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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Lent 2/22/2015

The story of Noah’s Ark is one of a relatively small group of Bible stories that it’s probably safe to say that pretty much everyone knows at least a little bit. Anyone who ever attended Sunday School has heard the story and even if someone never went to Sunday School there are plenty of cultural references to it as well as songs and movie and TV adaptations; it’s hard not to at least have a passing familiarity with Noah and the Ark.

It’s good that it’s familiar but what’s bad is the fact that for many people the story of Noah never goes much beyond being a captivating children’s story with him building the ark, all the animals two by two going into the ark, the rain and the flood, the dove coming back with an olive branch, the rainbow. It’s a great story and it’s OK as a children’s story, that’s where we all start, but there is so much more to consider.

The story of Noah’s Ark is an absolutely brilliant piece of theological imagination that conveys important truth about God and about human beings and about God’s relationship with human beings with all of those things being at the center of any religious journey. That’s why these verses show up on the First Sunday in Lent. You might think it’s because of the forty days of rain and the forty days of Lent and the forty days of Jesus wilderness temptation; forty is one of those biblical numbers, but remember that part of what Lent is about is being honest about ourselves, particularly being honest about our shortcomings in the eyes of God and the story of Noah pretty much lays it out there for us.

Going back a couple of chapters from today’s reading, the first line of the Noah story reads like this: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” The Lord must have been reading the newspaper or watching the evening news or trolling around on the internet because isn’t that how it seems, that the inclination of humankind is only evil continually? Can you think of a time when it didn’t seem that way?

We might want to defend ourselves and humankind and say, “Wait a minute, that’s not all there is,” and that’s true, but it isn’t hard to imagine the Lord looking at things and being sorry that he had made humankind; in the creation story at the beginning of Genesis God brought order out of chaos but from then on human creatures have often seemed intent on returning things to chaos. Who can blame the Lord for deciding to blot them from the earth which is what you get in Genesis 6, verses 6 and 7.

No, it’s not hard to imagine God being angry and deciding to start over. It might not even seem that surprising that at the end of the story, part of which we heard today, that God would promise to never again destroy the earth and all its inhabitants in this way. It might not seem surprising if things had changed at that point but that’s just the thing; after all is said and done, at the end of the story humanity hasn’t changed. In verses that come just a little before today’s reading, the Lord looks on Noah and his family and concludes that “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.” That’s the same assessment he made before the flood! Nothing has changed it’s still the same and yet the Lord makes this eternal promise of “never again” and it’s made to every creature, to Noah and his descendents as well as the birds, the domestic animals and all the animals on the earth. The rainbow would serve to remind God of the promise.

This is not just a children’s story; this is a story for all ages and I do read it as a story, not as an historical account. Pretty much every ancient Near Eastern civilization had a flood story of some kind so there might well have been a major flood in that part of the world, an event that was widely remembered. But the author or most likely authors (plural) of this story take that remembered event and use it to tell a remarkable story about their God.

What happens here is that God renews his covenant with his people. The Sunday lessons during Lent this year have a lot to do with covenant so I’ll have more to say about covenants in the coming weeks, but in this case covenant has to do with a promise, a promise from God, a promise that is unconditional, dependent only on God. Some covenants are more like agreements, there are responsibilities and conditions on both parties; if you do this, then I’ll do that. But in this one between God and humanity there is nothing about anything humanity has to do; there’s no if/then; despite the fact that nothing has changed, God alone takes on this obligation.

Think for a moment about what all this says. First of all, the prevailing wisdom of the time said that God was just, you got what you deserved, the good were rewarded, the bad punished, justice prevailed. According to that understanding, God had every right to destroy humanity because the wickedness of humankind was great on earth. What is ultimately revealed here though is not a God bound by you get what you deserve justice, but instead, what’s revealed is a God of grace. That doesn’t come as a shock to us, steeped as we are in a theology of grace, but at the time it made a pretty radical statement and it presented a significant challenge about how they understood God.

The grace that’s described in this story gives us a God who commits to the future of a less than perfect world and for that we can breathe a sigh of relief because less than perfect is the only kind of world we know. Despite the failures of humans, failures past and failures ongoing, God says “Never again.” Even though the inclination of humanity hasn’t changed, the inclination of God has changed! God can and will be grieved by the flaws of humanity and the evil that can result, but the commitment is to continue to live within a flawed world and to work through such flawed creatures.

Note that that doesn’t mean that God is resigned to things as they are. What it means that God has to find a new way to deal with evil and failure, that destruction is no longer an option. That too represents a change in how God is understood because it gives us a God who has placed a limitation on divine freedom and power. Think about that. While God would be capable of again deciding to “blot them from the earth,” “never again” says that that is no longer an option. God has made the promise of “never again” and cannot break that promise and still remain faithful.

“Never again” however shouldn’t be confused with no judgment or no consequences; consequences will occur but they will not be world ending ones. Sin and evil will continue to be part of the mix but because of “never again” God’s resolve is to work from within such a sinful, broken world in order to redeem it. When you look at all the bad stuff that goes on it can be hard to see just how God is working from within, but that’s the promise and that’s the source of our hope, hope that can’t and won’t be blotted out.

In the season of Lent which calls for honesty the story of Noah is very honest in its assessment of our sinful human condition with our hearts inclined toward evil. The gospel lesson on this First Sunday in Lent is always about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and while Mark’s version is pretty spare it’s still a reminder that we don’t do as well as Jesus did in dealing with temptation; it’s another story that calls for honesty about our hearts being inclined toward evil. With honesty though, in the Noah story we encounter a God of steadfast love and faithfulness, a God who resolves to remain faithful to his covenant, faithful to us, sinners though we be.

Lent has just begun and this is a good place to start, reminded of God’s covenant promise of “Never again.” It might not happen for awhile, but next time you see a rainbow, remember Noah and remember the covenant promise; and… remember that God sees the rainbow too.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
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