Sermon preached for the First Sunday of Lent at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant 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.”
God 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: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When 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.”
God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
I can remember being taught the story of Noah as a child.
We had books, and songs. Playsets, murals on the wall of the church nursery. Figurines of giraffes and elephants and tigers. We made animal noises and sang about the arky arky. I was a kid, I loved it. Animals and boats and rainbows.
Especially the rainbow. I loved that rainbow at the end of the story, stretched out in Technicolor over a fresh new world, animals coming out of the ark in threesies, threesies, the babies scampering in every direction. I think it’s the scene from Fantasia 2000 that I can see in my head.
As a child, that rainbow was proof of everything my church told me about God, and everything my own instincts assured me: that God was good and beautiful and full of love, and that God made a good and beautiful world full of love.
Then I grew up. And the world didn’t seem as good and beautiful and full of love as before.
I was eight and a third-grader when Columbine happened, so young that my parents sheltered me from the news. But with the rest of America’s children, I began to practice safety drills that went beyond evacuating because of fire; I learned how to shelter under my desk, or in closets, with the lights off and the doors locked. In high school, I remember vividly crouching under a teacher’s desk with several other students for nearly two hours before the faux-SWAT team cleared our classroom, remember the cramps in my legs, remember the smell of several teenagers in close quarters. It was only a drill. But it was also proof that the world was not the safe place it had seemed so long ago in the church nurseries of my childhood.
Coming back to the story of Noah this week, even the rainbow seems to have lost its luster. I struggle to find Noah’s ark cute nowadays, when he and his family are essentially refugees from a genocide, and a genocide, the Bible tells us, of God’s own causing. It is difficult both to believe in the beauty and goodness of God and to read the story of the flood.
Of course, it is also difficult to believe in the beauty and goodness of God and to read the headlines.
In America, school shootings come so fast and thick that we hardly have time to notice them anymore. In other countries, suicide bombings are the weapons of choice. In still others, government policies facilitate violence against particular ethnic and religious groups.
So you’ll forgive me if I’m struggling to preach the last chapter of God’s genocide today.
Of course, the gift of my job is that I do get to struggle. I get time, I get resources, I get a mandate even. Like Jacob, to wrestle God to the ground until I find a blessing. And in the end, I do believe this story, of the flood and the rainbow and the covenant, can bless us. But I didn’t want to come up to this pulpit and deliver the good news to you like it’s always easy to come by. I want you to know that sometimes we have to dig a bit to get to the good news, like looking for water in the desert.
One of the fascinating things about this story of the flood is that it’s one of the few stories that shows up reliably throughout ancient literature. It’s clear that it happened, that the ancient peoples of the near east carried a memory of a terrible natural disaster. Each culture then had to make sense of this flood—why did it happen? Whose fault was it? How to keep it from happening again?
Remember that these ancient people had no sense of climatology or weather patterns. Things happened at the whim of the gods. In the epic of Gilgamesh, for example, the god Enlil flooded the world in order to destroy all people because their noise was disturbing his sleep! The reasoning is capricious and cold, but it made sense to the Akkadian people. Gods sometimes did horrifying things. It was simply the way of the world.
The Hebrew people had come to know differently. They believed in one God, one God who watched over the world and loved those within it. Yet they still had to square the flood with their belief in this God. And so they tell this story, and at the end of the day it’s a story about both humanity and God learning to turn away from violence.
Really, it is.
Before the flood, God looks down on the earth and sees that the people have turned evil. Completely evil. There are no shades of gray in a fable like this one. Scripture says they were full of violence, their every thought filled with violence. And God is heartbroken.
God is heartbroken by all this violence. This was not what God intended. This was not what God created humanity to be, back in that garden, with God’s breath in their lungs. This was not the earth God envisioned. And so God goes back to the drawing board, pulling the waters of chaos back over the world, to create it anew.
God is bound and determined that this world will not be defined by violence.
The paradox, of course, is that the only way for God to redeem the earth is by an act of violence. I will never get comfortable with that. But it is not a capricious act. It is not for God’s ease, or pleasure. And the Hebrews were clear, in a way that’s hard for us to understand, that God’s actions were justified. That the world needed to be made new, and that humanity was too far gone for any other option to work.
Then we get the part of the story we know best—Noah building the ark, loading up the animals, floating for those 40 days in the ocean—and then the floodwaters recede and we get to the scripture we read today. Where God and Noah both come out blinking into the sunlight, trying to figure out where they go from here. How do you create a new world when the old one went so wrong, so fast?
I would expect God to demand an agreement out of Noah and Noah’s family, to toe the line, to be good boys and girls. After all, God holds all the cards, all the power. You know that old dad joke: “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out?” That’s what God has just demonstrated God can do. So you’d think God would be handing Noah his marching orders.
And yet God doesn’t. God doesn’t demand anything of Noah. Instead, God puts God’s own signature on a covenant that limits, not what Noah can do, but what God can do.
God establishes a covenant with all the earth to never destroy the earth again. No one can make God do this. God chooses to. God chooses to turn away from that destructive power, that kind of violence. God agrees to let all the earth—humans, animals, plants—hold God accountable to that promise.
And for proof, God hangs a bow, that famous rainbow, in the sky.
And it’s not just that it’s beautiful. It’s not just that it signals the end of the storm. It’s not just that it makes us happy.
For the Hebrew people, the word qashet, bow, referred to both a rainbow and an archer’s bow equally. When God hangs the bow in the clouds, God is literally putting away a warrior’s weapon. God is hanging up God’s power. God is holstering a gun, disarming a bomb, sheathing a knife. The rainbow is a weapon, cast away and turned into a symbol of peace.
God knows that humans will still turn to violence. For whatever reason, God allows us to make that choice, and we have made it, in a million ways and for a million reasons over the centuries. But God’s choice is clear: God will not destroy. Never again.
For those of us who grew up with the idea of a good and loving God, this story seems almost unnecessary. But for the ancient Hebrews—and for many still today—who defined deity primarily by the ability to destroy at will—this story was revolutionary. The idea that God would choose to relinquish power simply so we don’t have to live in terror would have rocked them to their core. Such stories were a stepping stone from ancient ideas about who gods are to opening their hearts to the reality of who God is—loving and merciful, gracious and just.
It is a story we have much to learn from. A story in which God models for us how to turn away from violence, even violence we feel entitled to. A story in which we are reminded that God cares for all of us on earth—humans of every race and gender and condition and political persuasion and ideology—along with every other living thing from tiny microbes to giant squids. We are responsible to and for each other.
This week we entered the season of Lent, and it was a harsher entry than any of us would have wished for. At the end of this season, we will come to another story that is hard to read; when Jesus is arrested and sentenced to death. Peter will offer to kill the soldiers for him, and Jesus will remember that covenant God made, and say no: he will not destroy. In that Gethsemane, Jesus lives out to the fullest God’s promise not to destroy, and in doing so he will be able to usher in a new world three days later, when he steps out of the tomb and into another garden. Jesus will change the world, not by amassing the most power, but by giving up his power entirely. It’s a story that can still rock us to the core, if we’re paying attention.
If you hear nothing else today, I want you to hear this: cruel, capricious violence in this world is neither necessary nor inevitable. It is not part of God’s will. It is not part of God’s vision for the earth.
I believe God still yearns for a world made new, an earth that blossoms with the love God breathed into it at the first. And since God has promised never again to wipe it all away, God now must work in each of us individually, flooding our lives not with destructive storms but with the waters of grace, of hope, of justice, of love.
It is slow going, painfully slow. I believe God’s heart breaks again and again as we choose violence, choose fear, choose division. And I believe God’s heart rejoices when we choose to enter fully into that covenant of peace, making choices that bring people together, that bring them closer to God’s vision for what the world could look like.
I used to think Noah’s story was a poor candidate for a children’s story. But now, today, I think that it’s a story our children need to hear: not only the cute parts about the animals and the rainbow, but the part where they are loved by a God who does not want terror to be part of a daily schedule, the part where they are loved by a God who does not want them to become accustomed to the idea that they could be shot on any given day, the part where they are loved by a God who wants a different world for them, and will work in them daily to help them achieve it.
I give thanks today for those who are reaching out to flood Parkland, Florida with love; I give thanks today for teachers who stand bravely in the classroom day by day despite the danger; I give thanks for politicians who are grappling with how best to create safe and responsible policies; I give thanks for clergy and counselors who are sitting with families in their anger and grief; I give thanks for Americans of every stripe who are coming to the table not to snipe at each other but to work out how we can keep these tragedies from becoming part of the American way of life.
And most of all, I give thanks for God, who stretches out a rainbow for us even in the darkest stormclouds, to give us hope that the sun will shine again. God, who is still good and beautiful, and will hold that goodness and beauty out in front of us until we gather up the strength to reach for it ourselves.
God is leading us to a new world. Don’t settle for less.
To God be the glory. Amen.