Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Lent 1- Noah’s Ark

There are a few directions we can go when it comes to dealing with the story about Noah’s family and the flood. The first is the story we often tell on the walls of nurseries- It is a floating zoo and wouldn’t that be fun? We don’t go much further than that though.

Others will look at the story and seek out a way to prove the story as a historical reality. Could it be that 7-9000 years ago the straight between Greece and Turkey breached and the Mediterranean flooded into the basin that is now the Black Sea, making it seem like the entire world had flooded? … Others look for clues while scrambling up frozen glaciers in the Turkish mountains searching for wood and nails, evidence of a lost ship run aground in the mountains. They seek to prove the historical event that inspired the story we have about Noah.


Still others will read the story and dismiss it. It is sheer mythology. A story of an ancient people, like the epic of Gilgamesh. Evidence of an expired mythology and an expired idea of deity. The cynical and suspicious abandon the story with a roll of the eyes.

If we believe that the Bible is inspired, however, then our focus should be on what this story teaches us about humanity, God, and our discipleship to Jesus. If we start with the assumption that God is in some way speaking to us through this story, then there is still treasure to be found here. If we can resist distancing ourselves from the story by minimizing it into a cutesy story for toddlers about a floating zoo. If we can resist treating the story as a historical fact to prove in all its detail- If we can resist looking down on the story patronizingly dismissing it, we may yet have something to learn from it.

So, what can we learn? First, we learn that sin is a big deal, and it has an effect on God.
“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.” Gen 6:5-6

Paul often talks about Sin as a force that keeps human beings captive. Sin describes both individual choices to turn away from God’s will, and a power that overwhelms people, which they have to be rescued from. Sin is something we have to own as individuals, but it also has to do with the society we are a part of. When it comes down to it, sin is just a way of saying things aren’t the way they should be- they aren’t the way God wants them to be. The world is upside down and sideways. It’s not the way it was created to be.

We don’t need much convincing that sin is a reality in our world. We are reminded every time we watch the news. Corruption, hate, violence, and exploitation are all regular and expected content. It rarely surprises us anymore. It’s normal. Sadly, we have even come to expect school shootings.

Sin was a reality in Jesus’ time as well, though, which is why his ministry starts with a call to repentance- 
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15).
 Repentance means admitting to the fact that we live with the reality of sin and we are called to turn away from it, so that we can turn towards God. We protest. we refuse to accept sin as a permanent reality.

In Noah’s story sin had gotten out of control. We read that 
“every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5).
 It was a situation God wasn’t going to allow to persist. 
“The Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Gen 6:6).
 I hope we can hear the pain of God there.

What caused this pain to God? Think about that sin that makes your soul call out for justice. Think about that sin that causes anger to rise up in you. Don’t think about God looking on disapprovingly about you shopping on Sunday. Think, instead, about armies that steal children in the middle of the night, force them to kill their families, then get them addicted to drugs, and force them to fight on the front line of whatever battle they are fighting. … Think about a woman describing being raped, over and over, from the time she was a child. … Think of that kind of sin. Then think of a world full of it- swimming in it. People destroying each other. This is not what God created the world for. …. Then think about God’s grieving heart. This can’t continue. Each new generation exploited, and corrupted, by the previous generation. 
“So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created… for I am sorry that I have made them’” (Gen 6:7).

That might have been the end of the story.

Then we read 
“But Noah found favour in the sight of the Lord” (Gen 6:8).
 There is hope. In all the darkness there is one bright spot- Noah’s family. With the presence of Noah there is another possibility. Noah has God’s favour. We read over and over that Noah did all that God commanded him (6:22; 7:5; 7:9). God makes a new covenant with Noah. Noah is the model of faith.

The overwhelming evil of Noah’s society made Noah’s holiness stand out even more. He was able to swim against the current of his society. Chrysostom comments that, 
“Scripture not merely called [Noah] ‘blameless’ but added ‘among the [people] of his day’ to make it clear that he was so at a time when the obstacles to virtue were many” (Homilies on John 71). “If someone cultivates virtue among those who refuse it, he makes it much more worthy of admiration” (Homilies on Genesis 23.4).
 Noah’s goodness in the midst of so much evil made his holiness all the more impressive.

Of course, the early church found in Noah an image of Christ. He represents faithfulness in a sea of sin. On him God will rest hope for creation. The faithfulness of Noah and the wooden ark is the salvation of creation. Augustine saw the ark as 
“a figure of the church that was saved by the wood on which there hung [Jesus Christ] … As for the door in the side, that surely, symbolizes the open wound made by the lance in the side of the Crucified- the door by which those who come to him enter in, in the sense that believers enter the church by means of the sacraments that issued from that wound. … So it is with every other detail of the ark’s construction. They are all symbols of something in the church” (City of God 15.26).
The early church saw symbolism everywhere in this story. Some early interpreters saw the flood as representing baptism, which washes away sin, and the mention of 40 days as representing Lent (Maximus of Turin in Sermons 50.2). The mixture of clean and unclean animals aboard the ark represents imperfection within the church, and the variety of animals as representing salvation of all the nations within the church (Augustine in Faith and Works 27.49; Tractates on the Gospel of John 9.11.1). The dove that returned with the olive branch they saw as representing the Holy Spirit that came to Jesus at the time of his baptism (Ambrose in Letters 40.21; Bede in Homily 1.12; Maximus of Turin in Sermons 49.3).

Just as through Noah God saves creation through the wood of the ark, so God saves creation through Christ and the wood of the cross. After the flood, God makes a new covenant relationship with humanity and the rest of creation- 
“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” (Gen 9:11).
 God ties Himself to these creatures. God is no longer only Creator. God becomes Protector, choosing to not deal with sin by wiping out sinners. God’s weapon is put down not to be picked up again. God binds Himself to creation. God limits Himself regarding how sin will be dealt with.

And yet, Sin must be dealt with. This Covenant sets God on a road to deal with sin from the inside. This road reaches a climax in the passion of Christ on the cross. There we see God deal with sin not in the sheer power of a flood, but through vulnerability and weakness on the cross. There we see God binding Himself to humanity, willing to experience even the brokenness Sin made of God’s good creation. And through entering that brokenness providing a way to overcome sin and providing a way of union with God’s creatures in a creation set right. The cross becomes a kind of lock pick for the human heart, so God can work on sin from the inside, rather than destroying it from the outside.

In Lent we are called to remember the seriousness of sin, and the mercy of God who chooses not to deal with it through destruction and violence. God has provided another way. Through Christ our sin has been ultimately dealt with, and we are invited to participate in the ways of God’s kingdom as we become more fully people expresssing God’s image.

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