This is the sermon the Rev. Allison Sandlin Liles preached at the diocesan worship service for the First Sunday in Lent, February 21, 2021.
The Rev. Allison Sandlin Liles
Lent 1B 2021
The story of Noah’s Ark and the Great Flood is one of the most well-known stories of the Old Testament. It’s featured heavily in every children’s bible we own and was a fan favorite of my childhood Sunday School teachers. Two parishes I previously served had murals of the ark painted on nursery walls with animal heads peeping out the windows. Sure, there are cute animals of every kind like kangaroosies that Noah leads onto the ark by twosies twosies, but there’s also a lot of death and destruction in this story. Like so many Bible stories, we’ve chosen to overlook many details in this flood narrative.
The flood story depicts a basic clash in human life. God called the world into being to be a faithful partner. God sought unity, harmony, and goodness. But that’s not at all what happened. The world basically became the complete opposite of what God describes as “good” in the creation story. The world at the time of the flood is an unruly creation – resistant to the purposes of the very one by whom and for whom the world exists. There was no joy to be found in the wilderness of the earth.
Creation refuses to honor God as God. There’s this fracture between creator and created and that is the premise of the flood narrative. A quick glance at the flood story might leave us to believe that God sent raging waters upon the earth out of anger and spite…that God wanted retribution for humanity’s wicked, violent behavior. I mean – when we hear God say to Noah, “I am going to destroy them along with the earth,” of course that’s what we think. Just as we overlook the death and destruction of the flood when reciting it to children or painting it on nursery walls, we also overlook verses that allow us to better appreciate the character of God.
For me, the most important piece of this narrative is chapter 6, verses 6 and 7, which are right before our reading picks up today. These verses read, “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.’”
In these two short verses we are offered a peek inside God’s heart. And what we find there is not an enraged tyrant or vengeful dictator, but a troubled parent or heartbroken lover who grieves over alienation and betrayal. Can you even imagine a human parent speaking these words? It’s shattering.
Human beings are not living into God’s “good” declaration of the creation story. Every behavior instead seems to be working against God’s purpose. So soon after creating the world and expressing delight in how wonderful it all was, God bitterly regrets having made any of it. God has been betrayed. Having created the world and humanity for a faithful loving partnership, God is now heartbroken.
The flood isn’t sent out of anger, but out of grief. God is not standing over and against creation, but with creation. This story isn’t about the victimization of creation and a God who stands watching maliciously from afar. This is a story about the hurt God experiences because of and for the sake of God’s wayward creation. God’s desire for joy to be found in creation, even in the wilderness, was not yet realized.
At this moment, God could have thrown in the towel. “Creation is not going the way I planned. It was a good try, but I’m done with the heartache and the suffering….it’s just not worth it.” God could have ended the world’s existence, but instead, God finds favor with Noah. It’s not clear why; we only know that Noah was a righteous man.
By the end of the story, God is in a different emotional space. There has been a change of heart. I don’t just mean that God let a handful of people off the hook and decided to repopulate the animal kingdom. It’s deeper than that. After the rain ceases and the earth begins drying out, God acknowledges that the flood hasn’t purged the world of evil and that the human heart continues to be corrupt (Gen. 8:21). And yet in the same breath, God promises to never again take action that will destroy all life. I don’t believe that this is God giving up on the world and leaving it to its own devices. But instead, this promise tells us that God is right here entering into a new covenant relationship with life on earth.
Our Genesis reading this morning describes this new covenant God makes with “”the earth” (9:12-13), not just human beings. God’s promise is universal and radically inclusive. It extends through all time and to all people. This covenant is more than an agreement – it’s a promise that is unilateral and unconditional. Usually when a covenant is made in Hebrew scripture there is an expectation of what human beings will do to uphold their end. It’s a mutual agreement that requires both parties to live into it. But in our text today there is no mention of what human beings should do. God stands as the sole subject of the verbs throughout the text and God alone takes on this obligation.
God is reframing the divine relation to the world. God softens the workings of divine judgment and promises to never invoke such devastation again. God makes this covenantal promise knowing that God will experience continual betrayal and heartbreak, continual grief, frustration and pain. But that is a price God is prepared to pay. God makes a commitment to be open to the pain, to enter into the pain, to absorb the pain, and to continue loving us without limits.
Somewhere in all the bitter regret and searing grief, God finds the capacity to love us – – – no matter how far we fall or how corrupt we become. God finds a new way of setting us on the path to wholeness. God continues longing for the world and its inhabitants to live up to the image of God in which we were created.
I imagine looking at our world today – God still feels deep grief and hurt at our resistance to live into this image. Rather than seeing all people as beloved children of God – we judge, we stereotype, we inflict emotional and physical pain on those who differ from us. Each time we refuse to wear a mask correctly. Each time we allow racist behavior and language to go unchecked. Each time we choose the quick and easy way over the right way. It’s clear that even though Christ has come, God’s perfect vision for creation will not be completely realized until Christ comes again. Thankfully God still hasn’t given up on us. God will never give up on us. Through the life, ministry, teaching, healings, death and resurrection of Jesus, we are able to find joy in the wilderness journey – after all, that is where Jesus meets us – he went into the desert to prepare for his public life and ministry, and it is that place of preparation that we find Jesus.
God built an ark of love and mercy to preserve us from destruction and carry us safely to the place where we can make a new start. It’s not too late for this new start. We can still live into this image of God and this time we are all in the same boat. What will you do with this love? How might you live into this covenant during the season of Lent?