This Lent, we as an ecumenical body in Upper James City County are retelling the “salvation narrative” – or at least that is the fancy phrase we use to describe the body of stories that show us time and again God’s saving deeds in history, and how those stories inform how we understand what will happen on Easter Sunday – how the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus will bring the fullness of redemption. We started last week with the story of creation – the ways in which God lovingly called the created order good and made us in God’s image. Tonight, we shift to another of the legendary stories – the story of the flood.
This is a story we know and love: we use Noah’s ark as artwork in babies’ nurseries, I have Noah’s ark in the form of Christmas ornaments, we even sing songs about how God told Noah to build an “ark-y, ark-y” made of “bark-y, bark-y.” I think we love this story so much because of the good news at the end. But before we get to the end, we have to wade through a whole lot of a horrible beginning and middle. You see, despite the goodness of creation, of the ways in which we were made in God’s image, we humans fall into sinfulness. We do not hear much of that part of the story tonight. Despite all the verses we did hear, what we do not hear is how horribly sinful humanity has become in Noah’s time. This sinfulness grieves God so very much that God set God’s mind to do a terrible, awful thing[i]. Those waters out of which God formed the earth – those waters that God used a dome to separate – separate the waters from the waters, God uses to destroy the beautiful creation God has made. God removes the dome, and the waters came down from the skies and the waters rise up from the ground.[ii]
From the beginning of this horrible decision, God makes a choice – a choice to save some life instead of recreating life again[iii]. And so, on that ark that Noah builds, floats the people who will repopulate the earth, and the animals that will restore the created order. We hear very little in scripture what those days are like[iv]: the panic of rising waters, the death all around them, the solitude and silence of watery chaos, the noise of a bizarrely filled boat. We have only our imagination to fill in what those desperate days may have been like.
In some ways, I think Lent is a lot like those days on the boat. There is the obvious forty days connection, but more telling is the stark reality of sinfulness and judgment. Imagining the depravity of those days that would drive God to destroy most of creation is not as hard as we might like to think. Sometimes, I wonder if God is not similarly grieved by us today. Here we are after two years of a pandemic where our own country spent more time arguing over the supremacy of personal freedom over the call to love one another. Here we are, for likely the millionth time debating whether there is such a thing as a just war as we watch civilians and children slaughtered in Ukraine. Here we are divided by political party, divided by socioeconomic status, divided by race, divided by theology into denominations and faiths. Here we are, refusing as individuals to love all our neighbors as ourselves, and love the Lord our God. Lent is our season to float in the lapping waters of our sinfulness, wondering whether we should be on that boat or not.
But here’s the funny story about the flood. This story is not about you. This story is not even really about Noah, or the animals God saved, or even the rainbow at the end of the story we like to cling to so desperately. This story is not about our sinfulness and brokenness and inability to live into the image of God in which we are created. No, this is a story about God. Everything in this story that we value, that makes this story a “salvation narrative,” is about God’s actions. The reason we do not hear all the gory details about the lead-up to the flood – the details that even movies have been made about – is because this is a story about salvation, not judgment – on what God does to preserve creation.[v]
One of the exercises I have done with young adults is to talk about images of God. We create a safe space where we can talk about those images – not just the ones the church likes us to see – of the shepherd caring for the flock, even at times with a lamb on his shoulders, or of the saccharine-y Jesus’ we hang around that look more like an American Jesus than a Middle Eastern Jesus. Instead, we try to get real with the youth. The images they often have are of a foreboding man on a throne, an intimidating father figure, or a judge behind a bench. And when we adults are honest, our images are pretty similar. But the images of God in this story, as one scholar writes are “striking: a God who expresses sorrow and regret; a God who judges, but doesn’t want to, and then not in arbitrary or annihilative ways; a God who goes beyond justice and determines to save some creatures, including every animal and bird; a God who commits to the future of a less than perfect world; a God open to change and doing things in new ways; a God who promises never to do this again. The story reveals and resolves a fundamental tension within God, emphasizing finally, not a God who decides to destroy, but a God who wills to save, who is committed to change based on experience with the world and who promises to stand by the creation.”[vi]
That’s the funny thing about this story. The flood seems like a story for Lent because we find ourselves as sinful as Noah’s world, and we know we need to change our ways. Lent is all about repentance after all – a turning from our sinfulness and returning to God. But here’s the thing: even after the flood (and let’s be honest, even after this Lent), the people will keep going back to sinning. I mean, we’re just in chapter nine of Genesis: there is a whole lot more sinning left in the Old Testament for us to read. Scholars argue, “The flood has effected no change in humankind. But [the flood] has effected an irreversible change in God.”[vii] This salvation narrative tells us more about God than ourselves. God establishes the covenant with humanity and creation to never flood the earth again. Certainly, there may be judgment again, but never the kind that annihilates the earth. That rainbow that we love is not meant to remind us of God’s promise, but to remind God of the covenant – the restraint God promises to keep in the midst of well-deserved judgment.[viii] Every promise God makes, all the salvation narratives we will hear the rest of this Lent, are made possible by the foundation of the promise God makes to Noah.[ix]
So, if this salvation narrative is not about us, does that mean we get a free pass for Lent? Not exactly. The real question for us tonight, based on everything we just learned (or remembered) about God, is “So what?” Professor Patricia Tull argues, “Scripture says that a good and wise God created us good. We’re capable of great evil, as the flood story says and as we know every day. But God means for us to be transformed, just as the flood transformed God’s intentions.”[x] Lent is our opportunity to mirror God’s transformation of intention. What in your life this year needs transforming? What have you been holding on to – a grudge, a hurt, an anger, a self-righteous indignation – needs to be released? God learned in the flood that God could not change humanity – but God could change God’s relationship with humanity. Our invitation this Lent is not necessarily to change ourselves, and certainly not to try to change others (which never goes well), but to transform our relationships – our relationship with God, our relationships with others, and even our relationship with ourselves. Use the watery chaos of this Lent to listen through the noise of animals around you to hear the promise of the rainbow come Easter. Amen.
[i] Leander E. Keck, ed, The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 394.
[ii] Keck, 392.
[iii] Keck, 394.
[iv] Keck, 389.
[v] Keck, 389.
[vi] Keck, 395.
[vii] Keck, 395.
[viii] Keck, 400.
[ix] Keck, 401.
[x] Patricia Tull, “Commentary on Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18; 8:6-18; 9:8-13,” April 15, 2017, as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/vigil-of-easter-3/commentary-on-genesis-71-5-11-18-86-18-98-13 on March 9, 2022.