Sunday, March 1, 2015

Phil Kniss: Laying down the bow

Lent 1: One more time
Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

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So this is the upside-down and inside-out part of the service,
    where we pick up a familiar scripture text,
    hold it in our hands and turn it around and around,
    trying to discover what it looks like from different angles,
        including upside-down and inside-out if necessary.

That’s a good thing to do with a sacred text.
    It’s not sacrilegious at all to pick up and handle the text this way.
    Yes, it can be a little risky.
        If you’re not careful, when you handle something precious,
            you can drop it and break it,
            keep it from fulfilling its intended purpose.
        Especially if you don’t realize how precious it is,
            and don’t treat it with the love and reverence it deserves.

    But it’s good and necessary
        to handle, and work vigorously with, the biblical text.
    Precisely because we treasure the text,
        because we believe God speaks to us through it,
            we must refuse to box it up and isolate it and
            and shelve it and shield it from our questions.
        If we do, we keep it from speaking to us,
            in our time and place.

So I’m going to handle the Genesis text this morning,
    and turn it upside-down, and maybe inside-out,
    here in view of us all,
        so that together we might discover
        what God would say to us today through it.

The flood story from Genesis is a terrible story of global destruction,
    that we have already, through centuries of Christian tradition,
    turned upside-down and inside-out in all kinds of crazy ways.
We have taken this horror story
    and turned into a delightful fairy-tale
        about a happy family taking a boat-ride with a traveling zoo,
            and after landing on a mountain-top,
            starting life over in a new paradise.
    So whimsical and family-friendly have we made this story,
        that it decorates walls of children’s nurseries
            (including ours right down the hall).
    It is the best-known Bible story in all of the world.

So since we’ve already turned it upside-down,
    and sanitized it, and made it into something that,
        to be honest, is untrue in many ways,
    I’ll need to do a little extra turning this morning,
        to turn it upside-down and inside-out
            in hopefully a truer way,
            so that by the time we leave this morning,
            we can all embrace it not as a horror story,
                but as the story of love and non-violence that it really is.

    I realize I just sounded like a magician
        preparing the audience for some sleight of hand
            he’s about to perform.
    Maybe you think turning this into a tale of love and non-violence
        is something I can’t do.
    But I assure this will be no magic trick.
        I will show you every move.
        And you will leave, I think,
            appreciating this story of the flood,
            for how it shows God to be full of love and compassion.

We first need to understand this is not primarily
    a story to tell us about Noah and his family,
    or to tell us about the wickedness of the world,
    or even to give us an account of a world-wide flood, per se.
This is a story intended, first and foremost, to tell us about God.

I do not read this as a historical or scientific account,
    but as a theological account,
    to give us an account of who God is, and what God is like.

To read this as history or science
    does a disservice to the sacred text.
    It takes our very modern ideas of history and science,
        and applies them to a text
        that was not written for the purposes
            we try so hard to force on to it.
    Doing so puts us at risk of missing the real Gospel message.

So I’m completely uninterested in any arguments
    about whether the ark was a historical reality,
    or where its remains now sit,
    or whether the flood was global or regional.
My faith in the Bible’s authority does not rest on any of that.
My faith in a God who is active in the world,
    and active in nature, does not rest on any of that.
    Christians who obsess over those things, miss the point, I think.

Some of us attend the Men’s Bible Study here on Tuesdays,
    and recently Pastor Jake Lee, from Harrisonburg Mennonite,
        led the studies,
        and reminded us how the Bible often
            takes ancient stories known throughout the world of its day,
            and retells them,
                putting a very different spin on them,
                to reveal some surprising truth
                about the character of the one God, Yahweh.
    So I approached this Genesis story with those thoughts
        still ringing in my ears.

This Genesis story didn’t come out of nowhere.
We know, as fact, that there were many, many ancient flood stories
    from many other ancient civilizations,
    that co-existed right alongside this story from the Hebrew tradition.
    The stories have many similarities,
        but they are also quite different.
    But it’s not a case of one of them being historically true,
        and the others not.

    They all share a similar purpose,
        and they are all successful in fulfilling their purpose.
    They seek to teach how God, or the gods,
        act in relationship to human beings and the earth.

    This story in Genesis grew out of the experience of the Israelites,
        with their God Yahweh.
    Other stories grew out of other peoples’ experience of life
        interacting with the gods they believed in.
    These are all teaching stories.
        They teach about divine nature and human nature.

The simple fact that so many flood stories exist,
    tell me that there must have been some major flood or floods
    in ancient times that gave rise to these stories.
And the fact that these stories are all told in terms of
    interaction between human beings and the gods,
        tells me something else.
    It tells me ancient people understood, and took for granted,
        that God, or gods, were active in the world of humans,
        and that events in the natural world
            were a direct result of divine activity.

Human beings assumed there were divine beings at work,
    and that humans could see evidence of it.
    So the question at stake here, in these flood narratives,
        is not what kind of flood happened, and when, and how,
        but “what kind of God or gods are at work in nature?”
    And what is God’s character?
        How does this God, or these gods, relate to humans?

I believe Genesis is divinely inspired scripture,
    not because it teaches us good science.
I believe it to be Holy-Spirit-breathed,
    because what I read there,
        as interpreted through the lens of ancient near east culture,
        tells me something about God that lines up with,
            and holds true to,
            the rest of the biblical witness about God.

Let me show you how.
    Knowing a little bit about some of the other flood narratives,
        gives us a better window into what this Hebrew story
        is trying to tell us about the God Yahweh.
As I said, there are many similarities to the other stories.
    But the differences are great.
    And the differences are meaningful.

This Genesis version of the flood is a covenant story.
    It’s the first of a series of covenant stories in the Old Testament.
    This first one show God’s core character trait,
        unconditional, everlasting love, for humans and all creation.
    It’s the same love Paul writes about in Romans,
        the kind of love of God in Christ Jesus,
        from which we cannot be separated!

    God is shown here to possess a persistent love for humanity,
        and a deep yearning for relationship with all creation.

    In some of the other ancient flood stories,
        the gods are more concerned
        about their own struggle for power over each other,
        and humanity is a mere annoyance
            that keeps getting in the way of their cosmic plans.
    In a nutshell—and I know I’m oversimplifying—
        in one story a Council of gods conspires
        to destroy humanity forever,
        but one lesser god sneaks away and spills the secret
            to the human hero of the story,
            who then builds a boat,
                saving himself, his family, and the animals.
    After which, the chief gods are enraged that he survived.
        Other gods, who thought the chief gods went too far,
            make the human survivor immortal, into a god himself,
            and send him away to a new life in another world,
            safe from the gods who want him dead.
    End of story.

The underlying assumption in many of those stories,
    is that the gods are mostly disinterested in us,
        and are locked in eternal combat, with the other gods,
            or with us,
        and we must do all we can to appease the gods,
            to burn incense to them, or feed them,
                or otherwise distract them with something they like,
            so they won’t lash out at us in anger,
                and destroy us.

Genesis tells us a radically different story,
    because it’s about a radically different kind of God—
    the One God who created all life,
        and sustains that life out of everlasting love.

Here we see, not a God who was angry and resentful,
    but a brokenhearted God.
    The Hebrew word used to describe God’s feelings
        about the earth before the flood,
        is not the word for “anger,” but for “pain,” “hurt,” “grief.”
    God was brokenhearted by all the wickedness on the earth,
        all the violence, the corruption, the chaos covering the earth.
    This was chaos humans brought on themselves,
        it wasn’t God’s doing.
    Humans rejected the shalom that God created and intended for them.
    So in this flood story,
        God does in the natural realm,
            what humans had already done spiritually and relationally—
                covered the earth with chaos.
        Water, a symbol of chaos, overwhelms the earth.
        And now the physical reality God wrought,
            mirrors the spiritual reality humans wrought.

And then, then, when the flood recedes,
    we see where this version of the flood story really stands alone.
We see the core character of the one God Yahweh most clearly,
    in what happens after the flood,
    in this morning’s text.

Rather than end the story
    with the gods and humans still in conflict,
    and the human hero of the flood escaping the earth,
        escaping his humanity . . .
    we have a restoring of divine and human communion.
A covenant, a one-way covenant,
    in which God takes full and complete responsibility
    to sustain human life and help it flourish.

Because of love, God is deeply moved after the flood,
    moved to anguish and regret at such massive destruction.
So instead of continuing to rage against humanity and creation,
    God lays down a bow, as a sign for himself,
        to never again destroy the earth.

God says, in v. 13, “I have set my bow in the clouds,
    and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
    When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds,
        I will remember my covenant that is between me and you
            and every living creature of all flesh.”

Nothing specific is asked of Noah or his family.
    God simply promises to honor his covenant of love
        with all the earth, all humanity, all creatures,
            all living things on the face of the earth,
            for all time.

In other flood stories, the gods continue to rage in the heavens,
    and humans keeping fleeing their wrath.
Here, God moves toward humans and the earth, in love,
    and lays down his weapon.
    Some have suggested that this rainbow
        was not just an arbitrary shape,
            a random splash of color across the sky.
        It was a bow, the ordinary weapon of warfare.
        God laid down his weapon of warfare against creation,
            and made an everlasting, unilateral, unconditional
                covenant of love
                that promised to sustain life and help it flourish.

So you see, this is not ultimately, a horror story, after all.
    It’s a true picture, a Gospel picture, a Good News picture . . .
        painted of a God of boundless love and mercy
            and tenderness toward us all.
    The flood narrative,
        that begins with chaos and violence brought about by humans,
            and is compounded by the chaos of the flood,
        ends with a picture of God who is deeply moved and grieved,
            a second time,
            this time by his own actions . . .
        and who pledges, unilaterally, to all creation,
            to never do this again.
        For no reason, except his boundless, unconditional love,
            directed toward us, and toward all creation.

Yes, this story has its elements of horror.
    But that’s not where the story dwells,
        and it’s not where the story ends.
        The story is moving toward a particular end:
            that of reconciliation between heaven and earth,
            restored relationship between God and humanity.

Yes, our human bent toward evil continues.
    Evil was not, ultimately, cleansed from the earth by the flood.
    We remain in need of continuing forgiveness
        and ongoing cleansing and repeated redemption.
    But we now have a chance.
        Because God laid down his bow.
        God moved toward us in love and mercy.

I think I understand better
    why the lectionary readings for this Sunday,
    pair the story of the flood,
        with these baptism texts from 1 Peter and Mark.
    At first, it seems strange to compare the waters of baptism,
        to the waters of the Great Flood.

    But on further thought,
        the water of chaos that once brought destruction,
            now, because God moved toward us in love,
            has become, in Christ, water of cleansing and baptism.
    By undergoing baptism we identify with Christ,
        who took the same loving and restoring posture toward us,
            that God took toward Noah and the flood survivors.
    Christ also laid down
        his right to defend himself and destroy his enemies,
        as Philippines 2 says, “emptied himself and became obedient,
            even to the point of death on the cross.”

    So yes, as 1 Peter says,
        the waters of the flood prefigured the waters of baptism.
    And, now that I think of it,
        the rainbow of God in Genesis 9
        also prefigures the cross of Christ in the Gospels.
        Both are signs and symbols of God’s non-violent posture,
            and unconditional love of humanity and all creation.
        Both are in the shape of something violent and destructive—
            a bow, and an instrument of execution.
        But in light of God’s move toward us,
            they are now signs of God’s loving and saving purposes,
            purposes God is still working out in our world.

    The God of Genesis 6-9 is not a different God,
        but the same God that sent his own Son into the world,
            not to condemn the world, but to save it.
    The Christ, who according to 1 Peter,
        “suffered for our sins,”
        is perfectly reminiscent of the God of Genesis,
            who also suffered, grieved, hurt, for the sin of humanity.
    They do not represent two different Gods.

The saving, healing, and loving man of Nazareth—
    Jesus, who was baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan,
        was launched into the wilderness,
        suffered temptation by Satan,
        was waited on by angels,
        and started proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom—
            this Jesus was not the opposite of the God of Genesis 6-9.
    This Jesus was tied directly to that God, in fact,
        as his baptism demonstrated,
        when Yahweh’s voice came from heaven, saying,
            “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

This is what makes the flood story a true story.
    Not its science. Not its historical precision.
    But its narrative of God’s love, without condition.
    I hope we have begun to be able to see that,
        in both Genesis and the Gospel of Mark.

    And I invite you now to explore it more personally, experientially.
    Might there be ways in which
        God’s love is even now trying to break through into your life?
        Might God be wanting reveal Godself to you in a deeper way?
        Perhaps, the circumstances of your life
            feel heavy, oppressive, unjust.
        Perhaps, God feels to you as someone angry, or eager to judge.
        Can you open yourself to the possibility
            that God’s love is present with you in ways you have
                not yet seen,
                not yet been able to imagine, or
                not yet allowed yourself to receive?
    I invite you to a moment of silent reflection,
        and then a second look, a second listen to this love story.
        Let us see how God speaks, when we hear it again.

    —Phil Kniss, March 1, 2015

    8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” (Genesis 9:8-17)

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