A sermon by Canon Tom Clammer, Precentor
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s quite difficult choosing hymns for a service about Noah’s Ark. Here’s the first one that comes up if you do a Google search:
And it goes on:
Anglican Hymns old and new, if you’re interested in looking at it further!
We come to the end today of our sermon series on well-known Bible passages, and I guess the story of Noah’s Ark is one of the best-known of them all. It’s probably one of four or five Old Testament stories that are always treated in school assemblies, and is probably actually one of four or five Old Testament passages the most people might still be able to name. The account, when you look at it in Scripture, is actually quite a messy and complicated one. It stretches over almost 4 chapters of Genesis, chapters 6 to 9, seemingly written by at least two different sources. For example in one of the accounts God instructs Noah to take seven pairs of every clean animal into the Ark, not just one. The account comes in the middle of the frankly strange and weird bits of the beginning of Genesis, where we have all sorts of stories that seem to be about making sense of the nature of the world. Just to take a very brief tour through the first 11 chapters of Genesis, and I do encourage you to go home and re-read those chapters if you haven’t done it for a while, here’s what we have: we begin with not one but two accounts of the creation, the first one a great cosmic account of the creation of the whole universe, the second one a much more intimate and earthy account of the creation of humanity out of the soil. After that we have the account of the fall, the casting out of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden following the encounters with the serpent and the forbidden fruit. Then comes the story of the first murder, Cain’s killing of Abel, then the Flood, and then the curious account of the Tower of Babel, the story all about language and why it is that humanity are scattered across the world.
Unless we want to read the accounts in these early chapters of Genesis as literal, then it is most helpful I think to recognise them as in a sense setting the scene, offering to their readership some ways of approaching the questions that probably all people consider when they look around them and say, “who am I and why am I here”?
The story of creation tries to explore some of the questions about what our status is in relation to the rest of the world. The story of the Tower of Babel is all about migration and population patterns, and why can’t I understand that person who lives over there? The story of the flood seems to be asking, and making an attempt at answering, some questions about the relationship between God and his people, particularly around why it is that the world contains evil and sin.
Let’s just remind ourselves of the whole story. We only heard of a chunk from the middle of it today, on the basis that we didn’t want to still be here as Evensong was beginning. The story begins with God looking down on the earth and seeing that, as the Bible puts it, “the inclination of all human hearts was evil from birth”. Because of the evilness of humanity, God decides to wipe out his creation from the world, and so opts to flood the world in order to eliminate the evil which the Bible tells us he is sorry that he had ever created. But, we are told, Noah finds favour with God and so God chooses Noah and instructs him to build the Ark and to take into it his family and either one or seven pairs, depending on which bit of the story you read, of all the animals and birds in order to preserve them. And then God floods the world and the Ark eventually at the end of the flood which is many months later, comes to rest on Mount Ararat and Noah sends out first of all a raven and then a dove to see what’s going on outside and eventually the dove doesn’t return and Noah knows that the land must be dry, and he comes back out of the Ark. Then at the end of the story there is a conversation between God and Noah where God sets the rainbow as a promise and a covenant that he will never again flood the earth in that way.
Two things I think are particularly interesting about this story. Firstly is that the flood doesn’t work. The story sets up that God uses a great Flood in an attempt to eliminate evil from his creation. But after the flood humanity is still sinful and evil. Indeed almost the very next thing that happens in the story is that Noah becomes outrageously drunk and lies around in his tent naked, shaming himself and his family! There’s something here in the story about trying to explain the presence of evil in the world. The flood story is there in the early chapters of Genesis I believe, to help us recognise that evil is part of the reality of the world. You know, we all ask ourselves at times of personal, national and international crisis: “O why doesn’t God simply deal with this.”? Well the flood story kind of refutes that way of thinking about God, because actually it is a really good example of God not dealing with evil particularly effectively. The flood is not a solution, and the developing chapters of the Old Testament through into the New tell the story of a still profoundly sinful and evil world working out its relationship with God.
The second interesting thing about the story of the Flood is the way in which the relationship between God and Noah changes, and by extension the way in which the relationship between God and humanity changes. At the beginning of the story God is ready to wipe out, to blot out, to use the words of the Scriptures, almost the entirety of his creation because of their behaviour. By the end of the story God’s approach seems to have completely changed. Indeed the sort of relationship that God sets up with Noah at the end of the account is a promise that he will never again seek to destroy his creation, in a sense that he is committed to his people, to you and I, as sinful and fallen as we may be.
Now you will have your own opinions on the nature of the story of the flood. Is it pure fantasy? Is it based on earlier Babylonian myths? Interestingly as a geographer there’s quite a lot of evidence for significant and catastrophic floods in the ancient near East in the centuries before Christ, which might provide a historical kernel to these accounts. What is I think beyond debate is that these are stories which have been left in the Bible by those who compiled it because they provide a theological, rather than a scientific, framework for understanding the nature of the world. Read together with the stories of creation, of Cain and Abel, of the Tower of Babel and all the rest of them, what we inherit from these accounts is a vision of a God who is not as interested in punishment as he is in relationship.
Which is why, when extreme Christian preachers say things like “these floods are judgement from God on [insert name of person who God might be judging this week]” I find that very hard to reconcile with either the story of Noah’s Ark, or indeed the broad arc of the scriptures. God doesn’t send floods and tornadoes to punish bishops who are homosexual, or women who discern a calling to holy orders, or liberals or conservatives, or people who are in love and want to get married. What God sends into all those circumstances, and into the circumstances of your life and mine, is relationship. Is commitment. The rainbow of God’s covenant with us today is bread and wine, is the cleansing, not destroying, water of the font, is the oil of healing: the sacramental assurances that God is here, and that the relationship that he seeks with us is not that of an avenging torrent of water upon the ground, but a man who stills the storm, who walks towards us on the water, reaches out to place a broken piece of holiness into sinful hands.