Have you ever considered the possibility that there are just some things God cannot do? If you or I are watching the evening news and we get sick of the violence of it, all we have to do is change the channel or turn off the TV… go do something else. God can’t do that. God can’t “move to the suburbs or close a door to hide from the violence. God’s eyes are not averted. God’s heart is not numbed. We see only the thinnest slice of human violence and sometimes despair. But God sees it all.”1 God sees it all.
One of the most endearing stories in the Bible – one we teach our children gladly – is at the heart of it a most violent story. I am referring to the Old Testament narrative of Noah and the flood. Think about it… God finally gets sick of all that is happening on the earth and decides that a flood is in order. Go ahead and baptize the whole lot them… people, animals, every living thing. Except, this baptism isn’t just a symbol of death, it’s the real thing. God decides to start over.
Despite its violence, however, this story of Noah and the flood has captivated us since we were children. It still does. Quite often, if you look at the art created by our children in Sunday School or VBS, there you will find an ark sitting high on the water with animals sticking their heads out of the portholes of the crudely-made ship.
But you and I know – and I’ve seen it first-hand – what a real flood can do. It does not make for cute art or sweet stories. Flood waters kill without respect. They ruin homes and destroy lives. There is nothing cute or sweet about a flood.
And it doesn’t take very long for God to get so fed up with his created world that he decides to end it all with the flood… at least according to the book of Genesis. The first story, of course, is of the creation. God declares his world to be good, very good. God gives the keys of his new earthly kingdom to his human creation and by chapter six it’s already become a colossal mess.
“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.” Chapter six! God takes a look at what his people are doing and says, “…I am sorry that I have made them.”
It just may be the most sobering statement in all of scripture.2 “…I am sorry that I have made them.”
Then, in chapter seven God decides to do something about it. Human sinfulness has gotten so bad that God decides to start over. God laments the world that had been created. In anger and regret, God brings down the rain and except for Noah and his family, and the animals he has managed to save on his boat, all is gone. Every last thing.
When you take a close look at it, you can’t help but figure out that it didn’t take long at all for humans to mess up the world. I think, if we really understood the implication of this violent story, we would never, ever tell it to our children.
But it’s an appropriate story for us to consider as we begin our forty-day Lenten journey. This is a good time – not that this is the only time, but it is a good time – for us to confront our sin and make confession of our guilt. It is a time in which we acknowledge that our sin is serious and our alienation from God is severe. It is the season in which we ask if we have done anything that would make God want to start over with us.
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I had always, even from my youngest days, looked upon this story as depicting God’s impatience. “That’s it. I’ve had enough. I declare a mulligan. We’re going to try it again and hope that this time we get it right. Let’s have a little rain.”
Peter looked at it differently, didn’t he? He says, “God waited patiently in the days of Noah… God waited patiently.” Patiently for what? What in the world could Peter have possibly been thinking? I mean, the flood takes place in chapter seven! I think that’s pretty quick, don’t you?
The story is told as if, after the flood waters have receded, God looks at the destruction and regrets having done what he did. “…the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.” It’s as if God repents of his impatience. God sets the rainbow in the sky and says to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
Maybe that’s why this story captivates the children. It’s not just the boat and the animals. It’s the rainbow hanging gloriously in the sky. Children, all God’s children, love a rainbow.
There are just some words in the Bible that are so strong you can’t help but know they’ve come straight from the lips of God. Grace is one of those words. Love, of course, is one of them too… as long as you know what kind of love the Bible is talking about. Add the word covenant to this short list. It’s a strong word, a good word, a word that could only be thought up by God.
And God uses it with Noah… which is pretty strange, when you stop long enough to think about it. Just a couple months before, God was ready to destroy everything he had created on earth. Now, God says he will never do it again… at least by means of flood. What happened that changed God’s heart? After all, we – you and I and this whole sinful human race of ours – we’ve not changed. Do you think God hasn’t taken note of that? The first thing that happens after this conversation between God and Noah is that Noah gets drunk and all kinds of bad stuff begins to happen. And it doesn’t get any better after that.
We see some light at the end of the tunnel when God calls Abraham out of his father’s country to begin a new nation of people who will belong solely to God. But then we run into his doltish son Isaac who begets the stupid Esau and the scheming Jacob, and everything starts to go downhill again. Four hundred years of slavery in Egypt and God’s people are liberated by a murderer. The ten commandments might as well have been ten wishes, the way Israel continues to sin against their God.
And things haven’t gotten any better since. God’s human creation is not going to change. That’s the guts of it. Do you wonder if God has ever regretted the covenant he made with Noah never to flood the earth again?
In every case, whether it’s Noah or Jacob or that lustful David or any of the other colorful and sinful characters that fill these pages of the Old Testament, we keep hearing God say, “Never again, never again.” “I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood…”
Time after time God’s patience would be tested to the limit. You can’t help but wonder how often God has been tempted to go back on his word. Maybe that is what Peter meant when he said, “God waited patiently in the days of Noah…” Truth be told, God’s been pretty patient since then too.
Barbara Brown Taylor makes a point that I think may be well-taken. She says the rainbow in the sky is not a reminder to Noah of the covenant God made, it is a reminder to God. God set the rainbow in the sky to jog God’s own memory.3 “Never again,” says God, “never again… I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood.”
Even the most cynical person alive cannot help but stop and stare at a rainbow. You’ve got your rainbow stories and I’ve got mine. We can remember where we were – and often, when – we saw a full rainbow covering the skies. Now tell me… have you ever seen a rainbow and not thought of Noah?
We are now in the season of Lent, that time when we consider just how far God will go to keep covenant with his people. This is the season, like no other, when the words grace, love, and covenant all come together to mean the same thing. And they all point to one person, the One who is the full and final embodiment of God’s redemptive covenant.
God waited patiently, indeed, and then God sent his Son. That’s all the covenant we need. During this Lenten season, may we all give thanks that God, in his great and eternal patience, loves us that much.
Lord, for your great patience we give you our thanks, and ask that you make covenant with us all over again. May that covenant lead us to your kingdom, for we ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.
1Martin B. Copenhaver, “Starting Over,” The Christian Century (February 21, 2006), p. 21.
2Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1995), p. 30.
––Copyright 2006, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.