Christ Church Gardiner
July 14, 2019
Pentecost 5_Noah’s Ark
When we hear a reference to Noah’s Ark, we may think of the murals on the walls of our childhood Sunday School classrooms or a theme for children’s nurseries. When Patrick was a baby, his nursery had a sweet watercolor of the animals waiting to board the ark, two by two. It was painted by a friend of my sister-in-law and given to Patrick as a baptism gift. The artist even painted our springer spaniel, Brady and a mate, into the picture. That painting still hangs in our playroom.
But it would be a stretch to call this a children’s story. I can still remember my daughter Catherine’s angry and incredulous reaction when she figured out that behind that charming scene of the animals lining up in pairs to board the ark, is the reality that all of the rest of the animals in the world are about to be destroyed by raging flood waters. All because of the bad behavior of humans and God’s regret that he had made them. Catherine never seemed overly concerned about the fate of the humans in this story, now that I think about it. But the innocence of the rest of God’s creation and their subsequent destruction really bothered her. And it should. It should raise questions for all of us.
There’s a lot going on in this story. To begin with, this story is a reversal of those creation stories we read a couple of weeks ago. We started with “in the beginning.” When God created the heavens and the earth… When the breath of God swept over the chaos of the waters and brought order to the world one day at a time until he could rest in the satisfaction of his creation on the seventh day. But in this story we learn that that which is made can be unmade. Creation can be undone. The chaos that was controlled can also be unleashed. And that chaos can destroy what has been created.
Another important thing to remember about the story of Noah and the Ark is that it is not the only, or the first, flood story written in the ancient Near East during the time the Israelites were writing down their stories. Those early Israelites would likely have heard those other stories like the one from Sumeria. See if this sounds familiar…. There was an old man, Utnapishtim, who is warned by the gods that a flood is coming that will destroy the earth. They instruct him to build a large boat so he can save his family and the “seed of all living things.” When the flood finally subsides, the boat comes to rest on a mountain. And when Utnapishtim emerges, the god Ishtar places a rainbow in the sky to remind the gods that they will never again destroy all of humankind.
And there were other stories from that time, too, that would sound familiar. The existence of several different versions of a flood story in the Near East during ancient times likely means that there was indeed a catastrophic flood that lived in the memories of the people and needed to be explained.
But like our creation stories, the story of Noah and the Ark is not history. It wasn’t written to give the facts about the flood as a particular historical event. So we don’t need to explain how two of every animal of the more than 1.3 million species that have been identified on the earth fit on that ark. Or how Noah fed them without them eating each other. Or the thousand other questions we could ask. This story serves a greater purpose. It had something to say about the nature of God and how God related to humanity, particularly the ancient people of Israel.
In the story of Noah’s Ark, the Israelites are confessing that God had reason to be angry and to seek the destruction of the creation he had made. God created humankind in his image and blessed them, but they turned away from him. Rather than seek God’s way—a harmonious balance that respected the created order—the inclinations of their hearts were evil. They insisted on having their own way instead of God’s way. They turned away from God’s dream for them.
But in this story, God is more than an angry God. God is also a grieving God. A couple of lines before where our story picked up this morning, we find these words.
“And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”
The betrayal of humankind had broken God’s heart. God would not grieve if God had not first loved. This is an important theological statement for those early Israelites. Their God is a God who loves them.
Now, I want to pause for a minute. I don’t want to ignore that it sounds like we are talking about two very different Gods right now. An angry God who is content to wipe out the entire world except for one family and an ark full of animals. And a God who loves humankind so much that his heart grieves at their betrayal of that love. But remember. We are talking about how the early Israelites understood their God. Yes, there are things we can learn from their experience of God, but this is first and foremost THEIR story. THEIR experience. So we have to think about their particular context. What was their experience of gods? Well, we know that the ancient Mesopotamian God, Enlil—a god who would have been familiar to the Israelites, also wanted to destroy all of humanity with a flood. His reason? They were making too much noise. That’s right…Enlil sought the annihilation of the world because people were just too loud.
The gods of the ancient world were capricious. They tended to act without much concern for the human life they controlled. But Israel’s God was different. Yes, he got angry. But only when the disobedience of the people meant they were destructive to each other and to his created order in which all things were supposed to live in harmony. He was also a god who loved his creation. And this was a radical idea in their time and place.
And so in this grief and in this love, the God of Israel finds Noah. Noah who is described as one who walks with God. And rather than God’s anger and the destruction of all creation having the last word, in our flood story, Noah becomes the bearer of an alternative possibility. He is the promise of something new for humankind.
Our story shifted this morning when we heard these words, “But God remembered Noah and all the animals that were with him in the ark.” God remembered.
Israel’s God is one that is intimately connected to his creation and can be changed by his relationship with creation. His creation tugs on his heart and cannot be forgotten. God does not stand at a distance. He is not indifferent.
However, when God sets his bow in the sky and makes a covenant with Noah and humankind, this is not a promise that destruction can never happen to the world again. Evil has not been eradicated in this event. Evil will continue to spring up in human relationship because it is not actually humankind that changes in this story. God changes. The promise contained in the covenant with Noah is that evil and destruction will never again be rooted in the vengeance of God. This grace comes in the act of God laying down his weapon, blessing Noah and his family, and calling them to be fruitful and multiply. Once again filling the earth with people. And this time, unlike in the story of Adam and Eve, God does not hold back any of creation from them. I give you everything God says. But with gifts from God comes great responsibility.
This God that loves and grieves and remembers his creation even when they are wicked, continues to evolve in our scriptures into the God that we find Jesus pointing us toward in the Gospels.
Like in the Parable of the Good Samaritan that we heard today. When the lawyer asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life, Jesus reminds him that he can find the answer in the Law that God gave to the early Israelites: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. And then Jesus tells him a story to illustrate just who his neighbor is. And the lawyer discovers in that story how big the grace of God is. Because your neighbor, as it turns out, is anyone who needs your mercy and love. And we are obligated, because of the blessing God has bestowed on humankind, to show love whenever we can. We are called to be a blessing to others.
N.T Wright, the famous theologian, said that we discover who we are when someone loves us. And we become who we are meant to be when we can love others as ourselves. I think those early Israelites of the Old Testament and the followers of Jesus in the New Testament were on to something when they understood themselves as in relationship with a God who loved them. A god who grieved over them. A god who indeed was angered by their betrayals because it took them further away from him and from each other.
In the story of Noah’s Ark, God laid down his weapon. He put his bow in the sky as a reminder that he would be our God—not a god of vengeance, but a god of love. And the only way to worship a god of love is to pour out our love on others. Amen .