Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Somewhere Beyond the Sea

"Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God...

"Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth.

"And God said to Noah, 'I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch...I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die.

"But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons' wives with you. And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female.'

"Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him...And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days."

"But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided...Then God said to Noah, 'Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons' wives with you...'

"Then Noah built an altar to the Lord...and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, 'I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done...'"
- from Genesis 6-8 (NRSV)

Often, Christians get too caught up in the details of the Great Flood story, missing its beauty. Many conservatives insist that it is a literal event; many liberals consider it to be an ancient fable. Books have been written to support both sides and debates have been held, all of which has proven very little about the veracity of the Great Flood.

This is a story that is about more than a prehistoric cataclysm, more than just another, albeit massive, geologic disaster. The story is beyond simply a tragedy of the sea.

What strikes me as I read the story again (it is part of the lectionary for this Sunday) isn't the fantastical element of the story, but rather the change of heart apparently experienced by God.

Because of the sin of humankind, God was determined to wipe his creatures off the face of the planet and "reboot". The waters flowed and only Noah and those on his "ark" were safe.

But something happened in the heart of our paradoxical God, who is at once never-changing and yet always dynamic. It's more than just a "reboot" with the relatively righteous Noah. Something about the Great Flood "event" broke the heart of a perfectly loving God. God admitted that "the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth", and knew that humanity would eventually be just as rotten and corrupt as the generation destroyed in the Great Flood. Our Lord will be hurt again and again by our sin, and yet he decided to stick it out and love us anyway.

This is marriage. This is covenant. This is real gospel love. This is the Jesus story told through the wetness of monsoonal downpours and waterlogged wood.

We learn from the story of the Great Flood and from the deliverance of Noah that we live with a God who loves us no matter what, and who does not reject us entirely even when we thoroughly screw up (I suppose that the one caveat is that we are given the capacity to completely reject him, but that's an issue for another post). And God in Christ promises to be with us "even to the end of the age."
"God has built an ark of gracious love and mercy to preserve us from destruction and carry us safely to the place where we can make a new start and fulfil our ancient destiny, and this time we are all in the same boat."- Nathan Nettleton
"Jesus, Savior, pilot me over life's tempestuous sea;
unknown waves before me roll,

hiding rock and treacherous shoal.
Chart and compass come from thee; Jesus, Savior, pilot me.

"When at last I near the shore, and the fearful breakers roar
'twixt me and the peaceful rest,

then, while leaning on thy breast,
may I hear thee say to me, 'Fear not, I will pilot thee.'"

- Edward Hopper, 1871,
UMH 509


Jeff Kahl said...

Great thoughts, Keith. You're right that the Flood is one of the most beautiful accounts in the Old Testament.

One thing that has always puzzled me, though: Why is God's covenant with Noah the only OT covenant that is never mentioned by Paul or, to my knowledge, anywhere else in the NT as well? A friend of mine argued that this fact makes it clear that the Noah story is not important from a Christian perspective, and thus isn't important from a doctrinal perspective. I honestly didn't know how to respond to him.

You have any wisdom to enlighten me?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your thoughts Keith! I really found them helpful as I am working on a Noah series this summer.

As for Paul, remember after his conversion he went at once into Arabia and was probably not worried about too much water (Galatians 1:17)

But Peter makes up for it in 1 Peter 3:18-20 & 2 Peter 2:4-10. But of course if you lift these up, you have to deal with very long sentences, spirits in chains, and the traditional story of "Harrowing of Hell." (see Dante)

Keith H. McIlwain said...

I echo Bob's references, esp. 1 Peter 3, to which I would add verses 21 & 22, which makes clear that Noah's salvation in the ark "corresponds" to Christian baptism.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Incidentally, Bob, I am "going Old Testament" this summer as well. I need to keep focus on the WHOLE of Scripture, and not just the Gospels and Paul, which is an easy trap through which to fall. In my teaching ministry, I've made it a point for years now to teach an OT study in the Fall and a NT study in the Spring, but my preaching has heavily favored the NT. That's not a terrible sin, I understand, but I need to keep myself honest. So, this summer, regarding my preaching, it's all Old Testament, all the time.

Jeff Kahl said...

Thanks guys. I will now be able to thoroughly discredit my friend's Calvinistic arguments.

Jeff Kahl said...

Incidentally, Keith, kudos on your commitment to preach and teach out of the OT. I actually find that much of the OT resonates more with my youth group than the NT. Not sure why that is.

Jackie said...

I am in the opposite boat as you this year. I always default to the OT, those stories are just so rich and the people so real. I have promised my congregation 'more Jesus' this year and will be following Matthew, however, I have a real desire to cop out and go with Romans!! (No, bad, bad, stick with the Gospel)

Eric Park said...

Thanks for these great reflections, Keith. I'll be standing with you in the rising water this weekend.

I'll be preaching the first part of a summer series on Genesis entitled "Back to the Beginning."

Blessings upon your proclamation of the Word.

Brett Probert said...

Keith, I don't really care about all this, I just wanna lose weight! See you soon at AC!