We have had a couple of beautiful days now, but over the past week and half, it rained nearly every day. There were flash floods, water standing in fields, and plenty of wet basements. Bob Parrish described it perfectly, I thought. He said, “I don’t mow the lawn because the grass is high, I mow because it’s not raining.”
Earlier this week, as I thought about our scripture and looked out the window at the rain coming down, I had to laugh because it was so timely. This morning we look at a very familiar story of Noah and the Ark.
Now before we get too far this morning, I need to say something about the nature of Genesis. The first eleven chapters of Genesis, that portion of the book that comes prior to the story of Abraham, have a unique quality about them. They are not so much historical accounts as they are stories told down through the years, stories that convey deep truths, stories that address the deep questions that people had – and still have.
“How did the world come to be?” The story of creation tells us that God created the world and all that is in it. Why are there sin and evil and violence in the world? The story of Adam and Eve in the garden tells us that humans choose to disobey God. We have free choice and we can often make choices that have adverse consequences.
Why are there so many different languages? Why do people have trouble understanding each other? The story of the Tower of Babel gets at that question.
And so, we have to wonder, what question is the story of Noah and the ark trying to answer? What is this all about?
We often think of the story of Noah and the ark and the flood and the rainbow as a children’s story. And with all of the animals on the ark, it is certainly a story that spurs our imagination and one that children really like. When Zoe was little, a friend of ours made a beautiful little vest with pictures of Noah and all the animals getting on the ark. A lot of church nurseries have scenes of the ark and all the animals. It’s cute and it’s fun.
But when you look at it closely, it is not a kid’s story at all. It is a terrifying story. Noah’s family and all of those animals on the ark - monkeys and zebras and lions and giraffes – that’s fun. Countless people facing the rising flood waters, animals panicking and drowning as the waters rise – not so much.
The scripture says that God saw that all the earth was corrupt and filled with violence. Noah alone was righteous. So God had Noah build a great ark, and Noah and his family and every kind of animal boarded the ark. The rains came and it rained 40 days and 40 nights. Save for those on the ark, all living creatures were wiped out. Months later, the ark came to rest on Mt. Ararat. The waters subsided over time and eventually a dove returned to the ark with an olive leaf.
It is really a terrible story. What question is the story of Noah and the ark trying to answer? At first glance, we might read today’s scripture and think that it explains the question of where rainbows come from. But the question is deeper than that. Maybe the question is, given all of the problems in the world, all the evil, why doesn’t God just wipe it all out and start over?
You know, there is something very appealing about making a fresh start. You start out putting an idea to paper, but it just isn’t going anywhere, so you wad it up and toss it in the trash can and start with a nice clean sheet. Golfers can’t resist taking a mulligan every now and again. Or for some of us, again and again. And do you remember Etch-A-Sketch? A child using the etch-a-sketch can just shake it and start over with a blank screen.
There are all kinds of fresh starts, getting rid of the old and starting over with the new. What about God? Does God ever get so aggravated with humanity – with the sin, the selfishness, the corruption, the hatred, the violence, that God just wants to shake the world like an Etch-A-Sketch and start all over?
God came close with the flood, but the story ends with a word of hope. It ends with a promise. The world might seem to be going to hell in a handbasket, but God is still there, and God’s purpose is redemption, not destruction. God makes a covenant with Noah. The rainbow is a sign from God, a promise that the world will never again be destroyed in a flood. It is not just a sign from God, it is a reminder to God – the rainbow is to remind God to have mercy on us.
Many ancient civilizations had stories about a great flood. Archaeologists and anthropologists have made some interesting findings related to a widespread flood. But the Biblical account is not simply a rehash of what we might find in early Babylonian literature, for example. What is different is the meaning attached to the flood and what it tells us about the nature of God. And what it tells us is that God is not in the business of destruction, but God is in the business of redemption. The rainbow is a sign of God’s grace and love, and a reminder that even through the storms, God is there.
The storms can come in many ways. We can face our own personal storms. Storms of grief, storms of desperation, storms of anxiety, storms of illness, storms of fear. All of this and more can come at any time. The rainbow is a promise that in the midst of these storms, God is with us and God is for us.
It is interesting that the covenant is with all of creation, not just humans. God will not destroy creation, but what about us? Polluted waters, polluted air, depleted ozone, what to do with nuclear waste, depletion of scarce resources – and of course looming large, global warming. We have not taken care of this earth as God intends. God will not destroy creation, but we seem to be giving it a good shot.
Then you’ve got terrorism, war, and cycles of violence and retribution, racism, bigotry. We give minimal attention to a host of social problems social problems while billions and billions on weapons of destruction. God has promised not to destroy humanity, but we seem to be working on it.
If God cares for all of creation, and if God seeks the redemption of the world, not its destruction, then maybe we ought to think about getting on God’s side.
Living under the sign of the rainbow means living by God’s grace. It means knowing that God is for us, not against us, and that even in the midst of the storms of life, God is there and God is for us. God’s purpose is not to bring destruction but to seek our welfare.
Well, like I said, it really is a tough story. The really hard part of this story is the very beginning, and I want to go back to that for a moment. It says that God saw that everything and everybody was evil and wanted to destroy it all. I have a hard time fitting that idea of God with what I read throughout the scriptures. I have a hard time fitting that with the God I know.
Well, two thoughts. First, we don’t get this in English, but the word for corrupt – when it says that all the earth and all flesh is corrupt – is the same word used when God says I will destroy them. The word for corrupt and destroy is the same word. Humanity is corrupt, so I will “corrupt” them. It doesn’t work in English, but in a sense it is saying that human beings brought this on themselves. They reaped what they had sown. That can help – somewhat.
But maybe it is even more helpful to go back to that very first question: what is this story trying to tell us? What is the bigger point? I think it is saying that within the heart of God, there is a struggle. There is a conflict. A conflict between God’s justice and God’s mercy. Human beings are capable of doing awful things. They can and they will do terrible evil to each other. We know this, we have seen this. And God is a God of justice. The evil that humans do is deeply offensive to God. It can make God just want to start over.
But as strong as God’s justice is, God’s mercy is even greater. God’s compassion and forgiveness and God’s desire to give a second chance to us is even greater. God’s love wins out.
A number of years ago there was a PBS program about the book of Genesis hosted by Bill Moyers. One of the participants in that conversation was a newspaper editor. Bill Moyers asked him what would be the headline for an article that would tell the Noah story, and he responded with something like “GOD DESTROYS WORLD.” But quickly, another panelist, Samuel Proctor, the retired pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City (and an American Baptist) offered an alternative. He said the headline would be: “GOD GIVES HUMANS SECOND CHANCE!”
Daniel Migliore is a retired professor at Princeton Seminary. He and his wife Margaret have done a lot of work with inner-city kids in Trenton, New Jersey. One day in re-telling the Noah story to some children, Dr. Migliore asked the children a question: “Now then, boys and girls, where do you see rainbows?” “In the street!” several replied. Migliore thought they misunderstood the question, but on further investigation, he discovered the truth. These kids lived in high-rise tenements were rarely in open spaces. About the only place they saw rainbows was in street puddles that had become slicked with oil from a car with a leaky engine.
There’s something sad about that, but there’s something hopeful as well. In the midst of daily life, in the midst of the difficulties and hardships of life, there is grace. These children need a rainbow in the greasy puddles of their everyday world. God finds a way to give us all signs of God’s grace and love.
In the very early pages of scripture, God commits God’s self to this broken world – this beautiful, wonderful, messed up, corrupt world. The rest of the Bible is essentially the story of how God will care for this broken creation, leading finally to the incarnation – to God becoming one with us in Jesus to heal the brokenness in our lives and in our world.
Like those children who saw rainbows in the oil-slick streets, what we need is the vision to see God’s rainbow in the messiness of our lives. These are difficult and uncertain days for many, but even in times of worry and apprehension, God’s rainbow is there.
As most of you will remember, earlier this summer a soccer team and their coach were trapped in a cave in Thailand when heavy rains came and the cave flooded. The team went missing on June 23. Divers began searching for them on June 25 but had to suspend their searching for hours and even days at a time when rains came and flooded them out. Nine days after being trapped, the boys were located by a British diving team. The next day, seven Thai Navy Seals, including a doctor, made the 6 hour journey to the boys, bringing supplies. Four of them, including the doctor, stayed with them underground for the rest of their time in the cave. They were the very last to exit.
The soccer team was trapped about 2 ½ miles from the entrance, at the end of what one diver called an underground obstacle course of rocky chambers, half-flooded canals and fully submerged sections. One of those fully submerged sections was 350 meters in length, more than 3 football fields, and the water was so muddy, he said it was like “swimming in coffee.” Experts said that realistically, given the shape they were in, they expected that if all went well, 60% of the boys would make it out alive. But the odds were decreasing all the time, and more heavy rain was on the way. So they made the difficult decision to go forward with the rescue.
On the way out of the cave they spent at least 3 hours submerged in water. Each boy was accompanied by two divers. The rescue effort involved more than 10,000 people working over three weeks, including over 100 divers, representatives from about 100 governmental agencies, 900 police officers and 2,000 soldiers. They used more than 700 diving cylinders and pumped more than a billion liters of water out of the cave. Beyond that, millions of people all over the world were praying for their rescue. And every single boy and their coach were saved.
The rainbow was a sign that God’s love and mercy will not fail us. The story of those young soccer players caught in a flood and the amazing lengths that 10,000 people went to rescue them is a picture of the height and width and breadth and depth of Christ’s love, a love that we can count on, a love that will not let us go.
Timothy Haut is a pastor/poet who speaks to the place we find ourselves, and our need for rainbows. (slightly altered, originally written for Lent)
The leaden cloudsAmen.
loom in the western sky,
threatening rain… again.
We shudder in the shadows,
unwilling to face another storm.
Where is our Noah,
with firm hand and steady eye
to sail us toward hope’s horizon?
You are the ark,
Your arms our only safe place.
Carry us through the tempest
to morning’s dry land,
the waking welcome
of birdsong and green leaf,
and the faint shimmer of hope’s rainbow
against the looming clouds.
You are our ark, O Lord.