God's Job Description: Rescuer

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Lent 1
February 18, 2024
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: The famous story of a great flood and Noah's ark reveals a God who is so determined to rescue humanity from itself and from evil that nothing is too radical to consider, including a changing of the divine mind. This same redemptive God later smashes precedent and expectations again at Easter -- and today wants to rescue us, too.

What are we to make of the Genesis story of the great flood and then of the post-flood story of Noah and of God's decision to establish a covenant with him and his descendants?

We will explore that very question today, but we aren't going to spend our time thinking about whether this is a story of what actually, historically, probably happened on Earth thousands and thousands of years ago before there was a YouTube channel or any cable news networks on which to watch endless replays of it.

Even if some kind of global flood really occurred and even if only one man and his family were saved from it and even if that man managed to rescue pairs of all the world's animals by loading them onto his hand-built big boat and sailing around with them for months and months and even if Noah really was 601 years old at the time, as Genesis insists -- none of that is the point of this story.

If you want to have a discussion or argument or philosophical debate about all those matters, you are welcome to do so. Really. Have at it. But we won't be doing that in today's sermon.

Instead, let's try to discover in the text we just read what this story might mean for us today. And let's do that because the story is in the Bible and because the Bible is authoritative in our lives as Christ-followers. As we do that, it's important for all of us to remember that the Bible doesn't readily interpret itself. Rather, it's our job to figure out what the stories in scripture mean for us today.

Putting the flood story in perspective

So let's back up just a bit from the Genesis passage we read today and note that as chapter 9 begins, the flood has just ended. And right at the start of the chapter we read that God blesses Noah and his family. What can it mean that God does that? If you consider the context, I think you'll agree that God's action is astonishing.

Remember, after all, that earlier in Genesis, God had become so frustrated with humanity because, as verses 5 and 6 of chapter 6 tell us, "The Lord saw that the wickedness of humans was great in the earth and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humans on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart." That, at least, is the way the updated edition of the New Revised Standard Version puts it. The Common English Bible translation, by contrast, says that God saw that "humanity had become thoroughly evil on the earth and that every idea their minds thought up was always completely evil." The Ronald Knox translation, which is one of several Catholic editions, says that God was "smitten with grief to the depths of his heart."

What a sad, catastrophic turn of events. Remember that earlier in Genesis God called the created world "good" and then declared that the world with the first humans in it was "very good."

But now the warranty on humanity clearly had expired. God's disappointment about all this once inspired someone to joke (well, I think it was a joke) that the world was God's science fair project -- on which God got a D.

And yet here is this disappointed, frustrated, aggrieved God now blessing Noah and his family and, in effect, telling the whole world that it's time for a second chance. The Bible doesn't report anything about Noah asking for all that. God just did it out of grace.

"Never again," God promises

God's actions and words demonstrate that God is forgiving humanity. And not just that but also promising, through a covenant with Noah's family and their descendants -- as far as the family tree can see -- to be their loving lord and never again try to destroy humanity with a flood.

Where have we seen that kind of radical divine forgiveness and renewal before? Well, in the Bible, we haven't seen it before this chapter. Rather, this is something new, something completely unexpected. This is a surprising God whose mind can change, a God of new beginnings, a God of unexpected possibilities. And even though we haven't seen this before in the Bible, we will see it again.

We will see it on Easter Day.

A year or two ago, an Orthodox (capital O) Christian scholar, Bible translator and author named David Bentley Hart wrote a book called Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief.

His main point was that our creedal statements of faith -- from the Apostles' and Nicene creeds on to more modern confessions -- tend to look back to history instead of forward to what the eternal God in Christ promised us, which was the reign or kingdom of God. But instead of the kingdom, as Hart notes wryly, we got the church. But Hart's point is that the kingdom is coming, and we should never lose sight of that reality.

One way to remember what's still ahead of us is to think about what Easter and the Christ event were all about. And in quite a memorable way, Hart describes that this way:

... Christianity entered human history not as a new creed or [wisdom] path or system of religious observances, but as apocalypse: the sudden unveiling of a mystery hidden in God before the foundation of the world in a historical event without any possible precedent or any conceivable sequel; an overturning of all the orders and hierarchies of the age, here on earth and in the ... heavens above; an overthrow of all the angelic and daemonic powers and principalities by a [man] legally crucified at the behest of all the religious and political authorities of his time, but raised up by God as the one sole Lord over all the cosmos ....

Hart goes on to say that all of that resulted in "the proclamation of an imminent arrival of the Kingdom and a new age of creation" as well as an urgent call for everyone to dwell nowhere but "in the singularity of the event -- for the days are short."1

Well, 2,000 years later it may not seem as if the days are short, but that's because we look at things from the perspective of an average life expectancy of not quite 80 years in a universe more than 13-billion years old.

We still wait for the fullness of God's reign

In the world of subatomic physics, the word "singularity" refers to a place in the universe where the laws of classical physics simply break down. A singularity is a condition in which gravity is predicted to be so intense that what physicists call spacetime (all one word) itself would break down catastrophically.

Hart says a singularity happened on that first Easter morning. And before that, humanity had at least a small foretaste of what a singularity might feel like right after the flood, when God blessed Noah and told him and his family to get on with life. Like Christ's resurrection, God's response to Noah was unexpected and unparalleled.

In both cases, God is quite literally recreating the world -- the first one in Noah's time was meant for the redemption of human life on Earth and the second one in Christ's time was meant for the redemption of the whole creation forever and ever with the promise that the reign of God eventually will arrive in full bloom.

What does this say about God? It says he is a God of rescue. And it says this clearly. As Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson notes, when the people of Israel are asked who God is, their answer is: "Whoever rescued us from Egypt." In the same way, he writes, the New Testament answer to that question about God's identity is this: "Whoever raised Jesus from the dead."2

That's what this Genesis start-over story is telling us. God is our redeemer, our rescuer, the one who, in the end, does not want to let us go. And to achieve that, God may just change his own mind.

What does this mean for how we are to live? It means that at least these two things are true: First, we can live confidently, knowing that our rescuing God will not abandon us ever. And, second, we can live as people who also forgive, who also rescue, who also can show others how to live, being confident that one day, as Julian of Norwich put it, "All will be well, and all manner of things will be well."

It would be unfair for us to expect that Noah and his family -- traumatized by the flood and the loss of the rest of humanity -- could quickly understand all this and rejoice. In fact, Genesis ascribes no immediate words of thanks or even astonishment to Noah. Rather, it says he made a new start, planted a vineyard, drank some of the wine and got drunk.

About the best he can do at this point in the story is to utter these words when he sobers up: "Bless the Lord."

Well, it's a start. But then he creates more family trouble and the world is off on its second stumbling start, except this time with the promise that God isn't going to drown humanity again.

Noah, for sure, is an imperfect model for us. But it turns out we don't need Noah to be a flawless model. Instead, we have the God who rescued the people of Israel from Egypt and who rescued Jesus from the grave.

And, friends, that God, whom we come to know most fully in Jesus Christ, is worthy of our worship, our trust and our love. May it be so.