To never, ever give up
In case this summer’s blockbuster film didn’t make it clear enough, Let me say this right off the bat: Noah and the Ark is NOT a children’s story. This is a really disturbing story of God destroying the whole entire world and everything in it, but saving one guy and his family to start over. What on earth are we supposed to do with this thing?
We have a choice to make. And we are going to be faced with this choice a lot as we begin journeying through scriptures from the Old Testament through the New in these next few months, so it’s important to face it now. It seems to me our options are these:
11- We could simply ignore it. We could stay with the stories we like, the ones that paint God in a nice way and let human beings off easy, and leave these kinds of texts in some category called, “Old Covenant” or “God’s judgment – it’s not like that anymore.” And then not really have to deal with them at all. This would likely mean leaving out an awful lot of our bible.
22- We could clean it up a bit. We can water it down and pretty it up, and make it complete with cartoon morals and benign promises. This is often how we deal with the hard texts in the church, we make them into oversimplified object lessons that don’t have to speak into our lives or disturb us.
Option three is way riskier, and requires some trust on our part.
33- We could let it in. You should only choose option three if you are willing to be changed, and if you are willing to do some doubting and wrestling, and if you’re willing be met by God.
Option three suggests that if, indeed, we believe that the bible, the whole bible, speaks truth to about who God is and what God is up to, if, indeed, we believe the bible matters, to our faith as followers of Jesus, then we need to face these hard texts head on and expect God to meet us in the reading.
We need to let God’s relationship with those gone before, captured in these stories, speak to us, and say something about God’s relationship to us today as we live out our stories.
I will tell you that if you choose option three, you’re in for a ride. Because sometimes the hardest and most terrible texts turn out to be the most surprising, the most transformative, because the Spirit speaks through them in ways you cannot imagine at first glance. If, upon reading a story in scripture, you are tempted to turn and run, you are invited to stick with it and seek the promise, because the God about whom these scriptures give witness, is right there with you as you read.
So let’s go for it with the Noah story, shall we? Let’s choose option three – we’re going to open ourselves to this story and all that is hard in it, and we’re not going to pretty it up and we’re not going to skip over it. Instead we are going to engage it and expect God to meet us.
So I’ll just plunge in with the discomfort by asking, Is God is so upset about how terribly violent the world has gotten, that God, in terrible violence washes the whole thing away?
And if God was so upset about evil way back when, why does God seem all but silent about it today? Were the people back then really worse than ISIS beheading children? Hitler’s concentration camps? How bad is so bad that God starts over?
And is it so bad that all of creation has to go too? God just gives up on everything?
And what made Noah so saveable and everyone else so damnable? Because just in case we begin to think Noah is some a perfect person or his time on the Ark made him appreciate how the new world is going to be different than the old one, the story of the Ark is immediately followed by a bizarre incident starring Noah, and involving alcohol, nudity, humiliation and disproportionate rage. So why this one flawed guy and his family, and not anyone else?
It helps sometimes, to locate who is the protagonist of the story; who is this story about? For this moment, I want you to imagine not that you are Noah, or the other people, or the narrator painting the flood and animal scenes in vivid color. I want you to imagine before you hear this story that you are God. Because this story is not really about Noah. It’s not about the evil people or the animals or the storm. This is a story about God.
So it begins when you, God, in love and imagination form a whole world, and fill it with beauty, with animals and birds, with fish and insects, with seasons and rhythms and all things work together in harmony, benefiting each other and contributing to the whole. A spectacular, ever changing work of interactive art. And people! You make creatures in your own image, and you invite them use their creativity, to contribute, and build, and share in your love and care for the world, and know one another and know you.
This is a story about a relationship between God and humanity. That is where this story begins.
And shortly after creation sin enters in- dividing creature from creator, spreading suspicion and judgment, distrust and self-centeredness throughout them like cancer, severing the connection between God and these precious creatures God has breathed life into.
Before the Noah story we’ve got Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel and the Tower of Babel. And things keep on getting worse. The evil and violence breed and fester and people become more and more oriented toward destruction, and the relationship is horribly broken.
And this brokenness affects, God.
The grief of a parent over her child destroying himself and rejecting her and any love or help she seeks to give him, standing on the sidelines where he has thrust her watching the inevitable destruction he is hurtling himself towards can not begin to touch the grief within God’s own heart over what is unfolding in this creation God poured God’s soul into, and the fracture between God and these ones God has planned to share life with who have utterly turned their backs on God and devoted themselves to the violent tearing down of one another at all cost.
So, I wonder if at some point, amidst the grief and the anger, God doesn’t take it on Godself: this is God’s own failure as much as it is theirs. God made it, and clearly they are unable to pull themselves out of the death spiral, so God’s going to fix it. Wipe it out and start over.
So God reverses creation. In language paralleling the creation story, the dome of the sky that separated the waters collapses and the deep that was pushed out by land wells up again and everything is returned to the chaos from which it was liberated and created.
Except God can’t quite do it. Can’t quite obliterate all of it. It was so beautiful. so good and God loves it so much. Perhaps it could be good again? Perhaps it can be saved? So God chooses this one little family out of everyone else to save, to begin again. And a sample of every kind of animal as well; maybe it wont be an utter loss.
And then God rages and weeps and releases all of the wrath and sadness and anger, and creation is violently dismantled and returned to nearly the nothingness from which it first emerged, except for this boat, bobbing on top of it all, this odd little remnant of hope.
It’s a tragic and horrifying scene, a heartwrenching scene:
21And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; 22everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died.
23He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark.
24And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred and fifty days.
Then after this purging and cleansing, the time of recreation begins:
But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided; 2the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, 3and the waters gradually receded from the earth.
And finally the ark comes to rest and the inhabitants pour out into a brand new world.
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10and with every living creature that is with you… that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’
12God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth….16When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’
And here’s where perhaps, after all, this may be an astounding story, a deeply and beautifully true story:
Because God began the story seeing no other way but to write it all off and begin fresh.
But when all is said and done, and everything is dead and gone, and the earth goes back to its watery formless state, something happens inside God.
By the time the water recedes and the naked and fresh earth is exposed, and it is ready to begin again, God is in a different place altogether. You might say God has gotten some clarity and made some decisions.
God realizes that, over and over again, humanity is going to choose death instead of life, choose hatred instead of love, choose to cut off from one another and from God, instead of live in the connection that God created us all for. And even flooding the whole earth hasn’t washed away sin from the hearts of humanity.
But even seeing that, despite all of that, God hangs God’s bow in the sky, the weapon of a warrior God puts down, and pledges to all creation never to wipe out the whole earth again.
the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind… nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. 22 As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.’ 16When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it God said, and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’
God begins here, with Noah, to live in a covenant with humanity, a kind of indestructible commitment to us that culminates in plunging right into this world with us, alongside us in utter solidarity and taking into Godself the darkest and most broken parts of us, in a relentless resolve to share life with us, and tenaciously work towards restoring us to the wholeness we were created for.
Rev. Nathan Nettleton says it beautifully:
This story is telling us that God neither gives up on us, nor clings to the right to wipe us out if we get too out of hand or the pain we cause becomes too great for God to bear.
It tells us that God voluntarily gives up some freedoms; voluntarily accepts some new restrictions on what God can and can’t do. God signs away the right to simply treat us as we deserve; to dish out punishments that are simply direct and proportional consequences to the crimes.
God swears off such options, and makes an irrevocable commitment to wildly disproportionate generosity and mercy.
And God does this with open eyes, knowing that such a commitment means signing on for continual betrayal and heartbreak, continual grief and frustration and pain.
But that is a price God is prepared to pay. God makes a personal commitment to be open to the pain, to enter into the pain, to absorb the pain, and to go on loving without limit.
This story is a gift to us.
It asks us questions, like,
How, in our own lives, do we choose death over life?
And where might we, like God, need to grieve, and even rage, over the violence we do to each other and creation?
This story gives us promises, like
the astounding glimpse into the heart of our creator, who declares that every time a violent storm subsides, and the sky opens up in the startling hush of a rainbow, God will see it and pause, and will take it in as a reminder to go on loving us without limit.
And this story gives us invitations,
by beckoning us to watch for the signs of God’s presence, it invites us to celebrate the astonishing beauty and precariousness of living, and all life, to be open to the pain of sharing life with others, to bear the world’s sorrow and reveal the world’s hope, and to seek to trust in the promises of our wildly generous and faithful God, who never ever gives up on us, no matter what.