The One Who Loves
Feb 21, 2021
First Sunday of Lent
Text: Genesis 9:8-17
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
How many of you remember the song that begins: “The Lord said to Noah, there’s going to be a floody, floody…get those children out of the muddy, muddy…children of the Lord.” It has about five verses. The one I like best refers to elephants and kangaroozies, roozies. Surprisingly, I did not learn it in Sunday School, but in Bluebirds, which is the youngest version of Campfire Girls, a competitor of Girl Scouts.
Of the songs we sang (one about the Titanic that had terrible theology and the “other day bear”). I liked Noah best, perhaps because of images it conjured up of elephants and kangaroos as ark-mates. That is until I began to think about how polar bears and penguins arrived or survived on the same boat as warm-weather critters. That was my first venture into the difference between an account with facts that details a reality and an account with truth that conveys a message. But, that’s another sermon.
What I want to point out in this one is that today’s reading from Genesis – the story of Noah and the promise of the rainbow – tends to be viewed in two ways. Most often, it is presented as a children’s story about animals and remembering God’s love whenever we see a rainbow or realizing that there is a bright side to every storm. This point-of-view is why Noah’s Ark décor is popular for nurseries and the story is the theme of countless songs and children’s books. It even is the topic of a multitude of cartoons, like the one I saw the other day in which a lion and chicken are conversing on the deck of the ark. The lion says, “Here come Noah; give me about half-a-dozen.” In the next frame, the lion is looking smug and has six chicken feathers sticking out of his mouth and the chicken is hiding under a nearby tarp. Noah looks appalled and the caption is “Practical jokes on the ark.”
Now, that’s completely the opposite of the second way this story is often presented, which is anything but a children’s story. God is so angered by human rebellion that God floods the whole earth, wiping out nearly everything in a fit of divine rage. A picture is painted of a God of wrath who is ready and willing to strike down sinners.
Since we are seeking the truth, commentator Elizabeth Webb writes that we will not find it in either of those two interpretations. Let me quote her: “A truer story is that God has a myriad of ways of calling us back to the harmony that God intended for us. Our text for today, in which God establishes a covenant with Noah and his descendants, tells us that God is hanging up the bow, putting aside forever the options of destruction and seeking us as God’s own.” (1)
The flood narrative actually begins in chapter 3 of Genesis, where it is clear that sin results in disharmony between people and creatures, between male and female, and between people and their labor. By chapter 6, humanity is so broken that God regrets having created them. Listen to the language of God’s regret in verses 5-6, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of their human hearts was only evil continuously. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved God to the heart.”
Did you notice that God is not angry but grieved … to the heart? The flood flows out of God’s grief, but it is not the end of the story because the flood is a means of re-creation, not total destruction.
At the beginning of Chapter 9, verses we did not read today, God blesses Noah and his sons, tells them to be fruitful and multiply, gives them charge over every living thing, which also will be their food. God says again that humankind is made in God’s image. All of this reflects the creation narrative in Genesis 1, so there is re-creation, actually, continuation, of God’s bringing forth goodness in this account.
The deal is sealed, so to speak, with the covenant God makes with Noah, his descendants AND all creation. In the ancient world, a covenant was a legal cementing of a relationship, usually between a greater power and lesser one. It was more than a contract but was a sacred agreement. We think of it as a promise, which in this case was unusual because it was one-sided; it was at God’s initiative, is eternal and requires nothing in return. Elizabeth Webb points out that God is fully aware that the flood has not cleansed the heart of sin but enters into the covenant anyway. (2)
The promise is to never again destroy all creation with a flood, and the sign of this covenant is God’s bow in the clouds. In ancient times to hang up one’s bow – as in bow and arrows – was to retire from battle. The message is that God will no longer be at war with God’s creation. God may seek our restoration in other ways, but destruction (by water, but I would expand it to other methods) is not an option.
And here is one of the most interesting details: the rainbow is a reminder to God – not just people - of the promise. Look at verse 16: “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” It is like an alert on God’s google calendar!
So it is that on this First Sunday in Lent, as we prepare our hearts and minds to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter. We begin by focusing on God’s desire to restore harmony on earth and among people and the relationship between God and human begins. In various ways, that will be the focus of the Old Testament lessons in Lent. And, in Holy Week we will end where we began, with God’s ultimate act of restoration.
When I was in seminary, I must admit that Systematic Theology classes were not my favorite. Nor were the two-volume set of books on the topic by theologian Karl Barth. I always wanted him to get to the point. That why I laughed when, recently, I was re-reading portions of the book What’s So Amazing About Grace by Phillip Yancy and came across this quote: “Theologian Karl Barth, after writing thousands of pages in his Church Dogmatics, arrived at this simple definition of God: “the one who loves.” (3)
That is the point of the story of Noah. Or, we could sum it up in these words of Henri J.M. Nouwen from this year’s Lent devotion: “A human being is not someone who once in a while makes a mistake, and God is not someone who now and then forgives. No! Human beings are sinners and God is love. The conversion experience makes this obvious with stunning simplicity and disarming clarity.” (4)
God is constantly callin us back to the harmony with the world and one another and the loving relationship with God intended for us. AMEN
(1) “Commentary on Genesis 9:8-17” by Elizabeth Webb, First Sunday in Lent, www.workingpreacher.org
(2) Same as #1
(3) What’s so Amazing About Grace” by Philip Yancey, 1997 Zondervan, pg. 55
(4) Steadfast Love: Lent Devotions, 2021 The Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust and Creative Communications, pg. 4