As it was in the Days of Noah

Feb 18, 2018 by

by Bob Bond

Children’s Time:  The Story of Noah – Have/help the young people tell the story, and use the song “Rise and Shine”.

Introduction to Genesis 9:8-15

When the ark finally came to rest on dry ground, and everyone had disembarked, God charged Noah and his sons to be fruitful and multiply, and then we read as follows: …

Introduction to Isaiah 54:6-10

The writer of this passage – “Second Isaiah” – was among those people taken into Babylonian exile following the destruction of the major cities of Judea (including Jerusalem and the Temple Mount) by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.  You can understand that, having seemingly been abandoned by God in this defeat, and having no Temple where they might worship anyway, the faith and religious practice of the exiles could not but change.  Second Isaiah was a leader among the prophetic voices of this change.  Among his words of explanation, consolation, hope and promise to his fellow exiles, we read these words: …

Introduction to I Peter 3:18-22

This passage is complicated.  First of all, it is a hymn.  Secondly, it appears in the midst of a Baptismal Sermon, here being repeated to the recipients of “Peter’s First Letter” that they might be encouraged and uplifted during their present experience of persecution by the state.  However, the hymn was only used in the Baptismal Sermon after being modified for that purpose by inserting several lines about the days of Noah and the story of the Flood, which material was then built upon by the preacher to make several points about water baptism.

Having indicated various of the levels within and behind this passage, let us now listen for God’s Word: …

Gospel:  Luke 17:20-33

Sermon:  “As it was in the days of Noah”

The seasons changed as of Wednesday this week (Ash Wednesday).  Colours in the church have gone from Epiphany green, last Sunday, to Lenten purple.  The vocabulary in use around here has shifted:  you ought not hear a “hallelujah”, except the one I just said to make the point, from last Tuesday until Easter Sunday.  The nature of the texts we read, now and for the following five Sundays, has changed from a matter of epiphanies (glorious, visibly experiential ‘in-breakings’ of God) to often a matter of covenants (the ‘contractual understandings’, if you will, between God and humanity).  Our focus is now on needful, soul-full preparation for Easter-time: for the crucifixion and the resurrection of God’s Christ.

We have ‘come round’ to this season every previous year of our Christian lives, and – God willing – we’ll each ‘come round’ to it a good number more … which is one aspect (an obvious, ‘surface level’ one) of the image that our Preaching Team has put forward for this time:  the image of a spiral, recognizing that, yes, here we’ve ‘come round’ to Lent again, but we’ve also moved forward (we ‘touch down’ in a different place in our lives than where we were last year, and we’ll be in a different place next time).

Spiralling is a pretty helpful mapping tool for life stories.  Let me explain:  I’ll start by pointing out that if you were to reflect on it and speak of it (maybe just to yourself, maybe to some confidante), the most persistent and possibly significant ways you experience sickness in your body keep coming back around, even as you move forward.  (For me, it is my throat where I often have issues.)  I’d also point out that the most troublesome relationship aspects of your life may get addressed to some extent in one time-and-place, but they’ll pop up and have to be addressed again (like for the person who feels hurt again-and-again because they give so much, and one new friend after another doesn’t do the same level of giving back to them and for them).  And, for those of you who pay attention to your dream life: you know how dream situations and characters and themes and energy can be present for a significant while, then ebb away, and then months even years later reappear.  (For me, a touch-stone issue in my dreams across my entire life-time has been self-identity and self-care.)  Whether in sicknesses, relationships or dreams, people who track and reflect on the cycling (the ‘coming round again’ of ‘where I was before’) get to mine and work-on important, formative, deep matters of the soul and heart and mind, and of the way that ‘self’ gets to be situated in the world, each time round in new circumstances and with the benefit of everything one has gained since the last time.

Today’s readings bring out-in-the-open one of the myriad ‘cyclings’ that altogether weave the rich fabric of our scriptures:  we have gotten to hear (a) part of the original story of Noah, and then (b) three of the six instances when the story is remembered and re-used within the Bible.

A dynamic within such referencing (the remembering and re-using) is common across human experience.  As an example of it (and I know I have mentioned this before):  in the hospital setting where I work, past-time gets registered in terms of dramatic cases – either intensely tragic or wondrously successful ones – that staff have shared.  So you won’t hear the year named when recalling “who was Charge Nurse?” or remembering some other event or decision or innovation, but rather, “that was when the industrial accident happened at the such-and-such plant”, or “that was when the three-year-old was found drowned in the well and saved.”  We also do such tracking culture-wide.  “9/11” is etched right into those Americans alive at the time.  So is the first human step on the moon.

Well, in the near East, for the people of Israel and – by the repeated appearance of the same legendary story in other foundational texts – it is known that, for a whole broad swath of humanity, there was the experience of a devastating flood that wiped out pretty much everything that had been before.  This magnitude of event etches in deeply, and the sense made of it becomes part of the whole society’s consciousness.  It cannot but be referenced later.

Let us be sure we recognize the original event’s (“the Flood’s”) framing before we see how it pops up again.  The reason for the flood, as recorded in Genesis, is that human behaviour had become off-the-chart bad.  The story told just before the flood narrative was that the ‘sons of God’ – heavenly beings, “angels” if you will, in any case ‘that which belongs on a plane far above humanity’ – had become sexually involved with the daughters of humanity, and produced a whole different order of offspring named the Nephilim (veritable giants compared to normal people).  Rather than get too weirded-out which literalism would cause here, I invite you to hold this story alongside the chain of stories before and after it:  Eve and Adam eating the fruit that would make them become like God; Cain rising up over his brother to take his life; some time after the flood, people in the plains of Babylon building a tower to reach into heaven; and again, in the current case, humans and angels ‘getting it on’ together.  The problem is always the same:  when human beings, designed and put forward to live on the level Creation has for them, extend higher to lord over and take advantage of where-they-themselves-should-be-found, then the situation is wrong, broken, unrighteous!  So it is that the story of the flood begins,

5The 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. 6And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7So 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.’ 8But Noah found favour in the sight of the Lord. (Genesis 6:5-8)

The story goes on to describe how the many people of that generation carried on-and-on in their corrupt over-reaching while Noah built the ark that carried to a fresh start the future of humanity and all animal life; all those rest were cut off by the flood.  Then comes the covenanting that we read this morning:  never again would God wipe all things out. The Noah story is imprinted on its people (a) for its shocking devastation especially when viewed from the perspective of all those unsuspecting humans busily pursuing their desires; (b) for the exacting justice and power by which God acts to restore intended order (humanity put back on the level designed-for-it within Creation); and (c) for the overall saving activity of God (by which humanity and creation itself are put forward / “redeemed” and held secure).

We have heard several instances, in this morning’s scriptures, of how all this ‘comes around’ again.  When Israel is in Babylonian exile, stripped of every thing and every practice that had defined them as Yahweh’s people, feeling (=) ‘this close’ to wiped off the earth, comes God’s word to them:

This is like the days of Noah to me:

Just as I swore that the waters of Noah

would never again go over the earth,

so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you

and will not rebuke you.

For the mountains may depart

and the hills be removed,

but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,

and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,

says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

When Jesus, on the way to Jerusalem with his disciples, teaches them about the coming of the Son of Man (which, in Luke’s mind, refers to the return of Christ in the Second Coming), Jesus infers (a) it will be shocking to all those busily living their lives, (b) it will show God’s just discernment in just who gets “taken” and who gets “left behind”, and (c) it ultimately and recognizably will be about God at work to save … just as in the days of Noah.

When new converts were being baptized in the early Church’s practice, they (or at least a number of them) heard the sermon preserved in I Peter telling them that they, in baptism, are through-the-water being saved as Noah and the seven humans with him were saved by God.  The sermon interestingly also touches on the early Church’s theologizing about the Nephilim and all those humans killed in the flood, telling that Jesus was believed to have gone and preached to them, to save them (in other writing it being made clearer this was understood, in the early Church, to have taken place between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection).

Scripture has many stories and – within the stories – many activities, attitudes, relationships, reactions (both human and divine) that cycle round and round through the generations, through the writings, through the whole two Testaments.  They do so because they are the fundamental stuff of human life, including our own.  To think our post-modern selves so very different from ancient humanity is arrogance and folly.  I can perhaps best demonstrate the point by giving another example (a distinct example):  The foundational story of Israel (under Moses in Egypt, in Exodus, finally in Occupation) is the story – at some point – of every modern and post-modern person I’ve ever met.  Just consider any person (or group of people) going along on their expected path (in the biblical narrative: doing life in the land promised and given to Abraham); being taken way off that path by events beyond their control (in the biblical narrative: it was drought and famine); doing what they can and must to survive (in the biblical narrative: moving to Egypt where there was food); next finding themselves caught up and stuck (enslaved!) in the survival situation where they don’t really belong; struggling and bargaining through repeated attempts to break free, until actually escaping(!); but in their escape only by the grace of God not brought down again; and then in a wilderness of wandering having to stumble over and over in search of identity (in search of right place, right relationship, right order-and-balance, right purpose-and-meaning); at long last finally ready-and-able to re-enter a place and a path where they truly belong.  Do you see it – this ancient story, or parts of it – cycling through your own life?  For folk struggling with any sort of addiction, which is arguably much of the western world, that ancient story is perhaps the whole of their current reality.  Our human pathway as individuals, as collectives, as an entire race, is so instructively represented by the spiral.

The business of Lent is to become clear and awake about the truth of ourselves (which is to say (a) of our place in the universe, (b) of our grounded identity, and (c) of our actual hope).  It is a business which Post Modernism makes difficult for its citizens because, in denying authority outside of self, all the spiralling that can be known-and-understood from before (from our history) and all the wisdom from reflecting on it get basically put aside.

Today let us be clear about it being, for ourselves as a Christian community in 2018, as it was in the days of Noah.  Which is for one thing to point to the threat-to-all-life in our time, not from God breaking his rainbow covenant but from humanity’s reach beyond its place-of-balance-in-Creation in resource-rape, in environmental pollution, in global warming, in the inequities and violence of our economies and politics, in warfare and the threat of unleashed nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.  To be clear about it being, for ourselves, as it was in the days of Noah is also to point out how, yes, we pretty much go about our lives – eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, marrying and being given in marriage (just as Luke noted, just as the writer of Genesis noted).  We live in the midst of corporate giants, political giants, ideologues, celebrities, people of barely imaginable wealth (the Nephilim of our age).  In the midst of it all, there is a balance point where, by design, all humanity belongs (all together on that level).  God’s position and intention are to save all that can be saved, even when that is but a remnant.

From today’s Gospel passage comes further refinement, wisdom and clarity for us from it “being as it was in the days of Noah”.  It is a complex passage.  Perhaps later have another read of it yourselves.  Jesus teaches that the future never will come in the way that bogus prophets preach; the confident indifference of unreflective humanity needs always be countered by vigilant preparation and expectation; and human pursuit of salvation will not guarantee it for those involved.

People, by our Lenten journey – our individual and corporate spirals touching down in this time and place – God grant us clear recognition of that “balance point” (or “level”) where humanity belongs-by-design, from which place humanity had strayed so badly before the Flood; God grant us clear recognition of our location on this mapping-of-levels – individually, but more broadly as a civilization.  God help us, in history’s spiralling of “the days like those of Noah”, to see where and how we have in fact advanced, and then to make further righteous advance as we wrestle with the question, “What must we do to be saved?”  May this question – alongside the fear that rightfully always belongs in the presence of God – [may it] ground us in hope because it rightfully also causes-to-spiral into view God’s covenant with all creation and all God’s covenants with God’s people (about which we will hear across our movement through Lent).  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Pastoral Prayer

God of the covenants with Noah, with Abraham+Isaac+Jacob, with Moses and the Israelites, with Aaron and the priesthood, with David and David’s descendants, with Jesus and all who follow him, we pray to You in recognition that a fundamental question for us continues to be (a fundamental question for humanity must continue to be), “What must we do to be saved?”  Where the human race has short-circuited the wrestling that belongs in response, and come up with trite religious answers, like “live kosher”, or “just be baptized”, or “believe such-and-such a list of claims about Jesus (and be saved)”, God forgive our folly.  Where humankind avoids meaning-making in life altogether, and so

  • ignores all the feedback built into our sicknesses (individual, familial, societal, environmental, even global sicknesses),
  • ignores all the feedback from within our relationships, and
  • ignores the feedback in our dreams,

O God, continue to illuminate our human folly.  We need to find ourselves within the days of Noah(!).  We need to find ourselves within the days of Moses.  We need to find ourselves within the days of Jesus.  We need to find ourselves, Lord God.

Part of the finding is to be very clear that there has been advance as spiralling has gone on.  There is proportionally more literacy, and higher education.  There is proportionally less abject poverty.  There is less violent crime.  There is less mortality from basic sicknesses.  There is less scape-goating, less systemic abuse of human rights.  God, we give thanks for the advances.  Our lives are built on them!  Indeed, our ability to point to flaws-and-problems has increased exponentially on account of the advances made.

God, work within us, in this season of Lent, to find our place, our footing, our direction, our resources, our will to spiral forwards with a consciousness and an integrity that befit followers of Jesus.  May we clearly, solidly and effectively be on the Way that Christ intends.

Help us ponder / reflect on the aspect of ‘the image of the spiral’ which is that it grows tighter, closer to its centre, as it moves forward.  God, we are together in this place because we agree that Jesus is our Centre.  We do not want to touch down in the same old places in every era of our lives (neither individually nor corporately); we intend to ‘lift up’ and become less ‘hung up’, more like Jesus, more fully human, more integrated, more fully Spirit-endowed-and-led-and-fulfilled.  God help us become what it is that the body of Christ is to be for our world.  Help us to be the Word Incarnate for a world that longs to hear Good News.  Help us to be healers for the sick, prison-openers for the captive, eye-openers for the blind, tongue-free-ers for the voiceless, dance-instructors for the paralyzed, altogether agents of Jubilee whereby all people everywhere are equipped and set free to live well on that balance-point (that level) where all humanity was designed, by You, to live-right-alongside-each-other.

Father, each one of us comes here with personal matters on our minds and hearts (on our souls), and – to the extent that situations and relationships, problems and challenges occupy us – we ask that they also occupy You-and-us together, in partnership.  Lord God, we need insight, and wisdom, and creativity, and will, and power, and patience to attend to the complexities and the needs within us and around us.  Grant us movement (constructive and love-empowered ‘spiralling forward’), and by it help it to be that Your kingdom comes close, Your will becomes done on earth as it is in heaven.

For Yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever and ever.  Amen.

Commission and Benediction

Go into your world, in the love of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit, and seek to fulfil your high calling as followers of Jesus Christ.

May the Lord bless and protect you; may the Lord’s face radiate with joy because of you; may he be gracious to you, show you his favour, and grant you his peace.  (Numbers 6:24-26)

 

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