Not a Children’s Story

excerpts from Genesis 6-9
October 1, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

[Scripture Reading Genesis 6:5 The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.

These are the descendants of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

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….

For my part, 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 and when he and his family and the animals were shut in the ark, began to rain.] The flood continued forty days on the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. The waters swelled and increased greatly on the earth; and the ark floated on the face of the waters. The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; the waters swelled above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. 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; the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, and the waters gradually receded from the earth…

[Eventually the ark comes to land on Mt Ararat and everyone gets out.] Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.

… Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent.

Whenever I read the story of Noah, I hear in my head the song that I, undoubtedly like many of you, learned in Sunday School as a child and which I have passed along to our own church kids over the years. The song begins, “The Lord said to Noah, ‘There’s gonna be a floody, floody,’ the Lord said to Noah, ‘There’s gonna be a floody, floody. Get those children out of the muddy, muddy!’ Children of the Lord.”

I’m not going to sing the whole song to you because it has many many verses and for anyone over the age of six, it can feel interminable but the song finally ends with the declaration, “So this is the end of, the end of my story story. This is the end of, the end of my story story. Everything was hunky dory dory, children of the Lord.” And this is generally how we think about the story of Noah’s Ark. We treat it as a sweet little children’s story that features giraffes, and chimpanzees, and cuddly koala bears, a long boat cruise, and a pretty rainbow at the end. Sure, there’s a lot of rain in the middle, but everything turns out hunky dory, we assure the kids. When you read the biblical version of this tale, however, it reads less like a children’s story and more like a horror movie, and nothing was hunky dory. The story certainly didn’t start out hunky dory when people were murdering and abusing one another and filled the earth with such wickedness that God decided the only solution was to undo creation and start all over again. And the story isn’t hunky dory in the middle after the waters had filled the earth and Noah was floating over what must have been a sea of corpses: men, women, and children who had drowned in the rising waters, swollen deer, rotting rabbits, the bodies of sparrows that dropped exhausted from the air to drown in the sea. Having recently witnessed a series of devastating rain storms and floods in Houston, Florida, the Caribbean, and Puerto Rico, we know first hand that there is nothing sweet and sentimental about a flood. It’s ugly and it’s heartbreaking. And the story of Noah’s Ark isn’t even really hunky dory at the end because after God hangs the bow in the sky and promises never to destroy humanity again, Noah tests God’s resolve by getting roaring drunk and passing out naked in his tent. The nakedness and shame of Noah reenacts the nakedness and shame of Adam, and so we see that the purity of the new post-flood creation has quickly been sullied again by the persistence of human sin. Can you imagine the heartbreak of God at that moment? the story teller asks. Profoundly grief stricken by the wickedness of humankind, God had destroyed everything that God had so lovingly created hoping to set things back on the right course only to discover that the one bit God thought was worth saving was in fact no better than the rest.

I have said that the stories of Genesis are teaching stories. Just as Jesus told his disciples parables to illustrate truths about God, so too these stories were told by the ancient Hebrews to teach their listeners about the nature of God and the ways of faith. The story of Noah teaches us that there is something endemic to human nature that causes us to choose the wrong as often as we choose the right, that leads us to wallow in ugliness as often as we choose to contribute to life’s beauty. Maybe individually, the proportion of good and bad, right and wrong are different — some of us may be more inclined to kindness than brutality while others skew in the opposite direction — but not even the best among us, the story says, can claim to be completely perfect in our purity of heart. In Ken Burns’ documentary on Vietnam, a Vietnam vet says that he had often heard people claim that the military turns human beings into heartless fighting machines but during his tour of duty in Vietnam, he came to believe that the military just fine tunes what is already there in us. So too, the story of Adam and Eve, the story of Cain and Abel, and even the story of Noah are really at their core laments over the persistence of human sin and our continuing capacity for evil. The Bible says that even the most righteous of us can fail: as soon as the ground is dry enough to produce grapes, Noah has fallen back into sin and shame. We are hopeless, the story admits, and if God was the kind of god that most of us would expect, God would indeed just give up. Why not just toss us all in the rubbish bin and move to another solar system to find something better than earth’s clay to work with.

Instead, however, at the end of the story, when God realizes that it is impossible to rid us of our sinful bent, God decides to accept the consequences of loving an imperfect people. For a warrior to hang up his bow was to publicly say, “I will no longer do battle,” and so we hear at the end of this story God’s concession that even God can’t beat perfection into our stubborn hearts. Humanity, God concedes, will remain forever flawed. We will be capable of both moments of transcendent beauty and appalling ugliness. Indeed, we are people who have the capacity to pour out our hearts to hurting strangers, exhausting our resources to save the victims of floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes, and to demonstrate such heroic goodness that we are moved to tears at the wonderful miracle that is human compassion. And then the next minute we are hurling insults at one another and dragging the names of our neighbors through the mud of social media because we disagree with what they did at a football game. Oh, we are such wonderful and such horrible people. This story of Noah’s Ark paints that beautiful and horrid picture of us in stark terms and then declares this amazing good news: God accepts us as we are. God accepts the unrelenting persistence of our imperfections and decides to love us anyway. God willingly engages in an eternal relationship with flawed human beings, knowingly accepting the sorrow and frustration that comes when we fail in order to experience the joy and wonder of the goodness and beauty that arises when we succeed in our call. God will love us through it all.

The author Tim Keller, in his book, “Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, ” says, “The only love that won’t disappoint you is one that can’t change, that can’t be lost, that is not based on the ups and downs of life or of how well you live. It is something that not even death can take away from you. God’s love is the only thing like that.”

The story of Noah’s Ark is a story of God’s remarkable grace toward a remarkably flawed human race. The Jewish people saw in this story the story of their own history as a chosen people, and the persistent love of God through war, slavery, exile, and even in spite of the stubborn evil of some of their own kings. We as Christians see in this story the story of our own salvation by the grace of a man who willingly took our sin upon himself, continuing to love and forgive even as he suffered on the cross. It turns out that the story of Noah is not a children’s story at all but a story for each of us who need to believe that God will not give up on us but will shower grace upon us to bring us again and again to new life and remake us as a new creation.

I invite you to come to Christ’s table where he healed the sick, fed the hungry, and ate with sinners. And as you come, remember that those sinners sitting with him at this table are you and me. As we eat his bread and share his cup, may we experience the grace of God for each of us and be made anew by God’s love.