The First Sunday in Lent

Chris LandonSermon

Arbor House is a community of Northgate Free Methodist Church in Batavia, NY

From an early age my theology, my understanding of God and the Bible was deeply and intimately informed by an animated cucumber and tomato. My summers were inundated with Veggietales. At the camp I went to we spent the last night of the week having a movie night and we always watched a Veggietales movie. In case you didn’t know, I practically lived at camp every summer until college so that is a lot of the veggies. What I didn’t realize when I was younger, and only discovered when I was a counselor, was that this movie night was all a ploy. The counselors would work in the kitchen on last minute details that we had put off all week while the kids watched the movies. When I was a counselor, we made sure to turn off all the lights and turn the sound down just low enough that they had to be quiet if they wanted to hear the movie. In the end, the deal was, which ever cabin had the most kids fall asleep got to sleep in the lodge that night. We just left those sleeping kids right where they were. But as much as I appreciate Veggietales for getting those kids to sleep, and for some of the morals, I fear that they have had a detrimental effect on the theology of the last few generations. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t necessarily hate Veggietales and I think there are some uses for some of the movies, and I love “Silly Songs with Larry” and “Larryboy.” But there is a trend within their movies and in movies of the same genre, Bibleman. They take the stories of the bible and make them family friendly, even when they weren’t meant to be. One of the first Veggietales we had was the story of Jericho. The Israelites led by Joshua, played by Larry the cucumber, came to the city of Jericho and were told to march around it and eventually the walls would all fall down. As they are hopping around the city the french peas on top of the wall start throwing slushies down on them. But the Israelites keep hopping and eventually the walls fall down and the peas make a run for it out of town. What they leave out is when the cucumber leads all the other veggies into the city to kill all the french peas and burn their city to the ground. They leave out a major theme of the book of Joshua, that God’s judgement had come on the people of the land and they were going to be completely destroyed for their wickedness.

The story that this happens to most often is the story of Noah. I’ve seen numerous toys of the Noah and the animals and the ark. They are all smiling and happy, its all colorful and fun. And yes, there is a Veggietales about it, “Minnesota Cuke and Noah’s Umbrella.” But this story is so far from a family friendly story. If we really think about this story we have to wrestle with the fact that God is so grieved by the sinfulness of humanity that he decides to kill every single living being with the exception of a few animals and 8 people. God says in Gen. 6:17 “For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die.” Then in Gen. 7:21–22 “And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died.” Every person alive at the time drowned in a torrent of water. I must admit I don’t know how to reconcile this story. I’m not sure what to do with that part of the Noah story. I understand it in a literary sense and I can in some ways understand it in a theological sense, but I have yet to be able to understand it in an ethical sense. It felt disingenuous to preach the Noah story without first addressing this portion of the story. So we are going to talk about the Noah story but with the caveat of I still do not know what to do with the violence of the flood.

Uncreation and Recreation

To understand the flood story we have to first go back a few chapters to the creation story in Gen. 1. The creation story opens with the spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters in the dark void of the pre-creation world. Creation takes place through the speech of God as he brings order the the creation. But in particular it is a restraining and separating of the waters. The waters were representative of the forces of chaos in the world, but God brings order to them by simply speaking. He separates the waters above by placing a dome in the sky and then there is the waters below the earth that are pushed down by the land. The waters under the dome are brought into place, allowing the dry land to appear. Light is spoken into being and the sun, moon and stars are set into the dome to bring day and night to the creation. Life springs forth from the earth, plants and animals and lastly as the climax of creation God makes humanity. He fashions humanity in his image and sets them to rule over the well ordered and good creation. Creation is good and the waters are well ordered.

Humanity’s move eastward away from the garden is a continual theme of the early chapters of Genesis, and is also symbolic of how far they have moved away from the flourishing that God originally intended for creation and for humanity.

The creation does not continue on the well ordered and good path that God had set for it. By the time we begin the Noah story only a few chapters later the inclination of the human heart has become only evil (6:5). Indeed, the whole creation is filled with violence that ultimately misuses, disrupts and destroys the image of God in humanity (6:11). Humanity’s move eastward away from the garden is a continual theme of the early chapters of Genesis, and is also symbolic of how far they have moved away from the flourishing that God originally intended for creation and for humanity.

God’s solution to this problem of rampant sinfulness is not just a flood, but actually an uncreation of the world. In the story of the flood we see the creation story being reversed.

We read in 7:11, “on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened.” The waters of chaos that had been restrained in the creation have been released from their bonds. The waters below the earth rush forth and the dome that once held back the waters above is opened wide. The waters that were separated to create a space within which God created have now collapsed back onto each other. The waters have returned to their precreation state.

We should also note that the forces of chaos that were once restrained are now released to cleanse. In the creation story humanity is told to be fruitful and multiply, in 7:17 it says “the waters increased [lit. multiplied].” Robert Alter writes:

“The very verb for proliferation employed in the Creation story for living creatures is here attached to the instrument of their destruction.”
Robert Alter

It is now as though the dry land, the plants, animals, and humanity no longer exist. There is only the void that was the world now filled with water.

In the description of the ark we are told that it will be a certain length, a certain height, a certain width, it will have a roof and a door. That’s it. It will be a box with a door. A door that will be shut by God when the flood waters come. Later we find out that there is also a window but we are not told that until later and that seems to be significant. The ark as originally described would not have allowed for any light to enter in. After the flood waters started to come and Noah, his family, and the animals are shut inside they would have sat in darkness. The light that was created on day one is symbolically extinguished as the door slams shut. As the waters crash back together, darkness once again covers the face of the deep.

God has essentially unmade the creation, the waters cover the earth and darkness fills the ark. Of course Noah and his family and the animals with him are still alive in the ark. God preserved them through the storm and the question now is; what will happen to them and to the creation now? We are encouraged in 8:1 as it tells us that God remembered them. It continues that the “wind of God” blew over the earth. This phrase calls to mind the beginning of the creation story as the wind of God blew over the face of the deep. The setting feels the same as the precreation state. But then we are suddenly told that the waters recede and the windows of the heavens are closed as well as the fountains of the deep. The waters of chaos are ordered again and are separated below the earth and above the dome.

As the waters recede the tops of the mountains, the dry land again appears. The third day of creation, where the waters are separated to create dry land, happens again.

Noah opens the window of the ark letting in the light of the sun. They emerge from the dark as light is reintroduced to creation. The sun again rules the day and the moon and the stars rule the night. Noah releases a raven and a dove and wild animals again are on the face of the earth. The creation that was unmade in the flood is once again recreated. The story of Noah could in some ways count as the third creation story so far in Genesis.

The story of Noah could in some ways count as the third creation story so far in Genesis.
The continued sinfulness of humanity and the covenant.

But the creation at this point has a fundamental difference from the creation in Gen. 1, things are already not good. When God created in Gen. 1 everything was good or very good, but here the “not good” from before the flood continues. God determines in 8:21 that “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.” Therefore, God says “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind” and “nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.” These two ideas together, the sinfulness of humanity and God’s promise not to destroy the creation again on their account, lead to the covenant that God makes with Noah, when he places his bow in the sky. And as Traci explained the bow in the sky represents God hanging up his weapons, so that if he breaks the covenant the weapons will be used against him. The obligation for humanity in this covenant is the same as it was in creation, “Be fruitful and multiply,” rule over creation, and do not kill one another.

This covenant changes the relationship between God and creation. God is allowing the sinfulness of humanity to continue. God concludes, as Alter writes:

“given what [humanity] is all too likely disposed to do, it is scarcely worth destroying the whole world again on [their] account.”
Robert Alter

Instead God is going to work within a new framework. Prior to the flood God saw the sinfulness of humanity and it “grieved him to his heart.” But now he has decided to allow the sinful humanity to continue in existence. Terrence Fretheim writes, “this kind of divine response means that God will take the route of suffering. For God to decide to endure a wicked world, while continuing to open up the divine heart to that world means that God’s grief will be ongoing…. God will work from within such a world to redeem it, not overpower the world from without.” The story of the Old Testament, the bible as a whole, portrays God working within sinful humanity for their redemption. He does not destroy humanity again, instead he continues in suffering on account of humanity for the redemption of humanity. This foreshadows the suffering of God made flesh in the crucifixion. God is willing to suffer for humanity, so that they may be redeemed.

Baptism

We see an image of that redemption pre-figured in the flood. The other texts for this morning focused in various ways on the act of baptism. We can see baptism in the broad theological strokes of the flood story. It would be a mistake to say that the flood story is a perfect analogy of baptism given the violence of the story as well as a few other details, but it does in some ways give us a language to talk about baptism. It is common for us to use the flood and the waters and the recreation of the world as the analogy for baptism but I want to start elsewhere. Writing on the flood story Walter Brueggeman says:

“Humankind is hopeless. Creation has not changed. It is deeply set against God’s purposes. The imagination of the heart first recognized as evil in 6:5 is still [the] imagination of the heart which is evil in 8:21. All the terror of the waters has not changed that. Hope for the future is not premised on possibility thinking or human actualization. Hope will depend on a move from God.”
Walter Brueggeman

Salvation is always dependent on a first move from God. God in the flood story extends mercy and grace to humanity in the covenant that he makes with them when he sets his bow in the sky. In baptism we recognize the grace that God offers to all of humanity and the act of baptism is both a response to that grace, an outward sign of the inward working of the Spirit, but also in some way grace being given to that person. The act does not make them pure from sin. But it is the beginning of a relationship that up until that point had been one-sided, between God and the person. God for their part will continue to work within the context of that sinful person’s life, working toward their redemption, and the person will work towards fulfilling the purpose that God created them for, that is, being his image in all of creation.

The first station of the cross is “Sorrow” and it is incredible to think of the sorrow that humanity has caused God and yet he still continues to love us. And to love us so incredibly that he continues to suffer for us, both in his heart and in the flesh. The suffering of God allows for grace to be extended continually to all of humanity. This morning I would encourage you to reflect on the act of baptism, and on your baptism. How has that act of God imparting his grace to you shaped you and shaped the way that you live in the world?

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About the Author
Chris Landon

Chris Landon

Chris Landon is the Pastor of Word and Table at Arbor House. He has served at Arbor House since 2016. Prior to that he was the Summer Camp Director of Covenant Acres Campground and Retreat Center, Assistant Pastor at Gowanda Free Methodist Church and Youth Pastor at Ransomville Free Methodist Church.