January 26 PM Sermon – Iestyn Henson
Valman (northern New Guinea):
The wife of a very good man saw a very big fish. She called her husband, but he couldn’t see it until he hid behind a banana tree and peeked through its leaves. When he finally saw it, he was horribly afraid and forbade his wife, son, and two daughters to catch and eat the fish. But other people caught the fish and, heedless of the man’s warning, ate it. When the good man saw that, he hastily drove a pair of all kinds of animals into trees and climbed into a coconut tree with his family. As soon as the wicked men ate the fish, water violently burst from the ground and drowned everyone on it. As soon as the water reached the treetops, it sank rapidly, and the good man and his family came down and laid out new plantations
Tchiglit Eskimo (Point Barrow to Cape Bathurst):
A great flood broke over the land. Driven by the wind, it submerged people’s dwellings. The people formed a raft by tying several boats together and pitched a tent against the icy blast. They huddled together for warmth as uprooted trees drifted past. Finally, a magician named An-odjium (“Son of the Owl”) threw his bow in the water and commanded the wind to be calm. Then he threw in his earrings, causing the flood to subside.
Eastern Brazil (Rio de Janiero region):
Two twin sons of a great wizard, one good and the other evil, were always arguing. One day the angered good brother stamped so hard that the earth opened and water gushed out, shooting as high as the clouds. The water covered the whole world. The good brother and his wife climbed a pindona tree, and the evil brother and his wife climbed a geniper tree until the waters receded. (In another account, they survived in canoes.) From these couples descended the Tupinambas and Tominus, two tribes which don’t get along well.
The story of Noah, the ark, the animals, the flood and the rainbow which follows must surely be one of the first Bible stories that many of us heard. As you’ve seen, in my case, it was part of play from my youngest years; there is no time whatsoever when I did not know of Noah, of his ark, of the animals, the flood and yes, even the rainbow at the end. As a story, it’s got all the elements of the best stories – and in the traditional ‘right order too’. We start with human interest, and human conflict. There’s tension and you know something is going to go wrong. You then have adventure – things happen, but as the story unfolds, you can’t know what might happen to our ‘hero’ and his family. You have some popular sub-themes – never work with children and animals they say nowadays, Noah had both – and you’ve got the boat – will the technology be up to the job? And then, finally, after the danger and desolation, you have a gradual work up towards the ending – ‘Happy ever after’, almost, including a promise of ‘never again’ from God.
As I said, it’s an ancient story, one of the oldest, one of the most familiar. And I’d like to suggest also one that has traditionally been loved by children because of the animals being saved, and not because of the punishment, death and destruction which the story talks about. Such things aren’t the stuff of children’s toys (even if some teenage computer games these days go places we’d rather they did not); children are interested in the animals….
But just as it’s a story I’ve known from childhood, so too is this a story which has always been a challenge, and one of those which, being perfectly honest about it, I’ve greeted with more than a bit of scepticism. It’s one of the stories which, by its very nature, I’ve found hard to believe – hard to believe in the sense of it being a report on an actual historical event, accurately reported and truthfully told. Now, as part of the introduction, I mentioned that narratives of a world-wide flood are to be found in mythologies of all sorts of cultures, from South America, to Biblical Lands and to the Indian and Asian continents (see http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myths.html). And the traditional Judeo-Christian response on having discovered (relatively late on, in most cases) that other cultures shared flood stories was to say that such other stories actually validate the accuracy of the Genesis story, that the reality of a global flood is vindicated by stories as far apart as the Amazon and the Yellow River in China. No matter that they don’t all remember Noah (which does seem a bit odd, if he were literally our common ancestor).
But for me that doesn’t make sense; and actually, most Christians these days (I choose my words carefully – I don’t know what the proportions actually are), most Christians take the view that it is highly likely that a flood episode happened (indeed, may have happened numerous times) but that the story of Noah is meant to be read as an example of God’s care for those who love and who are faithful, rather than literally the ‘one and only’ permitted to survive.
As a child, my objection was more simple, more simplistic than this. ‘The animals went in two-by-two, the elephant and the kangaroo’? Really? Since when were there ever Kangaroos in the Biblical lands? Since when was it possible that each species, which we now know to be found only in certain parts of the world, could have been on the ark with Noah and co, and then, somehow, found their way from Mount Ararat, all the way to Australia, Borneo, North or South Poles, etc. It just doesn’t make sense, and I don’t think we should be afraid to say so either.
Yet this is still a very important story, and much loved for very good reasons. In order to remember why, we must, as always look at the context of the story, to understand where it comes from and where it leads us. For Christian people, if the stories of the ancient Old Testament people have any currency at all, they must also be tested against what we know of God in and through Jesus; if we find things which are inconsistent, we must say so, and we must re-evaluate. So that’s what I want to do, by focussing on two contextual points. The first, following on from themes of John the Baptist with which the lectionary starts the calendar year, is the place of water as a metaphor in Biblical writing. The second contextual point is the peace which is offered by the rainbow at the end of the story, and how this is an early – possibly the earliest – sign that God wants to do things differently.
Let’s start with water. Now, you may have heard sermons on this before, and may be very familiar with the ideas, but it’s always worth reminding ourselves that whenever and wherever water is mentioned in our biblical exploration, we can give consideration to its place as a sign, a signal or a metaphor. Jesus himself used this colourful, wonderful language, ‘streams of living water’ because the ancient people understood such metaphor. Yes, of course water brings life in a literal sense – we need to drink to survive, we need water to grow crops and to help feed our animals, and water is also home to fish – a stable of diets in cultures world-wide (even if I myself have never liked fish as food!).
But it’s always been more than this. Water is used as an indicator of the very essence of life, and also used as a metaphor for life itself. It’s there in your Bible from the very beginning- the Spirit of God hovering over the waters in Genesis Chp1 v2, the Spirit of God hovering over all creation. You may have worked out by now that that I chose the second reading as a partner to the story of Noah precisely because of the turbulent waters. Christians have long considered that the story of Jesus calming the storm is not only about miracle (perhaps not about miracle at all) but rather about how the presence of Jesus brings calm to the storms of life – and in truth, this is the sort of metaphorical picture making that was common language for the people of Jesus’ time. It’s something of an oddity that ‘will your anchor hold’ and ‘Eternal father, strong to save’ are theme hymns, dragged out for RNLI and Maritime services, when actually, they are not really hymns about the sea at all, but about life itself!
Water – a metaphor for life, the very essence of life!
And then, water is also used in our Bibles and in religious life as a means by which change is signalled.
- In the Exodus story, both the escape from Egypt and the entry into the Promised Land are signalled by crossing of water – the Red Sea and the River Jordan respectively.
- There’s ritual cleaning in the rules and regulations of the Jewish people – preparation for coming closer to God in the worship patterns of the Jewish faith.
- There’s the story of Naaman, the foreign commander accepting God through the healing of his leprosy, washing himself in the waters of the Jordan.
- And then of course, there’s Baptism, a sacrament which has a combination of all these things – coming through waters, ritual washing, spiritual healing – as its theological basis, joined in our Christian thinking by God’s grace, the free gift – not conditional – of well-being in and through the love which Jesus gives.
We have context here then which give us ideas about the story of Noah – water, flood, not so much to do with punishment and death – don’t worry, I’ll come to that in a while – but rather part of the challenge of life itself, and, coming through that challenge, a signal of change and ultimately of new life, closer to God. That’s the first contextual point – Water.
The second contextual point is the peace which is offered by the rainbow at the end of the story ‘This shall be my sign, says God, I’ll put my bow in the sky above, so that all may know my love, this will be my sign’ (v1 song by John Henson, found in ‘Wide Awake Worship’).
God promises at the end of the story that never again will all the earth be destroyed by a flood – but it’s quite clear that this isn’t exactly a promise that there’ll be no flooding at all, let alone that people might not find their homes, their livelihoods, even their lives threatened by flood water. So what sort of promise is it?
Well, to me the first thing is that it’s a promise of a change – or if you prefer a promise to clarify misunderstandings: – this sort of mass destruction punishment is not going to be part of God’s weaponry any more. This is clearly a difficult idea to get to grips with, particularly when we consider that Biblical people continued to believe in a wrathful and vengeful God for the most part throughout the history which we have received. It’s such a difficult concept to grasp, that there are plenty of Christian people who believe still that God continues to punish wrongdoing with death and destruction.
Only a week ago, and you may have read this or heard about it, an Oxfordshire Councillor, David Silvester, who defected from the Conservative Party to the UK Independence Party, said in a letter to a newspaper (and I quote):
“The scriptures make it abundantly clear that a Christian nation that abandons its faith and acts contrary to the Gospel (and in naked breach of a coronation oath) will be beset by natural disasters such as storms, disease, pestilence and war.”
I’m grateful that I’ve got a direct quote from the same BBC news source to counterbalance that – The Rev Colin Coward from an Anglican group called ‘Changing Attitudes’ said
“I don’t know where David worships, but clearly it’s in a sect, a church which is not mainstream in its Christian practice and teaching.”
And this is the point. Whatever your view on same-sex marriage, which was at the heart of Councillor Silvester’s protest, the promise of the rainbow is that God will not respond in that way. That’s the promise of the rainbow – Genesis Chapter 9 – we haven’t even got to the New Testament yet!
If you read the Genesis account carefully though, you’ll see something else in the rainbow, and that’s responsibility not on us but on God. God says: “Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”
The nature of the promise is not something which is conditional on our behaviour at all, it’s something which is given to us, free and unconditionally. In this way, the rainbow gives us an early indication of the way in which God is going to relate to people, the way in which, generations later, becomes the way of Jesus, the way of grace. It’s not about looking back, reacting in anger to what has been, what has been done; it’s about looking forward, in love, to what might be, indeed, what will be.
The people who first wrote down the story had a particular view of God – one who was pretty quick to come down hard and fast on wrongdoing, perfectly capable of killing off the first attempt at humanity because it wasn’t up to scratch. The people who first wrote down these stories also believed firmly that not only did their gods speak in and through nature – wind, rain, water, fire and earth, but that their gods controlled such things, explicitly. There’s no denying the story of Noah was written with that in mind; no doubt that the story of Jesus calming the storm has elements of that in it too. Our view of God, with the benefit of the whole context, our perspective is a different one. Our view is one of a promise of future, of peace, of right relationships.
And above all, our view is one which is given to us by Jesus, who accepted people as they were, and who brought about change not by threat but simply by showing how God really is. Our God is one who doesn’t speak to the wind and the rain, but speaks to us; our God doesn’t control through the wind and the rain, but works in and through creation as a whole – and that includes us. We will have our storms and our floods, we will come through rivers, and we’ll need a refreshing wash. But God says, in rainbows and in Jesus, that from now on you will be loved, no matter what.
May we learn how to respond to that love, and share it with others.