Genesis 9:8-17 and Mark 1:9-15
I set out to create a sermon about what happens to us in Baptism.
I was aiming for a bit of down-to-earth theology,
some user-friendly teaching
to help us understand why the sacrament is important and
how it makes a difference.
I was going to use the story of Noah as my illustration.
To figure out how the story of the flood and the animals and the ark and the rainbow
opens up for us what happens in baptism.
But a funny thing happened:
… as I reread Genesis 6 to 9,
the chapters on Noah and the Flood,
it occurred to me:
They really aren’t about Noah all that much,
I mean he and his family and the animals are the images we’re left with.
But when you actually study it,
Noah et al. are more of the backdrop.
The setting for the action.
But not the character development.
Go back and read it for yourself:
The story’s not really about how Noah was changed by all that happened to him.
In fact, Noah doesn’t really change.
He started out better than his generation,
that’s why he found favor with God:
“Noah did all that the Lord commanded him.”
But when you read the whole story,
the flood neither improves Noah or the world all that much.
Almost everything is destroyed.
So after the flood, there IS a new beginning.
But looking at what comes following the flood,
the heretofore righteous, blameless man of God
plants a vineyard and gets himself sauced on too much wine,
and ends up fall-over drunk,
passed out and exposed.
And his son Ham,
rather than covering his father’s shame,
runs and tells his brothers Shem and Japheth about their father’s faux pas.
When Noah comes to
and realizes what has happened,
instead of holding himself accountable,
or forgiving Ham’s youthful folly,
he starts shouting:
— I think his only speaking part in his appearance on the biblical stage —
essentially cursing his son,
sentencing him to a life of servitude…
…a condemnation that white southerns used erroneously
to give the institution of American slavery some biblical warrant.
Harsh words from a father,
the iniquity of which
was visited upon successive generations of children down through the ages.
And Noah’s post-cruise over-indulgence,
it’s just the first example of a hardly improved humanity:
in the next chapters,
we’ve got the Tower of Babel,
and Abram lying about who his wife is…
And all that’s before we get to the family enmities,
brothers against brothers,
that fill up the rest of “In the Beginning”
by which God establishes these people as set aside for a special purpose.
Instead of all that water somehow washing us
and everything else
so that …
we get an admittedly needed, new start,
…instead, the post-diluvean re-creation
is just about as sin-filled and broken
as its antediluvean predecessor.
In fact, God says in the 8th chapter,
when explaining this new Divine forbearance,
almost word for word what God had offered in the 6th chapter
as the reason for wiping the slate clean and starting over:
“every inclination of [humankind’s] heart is evil from childhood.”
So if situations and people aren’t changed by or after the flood,
what difference did the 40 days,
and all that destruction
and all the trouble of that boat packed to the brim
with every kind of animal, including Noah and his family…
…did any of it make a difference?
Well, when you read the story deeper than the children’s version of the Bible,
as I said,
it’s not really even about Noah and his family that much.
Reread it, chapters 6 though 9,
and I think you will be surprised too.
This whole wet interlude of inundation
is really about how God changes.
You all know,
I like when the Bible depicts God changing,
like in Jonah, when God repents of the planned destruction of Nineveh.
Church, realizing how God changes
is what really matters in the whole story
— and what makes sense of the covenant with Noah
— and the Rainbow.
And what might change us.
The only real improvement
— and what improves the whole situation and history from here on out —
happens in the heart of God.
The story of the Flood is really about how God changes!
If you doubt me, consider this:
As I said, Noah never utters a word before his curse.
But God just keeps talking and talking.
Usually in the biblical relating, God’s sort of taciturn,
a Divinity of few words.
But in this story, God’s practically a Mike Wass at the lectern when it comes to talking.
These chapters in Genesis illustrate the UCC’s tagline:
“God is still speaking.”
And the text goes even further,
telling us what’s going on inside God’s head as well as God’s heart.
Actually reports God’s reasoning process in some detail.
Because God’s surely going through as much turmoil in all this
as God’s putting creation through.
First, God throws up holy hands
and decides to destroy creation.
To start over.
To get past all the violence and evil that plagues the work of God’s hands.
But after all of humanity but for 8 are wiped out,
and all animal life except for the breeding stock on the boat,
…by the time the waters receded and then dry up,
God seems to have repented of the earlier plan,
The world’s not different.
People still make wrong decisions,
…and cheat and lie and steal and kill.
Families fall apart.
Brothers still take up arms against brothers.
Surely we continue to try God’s patience,
spend more time than we’d like to admit on that Divine last nerve.
So, what changed? God.
In the passage we read today, we again hear God speaking.
But notice what God doesn’t say.
The explanation of the promise “No more floods”
“you hard-hearted and rebellious humans have learned your lesson.”
I suspect God knows full well that we’re still going to be a problem,
a pain in God’s side,
a Divine headache.
But, even so, now God says,
I’m not trying punishment next time;
I’ll go with forgiveness.
Actually, I’m not sure the flood was exactly punishment in the first place.
Sure, wiping out everyone and everything sort of sounds like anger, even wrath.
But again, a closer reading of the text has God, instead, “hurt” and “grieving.”
Now, I’m a parent, and I know how mad kids can make one.
So, I would have expected and understood a little bit of ‘wrath’ and ‘fury.”
But, those of us who are parents,
when our kids go off and do something really stupid…
Or when our kids are defiant and rebellious.
Ok, we’re not God, and even God gets mad sometimes.
But deeper, we’re hurt.
The Bible uses the word “aggrieved.”
Bill Coffin said,
when his own son had made a tragic and unwise decision that caused his death,
God’s heart is the first to break.”
In love, even the most reckless waywardness brings tears as much as tirades.
We cause in the heart of our parent God something akin to a holy sadness.
It’s heartbroken that God gives up.
That’s really the only accounting
for all the carcasses that must have been floating in the flood’s wake.
God sort of falls apart. Looses God’s nerve.
Human sin is that potent, it turns out.
Sin can not be wished away. Or even washed away.
And its effect can literally leave God in pieces.
And it that breakdown, God’s creation breaks down too.
Or begins to revert to the chaos from before the beginning.
That’s what human evil and violence and destructiveness threaten.
To break God’s heart.
And in so doing, to undo creation.
EXCEPT (and it’s a big except!)
— The same Divine Exception that we see turning the cross into the empty tomb —
… EXCEPT that our giving God grief turns out not to have the last word.
I can’t explain why really, except (there it is again)
that it’s something about God’s heart.
Not that God’s heart is invulnerable
or never put through changes.
But that in the end, grace is always the last word in God’s heart.
And it’s what we see from here on out.
Just as God promised.
How’d I say it before?
“People still make wrong decisions,
…and cheat and lie and steal and kill.
Families fall apart.
Brothers still take up arms against brothers.”
And God keeps trying forgiveness.
Offering second chances.
Talking it out some more.
Pointing in the right direction.
Picking up and dusting off.
That’s grace, beloved, and you see its first big debut after the flood.
From here on out, grace is going to lead the way.
And it’s important too not to miss:
this covenant of grace is with all people and all creation.
Because if grace is to have the last word…
We can still aggrieve God.
I suspect we’d rather not know how often and how deeply we do.
But in the end, the Divine promise, is that grace will be offered anyhow.
God will find a way to forgive.
And to give another chance.
And some more encouragement.
As I said, Noah’s story reveals to us the God of the Gospel early on,
— way before that same grace turns the grief of the cross into the glorious of Easter dawn.
I started out hoping to use the story of Noah to explain what happens with Baptism.
I’m not sure I’ve done that,
to suggest that somehow,
amidst all the other mysteries of grace trumping grief,
maybe our Baptisms not only name us for God,
but remind God of the promise,
the rainbow too,
so when we are our most trying,
to lead and
to finish and
to find us at every point in between