There’s a lot I don’t understand about this story—about Noah and the ark and the flood. I don’t understand the flood part—all the devastation, people and animals, trees and grass, swept away in a torrent of water: rivers turned into seas, lakes into oceans.
This is a story about judgment, about human corruption of the whole planet, the entire earth awash in violence. “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created,” God says, “people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them” (Gen 6:7). God looks upon the violence of the earth and is overwhelmed with sorrow, sadness at the sight of what has become of creation. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth” (6:5).
I think “man” is the right translation here, rather than the more general, more inclusive, “humankind,” because the passage hints at something going on with men, a particular male violence. It’s there in verse 2, just a few sentences before what we heard. It says, “the sons of God saw that the women were fair, and they took them for themselves of all that they chose.”
Men taking women, whomever they want, however many they want. The wickedness of men, rampant across the earth, has to do with their possession of women—a kind of gendered violence, some kind of slavery perhaps. The sin of turning people into possessions.
And this sin of enslavement, this wickedness of possession, angers God to the point of regret, God’s despair. But, even though God declares the end of humankind, that all people will be washed away, God realizes that God loves people too much, that God can’t help but be committed to human life—although humankind born anew, born again, from Noah.
So, it says in verse 8, “But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.” God will start over with Noah—Noah as the new Adam, the ark as another Garden of Eden while the world undergoes de-creation, un-creation. I don’t know what exactly to call it, but the flood reverses the story of creation in Genesis 1. The earth returns to the formless waters before God spoke the world into existence.
There’s much to think through about life on the ark—with Noah and his family and all the animals. The chores, feeding and cleaning all of those animals. I’m sure there was relational drama—at some point I’m sure Noah gets grumpy and annoying, the kids get moody and passive aggressive, an armadillo picks a fight with a skunk. All those people and animals are stuck with each other for something like a year, if I did my math right. All the residents of that ark are survivors together; they become kin, a community—cows and humans alike. They live on that ark in God’s peace.
That’s why it’s a bit shocking, when the flood subsides, when the ark comes to rest on dry ground, the first thing Noah does is kill a bunch of animals because he assumes that God likes the smell of cooked meat. The first thing Noah does is take possession of an animal in an act of violence.
And God doesn’t say thank you for Noah’s sacrifice. Instead, God promises not to wipe out human beings again, but the reasoning is strange, because God doesn’t make the promise in gratitude for Noah’s burnt offering. God’s response is not what we would expect, and definitely not what Noah expected.
“I will never again curse the ground because of humankind,” God says, “[nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done]”—that’s the part Noah would expect after his sacrifice, after his burnt offering; but then God gives the reason why, God’s reason why humankind won’t be wiped out again, why God won’t start creation over again: “I will never curse the ground because of man, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth” (8:21).
It’s the last part that’s devastating. There’s no fresh start with human beings because even a re-start won’t solve the problem. Even Noah desires to take and possess. He’s like all the others. The first thing he does, after God’s fresh start, is to kill something.
I’m not saying that all of us should be vegetarians, although I think there’s something here in this story that could be read in that direction. Instead, I think the story reveals something about us—what we see in Noah we see in ourselves. And that’s the desire to take, to possess—and to assume that that’s what God is like too, that that is what God wants.
God never asks Noah for a slaughtered animal as a sacrifice. Noah just assumes that God lusts after meat like he does. And that’s where we see the danger, the logic of evil, of human wickedness: human beings who imagine that they, that we, are like God, that we think like God, that we act like God, that we share God’s mind—that we can take and possess the world, because we imagine that that’s how God treats us, that God treats creation as a possession. To be God, we imagine, means ownership of the world, as if God is a master, and we are slaves—to imagine God as the cosmic slaveholder, which justifies human attempts at taking possession of the world.
Instead, what we learn about God is revealed in a covenant—that God has made a world to share with us, and that God will sustain us. The sign is the rainbow.
I preached on this passage once before—only once, because I’ve dodged it ever since. But I had to preach on it, by assignment, fifteen years ago. Up the road in Butner, about 45mins from here, at the Murdoch Center, a state residential facility for people with profound developmental and intellectual disabilities. Around 500 people live there. I worked there for a year, in the chaplain’s office. I’d spend my days visiting with people, joining in weekday crafts and games, and sitting at bedsides in the medical unit, mostly in silence because it’s hard to know what to say. I’d just hold hands when someone would reach their arm to me.
On Sundays I helped with the Christian worship service in the chapel. It was a time of joy—of singing and dancing, and a sermon, a highly interactive sermon, because preaching usually involved a puppet show, where people from the congregation would be invited to help out with the sermon.
There’s a lot of thought that goes into church architecture—about what should be in the center of worship, about how to focus people’s attention on the most important thing. In many churches it’s an altar for Communion, in others it’s the pulpit, in some it’s the baptismal font.
At the Murdoch Center, it’s a puppet stage—there in the middle, a permanent stage built into the back wall right behind the pulpit and communion table. To preach there requires writing a script for puppeteers. Above the puppets, high above the stage, is a rainbow, a neon rainbow of lights against the wall that stretches over everyone—a sign that all of us, all of the people gathered there, are held within God’s embrace, just as God held a remnant of creation an ark, safe from the waters.
The ark was an early image of the church, sketched in charcoal on catacomb walls and sketched in manuscripts—the people of God held in God’s care, despite the convulsions of the world.
I looked back at my sermon from Butner from 15 years ago, and I realize that I should have written you a script for a puppet show. I didn’t do that, but I would like to end my sermon today in the say way I ended the puppet show—with a call and response. Here it is.
After I say, “we know that,” you respond with “God will hold us.”
one: When the world around us feels scary, we know that…
all: God will hold us.
one: When things in the world feel like they are too much for us to handle on our own, we know that…
all: God will hold us.
one: When other people make us afraid or angry, we can trust in God because we know that…
all: God will hold us.
one: When we make mistakes and it seems like there is no way to make things better again, we can trust the grace of God because we know that…
all: God will hold us.