1 Peter 3:18-22
Noah’s story is a strange one. I usually hear it in one of two ways. The first way is the cute animal ark story. In this, a zoo of animals ride a boat with little smiling Noah under a rainbow. You see it on nursery walls and stitched on baby blankets. Aww – giraffes and lions and zebras! It’s the story we sung for our children’s chat today.
The other way I hear Noah’s tale is as an awful story about God’s wrath and how terrible the Old Testament is. In this version, one day, God lost God’s temper, and so in a fit of rage, drowned every man, woman, child and even all the animals. Then God felt bad, and so like any successful abuser, lured God’s victims back with gifts and apologies until God lost God’s anger again in a generation or two.
Both of these versions of the Noah story the Bible doesn’t contain. The one handed to us to much more nuanced, and can’t be summarized neatly into either a story of wrath or of cuteness.
The story begins with how the world has gotten worse and worse. Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and were banned from the perfect garden. Then their son Cain murdered his brother Abel. And Cain’s son murdered another man. And chaos and violence and rape spread across the face of the earth as humans did.
Genesis 6:5 “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” Humans had become evil, all the time. The following verse reads, “The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.”
It doesn’t read that God was wrathful and angry. Not that God wanted to punish humanity. But rather, God regretted. God was sorry. God’s heart was heavy and troubled. God was sad. Not angry.
Genesis 6:13-14a – “So God said to Noah, ‘I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. So make yourself an ark.” God sought out the man who still honored God, who was not 100% evil, and before the evil could overcome him and his family, God told this guy God’s plan to save the world from absolute evil. God will make a new creation… but will save humanity, imperfect as it is, and give it a fresh slate to try again.
Genesis 6:17b-19: “Everything on earth will perish. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you. You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you.” Everything will die, and the evil will be washed away. But the seed of life that is still good – Noah’s family, these animals – will be released back into the world to cover it with goodness instead of evil. And a covenant — a promise — will be made. God says God will make the covenant, but does not tell Noah at this time what it will be.
So Noah builds the ark. And God God’s self seals him and the animals and Noah’s family into the ark (Genesis 7:16b). And we’re told that for 40 days it rained; and for 150 days the world was flooded. And still longer it took until the waters were down enough that Noah was able to leave the ark. Remember he send out a dove, and it comes back without anything. Noah knows there is no where to land, nothing growing. Later the dove is sent out and it comes with an olive branch – a sign today of peace! – and lastly the dove is released and it doesn’t come back. It has gone on to live in the recreated world.
And God tells Noah to leave the ark then, Genesis 8:17 “Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it.” Does that sound familiar? In the Creation stories, God tells the world to do the same: be fruitful and multiply. Here, in this new creation, God tells them the same.
Then Noah makes an altar, and thanks God. God smells the cooking meat on the altar and says, “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.
As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease.”
In other words – God knows we’re sinful. From childhood we start lying, harming ourselves and harming each other. God knows this – but accepts it. God will not destroy the world because of the sin of humanity. Whenever God intervenes again, it will be in a different way. God will recreate and redeem us from evil — the evils of our own hearts even — in a different way.
God tells Noah that we may eat all plants and all animals now – but that God will demand an accounting of our lives. And will demand an accounting of our animals’ lives. How have we treated one another? How have we been stewards of the earth and siblings to each other?
Noah’s ark story ends with God’s rainbow and God saying, Genesis 9:12-16 “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”
I’ve heard it said before that the rain bow is like a bow — what you use with an arrow. And when a bow is hung up, like a rain bow, it is a sign of peace. God’s bow – God’s violence – is hung up. A new way of dealing with evil on earth will have to be used, now.
I’ve also heard of rainbows being like a bridge, connecting heaven and earth. It symbolizes how we affect one another. What happens in heaven changes things on earth, and what happens on earth changes things in heaven. God promises to keep that in mind, and to be with us working together.
In our communion, we ask God to make God’s church — which is all of us — a rainbow of hope in an uncertain world. When there are clouds, and doubts, and flooding rains… we are the rainbow that says this will not last forever. There is still hope. Even in the most violent, most awful, most terrifying situations… what is will not always be. We can keep hope.
We know humanity needed saved again. And again and again. And God intercedes in and finds new ways to address the evil.
Consider Moses. Just like Noah, water is used to save Moses from evil, but the water doesn’t cover the earth. But just like Noah, Moses is saved by an ark. (That’s the word used for his little basket!) And like Noah, Moses is given a new covenant… this one not sealed with a rainbow but written on stone tablets and seal with blood of an animal and put in — here’s that word again! — an ark. This ark is to carry the tablets and be the movable house for God.
And consider Jesus. Like Noah, and like Moses, water plays a major part in Jesus’ life. The water of baptism. The water turned into wine. The water Jesus stills and walks upon. There is no ark in Jesus’ story, and Jesus doesn’t refer to himself as an ark… but he is, in a way. He is protecting, carrying, humanity from evil and into the newest creation of God. Jesus does tell us the newest covenant is sealed not with stones or animals or rainbows – but with Jesus’ own blood: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”
When God saves us from evil the next time around, we are saved through the covenant in Jesus, and sealed with the water of baptism and Holy Spirit.
The first letter of Peter writes to the struggling persecuted church to remember their baptisms. It’s not a bath for dirt. It does not make you stop sinning. It is an appeal to God to remember our covenant, and an appeal to us to remember our covenant. We are one people, many persons, but one people – belonging to one God. And it is together we’re all going to make it. Even those people who died in Noah’s days, says Peter, after disobeying God all their lives, even they – although dead – are offered to repent, apologize, and return to God through Christ.
In other words, says Peter, there’s hope. Even for the dead, there is hope of new life, new creation, new reconciliation and relationship with each other and with God. This is the covenant of Christ. A covenant of hope.
You don’t hope for things you have. You hope for what you don’t have. You don’t hope for sun on a day that is sunny. You hope for sun on rainy days. Rainbows of hope are visible only with storm clouds. Christ’s resurrection hope is only possible if Christ has died, and if we, too, physically die.
The hope is that the story of Noah doesn’t end with an ark. It continues. It ends with a rainbow, a promise, a new covenant.
The hope of Christ is that the tomb is empty. This symbol – a cross – is not just a reminder of our mortality, and of Christ’s death – but it is an EMPTY cross. Nobody hangs here. This is a cross of hope. There is more. The story continues. There is a resurrection.
And we need this hope, now. Our country is deeply divided. We’re told by our Federal Agents that this division, which has always been there, was exacerbated by another country.
The evil inclinations of our hearts were always there. The inclinations to distrust one another, to fear one another, to HATE one another. Those inclinations were incited, and we fell for it with glee. With glee, people passed on hate messages. With glee, we heard only the news we wanted to hear. With glee, we believed only what we wanted to believe. And with glee, we turned our own neighbors, our own brothers and sisters, into our enemies.
Lent is a time of making amends. A time of reflecting on our own sins, and building bridges – rainbows of hope – connecting ourselves to each other.
Lent is a time to reflect – what messages are we sharing? Are we seeking common ground and seeking the common good, or are we focusing on our differences, and focusing on just assisting ourselves?
Lent is a time to pray for forgiveness. A time to remember who we have issue with, and seek them out, to offer the olive branch of peace.
Jesus told us that a house divided soon falls in on itself.
Rebuild your house.
Rebuild your burned bridges.
The storm is happening, but we can be the rainbow of hope in this uncertain world.