Grace, mercy and peace to you in the name of Jesus. Amen.
What do you think is the very first Bible story you learned?
My guess would be the story of Noah's Ark.
And if it wasn't the first it was close. It is certainly one of the best known stories from the Bible. Even families that are not particularly religious are more like than not to have had a toy ark, with lots of animals and figures of Noah and his family. I remember we had an ark set that floated, and we would play with it in the bathtub. So, of all the stories in the Bible, we may be most familiar with all the major components of this story.
There's Noah ... the ark ... all those animals, of course ... the flood itself ... then the dove with the olive branch ... and the appearance of the rainbow in the sky. And each of these parts of the story carry symbolic power of their own even today, as does the story as a whole. There is, however, one major player in this story that we often leave out as we play in this story, tell this story or use its powerful and rich symbolism.
The story of Noah's Ark is a story about God.
The story of Noah's Ark is a story about God. Not just in a general way that it teaches us or expresses something about God, but God, the creator of heaven and earth, is the central character of this story. And when we go back to this story and read it not as a story about Noah or his family or an ark, but as a story about God and God's problematic relationship to the crowning achievement of God's creation, human beings, we hear God speaking to us about our own relationship to God and God's to us.
The portion we heard today is the end, the resolution of the story. The resolution to this story is the cutting of a covenant between God, human beings and every living creature. As a sign of that covenant, God places the divine bow in the sky and it will appear on fierce and stormy days to remind every living creature that God will never again unleash the forces of nature for the utter destruction of life on earth. God literally, lays down his bow as a sign of peace that binds God to the earth creatures for their good. In return, human beings are to give up violence and bloodshed, as well. Following God's lead, human beings are to be about guarding and protecting life on this planet, and once again, God commissions human beings as stewards of the creation, giving everything into their care as a gift.
At the end of this story, God has given human beings a privileged place in creation and among God's creatures and a sign in heavens every time the storm appears to remind them to lay down their bows, turn away from violence, to show steadfast love and mercy toward their fellow creatures, just as God has shown steadfast love and mercy on all the creatures of the earth.
That's the end of the story ... at least this part of the story.
But to understand the resolution to a story, we have to learn the problem, the conflict that has been resolved in the end. For that, we have to go back to the beginning of the story, where we find God filled with sorrow and regret over what human beings have made of themselves: violent and destructive creatures. When God looks at human beings, God sees the most privileged, powerful and magnificent creature, the creature created in the image of the creator has used its power and dominion to perpetuate violence and destruction against other humans, other living creatures and the creation itself.
God has a problem ... violent, destructive creatures.
What is God to do with these creatures?
God decides that these particular creatures with so much promise have become more of a threat to the creation than a benefit. The closer God looks, the more violence and bloodshed God sees infesting all creatures. So, God decides that the creation would be better off without these creatures.
I want to stop and point out that this is not just a theological problem at the heart of one of the most ancient stories in scripture, but this has become a pressing question for our own time as well. And that question is whether or not the creation would be better off without us?
And the chilling decision God comes to is yes, these creatures and the systems that have emerged around them are unredeemable. There is no other option but death. This is not God flying off the handle. This is not a capricious God on a whim, wielding almighty power for God's own pleasure ... this is a deep, deeply sorrowful and heartbreaking conclusion to reach regarding a creature that came to life with God's very own Spirit, a creature created in God's image, a creature in whom God took delight and and with whom God communed, daily. The pride and joy of God's creative powers. The pride and joy of the divine love.
Certainly there must be something redeemable, someone to be saved.
God sees Noah.
Now, theologically speaking Noah is as much a sinner as any other human being, but Noah finds favor in God's sight, and God acts to save Noah and through Noah every living creature on the planet. It is not just that Noah and his family are saved from death in the flood, but in being saved Noah and his family save and preserve all humanity ... and more. What emerges from the flood through Noah is a renewed, recreated and redeemed humanity.
It is at this point we picked up the story tonight.
The resolution God has found as the answer to the problems of human violence is the recreation of human beings in covenant relationship with their God under the sign of the rainbow and the promise of a new creation.
Can you start to see why this story helps us understand where we are going on this Lenten journey, and why Jesus Christ resists the temptations of the wilderness so that he might be the one man through whom all human beings might be saved, redeemed and renewed, the one man through whom God makes all thing new.
The favored, beloved Son, the ark of faith through the flood of death that washes away the sin of the world, the dove and olive branch of peace and the rainbow sign of the new creation where sin and death are no more, where violence is no more, but life thrives in all its abundant diversity and human beings once again live out the promise of their creation.
Many think the Noah story is primitive, the covenant it describes as basic, broad and not particularly pious ... but in its outline and in its details, it points us to Christ and gives us a way to see and understand what God is doing for us through one man, Jesus. And beyond that, we are pointed to life in God's kingdom and to the promise of our own life that emerges from our own baptism.
That's already a lot to take in, but here are some things I see in this story that helps and guides us in our walk as baptized children of God.
First, that we too were hopelessly dead in our sin.
Next, that we have been saved by faith in God's steadfast love and mercy through Jesus' death and resurrection.
That trusting in and in fellowship with God, we live for the glory of God as God's beloved human beings, creatures among other creatures, part of God's good creation in hope the day when all things will be made new.
That we are called, not to be the storm, but to see the rainbow, lay down our weapons, give up violence and nonviolently guard and protect the gift of life on this planet and in doing do proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed. It is no accident that the first thing Noah does after emerging from the ark is plant a vineyard ... which becomes a symbol for God's people, thriving and abundantly fruitful for the well being of all.
What do you see and hear in this most ancient and yet most well known and widely read story? What is God saying to you and to us ... a congregation that is just now looking to see if its safe to emerge into this new world and wondering what God has in store for us ... what God wants to do through us?
In Jesus' name Amen.
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