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.
Text: Genesis 9:8-17
As I said before the service, there is going to be a quiz about the first reading, the one about Noah. So, here are the questions.
Question 1. This passage describes a promise. What is the promise?
Question 2: In this passage God says “I have set my rainbow in the clouds.” What is the purpose of the rainbow?
Question 3: To whom is the promise made?
There is a fourth question, but that one will come up in a few minutes.
For the “religions of the book”—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—the relationship between God and people is based on a deal. The formal word for this deal is “covenant,” which means “agreement.” When the Bible was translated into Latin, the word used became “testament.” Testament unfortunately also means statement, as in someone’s last will and testament. But what they were getting at was not God’s will but the deal that God and people made.
The fact that we relate to God through an agreement is remarkable. Our relationship is more than just creator and creature. More than “I’m God and you’re not.” It is as if we have a contract with God. A contract implies equal respect, even in the face of unequal power or even unequal benefit. It also implies that God and we have a common purpose, a common endeavor that we agree to work on together. We are partners with God through mutual agreement. The endeavor we have agreed to work on is the good of the world, the nourishment and maintenance of all creation, and way of being or you could say a way of living that lets us walk humbly together, humans and God. We walk as two lovers walk, side by side and in harmony, step matching step. At least, that’s what we hope for in the deal.
God made three main covenants with Israel. Each is known by the name of a person, a leader. The first is the one we read about today. The covenant of Noah. The second is of Abraham, to make a great and prosperous nation. The third is of Moses, the covenant at Mount Sinai where the commandments and the other laws were given. For Christians, there is a fourth covenant, the new covenant as we say in Holy Communion or new testament as we call Christian scripture, the covenant of Jesus and God’s promise of graceful forgiveness. None of these covenants supersedes the previous ones. They are all part of and add to the relationship that God and people share.
The story of Noah and the ark is one of the first stories in the Bible. It comes immediately after the exile of Adam and Eve from the garden and the slaying of their son Abel by his older brother Cain. There is a sort of “time passes” chapter that lists the generations from Adam to Noah, Then the story of Noah begins.
You might remember the story of Noah’s Ark as a sweet tale of animals coming two by two into a great ship that Noah built. But they go into that ship because God is about to flood the whole earth and destroy almost all life on land.
It is a difficult time in the life of God and people. God has had a kind of buyer’s remorse. It turns out that the first people were wicked, and God, the Bible says, regrets the decision to create humans. So it rains for a long time, the earth floods, and the only creatures and humans that survive are the ones on the ark.
Out of this story comes the first covenant between God and humanity. Out of this story of destruction, willfulness, obedience, and salvation, comes the first deal. The terms of the deal are clear.
It is specific. Never again will all creatures be cut off by the waters of a flood and never again will there be a flood that destroys all of life. God promises no more flooding here. This is not about general affection or about preserving life in general. What just happened? says God: it won’t happen again.
It is timeless. This is an everlasting covenant, says God. It is permanent. For me and you, for all generations, says God. The waters will never again become such a flood.
It is inclusive. This deal has collateral beneficiaries. It covers all animals as well as people. Every living creature of all flesh, God says. Every animal of the earth. The agreement is with people, but the whole earth is blessed.
And finally, it is one-sided. I’ve been calling this a deal, or an agreement. But it is more like a promise that God makes and that we attend to. As for me, says God, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendant. This is God’s work. And God takes on the task of maintaining and keeping the promise. God puts a rainbow in the sky. The rainbow is a reminder. But it is not a reminder to us. It is a reminder to God. When the rainbow is seen in the clouds, God says, I will remember this deal. The remembering is not ours but God’s.
Here is the fourth question of the quiz: In this agreement between God and the world, God agrees not to flood the earth again. In this agreement, what do we people agree to do?
Right: Nothing. This is a unilateral unconditional promise given to the world through the God’s arbitrary love, which we call grace.
This is perhaps a particularly Lutheran understanding of the story of Noah. Where others might pay more attention to the wrath of God which drowned the world in the first place, Lutherans tend to see the love of God which saved it. When others might see the wickedness which brought the flood down on them as they deserved, Lutherans tend to see the nothing that people did to deserve God’s everlasting promise of life.
This is a pretty counter-cultural notion. There must be something we can do to annoy God, you might think. I’m sure there is. I’m sure we annoy, anger, and sadden God all the time. But there is nothing we can do that will make God renege on promises made. Nothing we can do that will make God abandon us. God wishes blessings for us, God’s people and God’s children.
We are now in Lent. This season is traditionally a time of reflection and repentance. But that does not mean it is a time for us to beat up on ourselves. We do enough of that without having to create a special season for it. We do not need special coaching to see ourselves as coming up short from time to time.
Lent is a time for reflection but it is not a time to blame ourselves or others. It is not a time to find, lay, or take blame. It is a time to look at what we have been and done. But not to look with hateful or guilt-filled eyes. And though it is a time for repentance, it is not a time for shame. It is a time to consider the direction in which we are going and to consider how we might go from now on. Lent is a time of grace, not a time of wrath.
It is a time for forgiveness, forgiving others and ourselves. For sins we have done and sins that others have done against us. But we do not need to pay penance. We are given forgiveness freely. It is not necessary for us to pay for that gift. We do not need to demand penance, either. It is not our place to demand that others pay us.
It is fitting that the story of Noah appears at the beginning of humanity’s relationship with God and at the beginning of this season. It is a story of God’s intense desire to extract good from the bad. And of God’s ongoing practice of renewal and rebirth. It is a story of blessing. In this season of Lent, look back with forgiveness, look forward with confident anticipation, and be thankful.