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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

"A God Story" (Genesis 9:8-17) - First Sunday of Lent

This weekend Black Panther opens, the latest blockbuster movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.             I remember the opening scene in the first Avengers movie, my favorite in the series of super hero films.  In Avengers, the villain Loki has been transported from Asgard to Earth.  Asgardians live thousands of years and possess superhuman strength. 
            Nick Fury, a military leader here on earth, senses that Loki has bad intentions and intercedes.  He says to the Asgardian, “We of Earth have no quarrel with your people.” 
            Loki responds with a smirk.  “An ant has no quarrel with a boot.”
            Concerned, Fury says back, “Are you planning to crush us?”
            Fury was eventually able to call on Earth’s mightiest heroes, the Avengers, to defeat Loki and his malevolent army. 

            Noah did not have any Avengers he could call.  Even if he did, the God he faced was much more powerful than Loki. 
            The Noah account begins in Genesis chapter 6.  “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” (6:5-7).
            But, God decided to spare Noah and his family.  There were no Avengers for Noah to call. Instead, God told him to build a vessel, the Ark.  In it, Noah, his family, and a male and female of each animal would ride out the flood. 
Producers of Christian children’s books and Christian children’s toys have made a lot of money on the flood story.  A child happily makes his little toy giraffes and little toy hippos and little toy kangaroos march and hop onto his little toy ark. 
The game changes when we imagine what’s happening outside the ark.  The rainwaters become floodwaters.  A child’s story?  No!  This is a story of the worst genocide in human history.  The perpetrator of the crime is God.  Yes, the floodwaters eventually recede.  Yes, at the end, the ark comes to rest on Mount Ararat and the animals come off and in no time, the world is dried up and repopulated.  Even so, this is the single-worst episode of mass-murder in human history.
Do we question God? 
The flood story is complicated.  I’ve read those delightful pop-ups books to my own kids, but when we close the child’s book, tuck the child into bed, and then in the dark house, we dare to sit in the night in our adult thoughts, and we find the story of Noah and the flood to be very troubling. 

The story begins with a parade of animals and ends with a sky filled with color – literally every color in the rainbow.  Enjoy the image. 
Now, ponder this: what is that rainbow for?  It’s a reminder.  Never again will the world be destroyed by a flood.  Who is the rainbow intended to remind? 
“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.  When I bring the clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between you and me and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.  When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember’” (9:12-16a).
A reminder for God?  What, is God going to forget and accidently flood the world again?  Does God forget things?  No?  Then why does God himself decide he needs a reminder.  We put post-it notes around our house.  “Remember the grocery list.” “Remember to pick Igor up at cross-country practice.”  God puts a rainbow in the sky.  Oh yeah.  Don’t the flood earth and bring complete destruction again. 
This is a God story.  This is not a story of water.  This is not a story about animals.  This not a story about a guy in a boat with his family.  All those things are in this story.  But, the force that moves the story along is God’s reactions to the emotions humans produce in Him.
Human beings have no say in the covenant at the end of the story, and no responsibility in the covenant.  God is having an internal conversation within God’s own self.  We could go extinct or continue on.  It matters.  But, we are voiceless and powerless. 
God initiates the covenant and we must accept God’s terms.  God declares what God will not do again.  We cannot prevent another flood.  We can only pray that God will keep the promises He made to himself.  But it is not just us.  This covenant goes beyond Noah and his family.  It is a covenant with all of humanity.  Moreover, the covenant expands beyond humans.  It is for all creatures.  God initiates the covenant, sets the terms, carries it out, and sets the reminder – the rainbow. 

The disturbing nature of the story as well as the complete one-sidedness of the covenant both declare the same truth.  God is much more complicated than we ever understood or considered. 
We read Hebrews 13:8.  “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
And the prophet Malachi, chapter 3, verse 6.  “For I the Lord do not change.”
We recall one of the praise songs we sing in worship.  “Incomparable, unchangeable, you see the depths of my heart and you love me the same; you are amazing God.”
Unchangeable?  Genesis 1:31: “God saw everything that he had made and indeed it was very good.”  Then, Genesis 6:6.  “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth.”  From, “[the Lord] saw … indeed it was very good” to “the Lord was sorry” to “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created.”
And God did blot out all life, except Noah and his families and his floating zoo.  From “I will blot out” we arrive after the flood at “Never again.  Never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”  Never again.
In our Ash Wednesday worship we heard the word of God from the prophet Joel who asked, “Who knows whether or not God will relent – change His mind – and leave a blessing instead of destruction” (2:12, paraphrased)?
In another Bible story easily adapted to children’s ministry, the story of Jonah and the whale, God clearly changes God’s mind.  The condemned Ninevites repent of their sin, and we read in Jonah 3:10, “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them and he did not do it.”
God is a distinct personality.  God is not an undefined force or a pantheistic realty.  God is distinct.  God is personal.  God experiences God’s creation dynamically.  Because God is paradoxical, we can read those quotes from Hebrews and Malachi and talk about God as unchanging, but at the same time all we need to do is read Noah or the account of Moses or the prophets, Joel and Jonah, or the agonizing life of the prophet Jeremiah, or the unanswerable questions in the book of Job, or the frustrations and joys, the highs and lows in the life of Jesus.  Throughout the Bible, one thread never ceases to be seen.  God is dynamic, not static. God has new experiences and reacts to them.
This is terrifying.  We don’t know what God will do next.  God is emotional.  On Ash Wednesday, we heard from the prophet Nahum that God gets enraged. 
Here in Genesis, we see God heartsick.  I wish I could see the pristine purity of creation before sin entered the world God made.  God, in Genesis 6, wishes He could go back a few chapters, back to that time when he looked at what he made and saw that it was very good.  All I can do is wistfully imagine such a paradise.  When God wishes something, God makes it happen, using the flood as a do-over.
I cannot rationalize the horrific notion of a God so angry he wipes out all life on earth.  There is no explanation.  If you want to take God to task on this, do so.  Through eyes blurry with tears and with a heart on fire, confront God in your prayers.  Demand answers.  I don’t have them.
What I have and you have is the story open before us.  In chapter 6, verse 6, God sees that “every inclination of the thoughts of human hearts was only evil continually.” 
Flip to chapter 8.  The flood waters have receded.  Noah is off the ark and offers up an offering.  It says in 8:21 God is pleased with Noah’s worship.  Then God says, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature on earth as I have.”
God does not apologize for the flood.  Human beings have not changed after the flood.  The condition that drove God to such a drastic do-over, the evil in every human heart, remains.  The only change in the story is the change that happens in God.  We sing “Unchangeable.”  Unchangeable?  Thank God, God most certainly did change.  Is it terrifying that God is unpredictable?  Oh yes.  Is the change that happens in God our only hope?  Most definitely.
God experiences the creation He has made.  God goes through things with humans, with animals, with the world.  We’ve referred to God as “enraged” in Nahum.  We can picture Jesus laughing as he tells some of the parables or holds children in his arms or jokes while fishing with the disciples.  We sense the pride of God as he sees the creation and declares it “very good.”  And in this flood story, we read that the Lord was “grieved” deep in his heart, sorry that he had made human beings.  But even in his frustration, we recall Hosea 11 where God says, “How can I give you up, O Israel?  My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender” (v.8).
God is emotional and personal, and God goes through these experiences in relationship.  Our hope is found in trusting that God stays true to God’s own self and God’s own word.  Easter is the best evidence that we can trust God.
After the flood, God saw that human beings are evil.  In the Exodus, as God rescued the chosen people, they sinned repeatedly.  Settled in the Promised Land, they ignored the prophet Samuel’s words that God should be their king and instead followed King Saul, whose reign was a disaster.  Crushing defeat to Assyria, exile in Babylon, and the humiliation Roman rule in the land of Israel all came, yet humanity continually rejected God’s rule.  But God continually loved humanity. 
So much does God love us, God came as one of us.  The Avengers’ enemy, Loki, compared humans to ants and himself, the boot.  The real God, creator of heaven and earth, became ant – condescended to walk the earth as a man, Jesus of Nazareth.  What did humanity do?  Crucify him.  What was God’s response?  He counted the crucifixion as a worthy sacrifice that covered the punishment for sins and took the place of death of all humans of all time.  He forgave all sin, rose from death, and invites all who put their faith in Jesus to be adopted as sons and daughters of God. 
In the flood story, did God learn a lesson about how to relate to humans, flawed creatures as we are?  I don’t know if your theology allows for God to “learn” things or even have new experiences.  At the very least, see that God feels deep, lasting love toward you.  God knows exactly who you are, all your good points of which there are many; all your foibles and faults; your beauty marks and warts; God knows you.  And, God loves you completely. 
When He sees the rainbow, he remembers to not allow his holy anger over sin lead to destruction.  When he sees Jesus on the cross, he remembers that he has forgotten – forgotten all our sins.  When he sees the cross and then looks at you and me, he sees us as righteous.  Our relationship with Him is made right. 
That’s how the God story ends.  Human beings, those created in the image of God, are reconciled to God by the death of Jesus and brought into eternal life in the resurrection of Jesus.  The flood story becomes a Lent-Easter story, the God story becomes our salvation story.  God draws us into an eternal embrace where death ends in “never again,” and life is without end.

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