We think we know Noah’s story. Infants learn about Noah and the ark in children’s books read to them at night. As toddlers, my kids took on Noah’s role as they moved finger-sized stuffed animals in and out of the cut out opening in the made from cloth, diaper bag sized ark. Noah’s family could never have imagined their epic tale so… tamed: a faithful family, surrounded by compliant animals, surviving a most terrible storm to see a beautiful rainbow in the sky as a message from God that a flood kind of destruction, at the hands of God, would never happen again. This is just one version of the story.
Another version is harsh and far from child-friendly. In this telling, God is so angered by human sin and rebellion that God floods the whole earth, destroying everything. Filled with rage and regret about what humanity has become, God decides it’s time for a “do-over”, to start again, from scratch. Well, almost. Somehow Noah and his family escape God’s wrath. God includes them in whatever God will create next — God’s new creation. This version doesn’t get the same kind of press as version one. Understandably. No one is looking for a relationship with a God who with holy determination sets out to destroy all that exists.
Of course, we know that neither of these versions captures the whole of the story. Which is maybe why we never tire of hearing it. Maybe this time we’ll hear something new. Maybe this time we’ll catch a glimpse of something we hadn’t seen or heard or understood before. We return to it again and again to learn, to listen, to remember a story that is bigger than we can ever fully understand. It’s a story woven into our identity as people of faith caught up in the mystery of the Divine.
We’re retelling Noah’s story because in conversation with parents and families this past year, we heard a desire to focus on fundamental Bible stories — stories that have shaped us in ways that are sometimes healthy, sometimes hurtful. We don’t need to run or hide from that truth. The stories are big enough for questions and doubts, for our wonderings and worry. God’s Holy Spirit invites us to bring our whole self to these stories, with ears, hearts, and minds open to receiving God’s Word. These stories have been passed on from generation to generation because they reveal something about who God is, who we are, and what God is up to in the world. And aren’t we all hungry for that?
Noah’s story is one of these stories. The story of the flood (Genesis 6-9) is the culmination of the story of humanity’s trajectory since sin first shows up. In Genesis 3 Adam and Eve disobey God and disharmony follows to the tragedy of murder between brothers in Chapter 4. And it only gets worse. The continued downward spiral of destruction and death breaks God’s heart and removes God’s hope that harmony for and within creation can ever be restored.
We may not know all the details of the world in which Noah lives, but that doesn’t keep us from seeing ourselves in the story. We know evil and violence still exists. We contribute to the disharmony in our world. Our planet is threatened — not by God’s rage but by our own doing, by our self-centered behavior that fails to act for the sake of the other, be they people, or creatures, or plants.
The next generation is calling us to task about this. They’re calling for urgent action in matters of gun safety and climate change. In Friday’s #climatestrike millions of people from Sydney to Manila, Dhaka to London and New York marched to draw attention to the latter issue. We may not agree about what marching accomplishes but the why we care for the planet and people isn’t up for debate. It’s in our DNA as creatures created in the image of God.
And what if that’s the crisis in Noah’s story… Not just the flood, but, as theologian Walter Brueggeman writes: “the resistant character of the world which evokes hurt and grief in the heart of God.”
We don’t actually learn a whole lot about Noah in this story. The writer gives us a few character traits that set Noah and his family apart from the rest of humanity. For one thing, they walk with God, which paints a picture of living alongside and in close proximity to their creator. Walking with God is a mindfulness of God’s presence in every moment and in all situations. Noah is righteous and blameless in his generation because he walks with God. And because Noah and his family walk with God, there is hope in this story. In their faith, God sees possibility — possibility for life apart from the sin and suffering that exists.
That’s about all we get on Noah. We do we learn about Noah’s obedience, that he does as God commands him. And we learn that after the flood, before anything else, Noah and his family start this new life with worship. That’s something that would be helpful for us to remember: to give God thanks and praise to God in all circumstances.
We also learn that Noah’s not perfect. For after the flood, even as part of God’s new creation — sin remains. But God’s made a promise. God remains on a relentless pursuit to restore us and to heal the world. That’s about all we get on Noah. We get a whole lot more about God.
This story teaches that God is impacted by the condition of creation. Evil, suffering, and pain grieves God, which means that God not only sees us but takes on our suffering into God’s own heart. Enters into whatever the circumstance and experiences the brokenness of creation. God isn’t off somewhere watching from a distance. God chooses to enter into this life. God is present. God cares. God loves. God grieves. God acts. This is how God chooses to show up, opening God’s own heart to the pain and suffering of the world.
God’s character is most clearly revealed in Jesus at the cross. In today’s Gospel, it’s one of the last conversations Jesus has with his disciples. It’s following the last supper. Some had confessed that Jesus was the Messiah they’d been waiting for. But not all had that kind of faith. Still, all were welcomed to the table. Still true today.
After the meal, Jesus got up from the table and washed his disciples’ feet. It’s a gesture to reveal the depth of his love: a willingness to set aside divine power and authority for them; Jesus lays down his life for them that they would be free to live and to love in the way that God already loves them.
Jesus warns them. His death was imminent: “The hour has come,” he said, “for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
The thought of his death terrifies the disciples. But there is no other way. Jesus is obedient to death. God is all in on this. Always has been. Always will be.
God is all in for you. God comes close — entering into creation so that all of creation is free to begin again. Like Noah in the waters of the flood, you have been swept up into the waters of baptism and given God’s promise that you are saved, that you are loved. You are forgiven. You are free to begin again. Jesus poured out his life for you, to bring you back to life, to give you hope that there is always and forever the possibility to begin again. God does not give up on you or me. God just keeps showing up, loving us into what’s possible in life with Jesus — who is the way, the truth and the life. Amen.