Right before I started as your pastor this summer, we went down to Virginia to see my parents. And on the Sunday we were there my mom and I decided to worship at the local UCC church.
The pastor that day was talking about the story of Noah’s Ark. And he was talking about how churches love to use this story with their kids. We love to talk to kids about the animals going two by two into the ark: the panda bears and the owls, the cows and the sheep. And about how we tell them about the rainbow afterwards. And how on the surface this sounds like a great children’s story. And we even put pictures of Noah’s Ark up on the walls in church nurseries, which we’ve even done here, because what kids don’t like animals and rainbows?
And yet, he reminded us, this story is actually pretty horrible. Because the story of Noah’s Ark is not about a mobile zoo that Noah just got together and put on a boat. No. The preacher that day reminded us that it’s about God being so frustrated with the people on the earth that God decided to start over again with a clean slate. And that clean slate was accomplished with one great flood that destroyed everything except Noah, his family, and the animals on the ark.
In other words, Noah’s Ark might just be the worst children’s story ever.
I walked away from worship that day thinking, “You know, he has a point.” And then when I got here we started working on the children’s Sunday school curriculum for the fall, and we talked about how on the days that we introduced a new story to our children and youth, I’d preach about it in worship. And, wouldn’t you know it, the second story out of the gate is Noah’s Ark.
And so, Lisa just shared the story of Noah’s Ark with the kids during our children’s sermon. It even came out of this children’s Bible that we give them to use, complete with a happy drawing of the ark and the animals and very happy looking people on the front. And right now they are downstairs learning more about this story and doing some Noah-inspired arts and crafts.
So, if you are a parent, right now you might be wondering why you are trusting us with your kids.
But bear with me. Because I don’t think you need to run down and retrieve them just yet. In fact, I hope all of you, especially you who are parents and grandparents and other trusted adults, which means all of us, will think about this story, and have some thoughts to share when the youngest among us have questions. And I hope that maybe this story will touch your faith life too.
But first, we have to go back to the original story. The one in the text. The one we read this morning. God comes to Noah and tells him that God knows he is a righteous man. And even though God is going to flood the world for forty days, God will save Noah if Noah just does what God asks. And so, the ark is built. The animals are gathered. Noah’s family is loaded on the boat. And for forty days and forty nights, it rains.
Now, that preacher I heard this summer? In some ways he is not wrong. Scripture tells us that while Noah and his family and the animals were on the ark, everything else was destroyed. That’s not a great children’s story. God as the great destroyer is not the image I want our kids, or any of us, to take away from the Bible. And a God who floods the earth? That’s just terrifying.
I’ll tell you how I know that. One morning about four years ago when I still lived in Vermont we heard that a hurricane was on its way. I grew up partially in Central Florida, so this sounded pretty unlikely to me. I didn’t worry much. But the next day I woke up and went downstairs. It was raining. It had been all night. And when I opened the front door, the North Branch of the Deerfield River, which is normally just a little stream really, was all of a sudden filled all the way to its banks. And it was starting to spill out onto the lawns around it, and to creep closer to the roads and houses.
By the end of the day that water had gone everywhere in the valley. It had lifted old buildings off their foundations and carried it away. It had flooded the roads. It had ripped up concrete and asphalt and redeposited it dozens of yards away. It had blown out shop windows and devastated homes.
In the course of the day I learned just how destructive water can be. And that night I was standing on a piece of upturned concrete, in the middle of what had been Main Street, and a man who was a tourist was standing next to me. I said something about how unbelievable the destruction was and he just shrugged and said “this is just God showing us what he can do”.
I didn’t respond, but I knew that guy wasn’t right. God doesn’t send floods to teach us lessons. God doesn’t destroy us in anger. God doesn’t wash away all of creation to prove a point.
Not even in this story. Because as hard as it is, this story doesn’t end here. It doesn’t end with the flood. Instead, it ends with God remembering, and it ends with hope.
In the part of the story we did not read today, Scripture tells us that God “remembered” Noah and his family. The story goes that as God remembered the waters receded. And as they did Noah sent out a dove to look for dry land. The dove came back the first time unable to land anywhere. Then seven days later the dove came back again, but this time with an olive leaf in its mouth. And seven days after that, the dove left for good, and didn’t come back. And with that sign of the dove, that’s when Noah knew it was safe again.
It was not long after that that Scripture tells us that God blessed Noah. And even more, God gave Noah a sign. God put a “bow” in the sky, that we traditionally believe was a rainbow. And God tells him that the rainbow is a sign of a new covenant between God and God’s people. God promises Noah, “never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth. This is the sign of the covenant, for all generations.” Never again.
To me, that’s where the redemption comes in. And that’s where the preacher I heard this summer gets it wrong. Because maybe, just maybe, this is not so much a story of destruction. Maybe this is really a story of hope.
Like the Creation story we talked about last month I think that this is another one of those stories that we have to read seriously, but perhaps not literally. Was there ever a flood that destroyed the whole world except for one family and some animals? I can’t say that it really happened just like it does in the book.
And yet, I take seriously the fact that God gets frustrated with us sometimes. I don’t mean angry in the “hey I think I’ll destroy the world” sense. I mean more in the “why don’t you listen me” sense. And I sometimes wonder whether God looks at us when we are at our worst and thinks “this isn’t what I meant”. I wonder if when we treat one another so badly that it seems like we have no respect for God’s creation at all whether God sometimes wants to go back to the drawing board with all of us.
Maybe that’s what God was feeling in this story. Maybe God wanted to scrap it all and start over, because maybe it looked like we would never get it right.
And yet, God remembered. God remembered Noah. God remembered at least one person who would do something as crazy as build a big boat and put a bunch of animals in it just because God asked him to. And because of that memory, God promised to never destroy creation again.
I don’t think that it’s unfaithful to say that sometimes God changes God’s mind. Scripture actually gives us a lot of stories about God stepping back and saying, “okay, I’m not going to do that thing that I said I was going to do…I’m going to choose grace. I’m going to choose understanding. I’m going to choose love.”
And this is why I believe in a God who is still at work in the world. Because God has this covenant with us, this mutual connection between us and God, God chooses to still be involved in our lives. And God chooses love. God always chooses love. And things as seemingly insignificant as a rainbow in the sky or an olive leaf in the beak of a dove can be our reminders of that love.
And maybe there are other reminders, too. For me, after the flood in Vermont, it was how neighbors woke up the next morning and helped one another to rebuild their homes and stores. I saw that as a sign of God’s continuing love in the world.
Or maybe it’s the fact that this morning there are so many children and youth who are downstairs right now being taught by people who have felt God’s love enough themselves that they now want the next generation to know that God loves them.
Or maybe it’s just the fact that you and I could be running errands or shopping or having a nice brunch down the street somewhere right now. And yet, we are here. In this place. Where week after week we proclaim God’s love to one another, because we believe that’s important, and we believe it matters.
Maybe the signs are all around us.
So, maybe this isn’t such a bad children’s story after all. Maybe this isn’t a story about destruction. Maybe this is a story about God loving us so much that God refuses to remove hope. And maybe this is about how God works through us still to make sure that we won’t destroy this world, even when we do our worst.
So maybe we don’t need to go downstairs and take down the pictures of the ark, and the rainbow, and all the animals. Maybe instead we can point to them, and we can say, “No matter what, know this: Know that God remembers…and because of that, know that we can hope.” Amen.