“Standing with Noah”
Message preached on
February 18, 2018
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According to The Weather Channel, the snow event that quickly blew through our area yesterday had a name. Does anyone know, or guess what it was called? That’s right, though it did not last 40 days in this region, nor even 40 hours (though its duration was over 40 minutes), winter storm “Noah” is now disrupting Nova Scotia and will soon be history. 1
The first thing that usually comes to mind when Noah’s name is mentioned is not the storm he survived, but rather what he and his family built – a big boat, an ark. His is one of the more familiar stories in the Bible, though we don’t usually recall it when snow is on the ground. No, after a winter storm you don’t really see something else that we also associate with Noah – a rainbow. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
As you now know, we were supposed to have a guest preacher this morning, but instead, you have me. Now, in addition to the Rainbow passage from Genesis, Mike – who planned this worship - chose some good scripture to read as preparation. In one, Jesus speaks of coming together, how God responds to praying as two in agreement rather than in conflict. “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:19-20), is his promise. The other scripture invites us to “one another” each other. We are called to care enough to listen to hard words someone has to say, and pray for their healing, knowing that joined hearts, not conflicted ones, work toward wholeness (James 5:13-16). That’s good news, wouldn’t you say?
Mike also picked a good, old gospel song for us to sing in closing, “Standing on the Promises.” That’s an image through which I’d like us to approach old Noah’s story - “standing.” It seems to be ringing one of my bells lately. You’ll probably grow tired of me drawing any kind of wisdom I can from my recent health issue, but “standing” is a big one for me right now. In physical therapy, I am doing all sorts of exercise to move me toward being upright, and keeping me on my feet and moving. You can’t “step out,” physically or by faith, if you can’t stand. So, let’s move through the Noah story with “standing” in mind.
This “epic” comes to us in several scenes. The first is pretty dark. Humanity is lost in itself. “God saw that human evil was out of control. People thought evil, imagined evil—evil, evil, evil from morning to night. God was sorry that he had made the human race in the first place; it broke his heart” (Genesis 6:5-6 from The Message). How does one stand through all of that?
Now, I know that this week we have been blessed with some of the best of humanity, as athletes from around the world have come together to compete – not fight on a field of battle, but in an ice rink or down a mountain show the best of what we are capable rather than the worst. That’s something that helps us all stand tall… However, this week we also witnessed a bit of the worst of what humanity is capable, as yet another gunman walked into a school and senselessly killed. It’s enough to break your heart. How can you stand in the face of that?
We’re struggling in this country to even talk civilly with one another about what has become an epidemic of gun violence in our country. If we can’t come to some sort of agreement on what we’re praying for, what good are our “thoughts and prayers?” How do we stand? Of course, on Wednesday we also witnessed some of the best of humanity, as teachers and students laid down their lives for their friends.
I’m not seeking us for us right now to argue over what may divide us, even in this peace church setting. The question is more along the lines of - how was Noah able to stand with such violence and wickedness surrounding him. All it says in Genesis is that “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God” (9b). Because of this, he “found favor in the sight of the Lord” (8b). In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase: “Noah was different. God liked what he saw in Noah.” He “was a good man, a man of integrity in his community” (The Message).
Next scene: “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…” Not only did Noah stand in the face of God’s judgement, he also stood and followed through. Yes, there was good news concerning his family, but really bad new concerning his neighbors. Do you think he broadcast the message he received? It doesn’t say so. He wasn’t tasked with that responsibility, according to the story.
Noah and his family just stood, rolled up their sleeves and got to work. If it sounds like a task bigger than those called to do it, but that’s the Bible for you. To be honest, I have no idea how they accomplished it. In my mind’s eye, I picture that fellow, Dick Proenneke, who retired at age 50 in 1967 and decided to build his own cabin by himself in the back woods of Alaska. He documented it all in journals and on film. Has anyone seen his movie, “Alone in the Wilderness?” (https://youtu.be/iYJKd0rkKss)
Please understand that the story of Noah is not history as we understand “history” today. To ask how Noah and his family accomplished this task is not really part of the scripture, just like how God created the earth is not “science.” It’s a misguided quest to explain “how” things began because the first book of the Bible is not asking the “how” questions. It’s asking “why?” Why, for instance, are we here? Is this all just a fluke, or is there a reason behind it all? Why are people good and bad? Should we even bother to try to do good when things get so messed up? If so, how do we manage to stand through it all, even when a trickle leads to a flood? But I’m getting ahead of myself. Do you catch the drift, however? Someone - Noah - kept on keeping on, he stood when he could have done otherwise. The story could have ended right here. But it didn’t.
With this next scene, let me get some feedback from you. The boat is finished. In come the animals, two by two. Picture yourself as one of Noah’s offspring, standing at the door of the ark. Which pairs of animals are you most interested in getting on board? Anyone? … Which are your least favorite – ones you wish could be left behind? … What’s going through your mind as all this is happening? (I know, that’s not really part of the story, but…) …
Then the doors close, and the rain falls. This is perhaps the hardest moment in the story about which to read. All who were left behind, human or animal, drowned outside the ark. And God intended this to happen. There is a gap between where the Creator stands at this point in the story, and where God stands at its end. Here, the slate is wiped clean, except for those in the ark. The heavens open. The earth is cleansed. Such a cost. Any human who thinks they can truly stand in that spot, to be like God washing the world of its filth, is either ignorant or a liar. Many have tried. Hitler did. Thought he was getting rid of the trash. So that the best - the “white” race - would remain. It didn’t turn out that way, did it? It usually doesn’t. Even today.
Enough of that darkness. The next scene is the rolling sea… I remember a dictionary game from a church retreat many years ago. One person picks a word and disguises its definition. Everyone else tries to come up with an alternate definition. If you pick the right one. You get a point. If someone picks your alternate one, you get a point. Sometimes, no one is trying to be serious. That’s when it gets fun. Anyway, the word was “hobbledehoy.” The real definition is, “a clumsy or awkward youth.” The one that got the most votes (or was it laughs?) basically said, “a drunken sailor” – but in much more fanciful language… Anyway, at this point in the story, Noah’s family – I imagine they were a bunch of “hobbledehoys.” Standing is well-nigh impossible when the seas are rough. And yet, you try. During this period in my recovery, I sort of feel like a “hobbledehoy.” … You? …
And the sea settled down, and it got easier to stand. It took a long time, however. Days of searching for dry land, first a raven, then a dove … twice. Finally, that dove returned, second time around, with “a freshly plucked olive leaf.” The flood was over. The time came, eventually, to leave the ark – people and animals together. As a life-long landlubber, I can’t quite imagine the transition between rolling sea and solid ground. How long does it take to get your land legs?
Here is where God revisits and makes a change. The Creator makes a promise. “Never again,” vows the One who unleashed the rain to wipe clean the earth. “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.” This will not happen again. And there is a forever sign of this promise. We see it every time we stand outside after a storm and the sun breaks through the clouds. What is it? … a rainbow.
Of course, as the story is told in Genesis, this sign is really not for us to see. It’s for God. “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature...” Now, I imagine folks long, long ago figured out that in order to see a rainbow, the sun needs to be behind you. Did they put 2 and 2 together and wonder if that’s where God stands in all of this – not just looking down from somewhere far above the clouds, but also standing behind them, paying attention to the rainbow? Regardless of what they might have understood, as I try to stand today I find it helpful to imagine God standing right behind.
This way of seeing things fits in with the unfolding of covenants that leads to Jesus - the One who is “God with us,” who stood where we stand, and who - by standing in for us (as it says in 1 Peter 3:8) - “suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring (us) to God.” The risen Christ, through the Holy Spirit, continues to stand with us through conflicted times, when we find it difficult to even talk, let alone pray or act, about violence around or in us. Remember that he calls us to come together in this storm-filled world, “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” With Jesus standing where he does, we can “one another” each other, caring enough to listen to hard words each has to say, and praying for healing, knowing that joined hearts, not conflicted ones, work toward wholeness. In so doing, let’s stand on the promises of God.