The story of Noah and his ark includes in it a story of God's repentance and transformation. One kind of transformation comes when we have our eyes opened to see ourselves in a way that allows us to ask, "What have I done?" about the pain we have caused to others or to ourselves. God has that moment after flooding the earth, and offers a covenant of the rainbow. Waters of flooding and death become later waters of baptism and new life. We are no longer punished for our mistakes (not by God, anyway), but instead God reminds us of love and mercy and holds us in tender hands.
Have you had a "What have I done?" moment of transformation? How did it happen, how did it work out?
“Noah and God’s Repentance”
Sermon, Year B, Lent 1, February 22, 2015
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Genesis 9:8-17 andMark 1:9-15
(you may also listen to this sermon)
We started by reading the end of the Noah and the flood story. I’ll be honest, I find Noah’s story to be a terrible story. It’s a story of destruction and death. I don’t understand why it’s become such a cherished children’s story. People write children’s books about, and make artwork and paintings for children’s room, and toys. Now, it is at one level the story of God saving some lives: Noah’s family, some animals. But at the time that God is saving those few lives God is also sending floods to destroy everything else. All the surface of the earth is being destroyed. Destroying everything. God is so angry at humanity’s sin that it all has to be wiped out, except Noah’s family. And when we read that story it’s so easy to get to the part about the flood waters coming and to say the words about the flood covering the earth, without taking a moment to pause and think about what that means. That God sent the waters to flood the earth and destroy everything. We read those words with no more thought than we might recite a grocery list. Where’s the contemplative pause after reading such terrible words?
I will say, that I do not believe that this literally happened. I do not think the Noah is true in a factual, historical sense. It’s out of character for God, for one thing. It also reflects the point of view and the issues of people thousands of years ago when the story was first being told, retold, and passed down. There is also no archaeological evidence for a worldwide catastrophic flood five or six thousand years ago. But there is some evidence of flooding in the Mideast about that time. So this could very well be a story that began with flooding, perhaps numerous floods over a number of years, and the stories get passed down. If you’ve ever played the telephone game, you know that as stories get passed on, they get changed, embellished, mistakes creep in. These stories also come at a time when people were worshiping a god or gods that were believed to be in control of things. So when a flood happens, then they have to think, “Why is this?” Often, then, the logical conclusion that they make is that the gods must be causing it, and they are causing it because they are angry at us for something. We must have done something wrong, and we’re being punished. Unfortunately, that thinking continues into today. When we have natural disasters now, seems like there are always some Christian leaders who come out and say that the hurricane came because of New Orleans’ sin, or that the school shootings happened because punishing us for our sins, and so on.
That’s a kind of thinking that is stuck in a Noah’s ark ancient understanding of God sending disaters to punish us.
But even without belief in the literal truth of Noah’s ark story, we still have it. It is in our text. It is in our scripture that we call holy. And we have to deal with it.
One thing that I see in it, in the verse from today and also the verses before this one, is a point of redemption in this saga. As we talk of transformation this Lent season, transformation of self, church, community, etc., one part is repentance. To repent is simply to turn around, to change direction to a more godly way. It is not to flog ourselves our feel terrible. Just to turn around from sin, and sin just means to miss the mark, to make a mistake. There is in this story a transformation of repentance: on God’s part. God has a moment here. Whether literally true or not, the text has a transformation that God goes through.
At the beginning of the story, God is getting angry at humanity. We are sinful, wicked, evil. God is angry at humanity for all of its sin and wicked ways. God’s anger seethes and seethes, and rage builds up like water behind the Three Gorges Dam until it bursts and floods the world in watery death.
And I bet that felt good! God may have had a moment that it felt really, really good to let all of that anger out. It can feel good to us, yes? Let that anger out! Throw the plate at a spouse, punch the guy who is offending you, flipping of the guy in traffic, insulting a loved one who, because you love them, you know them well and you know that one place to insult them that’s going to hurt them the most. You tear them down and it feels sooooo good in that moment! Let that anger out!
But as good as succumbing to the anger feels in that moment, it is often followed by remorse. Perhaps you have felt that. Been through that process. A moment of remorse. After all the destruction of the flood, God sees the destruction once the punishment is rendered, once it’s too late to not do it... once God really sees the death and destruction that has been wrought, there is a moment at which God has a change. The text does not say that God was ashamed, but I wonder if that was part of it. I can imagine God looking on the world and saying, “What have I done?”
Perhaps you have asked that of yourself at some point. Or multiple points. I’ve asked it.
I had one big moment, and I don’t want to turn this into a personal confession time, but last September I had a moment. During the week of September 11, I had a very tough week. Most of you know that I was in NYC during the attacks, and so the week around the anniversary is always kind of weird. Usually not too bad, but for some reason last year it was not a good week for me at all. Plus, my car broke down that week, and some other things happened not related to the anniversary just piled on the bad feelings.
So I’m feeling bad that week, and I send messages to Yuki, my partner in Japan to let her know how I’m feeling and what is up. And I didn’t hear back from her for days. For days! And finally, late in the evening on September 11 I was at a total low. One should never write letters when one is really angry. Lesson probably not learned. I was in a rage from not hearing from her, and wrote from my suffering a note to her. It wasn’t long, but it was sufficient, and it was mean-spirited, nasty. She called me soon after receiving it, and we talked a bit. But mostly it was just me yelling at her, and then hanging up. And then I turned off my phone and computer so she couldn’t call me back. And it felt so good! I was in that moment of anger, and I was totally justified in what I said, and totally right! Because she was the sinful, miserable, wicked people and I was the perfect God who was being insulted and having indignities heaped upon me. I totally won! I was so triumphant and so proud of myself. I had won!
But of course, if you’ve been there you know, that you don’t win. It’s not a win. When I woke up the next day, I turned my electronics on and I had some emails from her. And by rights of my rage, her emails should have been full of apology and contrition. By rights of my rage, that’s what I deserved! But they weren’t full of that. They were, instead, a sharing of her story – of what had gone on in her week. They were actually quite compassionate. Way more compassionate than I deserved. And I saw that she was not being the unsupportive intentionally hurtful wicked enemy of all that is good. That was me. I was the one being that.
I’ve done things in my past, been a person that I am not proud of. I don’t know that any of us escape those moments of failure. That’s just part of being human. But we have grace. The gift and beauty of grace and love is that they don’t come to us because we are perfect, and they don’t wait until we are perfect, we have them – God gives them to us – because we are faulty human beings who make mistakes. Who do things that we know we shouldn’t, but we do them anyway. That’s the gift of grace and God’s love, that they come to us despite who we are.
And so that night, I don’t know if I’ve ever been a more horrible person than I was that night. That was perhaps my lowest point at being a decent person. And the irony is that it felt so right at the time! I was so convinced, I felt so justified at the time. I don’t know that I have ever been that mean or unreasonable. That morning, after reading the emails from Yuki, I looked upon the destruction I had wrought and I thought, “My God, what have I done?”
I was transformed there, in that moment of repentance, realizing just how much of a jerk I had been.
I think there is also in this Noah’s story, a moment when God repents. When God looks upon the world that had been created out of love, and then destroyed in anger, and God says, “Never again. I will never do this again.” God creates the covenant with Noah, and with the rest of humanity and with ALL living things, not to do that again. That’s a life changing moment. And I wonder if God had a moment in all this, after all this destruction, that God might have thought, “If Noah and his family want nothing to do with me after this, I will understand. They would be totally justified to want nothing to do with me again.”
There is another transformation that we can see between the Genesis passage we read, and the Gospel lesson we read about Jesus’ baptism. Another transformation that takes place in the biblical epic, and it’s about how water is used. Water, essential for life on earth. Water, out of which our ancestors a billion years or so again crawled onto the land for the first time. The way God uses water changes. God uses water to kill all but a few of humanity and billions of animals in collateral damage, to cleanse to the earth of evil. But of course, it didn’t cleanse the earth of evil, because Noah and his family are still human. They still sin. The destructive power had no power to bring the ends that God had hoped. There is no power in violence. Then God makes a new kind of cleansing via water. Not to destroy life, but to grant life, through the waters of baptism. We are flooded not by suffocating power of water, but flooded with grace and love. Cleaned by the water. God says “I’m not going to wipe you out, I am going to clean you of your guilt, your shame.” God, who stood at a distance and send flooding waters to destroy us, now comes to us as Jesus into our brokenness, into our pain. God came as Jesus, was tempted and understands temptation, knows our human lot, came to live our story and hear our story with a tender heart, and with a tender hand, reaching out with cleansing waters on them to touch us and say, “You are my beloved.”
You are my beloved just as you are. No more floods, no more destruction, just this covenant of the rainbow and baptism. A covenant of hope, of life, and the transforming power of love.