A sermon on Genesis 9:8-17 and 1 Peter 3:13-4:2, preached at Fox Valley Presbyterian Church, Geneva, IL, on March 1, 2009
If there’s any Bible story that is truly a part of “youth culture”, or at least the culture of the youngest of youth, it’s Noah and the Ark. If you do a search on Amazon for “Noah’s Ark toys” you get 303 results. That’s a whole toy-store-full of options!
When the Bible shows up in the toy aisle, I figure that’s a pretty clear sign that we’d better pay closer attention. Because, let’s be honest, Bible stories are often a little twisted. And if you can mass-produce the story in colorful plastic, you’re probably skipping over the difficult parts…
…as anyone who has ever tried to tell the Noah story to a little kid knows. Because, eventually, the kid starts to ask tough questions: like the people and animals who don’t make it onto the ark. The possibility that 40 days and 40 nights in a ship being battered by cataclysmic weather was not so much comfy and cozy as nasty and nauseating. That a grand total of 150 days with all of the animals of the world likely involved some of the most tremendous pooper-scooping efforts in humans history, and all of that doesn’t even begin to account for the bizarre appendix to the story where Noah gets drunk and naked.
All of that to say, that in one church service we are not even going to go near half of that stuff, but just sit for a bit with what happens immediately after Noah and his messy, mucked up menagerie get off the ark.
Noah is a strange place to go for the beginning of Lent. All you would think this has to do with Lent is the whole 40 days thing: it rained for 40 days in this story, and 40 keeps popping up in this particular season: 40 days for Jesus to prepare and fast in the wilderness leading up to his ministry, 40 days for us to prepare and fast (although likely, not as well as Jesus) leading up to Easter.
But here’s one thing to notice, one piece of this very strange Bible story, one place to land for the day. Think about what God promises at the end of the story: A covenant between God and the earth. And not one of those covenants that are a two-way commitment between two parties. This is a covenant where one powerful individual simply commits, absolutely, positively, no strings attached, world without end amen. And God commits to exactly the opposite of what has just happened. Never again, says God, will I destroy the earth with a flood. Never again will I let the waters that I controlled at the time of creation spill out from the sky and from under the earth, never again will I let chaos reign and destroy everything I have made. There is no condition. There is nothing for Noah to do. God just says this is the promise and God will stick to it. And that’s the end of that.
Now, on the surface, this is a very nice part of the story…we like it. It fits well with the whole children’s toy vibe of the Noah story. It even has a rainbow to make things look pretty.
But here’s the thing…think about what God is really saying. Remember why the flood happened in the first place? Because everything on earth spun so out of control that God could see no other remedy than starting from scratch. God made the whole creation to be good and peaceful, whole and perfect, but then sin came along, and suffering and death, and pain and evil, and within a few generations things were a mess.
And God was angry.
At least, that’s how I remembered it. That’s how I was sure the Bible said, that God was angry to wipe everything out. But that’s not what the text says. If you go back to Genesis chapter 6, when this whole thing begins, you get this:
And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.
God is not angry. God is grieved. God’s heart hurts. The whole thing is such a mess that even God cannot be the way he intended to be, the living God of a good creation, and there seems to be no other solution than to blot out the whole sorry mess.
Now remember that, because we know that God is wise and smart, and we know that God has some idea that the flood hasn’t fixed everything. Of course there was bickering on the ark, animals snapping at each other and Noah and Mrs. Noah getting testy with each other, and maybe a few minor fistfights between the brothers.
So hear what God is saying in the promise in its full beauty…I promise not to unleash chaos on the world again. I promise to hold things together, not matter how bad it gets. In other words, I won’t destroy it and start over. I, God, I choose to be grieved. I choose to suffer. I choose the pain of a broken world.
That is how deep God’s love is. God chooses to let his heart hurt.
In 1983, Nick Wolterstorff, a philosophy professor, lost his 25-year-old son Eric in a mountain climbing accident. He wrote to a small book as a grieving parent. And in trying to sort through his own grief, he saw God’s grief, not just over Eric, but also over the whole world. (I quote this much of it because I can’t say it better…)
God is not only the God of the sufferers, but the God who suffers. The pain and falleness of humanity have entered into his heart. Through the prism of my tears, I have seen a suffering God.
It is said of God that no one can see his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. A friend of mine said perhaps it meant no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is splendor.
And great mystery: to redeem our brokenness and lovelessness the God who suffers with us did not strike some mighty blow of power but sent his beloved son to suffer like us, through his suffering to redeem us from suffering and evil.
But I never saw it. Though I confessed that the man of sorrows was God himself, I never saw the God of sorrows. Though I confessed that the man bleeding on the cross was the redeeming God, I never saw God himself on the cross, blood from sword and thorn and nail dripping into the world’s wounds.
And here’s where I come to Lent.
This idea of God suffering is messing with one of the images I’ve always had for the season.
For years, this has been my working picture for Lent: we are on a journey with Jesus toward Jerusalem. It’s dangerous for Jesus to go there, right to the center of power, right to people who are threatened by his ministry. And even without 20/20 hindsight, the disciples and Jesus seem to know that this is a not a safe trip.
But the disciples go with him. They aren’t perfect companions, but they go along and try to be supportive as best they can. They make that choice. And if someone stopped them on the road asked them, “Where are you going?” they’d point at Jesus and say: “We’re with that guy.”
I think I’ve always thought about Lent this way: that we can choose to walk alongside Jesus and give him some moral support along the way. And maybe that means fasting or giving something up, or living simpler, or just trying to be more holy so that we can be good companions for him. “We’re with that guy.”
But what if I’ve got it backwards?
Because it’s not Jesus who is inevitably headed toward Jerusalem. It is not Jesus whose path is already drawn out for him, who inevitably has to go toward the cross, toward sin and death and evil. It is not Jesus whose destiny is suffering.
This is not Jesus’ journey. It’s ours. We are the ones who are headed for Jerusalem. There’s no choice for us: the suffering and pain are ours already. And if asked, Jesus would point at us and say, “I’m with them.”
And that, for me, throws all my ideas about Lenten spiritual practices on end. It’s not about what I can do to get ready. It’s about what Jesus has already done.
And so I do not travel with Jesus, I do not fast or give things up or add time in prayer or try to be holier to make the way easier for him. (And, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really very good at those things anyway.) I do not travel with Jesus, but thank God, Jesus travels with me.
And if I strip away some extra things so that I can see it a little better, so that I can walk for 40 days (or even spend 40 days in the stinky hold of the ark) and know that God is with me.
I can pull the extra stuff out of the way, see the suffering for what it is, and know that Jesus Christ, God the Almighty One, chooses to walk alongside of me, chooses to suffer, chooses to be wounded to his very heart by my pain, and the pain of the whole world.
And maybe even see that we are called, like God, not to escape the world, but to be God’s image in it, an image of a God whose heart aches. As Peter says, since Christ has suffered arm yourself with the same intention, and try to do the will of God. God chooses to enter the suffering of our world—that is what it means to follow, to do the will of God.
I think Lent gives us a strange opportunity, as well, to be the church. Lent is a time to prepare ourselves, but also our self as the body, to prepare for what it means on Easter morning to be the church, resurrected, triumphant, and in the image of Christ.
Because, if we are Christ’s body, if we are truly the image of God, then what the world should see is a
community that takes on suffering.
A community that chooses to cry when it sees pictures of refugees.
A community that chooses to give more when finances are tight, because it can’t bear to send anyone away from its doors cold or hungry.
A community that does not run from the sick, but embraces them even when it gets messy. or even contagious.
A community that chooses to let the world’s pain in through its doors, that plans its life and its future around the needs of those who need the most.
And so we are on this journey for 40 days, not because we choose to be here. We were already headed in this direction.
The only difference is that we try to hear the one who chooses to travel with us, the one who says: “I’m with them.”