“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.” (Genesis 9:11-12)
There’s a town in the hills of Kentucky, just off Interstate 75, between Cincinnati and Lexington known as Williamstown. It’s a depressed area that never really rebounded after the recession of 2008, but things are changing for them now. A religious organization called “Answers in Genesis” came to Williamstown with plans to build a Noah’s ark theme park.
The first phase of the park is now complete and includes an ark built to biblical proportions... that is to say – it’s the same dimensions that God told Noah to build it in the book of Genesis. So, the Williamstown ark that is 300 cubits long (about the size of 1½ football fields), 50 cubits wide and 30 cubits high.
“Answers in Genesis” built the ark because they wanted a focal point – a pulpit from which to promote their literalist theology. You see, they believe that every word of the bible is literally true. So, reading Genesis as literal history, they claim that the earth was created no more than 6,000 years ago. (To stress that point, they even included a model of a dinosaur on the ark), So school children go to this theme park and learn that Noah built an ark and collected animals of every kind over the face of the earth and together they survived the flood to repopulate the world.
Bill Nye (the science guy) accepted an invitation to visit the theme park and he called their interpretation of creation and the Noah story “disturbing.” He’s not alone. In fact, I suspect even the woodworkers who built this ark must also be skeptical of the literalist interpretation. After all, it cost over 100 million dollars and three long years for them to build the ark in Williamstown using an army of workers and the very best of modern-day equipment and tools, and what they built is an ark that doesn’t float! It would have cost many millions more to make this replica sea-worthy.
The problem is that “Answers in Genesis” is approaching scriptures with a pre-conceived notion that everything written there must be taken literally. As a result, they do not have ears to hear the truth that the author of Genesis wishes to convey. And the mainline denominations haven’t been especially true to the text either. They have deemed this a story best suited for children. So, we’ve all learned the story of Noah from a children’s bible storybook. But, to tell this story to children you must downplay the death and destruction that God brings about to creation. There are a lot of people who die in this story and a lot of animals never make it onto the ark. So, the storybook authors tend to gloss over the reason for the destruction and focus on the heroic salvation story of Noah’s family and the animals. They too tend to lose sight of the truth proclaimed in this biblical story.
So, what is the truth of this story then? If we let the writer’s words speak for themselves, what are we told about humanity and about God? The truth about humanity is summed up in Genesis chapter 6: “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.” (Gen. 6:5) So, God called creation out of chaos but ever since then, humanity has been hell-bent on returning to chaos. That truth hardly seems surprising after a week like last week does it? One need only open a newspaper or turn on the evening news to come to that conclusion – violence, division, corruption, greed, and environmental degradation are rampant in our society. Seventeen students were killed in a school shooting in Florida this past week and that beats the old record of 14 at Columbine a few years earlier. And what hasn’t made the news is that this is the 29th mass shooting in America in 2018. It does seem that humanity is hell-bent on returning to chaos.
If we allow ourselves to steep in the darkness of this truth for very long, it’s not surprising to learn that God wanted to start over. This was not God’s plan for creation, so if mankind wants to revert to chaos then let them! So, God causes a flood to cover the earth. Actually, God doesn’t cause the flood, God simply adopts a hands-off policy and allows creation to revert to the chaos of Genesis 1:1. You see, without God’s life-giving presence in the world, creation quickly returns to its default state of chaos once more. So, the waters of chaos begin to rise from below and pour down from above... and pretty soon the only sign of life anywhere is on the ark that Noah built.
Now the Answers in Genesis group would argue that the ark was a real boat that sheltered Noah’s family and all the animals and carried them safely through the flood to a new beginning. But isn’t an ark a place where the faithful are sheltered and protected from the chaos of life – a place where life is sustained and carried to a promised new beginning? I have heard it said that many churches and cathedrals in Europe and beyond have been constructed so that if you look up you see the inside ceiling of an ark. The church itself is an ark that shelters us from the chaos outside and carries us to a new beginning in life.
So, the truth about humanity is not surprising but what is surprising is what God does in today’s passage in Genesis 9. Now that the flood has resided, God realizes that retribution has not resolved the issue. Punishment has not changed the human heart... we are still hard hearted and prone to resist God and God’s ways. People have not changed. If God wants to have a relationship with us, then God must choose instead to do the changing. So, God repents, turning from vindication to forgiveness, patience and steadfast love!
A Promise is made – a covenant with all of humanity. This is the first of many covenants God will make with us, and this is a big one! God promises never again to destroy the world with a flood. Even though God is entitled as Creator and justified as righteous judge to wipe us out and start over when we prove too disappointing, instead, our God chooses to refrain from punishment and destruction and show grace. And this is a shocking revelation because no other gods in ancient civilization ever surrendered their divine power over mortal beings like this. Only (Yahweh) God is self-limiting in this way. And in making this covenant God was choosing to bind Godself to us intimately. No longer would God simply be a distant Creator but now is also our intimate protector and caregiver. And this is risky because it sets God up for certain disappointment and heartache when we fall short of God’s expectations. And if last week is any indications, it’s clear that the covenant most certainly means that God’s heart will break because of the chaos and calamity that we humans are capable of.
Nevertheless, God makes and keeps the covenant with us out of desire for relationship with us. And as a personal reminder, God places a rainbow in the sky. The rainbow is visible not just to God but also to us; it reminds us that our God is “One who Remembers” even amid chaos and darkness. God is there. So even when life gets crazy, erratic, dark or non-sensical, we know that our loving God is present with us with a forgiving heart and steadfast love.
In my last congregation, we held Sunday school down in the basement of the church. The hallways that led to those classrooms were dark and dreary, so I came up with an idea to brighten them up a little. We raised funds to a 3-dementional Noah’s ark mural on the walls complete with all the animals marching two by two into the ark. First, we painted the walls, then we erected the animals and finally the ark itself. As you traveled down the stairs and through the hallway, there were two animals of each kind on the walls headed toward the ark, and the ark itself was built around the doors leading into their Sunday School room with the rainbow bending over it all. It was a visual reminder to the children who went there each week for Sunday school that they were children of the covenant too. God was watching over them on this ark sailing through the chaotic waters of life. God not only remembered them but was with them along the way.
God goes with us through the chaotic waters and brings us to a new beginning. In Mark’s gospel today, Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan and immediately he is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. For 40 days Jesus is in the wilderness, tempted by Satan and with the wild beasts. So, Jesus is the manifestation of God’s covenant with us... he risks his own wellbeing to enter the chaotic wilderness – and 40 days later he exits victorious over the wilderness and the evil One and he begins his ministry, proclaiming the kingdom of God has come near.
Why is God willing to sacrifice so much for us? Because despite our sin and shortcomings, God in Jesus Christ considers us worthwhile. This world is not just some random science experiment that God might dismantle if he gets bored or angry with it. This is God’s treasured creation and we humans are most precious, blessed creation of all. So, God shows patience, and forgiveness, offers love and encouragement.
The hope is that we will do the same... that we will begin to see creation as something to be respected and to see each other as something to be treasured... because we are all unique and beloved children of God... created by God and bought with Christ’s own blood.
It is a long walk from our usual preoccupation with self to a deep respect for others as treasured children of God. The good news is that its early in Lent and we’ve got time to get there. So, let’s make the journey from the wilderness of Galilee all the way to the cross at Golgotha. It’s a journey worth taking and today is a good day for a walk. Any takers? (We can go two by two!)