Sermons are part of a conversation between the preacher and the congregation.
You can read most of the sermons preached at Faith in the past few years here. This archive is a blog, which is duplicated on Blogger. You may add comments here or in the blog if you wish.
If you would like to see the readings planned for the next few weeks, click here.
Grace from the Get Go
Text: Genesis 9:8-17
Christians, and especially Protestant Christians, and especially Lutheran Protestants, seem to think they have a lock on grace. We seem to think Luther discovered grace, which was conveyed to us only through Jesus Christ. But this is neither true nor generous. Grace is a characteristic of God. Grace is God’s work. Jesus is an embodiment of grace, but Christianity did not invent grace.
The story of Noah is a very long story as Bible stories go, taking up the better part of four chapters. It is about human wickedness and God’s saving power and the re-creation of life, and it reaches its satisfying conclusion in today’s reading from the book of Genesis. With an act of pure Godly grace.
The story starts with God’s observation that people are wicked. Not a surprise to us and perhaps not to God—though I’m not so sure about that—but certainly disappointing. God created the whole world—which was good, God said at the time, very good. But within five chapters there have been murders and general mayhem. “The Lord saw,” it says, “that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil—and all the time.” The world was corrupted—meaning not so much moral unpleasantness, but rather violence and destruction. God created; humans destroyed. God sees this all, and as a consequence proposes Plan B, which is the bulk of the story of Noah—about the flood and the animals and all that—and about which we are not going to talk today. Except to say that the story is less about anger than it is about God’s regret, less about judgment than God’s grief.
Today’s reading describes what happened after all that rain had come and gone, and God and Noah have a little talk. Or rather, God has a little talk and Noah just listens. This is a post-event evaluation. God says to Noah: I’m not sure what your plans are, but as for me, here’s what I’m going to do. And God establishes an agreement—a covenant—with Noah and humans and every living creature.
It is an odd agreement. For like the conversation it is totally one-sided. Only God agrees to do anything. Only God is bound by it. Although humans and the rest of the earth seem to be the beneficiaries, it only describes God’s duties and responsibility. Never, never, never (God says it three times)—never will I do this again. The actor is God—who speaks in the first person ten times in these verses we just heard. There are no conditions. God’s promise is unconditional—the covenant is an example of God’s grace. It requires nothing of humanity. No repentance, no turning over a new leaf, no promise to try better.
The flood does not wash clean the wickedness of people, who in fact are hardly changed at all by the flood, and who get in trouble again almost immediately. Extracted from chaos, humankind seems inclined, against the hopes of God, to return to chaos and nothingness.
God’s desire for good creation is at odds with God’s love for it. Unhappy with human’s tendency to undo what God has done, rather than threaten them with Plan C if they do not shape up, God instead promises not to. Knowing that in fact humans are human and that if you love them, you have to take the inevitable bad with the amazing good. Humans are not going to change, it seems to say. So God will have to—or better, is willing to—live with that. We sometimes act—in spite of our Lutheran theology—as if in order for things to be all right, we have to conform our soft selves into an inflexible mould that is God. But this story seems to say that God is unchanging only in God’s refusing to give up on us, in refusing to hate us.
This may not be all that easy for God, though, which we conclude because God creates a sign in the clouds. Not a sign to remind humans of God’s promise but to remind God of that promise: I have set my bow in the clouds, and when seen, I will remember my covenant. The bow means both the weapon—which God in restraint sets aside, pointing away from earth—and the rainbow, which is how we more often interpret it. Rainbows appear frequently enough that God will remember—perhaps in the face of strong temptations to forget—what God has agreed to. It is a seal on the deal. And conveniently it does remind us that God is being reminded.
At the time this story was recorded, people would certainly have accepted that it was God’s prerogative to flood the earth and to save no one. The world was God’s to make and unmake. But the story tells us that God purposely refuses that right and purposely limits God’s self, in an agreement that lasts forever. In agreeing to those limits, God gives up authority and power. Rather than insisting on the right to make the world perfect, God agrees to live with the grief and disappointment, along with the joy and hope, that is the life of humans in the world.
This is not so strange—it is what happens all the time in relationships of respect, guidance, and love. People purposely relinquish power in favor of the life of another. Parents, spouses, lovers—step back for the sake of those they love. If we are lucky, so do bosses and leaders for those they lead and honor. The willful reluctance to not exercise power, though usually difficult, is a blessing. It is a means of grace that we inherit from being made in God’s image. And which we might exercise more often.
God’s wish for a perfect and peaceful world logically clashes with God’s compassion for people, even corrupt and destructive ones. God’s graceful choice is compassion over perfection, for which we should be grateful. And which we should and have the power to emulate.
But nonetheless, there is a gap, a tension in such a choice. Lent is a good time to contemplate that. Just because God lets us off the hook does not mean that God thinks everything is great. We know that it is not. The violence that saddened God continues to sadden us.
The covenant made with Noah and us all is a sign of grace. In it, God reveals a nature that loves even in the face of imperfection, and more: even in the face of stupidity and wickedness. But that love does not require or even excuse stupidity and wickedness. As the Apostle Paul later pointed out, just because we are allowed to do something does not mean that we should, or that it is good. Nor do we have to slip into violence just because we are inclined to.
Lent is an especially good time to ask ourselves this: what are we to do on our unnecessary, unpromised, but nonetheless compelling side of the covenant? What are we creatures, who are made in the image of a graceful God, called to do?