“Noah’s Ark Revisited” by Grant Glowiak
This sermon was given as part of our “Sunday School Revisited” series taking place during the Summer of 2017.
This morning’s reading is from the beginning of the story of Noah’s ark. The story itself is much too long to read this morning aloud in its entirety, so we’ll just hear why God made the decision to do this and what God initially says to Noah before bringing the rains. The selection from Genesis chapter 6 reads:
Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12 And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. 13 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. 14 Make yourself an ark of cypress wood… For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. 18 But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. 19 And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female… Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.
This ends this morning’s reading from the book of Genesis.
When I realized I was preaching on Noah’s Ark I was so excited. This is an incredibly well known story. If you’ve only been to Sunday School like 5 times chances are you’ve heard it. It is a favorite among children and I thought what fun it’ll be to preach on this. Then I went back and re-read it and it opens with what we just heard from Andy. Maybe it was underplayed or softened up a bit when I was little, but to hear that the earth was corrupt and filled with violence and that God’s solution was “to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life” and then declare “everything that is on the earth shall die” well to hear that as an adult is a little unsettling.
Now, there are plenty of arguments on both sides on whether this actually, factually occurred. There are plenty of articles you can read on this and debates on YouTube to watch and such, so I’m not going to address the finer points of scientific research here. That’s not what I do, in fact I am completely and totally unqualified to do that. What I am qualified to do is read these stories, figure what I think they mean and then share that with all of you.
So what does this story, say? At the beginning, God is upset, okay maybe upset is a major understatement, God has pretty much had it with humanity and so God’s solution to the problem is pick one guy who he likes, Noah, and luckily God is kind enough to include Noah’s wife as well as Noah’s sons and their wives, to restart humanity. Now there are certainly some folks at this point who get a little nervous when discussing God, or God’s character-particularly in some of the Old Testament stories. If you ask me, God’s character has a lot more personality in these stories, almost more anthropomorphic, or human-like. For example when God makes the first human, Adam is lonely. Which apparently God didn’t see coming. So what is God’s solution? *snap* Got it. Create animals. Did that work? Nope, turns out, Adam is still lonely. So, then God creates Eve. Then Adam and Eve take advantage of their free will and do that one thing they’re not supposed to do. Then Cain kills Abel and a few generations later humans are still doing whatever they want, corruption, violence so on, so God’s new plan is to just start all over with the most promising human. To me, this kinda looks like God is making it up as he goes. Flying by the seat of his pants. “Well, that didn’t work so maybe this will.” That’s how I hear God and angels speaking in my head, some of you may remember that.
So after all the pairs of animals and the people are in the ark, God brings rain for 40 days and 40 nights to flood and destroy every living thing on the earth. At this point, if you’re having some difficulty suspending your disbelief, I am sorry because there are a few major plot holes coming. First, God made it rain for 40 days and it flooded the entire earth. When I mentioned this to my sister’s fiancé, who grew up in Europe in a secular home and had never heard this story, he claimed that it rains more than that in Scotland and, in fact, Scotland is not under water. So, of course, I fact checked him on that. Turns out in 1923 it rained for 89 consecutive days and just last year it rained for 82 consecutive days in one part of Scotland. Now, obviously, God could make it rain as hard as God wants to so that doesn’t necessarily rule it out but I thought that was an interesting observation. Second, how is God dealing with all the animals that live in the water. I’ve known this story for my entire life and that thought never occurred to me until my other sister asked me that very question. If all the land animals are getting punished, why do the fish get off easy? Are all the fish better behaved than the birds and mammals and reptiles? That seems highly unlikely. You’ve seen shark week, there’s no way that sharks are less violent than chipmunks, or bunnies, or any other of the furry woodland creatures. And then we have this business of salt water fish and fresh water fish now blending together. But maybe the water is mixed up now so it’s unlivable for the majority of marine life? But we are still left with the lack of pairs of different kinds of fish. Again, I’m not a scientist so I don’t know but it’s something to think about.
Anyway, the flood subsides and so Noah sends out a dove to check if the water has gone down enough to get out of the ark. And the first time the dove comes back, so there’s no land yet. At this point I feel pretty sorry for Noah. With all those animals in there it can’t possibly smell good. Don’t get me wrong I love animals and I love my family but if you stuck me in a boat for months with all the animals of the world and my extended family I’m not sure how well my patience would fare when that dove came back. So Noah waits another seven days and releases the dove. This time the dove returns with a freshly plucked olive leaf. We have to assume here that the olive leaf, or branch, is symbolic because it takes longer than a week to grow an olive tree, then again with god all things are possible. Either way, Noah then waits another week and the dove doesn’t return which means it found a place to nest and so then he knows it’s safe to open the ark.
So up until now the story has been pretty rough. We’ve got God destroying all the animals and all the people of the world in a brutal flood. However, Morgan Freeman, or God in the clip, might have something to say about this. He says in the clip “You know a lot of people miss the point of that story. They think it’s about God’s wrath and anger. They love it when God gets angry.”
And he’s right. The story doesn’t end with an angry God. But it also doesn’t end with a naïvely loving God either. God says in chapter 8 verse 21 “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done” God feels remorse. God promises to never do that again. Interestingly, though, God also makes an either pessimistic or perhaps realistic assessment of human nature. “The inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.” Ouch, tell us how you really feel God. However, I can’t really disagree. I certainly wouldn’t say my heart or your heart is inclined towards evil, but speaking for myself, I wouldn’t say I’m good all the time either. If this whole flood thing were to happen again I wouldn’t bet on me being the new Noah.
And yet, God still promises not to destroy everything ever again. We get some better promises from God later in the Bible but this is certainly a start. This is one in a string of covenants made by God. A covenant is like a promise, or a contract, but has some major differences. I encourage you to read about covenants because they are fascinating, at least to me, in how they functioned in the ancient world. Even the Wikipedia page is a good start.
Regardless, God realizes that the use of force is not actually an effective way to get people, us, to do what God wants us to do. God knows even before Noah sets up shop that Noah isn’t perfect, and we see that in the story that follows this one. God knows that humans in general are not going to be perfect, and the threat and ultimate use of violence will not change that.
Now all the previous parts of this story can be hard to swallow for us modern Christians, but this I think is something we can take home. Wiping out resistance, using tactics of intimidation and violence, forcing others to do things is simply ineffective. If not even God can do it well, how can we possibly think we can do it well.
As the video clip says, the story isn’t actually about God’s wrath but where I depart from the film is that I think the story is about the rainbow at the end. The covenant, the promise that god will never do something like that again, is manifested by the creation of the rainbow. It says in Chapter 9 verse 12-15 “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 (a rainbow) 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.”
The rainbow in the sky is a reminder to God that God loves us. Now, for those of you paying close attention, you might have noticed God potentially changed the terms of the deal. Before God agreed not to destroy all of us period but now god is saying specifically that the waters will not destroy us again. Personally, I’m choosing to accept the initial terms of the deal.
What is also a little disconcerting is that God needs the rainbow as a reminder, a post it note of sorts, not to destroy us all. However, I’m choosing to interpret that as a reminder for both God and me that God has no intention of ill will towards me specifically but also all to humanity and the earth as well. And, after all this messy flood business I’ll take what I can get.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this Sunday is Pride Sunday. And what a fitting story for such a joyous occasion. Today is the 48th annual pride parade in Chicago, commemorating the rebellion of LGBTQ patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village. The rainbow flag, the most popular expression of pride and solidarity, is being flown all over the city in celebration of the affirmation of all people regardless of sexual or gender identity. And although the rainbow flag wasn’t chosen because of the Noah story, I think it fits rather well. For so many LGBTQ folks it can certainly feel like the floods are coming or are already here. And what a beautiful symbol of hope. For Noah and his family, the rainbow symbolized the end of the flood, the fear and persecution is over when they see it. God tried to make humans act differently by using force the same way so many LGBTQ people have been forced to be something other than their beautiful authentic selves. And God realized the mistake, and promised to never do it again. As Morgan Freeman said in the clip earlier, this story is about opportunity but I see a different opportunity. Today, the rainbow symbolizes a different kind of overcoming. It isn’t God’s wrath we need to overcome but the wrath of a culture that still does not affirm all people as created lovingly in the image of God. Overcoming the discomfort some may feel in the face of something new or different. Overcoming a lack of empathy and a lack of love of neighbor. The rainbow has been a sign of hope for thousands of years, and as countless rainbows fly over Chicago today we have plenty to celebrate, and we absolutely should celebrate, but we also have plenty more to do.
This story is not about God’s wrath or anger any more than it is about our own wrath and anger. And yet, the story doesn’t end with either of those. The story ends with the reassurance that God does not forget about Noah, God does not forget about humanity. God doesn’t forget about me or you. God’s memory, and God’s love for all of us, is as sure as the arrival of another rainbow. And for that, we can thank God. Amen.
May the God of peace and love
comfort you when you hurt
Sustain you while you rest
And send you forth into the world
Doing works of justice and mercy
Knowing you are a beloved child of God
Just the way you are. Amen.