Scripture: Genesis 6:5–8 & 17–22 and 8:6–14
Collin marched out of the church after the worship service and drove home in a hurry. He ran into the house and down to the basement. There, digging around in the dark basement, he found what he was looking for, exactly what he was afraid he would find. In the family’s boxes of photo albums, there they were: pictures of Little Baby Collin, in his nursery, surrounded by Noah’s Ark. A Noah’s Ark border, all along the top of the wall. A Noah’s Ark lampshade, behind his proud parents, smiling and holding him up to the light. And there he was, in his crib, with a Noah’s Ark mobile floating around his head. The elephants. The giraffes. The turtles. And Noah’s floating Ark inches away from his adorable baby head.
He grabbed the photo album and ran upstairs, just as his parents were coming into the dining room with a pizza for lunch. Before they could set the pizza down, he thumped the album onto the table and pointed an accusing finger at the evidence as he looked at his parents. “What is wrong with you people? This is how you chose to decorate my baby crib? My whole nursery? Have you ever read this story? We read it in Sunday school this morning and it is terrible! It is all about the violence of all humankind, and the destruction of the planet, and a horrible drowning death of almost every single living thing on Earth. What made you think that this was a good thing to hang above my head every night as I slept? Are you some kind of sadists?”
Collin’s parents set down the pizza, and looked at each other, and just burst into laughter! “Come on, buddy, look how adorable you are in those pictures. You loved to reach up there and grab all of the animals. The moose was your favorite…you still love moose!”
But Collin didn’t give up. “OK. We’ll save for another day the conversation of how many moose lived in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia, but there is a bigger problem here. The whole Sunday school hour, I couldn’t help but think how close the story is to our world today. The violence and arrogance of humanity causing the destruction of the whole earth…that sounds like climate change to me! And how do you read this story and not think about COVID; six and a half million people have died. I mean, just last month, Gram was this close to being a statistic!”
By this point, his parents realized that Collin was serious, as they all sat down on the couch. On the verge of tears, he continued…
“How can we celebrate a story like this? And more to the point, how do we worship a God like this? If God is a God who destroys the planet with disease and floods and fires, how are we supposed to sing songs about his goodness and mercy? And why on earth would we decorate nurseries with this story? The question that comes to mind is not ‘Awww…isn’t it so cute?’ The question that I kept thinking all morning was ‘when will all the death and destruction be over?’”
Anyone ever feel like Collin? Climate disaster. Global destruction. Nearly three years into a global pandemic that doesn’t seem to end. Anyone else feel like they are on the Ark with Noah, weaving back and forth in the waves and wind, wondering when it will all be over? Our news feed feels a lot like Genesis 6–9, doesn’t it? So why exactly do we plaster the walls of our children’s nurseries with such a violent and terrifying narrative? When you actually sit down and read the whole story, it just doesn’t project “nursery room décor!”
So how do we set aside the nursery room story, and read this story as adults?
First, along with Collin, I think we need to take a hard and honest look at humanity. “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.” Like last week, this is an example of the failures of humanity spreading out across the whole of creation. It is a natural consequence to the sinfulness and violence that we perpetrate. Then…and now. The story of Genesis 6–9 is played out over and over again. It is not just a story about them…it is a story about us.
But I also think that reading this story as adults requires us to take an honest and a hard look at what it says about God. Even if we follow the narrative that this destruction was a natural consequence to human violence, where does that leave God in the story? I think that deep down, we yearn for the simplicity of the “nursery room God,” who has complete and total control of this earth and is working out a complete and total plan for goodness and beauty and cute little animals hanging from the mobiles above our heads. We want that God because when we look at the world of chaos and violence and destruction, we want someone to be above it all. We want someone to be better than this mess. We want someone else to be in charge because we sure don’t want it to be us! And we want that someone to be predictable and unambiguous and inflexible. We yearn for that consistency and clarity.
But compare that nursery rhyme story to the God of the Bible. Look again at the God of Genesis 6–9. The narrative is clear: God changed God’s mind. God had regret. God grieved what had become of humanity. God admits here: The plan didn’t work.
But let me suggest something here that might feel a little controversial: I think that is a good thing. I would offer that the “nursery room God” is actually an unhelpful fairy tale. Instead of the nursery room God, I would suggest that Scripture gives us a different picture of God: the God of sovereign flexibility. God’s sovereignty is not about predictability and unwavering clarity. The God of Scripture can change his mind. Come up with a new plan. Be flexible. And in the narrative, this is not a weakness of God, but a strength.
The story of Noah is a story of a God who regrets humanity, but doesn’t give up on humanity. Humans bring violence and destruction, but in the face of that violence and destruction, God provides a way through. There is a remaking. There is a reshaping. There is a boat. God rebuilds. God recreates. God restores. And what is it that a sovereignly flexible God does different this time around? What is new? What is remade and reshaped? In a word, Covenant.
“I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” (Genesis 9.11–13)
This is the first time in the Genesis story we hear the word “covenant.” It will not be the last. In fact, over the first six weeks of the narrative lectionary, we are going to do a deep dive into the story of covenant. Abraham and Sarai. Joseph. Moses and Miriam. Joshua. But it all begins here with Noah and his family. Here in Genesis 9, God practices sovereign flexibility and chooses to establish covenant with humanity. The text says that humans were wicked and violent before the flood; and then in Chapter 9 it says again they are wicked and violent all the time…after they should know better. The picture of humanity is constancy…the picture of divinity is flexible!
And again, these symbols of covenant demonstrate the flexibility and adaptability of God. A rainbow: a fleeting and ethereal symbol, if there ever was one. It is a reminder that just like any relationship, God’s covenant requires us to pay attention, to have faith, and to trust in that which is not super obvious. And the birds! In the narrative, there is no booming voice to tell Noah when it’s all over. For Noah’s part in the covenant, there is flexibility and experimentation and trust. He sends out a raven, and then a dove, and then the dove comes back and Noah waits a bit and sends it out again, and then there is a branch. But no 100% clarity. No booming voice. It requires relationship and trust and risk and…in a word, covenant. Like any relationship, God’s covenant with humanity is one of ambiguity, of patience, of listening and waiting, and trust in the sovereign flexibility of God.
I think that this is the message for us today. The sovereignly flexible God is remaking and reshaping the world, even in the midst of death and destruction. But for us to figure out what to do next, it is going to take some experimentation. Some walking with ambiguity. It is going to take some trust.
I want to take a minute and brag about our Spiritual Leadership Team. Over the last few years, this team has had to deal with all kinds of volatility. Unpredictability. Ambiguity. There have been no booming voices to tell them what to do next. And yet, they have experimented. Trusted. Tried and failed and tried again. Of course, I am speaking of the decisions of the pandemic, but really it’s even bigger than that. Leadership of the church today requires an incredible dose of flexibility! The SLT has been studying together a book called Canoeing the Mountains by Tod Bolsinger, about the flexibility and trust required of the church in these days. It was written before the pandemic, but has become only more relevant. A couple of months ago, we discussed a quote in the book, actually from futurist Thomas Friedman:
“We need 100,000 people in 100,000 garages trying 100,000 things—in the hope that five of them break through.”
Bolsinger suggests that this experimentation and flexibility are crucial for the church. And, I would argue, are learned from a God of divine flexibility. The God of the ever changing rainbow. We toss out a raven, and then a dove, and when the dove comes back, we wait a bit and toss it out again. That is what the work of the church looks like in every age, and especially in our age of constant change. And the story of Noah reminds us that this is the way that God has always been at work in the world! Just because God is flexible doesn’t mean God is arbitrary. There are things about God that are not flexible. Not changeable. God will always be love. Always be grace. Always be present with us in the world. But what those things look like in our world is always changing. So it isn’t something that causes fear or despair or hopelessness…it’s the adventurous, unpredictable, sovereignly flexible work of our Creator!
Collin’s parents looked at each other, and kind of had to admit that he had a point. The story of Noah’s Ark was violent and destructive and terrifying. And they weren’t quite sure what to say to his fear, his tears, his anger. They didn’t have answers to all of his questions about God, and the world, but they couldn’t leave him in such despair, so they told their story, as honesty as they could…
“Collin,” his mother began, “your father and I waited a long time before we were ready to start a family. We were terrified about what it meant to bring a child into the world. So much death and destruction and terror and chaos. Why would we subject a child to that mess? Why would we risk it? But in the end, we decided to try, not sure what would happen. And when you were born, there was so much joy and promise and grace wrapped up in this little baby that we brought home. The world wasn’t any less terrible and frightening, but you became for us a symbol of what could be good and beautiful. We didn’t even think about Noah’s Ark until after you were born. We went out that first week and bought everything that Babies R Us had with Noah’s Ark on the shelves. Because for us, the story wasn’t about the destruction, but about the promise. About the fact that in the midst of such death and pain, God was there. God created hope where there was no hope. God created a way where there had been no way. God made it a story of restoration and grace. And you became that for us. The joy and grace that you brought into our lives was more than we could explain. The smile on your face made the fear go away. The way that you grabbed for that moose mobile showed us that you wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
His dad was the next to speak: “Here, look at this picture. You wouldn’t know it, but this was a week after Grandpa had died. It was the first time either of us had ever lost a parent and we felt lost and afraid and alone. But that smile on your face when we got home from the funeral told us that his spirit was still with us. That God would not ever leave us or forsake us. You are absolutely right that the waves and the floods and the terror is real, and we wish that we could always protect you from it. But in the end, we chose to live into the promise—and still do—that God is on the boat with us. That the world is being remade and reborn. That there will always be death and destruction, but it is never the end of the story. There is always a rainbow on the other side.”
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