A sermon preached on Sunday 18 February 2018 by Canon Edward Probert, Acting Dean. Readings Genesis 9.8-17; Mark 1.9-15.
The story of Noah and his boat and the flood is interesting; some version of this story is found in lots of different ancient literature from the area we would now describe as Iraq - in stories written down long before the Jewish people and their scriptures were formed. In the form we know it, from Genesis, God - enraged by the corruption of what he has created - determines to destroy it all, except for a tiny remnant. Having done this, and as we heard this morning, he decides he won’t do it again. Which is all very well and familiar, but raises more problems than it solves. At the most basic level of logic, and as was once pointed out to me by a four year old parishioner, the big flaw is the Blue Planet one: that most created life isn’t on the land, but in the oceans, and wouldn’t be affected anyway. But there are bigger problems too. Does God really get angry and wilfully destructive? Does he change his mind?
I think the Church on the whole makes too much of this story for its own good. It has a naive handiness for use with children, being simple in structure and involving a lot of animals; but unless we can take something recognisably Christian from it, we might be better off without it. So let me offer you a couple of things. This is a story about the intractability of human nature, and maybe of all nature; our tendency to corruption. And it’s a story about the fact that this matters, that God cares, and that he is committed to a new start.
As a species we don’t actually seem to need destruction rained on us from on high, because we do quite a good job at destroying things and people around us ourselves. Our species has grown in number, almost you might say like a cancer on the planet, rapaciously engulfing and obliterating what was there before us; as one of the more recent species on earth, that’s pretty remarkable, as is the fact that some of our most beautiful achievements (complex communication, complex organisation, storing information, inventing and working with tools, telling stories) have enabled us to be so expansive and destructive; isn’t it interesting that Mesopotamia, which millennia ago gave us so much that describes modern life (cities, bureaucracy, complex agriculture, organised warfare) also bequeathed us two myths of consequent destruction, in the flood and the Tower of Babel.
But we aren’t only destructive across the grand sweep of history. We are corrupted and destructive right now and individually. Take last week’s high school shooting in Florida. In a horrible way there’s no real surprise in this story, nor in the subsequent public exchanges; an individual’s crime and its individual and corporate tragedies degenerates in the United States into a dialogue of the deaf; and nothing actually changes as we wait for the next such event. Human destructiveness is there in the original crime; but the background I’ve described as humanity’s intractable corruption is there in the inability of that society to find remedies.
Lest I seem to be holding the United States and its guns up as uniquely corrupt, I should point out that my mother was American (where her State’s motto is ‘Live free or die’) and that her mother in small town New England used to keep a cocked and loaded pistol on her bedside table; my uncle and my cousins there are very keen hunters and own numerous weapons. These are all good and decent people and they take for granted their right to bear arms. But what impedes any restriction on the sale of ridiculously destructive weapons, and the access to these by very troubled people, is the distortion of the political process by the power of the vested interest of the firearms industry - politicians take a big risk to their careers if they challenge it. This is a societal corruption which leaves us knowing that these ghastly events will be apparently endlessly repeated.
I could of course go on, with examples from our own and other societies, but my point is simple: as a species we are, for all that is good and beautiful about us, intractably corrupt and destructive. So the end of the story of Noah and the flood, with its picture of God’s commitment to what he has created and his offer of a new start, is the thing to keep in mind, not any involvement he may be ascribed in the mass drowning. The closing image is one of hope: the rainbow.
Well, not actually the closing image. Because the next thing that we learn of Noah in Genesis is that, newly saved, he plants a vineyard and shames himself publicly by getting drunk. Humanity’s heroism and bathos within one man.
A rather different exaltation is described in Mark’s account of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry: at his baptism he is given confidence of his special place - ‘my son, the beloved’. And this exaltation is swiftly followed by its antithesis: God drives him out into the nothingness to be tested. And from the peak and trough of this rollercoaster he comes back into society to tell them ‘The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.’ Again, this is the stuff of new starts. The time is now, not some point in the future. God is here. We must change. The word we hear as ‘repent’ means something much less abstract: turn around. Sometimes that meaning is demonstrated in baptism services when candidates are asked physically to turn around 180 degrees when they say they turn to Christ. And, having turned around, to see and trust in the good news. If we constantly refocus our vision on God in Christ, there are ways now and in eternity for that intractable corruption to be lost.
So I commend to you, as a kind of motto for Lent, Mark’s simple summary of the message of Jesus: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.