February 22, 2015
William G. Carter
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. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’
I’m sure you noticed: God is doing all the talking. Noah can’t get a word in edgewise, and he doesn’t dare interrupt. After forty days and nights of rain, after the terrible washing-away of sin and sinful people, God gives a speech to the handpicked family that survived his flood. The speech can be summed up in one word, a word God uses seven times in nine verses. The word is “covenant.”
“Covenant” begins as God’s word. That’s the word we are going to live with during Lent. A covenant is an agreement. When God makes a covenant, it is usually pretty one-sided.
As we’ve heard today, the very first covenant is given to Noah and his children. That means it’s a covenant with us, an agreement with the whole human family. Every person alive today is not only a child of Adam and Eve, but also a child of Noah and his wife. All of us are great-grandchildren of the flood. All of us are survivors of God’s terrible judgment.
That’s not always obvious. The story of Noah and the ark is usually treated as a children’s story. It’s the subject of VBS lessons and youth group musicals. Kermit the Frog sang a rainbow song. Before he sank in deep water, Bill Cosby asked, “Hey Noah, how long can your tread water?” And you can go over to Toys-R-Us and buy the Fisher-Price version of Noah and the ark. For only $19.99, you get two zebras, two giraffes, two toucans, two old humans, and a big plastic boat that will float in your bathtub. Additional animals are available in pairs at an additional price. You might think this is a story about a big floating zoo…
… Except that it’s really a story about how God intended to get rid of all the people of the world. Like the cartoon that appeared in The New Yorker. God is standing on a cloud, looks down the earth, and says, “What was I thinking?” The Bible begins with abundance and joy and heavenly delight, but by the sixth chapter of Genesis, it has become a dark story, a terrible story. What God called “good” on the day of creation is now saturated by evil. And God regrets the whole mess.
Certainly God had his reasons. It was his world, and God made it, but it was turning out poorly. One day, God looked around and saw the cruelty and the violence that people inflict on one another. And God said, “All these people think about is evil. All they do is hurt and destroy.” So God decided to destroy all of them. God didn’t need these people to feel complete. God wasn’t very happy about making an imperfect world. So God decided to wipe the slate clean. Wash everything away. That would set God free to go other places and do other things.
The only kink in the plan is that God looked down and saw Noah. God remembered him, and said, “Well, Noah isn’t so bad.” And that’s the only reason that you and I are here today. If it weren’t for Noah, the human race would be extinct. But God remembered Noah, and God said, “I think I can work with him.”
When we read this story as grown-ups, we hear all kinds of legendary touches. Noah was five hundred years old when he became a parent. He was six hundred years old when the rain started to fall. At that advanced age, he was able to build a boat to hold two of every known species. He was able to line up two crocodiles and two elephants and two mosquitoes without getting hurt.
It sounds to a lot of people like an ancient legend. Just for the record, I think we can believe all of this without having to take it literally, because there is the deeper truth, and what it teaches us about God: that God had every intention of wiping out the human race until he looked down and remembered Noah.
It must make God very sad to create a world that doesn’t turn out very well. You create people with the capacity to love, and their hearts are bent on destruction. You give them seeds so they can plant gardens, and next thing you know some of them are hoarding the bread while others are going hungry. You give them hands to work with metal, and they start building spears. You give them beautiful acres of land to enjoy, and they start selling tickets for admission and strip-mining every available mineral.
God made the humans good, but they turned out worse than the animals. In the jungle, at least, animals survive by being fit. Human beings, on the other hand, manipulate, exploit, scheme, and plunder. They don’t have to sink their claws into one another, but they do. Unlike the wild animals, grown-up people torture one another, teenagers play mind games, and grade-school children humiliate other kids. No doubt, God has always had every reason to be very sad. In the words of one rabbi, “The great flood was supplied by God’s tears.”
But through the tears, God looked down and saw Noah. And God saw Noah’s wife (whatever her name was). And God saw Noah’s three sons, and Noah’s three daughters in law. Something softened in the Creator’s heart, and God thought, “Maybe I can work with them after all. Maybe I can make something of them without having to start over from scratch.”
A number of years ago, Bill Moyers brought together a lot of different people to talk about the stories of Genesis. It is a text in common for Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Moyers thought it would be fruitful to host some conversations around the ancient texts, and he was right. On one of the television shows based on those conversations, he asked the members of his panel what kind of headline each one would write to describe the Noah story. A newspaper editor responded with something predictable, like “God Destroys World.”
One of the other panelists was the Rev. Dr. Samuel Proctor, for many years the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the leading church in Harlem. Dr. Proctor suggested an alternative headline: “God Gives Humans Second Chance.” Proctor went on to say he learned the Noah story from his father, a Sunday school teacher. “Sometimes we laughed at the ridiculous aspects of it,” he said with a smile, “but we didn’t try to rewrite it. We drew from it what it said right then to the people and went on.”
He said, “Every Wednesday, my daddy would press his trousers and go down to the Philharmonic Glee Club rehearsal. These sixty black guys – table waiters, coal trimmers, truck drivers – would give one big concert a year to the white population. We couldn’t sit where we wanted to, even though our daddy was singing – we had to sit in the back. But in the midst of all that rejection, hate, and spite, they went. And do you know the song they sang at the close of the concert? They sang. ‘Yesterday the skies were grey, but look this morning they are blue. The world is singing the son of the dawn.” Noah! Sixty black guys in tuxedos in the 1920s, with lynching everywhere and hatred. But they had something we need to recover right now. I can’t turn loose this story of Noah and the flood because after all of the devastation, there’s a rainbow. I can’t take that bow and the cloud out of my universe. I’m not going to live without that kind of hope. That’s what that story means to me.”
Here is the hope: after every rainfall, there is a rainbow somewhere. God takes his bow, his very weapon of war, and puts it up in the sky. The point is there will be no more arrows from heaven to earth. God is going to live by another way. God will influence us without resorting to intimidating us. The next time a flood comes, we can be absolutely sure that it isn’t coming out of judgment or wrath. God tried that once, and decided never to try it again. There’s always Noah, that interesting 600-year-old man whose very presence suggests that the human race is worthy of a second chance.
The first covenant that God makes is a self-imposed restraining order. God says, “I won’t use nature to wipe out the human race.” Of course, if we choose to poison the environment or stir up storms through global warming, that is the result of our own stupidity, further evidence of our self-destructive tendencies. But God chooses to stick with us, with steadfast love and self-restraint.
The rainbow is God’s eternal Post-It note, a continuing reminder that the Creator of every person is in favor of the human race. And if God forgets about mercy, God has that rainbow in the sky. When God has a bad day, when God is disgusted with the manipulations and machinations of the human animal, God sees the rainbow, a wide spectrum of different colors each blended together to make the light of the world, and God decides once again that destroying all of us is no way forward.
Elie Wiesel once said, “God created us because God loves good stories.” The story of the human family continues and moves forward. We can be sure that God is regularly disappointed with some of our plot twists. As God knows all too well, flooding the world never did wash away the human tendency to sin, and some of our stories still get stuck in the mud. But we can be even more certain that God chooses to keep living with the human story, if only because God is the beginning and end of it. God looks at the rainbow and remembers us, and the world is given another chance.
God remembers, and we shall remember. We can pray with Psalmist, “God, remember not the sins of my youth; Lord, according to your steadfast love, remember me” (Psalm 25:7). And maybe we will find in that prayer the strength to turn from all that is cruel and destructive within ourselves.
In the final word, it is entirely up to God, who creates us with good will, who judges us in complete fairness, who calls us to live holy and joyful lives. We may be genetically disposed to resist the God who loved us even before we were born. But our future is entirely up to God. We remember that, too.
So let us turn away from sin and turn to the One who can save us, praying ‘til the last possible moment, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.
 Bill Moyers, Genesis: A Living Conversation (New York: Doubleday, 1996) 133.