The kids have been singing. For those of you who don’t get here early at 4 PM each week, you should know that you are missing out on some fantastic congregational singing these days. Eric comes each week with his guitar and the kids sit up here and belt out hymns, as well as some good old camp songs. One of our recent favorites has been “Rise and Shine”: “The Lord said to Noah/there’s gonna to be a floody, floody/Lord said to Noah/there’s gonna be a floody, floody/Get those children/out of the muddy, muddy/Children of the Lord…” If you don’t know it, well, there’s a host of people around here who could fill you in after church today.
It’s the story of the Great Flood. It is, in some ways at least, a pretty good textual reflection on the Biblical story of the Flood; it is repetitive and circular, looping back over the same ground as it carries a strange story forward. Tonight in Genesis chapter 9 we read about what happens after the Flood. The water has dried up, the ark has settled, the people and the animals have come back out onto the land.
Five months earlier Noah and his family and two of every living creature boarded the ark at God’s command to avoid the coming floodwaters. The Lord had had enough. Genesis says, “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth…[and] regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled” (6:5-6). It’s a terrible, poignant picture of God. There’s a character in the novel Shine, Shine, Shine, Maxon Mann, a brilliant robotics engineer, who suggests that the only things his robots can’t do are the three “quintessentially human” abilities: to love, forgive, and regret. Before the Flood God “regretted…and was deeply troubled.” Tucked here in the early folds of the Old Testament’s epic, all-powerful descriptions, we find a strikingly, disturbingly “human” portrait of the Lord of creation.
God decides to “put an end to all people, for the earth is full of violence because of them” (Gen 6:13). Human violence and corruption are the reasons God offers for unleashing the Flood. God instructs Noah to build a giant ark, gather his family and a collection of all living things, and ride out the storm. 40 days and nights of rain followed by months floating on the deep, dark water. And then the water draws back.
Noah, his family, and all the animals disembark. Noah builds an altar to the Lord, offering thanks, and God draws near to establish a new state of affairs.
“Now,” says God, “I establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth” (Gen 9:9-10). It is the first covenant in the Bible, the covenant the precedes God’s covenant with Abraham, that precedes God’s covenant with Israel on Mt Sinai, that precedes God’s covenant with King David, that precedes the new covenant in the blood of Jesus—the first covenant is here, after the Flood. It is a covenant between God and all of creation, “every living creature” (9:9, 10). A covenant between God and “the earth” itself (9:13).
And these are the terms of the covenant: “Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth” (9:11). God repeats herself just to be really clear. These verses after the Flood, they are full of repetition, so many of the individual words happen over and over again: “with,” “between,” “covenant,” “all the living creatures,” “never again…never again.” Swirls of repetition, layers of meaning.
There is no mention of the devastation wrought by the Flood. I wonder if this is because it was so self evident. Maybe it was too painful to talk about any more, too obvious—the destruction of the world.
And here we are, standing in mud.
Reading the story of the Flood on the first Sunday of Lent is a little strange. We had to cancel our Ash Wednesday service this week because of the weather, so let me remind you about this ritual and tradition we usually practice along with other Christians throughout the ages: at the beginning of Lent we smudge ashes onto each others’ foreheads in the sign of a cross saying, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is an act that reminds us of our basic mortality—that God created us from the dust of the earth, and that one day we will die and become dust again.
It’s funny, then, that the lectionary would follow Ash Wednesday with stories of water. Here we are on the first Sunday Lent, dry, chalky ash freshly shaken from our skin and we hear in church about the Flood. We also read tonight about Jesus’ baptism. “Water, water everywhere…,” right on the heels of embracing our dry, dusty natures.
Dust and Water. The contrast is stark, jarring.
In the Flood the water envelops everything, washing away all that dust God so lovingly formed, disintegrating all those carefully shaped castings, knocking them over and watching them crumble like a child’s beloved sandcastle before a rising tide. A sand castle doesn’t stand a chance in the face of all that water. The sea is always going to win. Water trumps dirt every time.
Except: water doesn’t actually do a great job of erasing dust. When I wipe down the surfaces around my house the gathered dust doesn’t so much wash away as clump. Dust is more resilient than it appears.
We often assume the Flood was a cleansing, the earth washed clean for a fresh start. But dust in the face of water doesn’t always simply resolve in a clean surface. Sometimes dust plus water equals…mud.
The novelist Ann Patchett wrote an essay in which she talks about the 2010 floods in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. She talks about the floods which began as “only rain,” the fascination of gradually rising waters and torrential rivers, and the resulting devastation to homes and communities. The devastation included whole houses, cars, animals swept away in the raging waters, but it also included the pervasive problem of a town where everything left—everything—was caked in mud. In the aftermath she writes:
The rain is over; what we’re left with is the life that follows weather…While my more intrepid friends head out to pull up carpets of strangers and muck out their living rooms, I stay home and do the laundry they bring back to me. It is thick with mud and leaves and bits of sticks. Every night when I’m finished I mop the hall to the laundry room and pull a dozen ticks off myself. I wash boxes of mud-caked dishes and dry them all and put them down in my clean basement in neat labeled boxes until the people they belong to are settled enough to want them back again.
Floods carry away any number of things, clearing surfaces of the ground. But floods also leave behind the need for a lot of washing.
Tonight’s story in Genesis is about “the life that follows weather.” It is about life with God, and the covenant and promises that God makes to Noah, to the animals, to all of creation. To us.
After all that unmentionable devastation the flood must have brought, after all that death, there are things that God does not promise. God does not promise to take away death. We still live with death every day. God doesn’t even promise that there won’t be another flood, which in itself is a little disturbing.
God’s promise is this: that “never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood” (Gen 9:11). No matter how the waters may rage, no matter how high the waters may rise. No matter if it feels like the whole world is drowning, straining for breath. No matter if the people we love are dying around us. No matter if disease rages in our bones. No matter if the world looks like it is on fire. No matter if we can’t see the road before us because of the white-out storm that blocks our vision. No matter if our communities are full of racism, and hatred, and murder and violence and war. No matter if the small, quiet moments of our daily life feel soggy, sloppy, slouching. No matter. God covenants to us all—there will be life.
It’s a negative promise—“all life will not be destroyed.” But I’ll take it; the promise is real, and powerful. If “all life will not be destroyed”—even in the waters of a flood, even when the chaos of sin overwhelms everything—even then there will be life. God’s covenant to Noah, to us, to “every living creature” (Gen 9:10), to “all life” (9:17) is that there will be life.
We see that promise in action in the life of Jesus. We see that promise in action in the story of Jesus’ baptism. In the first chapter of Mark we hear about John baptizing Jesus. Jesus is plunged beneath the flood of the waters of the Jordan.
I imagine the mud at the bottom of the Jordan squishing between Jesus’ beloved toes as John poured water over his dusty head and the Spirit alighted. I imagine Jesus walking back up the beach of the Jordan in his mud-caked clothes, the Spirit on his head like a dove. It is a muddy Jesus who the Spirit leads straight away into the wilderness. Right back into the chaos.
After his baptism, muddy Jesus stays in the desert for 40 days. He’s right in the middle of it. Desert, wilderness, dryness, starving, temptation, straining against death. Jesus is there with Satan. There with the “wild animals,” just like the “wild animals” of Noah’s ark (Gen 9:10; Mk 1:13). There with the angels. There’s a bit of everything. Everyone is there. All that potential for death. All that life. It sounds like the Flood to me, though inverted, riffed, turned on its head. Desert dryness instead of raging water. But a flood all the same.
When Jesus returns from the desert he finds out that John—his baptizer, the one who prepared his way, his cousin—is in prison. It’s a little detail we might read over, “After John was put in prison” (Mk 1:14), but when I imagine Jesus coming back to Galilee exhausted from the desert and the temptation and the wild animals and the angels, it feels like a last low blow: John stolen away behind bars.
And this is the moment for Jesus’ first proclamation of the good news, the first time Jesus speaks in Mark’s gospel. Right here, if you will, amidst the proverbial flood: “The time has come,” [Jesus] says, “the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news!” (Mk 1:15)
Maybe the kingdom of God is muddy. Maybe our baptism calls us to be, makes us muddy people. Maybe baptism saturates us so that our feet no longer stand lightly on the ground as dry, brittle creations set gingerly on the earth. Maybe the waters of baptism soak us and sink us, suck us down into the earth, rooting us in the promises of God.
We live with “the life that follows weather.” The life that follows floods. The life that follows baptism. Sometimes that life is free and flowing. Sometimes that life is difficult. It can be painstaking work, like washing the mud from our neighbours’ laundry. But it is life. The earth is still full of life. “Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all of life” (Gen 9:15).
And there’s more. There’s more to this muddy life we press on to live. For it is in our muddy, baptized lives that we find life not as it was before, but new. New life with Christ. Rebirth. Resurrection.
“The time has come. The kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent and believe in the good news!”
We are muddy people, living with mud between our toes and in our eyes and birds on our heads. Jesus calls us to receive the kingdom wet, slick with mud, secure in the promise that God will never forsake. “Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life” (Gen 9:15). In the face of raging waters God continues to speak words of promise. In the midst of death there will always be life.
“The rain is over; what we’re left with is the life that follows weather.” And so we receive Christ’s coming kingdom. And so we live.
 Lydia Netzer, Shine, Shine, Shine (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2012).
 Ann Patchett, “Our Deluge, Drop by Drop,” in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Harper Collins Publishers, 2013).