever wilderness is required of us,
today and in the coming days,
but let us walk it in the full awareness
of God’s great love, rich and pure, measureless and strong,
the saints’ and angels’ song.
In the face of all that is wrong in the world,
let us stand and loudly proclaim this love of God,
by singing #44 in Sing the Journey. “The love of God”

– Philip L. Kniss, March 1, 2009

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