Sunday, September 18, 2022

Phil Kniss: The Great Flood Story—The Original Whodunnit

Covenant with Creation
Genesis 6:5-22; 8:6-12; 9:8-17

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Today I preach on the world’s most famous story.
    Most famous. Of all stories. And I don’t think I’m exaggerating.
    Anyone in the world
        who has ever heard anything at all about our Bible,
        has probably heard about Noah and the Ark.
    And . . . if they haven’t been exposed to our sacred stories,
        they probably have their own set of sacred stories,
        and one of those is probably a story about a great flood,
            with striking similarities to ours.

But before I get to Genesis 6-9,
    I need to clear the table of some distractions.
    There are three ways Christians often deal with this story.

First, in just about every Christian audience,
    there will be some people who make the story acceptable,
    by turning it into something whimsical and romantic,
        child-friendly enough to decorate walls of church nurseries.
    And yes, you haven’t been in it for a while,
        our own church nursery is whimsically decorated
        with pictures of Noah and his family
            taking a boatload of cute animal couples
            on a long cruise.

Secondly, there will be those who do the exact opposite—
    who reject the story as repulsive and abhorrent,
        a story of a violent God that has no place in our theology,
        but sadly reflects
            the violent world view of the ancient writers.

Thirdly, there may be those who deal with this story
    as science and history,
    making it into something that actually took place in ancient times,
        and must be accepted as such to honor the truth of scripture.

Spoiler alert!
    None of those are the sermon you’re getting today.

Some of those approaches have their appeal.
    At least one of them makes great nursery wallpaper.
    And actually, there’s nothing wrong with talking to children
        about a God who goes to great lengths to save humanity,
            and save every living creature.
        That’s all good and true about God.

But none of those three approaches deal with the story
    fully and honestly.
    I think the only way to talk about this story honestly,
        is to see it as a shining example in a category of stories.
    This is one of many ancient primal flood stories.

Many ancient cultures used a story of a vast, overwhelming flood,
    to explain what kind of world they lived in,
        and what sort of God or gods inhabited their world,
        and the world beyond.

Noah’s flood story is one of several
    that emerged from the Ancient Near East.
And there’s a host of other flood narratives
    from ancient cultures in China and the Far East,
    and among indigenous peoples all over the world,
        including North and South America, Asia, and Oceania,
        many of them thousands of years old,
        all of them passing along a defining narrative
        about the nature and interplay of human and divine beings.

As one Bible commentator put it,
    if you are writing sacred stories for your people,
    the question is not IF you will tell a flood story,
        but HOW you will tell it.

And folks, this does not take anything away from our confession
    that scripture was inspired by the Holy Spirit.
    I would say the Spirit rightly and wisely inspired people
        to use an established story form,
        to communicate truth about God, creation, and humankind.

Furthermore, talking about the other flood stories is not something
    we should leave to academic biblical scholars
    and their specialized research tools and in-house vocabulary.

No, everyday preachers need to be preaching to everyday persons—
    that’s people like me and you—
    that this story of Noah does not stand alone.
    It’s in a category.
    And it’s in conversation with the other stories in that category.
    We must know at least a little something
        about the other stories,
        to keep from getting all tangled up in this story
            twisting it out of shape,
            making it into something it’s not.

Comparing and contrasting helps us ensure the story is Good News!
    Yes, Gospel!
This is how we uncover a picture of God
    that’s consistent with the God of the rest of scripture.
    Make no mistake! This is a Golden Story of the Bible.

So first,
    just a very quick characterization of the other stories circulating
    around the time this one emerged for the people of Yahweh.

I won’t do the stories justice, by any means.
    I’m going to grossly oversimplify.
    So if you happen to be a scholar of the Gilgamesh Epic,
        or any of the Babylonian flood myths,
        I’ll just say I’m sorry,
            and make a sweeping generalization.

In many of the ancient flood stories,
    the gods seem more concerned
        about their own struggle for power over each other.
    Human beings were mostly an annoyance,
        kept getting in the way of what the gods wanted to do.

In one story, the Council of gods decides they are better off
    without humans messing things up,
    so they plan for a big flood to destroy humanity forever.
    One lesser god sneaks away and spills the secret
        to the human hero of the story,
        who builds a big boat,
        saving himself, his family, and the animals.

    When they find out, the chief gods are furious a human survived.
    So the lesser gods, who didn’t support the original plan,
        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 repeated motif in many of these stories
        is eternal cosmic conflict.
    The gods are at war, either with other gods, or with us.

    Our role, as humans, is do all we can to appease the gods.
    We try to calm them, burn incense for them, feed them,
        do whatever we can to distract them
        so they don’t lash out in anger and destroy us.

We have a different kind of story in Genesis.
    A different picture of God.
    Here, Yahweh, the One God who created all life,
        relates to creation, especially the human creation,
        out of a deep and abiding love.

Here we see a God who is not so much angry and resentful,
    but brokenhearted at the world gone wrong.
The Hebrew word used to describe God’s feelings
    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 was not God’s doing,
        it was not God’s desire.
    Humans rejected the shalom 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, the symbol of chaos, overwhelms the earth.
    And now the physical reality God brought about,
        exactly mirrors the spiritual reality humans brought about.

You’ll notice in my sermon title I called this story
    “The Original Whodunnit,” a bit tongue-in-cheek.
    I’m basically referring to the question,
        who is responsible for the chaos and destruction?
        Who done it?
    Traditionally, we point to God, of course.
        That’s why some people struggle with how God is portrayed.
        But it’s clear, especially when we hold this story
            up against the other stories,
            that humans shared the responsibility of destruction,
            even though God chose to be held accountable, alone,
                for it never happening again.

Matthew Lynch, an Old Testament professor in Vancouver,
    put it this way.
    Before the flood happened,
        there had already been a massive disruption
        in all the primary relationships of Creation.
    Relationships between humanity and God was disrupted.
    Human to human relationships were disrupted.
    The relationship between humanity and creation was disrupted.

The way God had designed creation to work,
    in beauty, diversity, and community,
    had all devolved into chaos.
    It was back to how things were before Day 1 of Creation,
        described in Genesis 1:2, where it says
            the earth was “formless” (to-hu)—
            a word sometimes translated chaos.

So Lynch uses the analogy of a potter working at a wheel.
    Remember the video of a clay pot being formed
        that Sarah Bixler shared last Sunday at Retreat?
    Lynch describes God the potter
        as pulling the clay of creation into the form God had in mind.
        But the clay had a mind of its own,
            and soon got so misshapen,
            that God decided to turn it to formlessness again.
        Like the potter cutting the mess off the wheel,
            putting it back into a ball in the center of the wheel,
                and starting over.
        No good potter does that gleefully, or out of spite or anger,
            It’s agonizing and heartbreaking,
                when a potter decides to go that route.

The God of Genesis is a God of love, whose heart breaks.

We see God’s nature most clearly in the Genesis flood story,
    when the waters go down.
    Here, the Hebrew flood story shines, in comparison to others.

Instead of ending the story with the gods and humans
    locked in deadly combat,
    or the human hero escaping the earth,
        escaping his humanity . . .
    the Genesis story restores divine and human communion.
    It establishes a covenant—a one-way covenant,
        where God takes full responsibility for the destruction.

Because of God’s deep love for creation and human beings,
    God is moved to anguish and regret.
    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.

Ch. 9, 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.”

God moves toward humans and the earth, in love.
    and lays down the weapon.
Bible scholars like to point out that the rainbow
    was not a random splash of color.
    It was shaped like a bow, the weapon of war.

In other stories, the gods kept up their battle.
The God of the Bible laid down the weapon used against creation,
    and made an everlasting, one-sided, unconditional covenant,
        to never take up such a weapon again.
    God promised to sustain life and help it flourish.

This is not a horror story about a violent God.
This is Gospel.
This is a picture of a God of boundless love and mercy
    and tenderness toward all humans, and all creation,
    with no conditions attached!

As we all know, the chaos continues today.
    God has kept God’s side of the covenant.
    We have not responded in kind.
    God’s design for creation has not reached its fulfillment.
    Humanity continues to wreak havok.
    Things are as bad, if not worse, than before the flood.
    But God already surrendered the weapon.
    The human story will ultimately end
        not with annihilation and utter destruction,
        but with the restoring of shalom.
    The covenant between God and creation is intact.
    It is holding up, despite the rampant violence in our world.

We still have a lot of our own work to do.
God did not promise to keep us humans from destroying the earth.
God gave us the most wonderful, and dangerous, gift.
    Free will.

According to Genesis,
    we shared responsibility with God for earth’s destruction.
The good news is that we also share responsibility for its healing,
    and its future fruitfulness.
God invites us to be partners for the healing of all creation.
    What an awesome calling.
    Let us live into it.

And let’s turn to hymn #708.
One of many new hymns in our hymnal.
This one is mostly a lament about the ongoing destruction
    caused by climate change,
    and the toll it’s taking on the world’s poor.
But note the word of hope in verse 4:
    Gracious God, your strong compassion
        stilled the storm and parted seas.
    Free and lead us till we fashion
        worlds of justice, hope, and peace.

Let’s sing together.

—Phil Kniss, September 18, 2022

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