This is a sermon I preached at Clackamas United Church of Christ, in Milwaukie, Oregon. The text was Genesis 9:8-17 and Mark 1:9-15, the story of Noah and the flood and the story of Jesus in the desert. You can read the sermon text or watch the video below.
The older I get, the more I hate the story of Noah and the flood.
Today we heard the end of the story in Genesis 9 where God promises to never flood the world again. Well that’s great, isn’t it? I mean, thank you for that promise, but I think one time is enough for me to have some serious trust issues with this God.
But my trust issues continue even after that promise because God says that God will remember the promise to not flood the earth again because the rainbow will remind him. Now, I’m all for pretty rainbows, but the rainbow in this story tells me that God has a really bad memory and some anger issues, which is not a great combination, especially when we’re talking about something as powerful as God.
Which leads me to wonder, what if God gets angry again and in God’s rage doesn’t notice the rainbow off in the distance?
I don’t like this story. And I especially don’t like that we use it as a children’s story. I guess it’s cute that two of every animal goes in the Ark, but it’s not cute that all the other animals get murdered by the God character in this story.
But, I wonder, is the God character in the story of Noah and the flood a good representation of who God actually is?
Did God Really Send a Violent Flood?
Here’s how the story goes. It starts with humans getting caught up in cycles of escalating violence. One person hits another person, and that person seeks revenge by murdering the one who hit him. Then someone murders that person and his family. The cycle of violence continues to escalate until human violence threatens our own extinction.
Do you remember when God created the world and humans in Genesis 1 and God looked upon it all and saw that it was very good? Well, now God looks upon the world and all the violence and God no longer thinks it’s very good. In fact, now God looks upon the earth and the story says that God “was sorry he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”
As I studied this passage last week, I came across some commentators who point out that God didn’t destroy the earth and animals and humans because God was angry. It was because of God’s grief. Apparently, these commentators think anger isn’t a good reason for God to violently destroy everything, but because it stemmed from grief, that makes the whole violent destruction through a flood okay.
How to Interpret Biblical Violence
Well, whatever the emotion behind God flooding the earth and destroying everything in it, the point is that God was violent because humans were violent. In other words, God imitates human violence. Humans were being violent, which is just awful, according to God. And God doesn’t know what to do with human violence in this story, except to respond with God’s own violence.
And then, God comes back to humanity like a violent abuser and promises to never do it again. Unless God forgets and in his grief or anger doesn’t see the rainbow. Then we’re all in danger.
So, I don’t like this depiction of God. There’s enough violence in the world. We don’t need God to be violent, too.
Here’s the good news that has helped me when confronting these stories of a violent God. We are not Biblians. We do not worship the Bible. We are Christians. We follow in the ways of Jesus, our rabbi. In the ancient Jewish world, a rabbi taught his disciples what God was like. They taught their disciples how to read and interpret the Bible. The ancient rabbis would argue with one another about how to interpret the Bible. In fact, the ancient rabbis would also argue with the Bible. Sometimes they agreed with how portions of the Bible characterized God, and sometimes they passionately disagreed.
I passionately disagree that God ever sent a flood to destroy the earth. I don’t disagree because I’m a softy and I just want God to be nice. Rather, I disagree because that God looks nothing like Jesus.
God is Christlike
During the 1980s there was an archbishop of Canterbury named Michael Ramsey. He was the leader of the Anglican church. Ramsey claimed that “God is Christlike, and in him there is no unchristlikeness at all.”
I think that’s the key to understanding God. A God who responds to human violence with divine violence is not like Christ. In fact, as we continue in our Lenten journey, we will come to Good Friday and to Easter. On Good Friday, Christ took the flood of human violence upon himself and offered forgiveness in return. In the resurrection, he didn’t come back like a ghost for revenge. Instead, he offered peace to those who betrayed him and he told his followers to continue in the way of nonviolent love and justice.
So the depiction of God in the Noah story is problematic, but, unfortunately, I think the depiction of humans is fairly accurate. You see, God doesn’t have a violence problem. We humans have a violence problem. The truth is that the violent flood doesn’t really come from God. It comes from humans.
In fact, it only takes the first six chapters of the Bible for us to come to an end of the world apocalyptic moment. “Apocalypse” is a loaded word. The popular understanding claims that it means the destruction at the end of the world. But the popular understanding is wrong.
Apocalypse comes from a Greek word that simply means, “unveiling,” or “revealing.” Apocalyptic texts reveal the truth about violence – once unleashed it spreads like a contagious disease. Genesis reveals that human violence is like a cold that is passed from one person to another and it is nearly impossible to stop violence. It has a spirit of its own. And it seeks to destroy everyone and everything in its path.
Satan is the Accuser
An appropriate word for the spirit of violence is satanic. That’s why we begin this first Sunday of Lent with the story of Jesus going into the wilderness to be tested by Satan.
If the word Apocalypse is loaded for us, the word Satan is probably even more loaded. We generally think of Satan as a red figure with horns and a pitchfork, but I want to change that image for you a bit.
The word “satan” is a common Hebrew word. So before we think of Satan at the name for the devil, we should know what the common word means. We generally think of satan as the tempter, which is fine, but there’s more to the spirit of satan than temptation. The word satan literally means “accuser.”
Satan is not some red devil with horns and a pitchfork. I don’t find that view satan helpful. Rather, satan is the spirit of accusation.
Jesus went into the desert and he was tempted by Satan, by the spirit of accusation. What was the temptation? Jesus was tempted by Satan to follow in the ways of accusation.
The spirit of accusation spreads to a spirit of hostility which spreads to a spirit of violence against others. We can unite in the spirit of accusation against someone else, or we can unite in the spirit of love.
But make no mistake, love doesn’t just sit back as the flood of violence drowns the world. It confronts that violence. We claim Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the king of the world. He was the true king because he revealed to us the way of God’s nonviolent love. But here in the wilderness, he confronted the principle of satanic accusation and violence. He was tempted to choose a different path. He was tempted to become king not through love, but through accusation, hostility, and violence.
Telling the Truth about Violence
Thank God Jesus resisted the voice of satanic accusation because accusation, hostility, and violence spread so quickly that pretty soon we find ourselves drowning in a flood of violence. And yet, Jesus didn’t avoid violence. He boldly told the truth about it. “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”
Unfortunately, we are reminded almost every other day about that flood of violence in America. We’ve had about 35 days of school since the beginning of 2018 and there have been 18 shootings on school property. The tragic shooting last Wednesday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida is further evidence that we are swimming in a flood of our own violence.
We in the United States are living by the gun and we are dying by the gun.
And there are times that I feel that I’m drowning in despair. I remember when the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting happened five years ago. My children were at an elementary school. When I picked them up I hugged them a little tighter that day.
Thoughts, Prayers, and Action
We relive that day far too often. And our politicians do nothing about it except for maybe send thoughts and prayers. Please know this, thoughts and prayers are good, but without action they are empty platitudes.
A senior at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas high named Emma Gonzales put it like this yesterday in a speech at a rally in Fort Lauderdale, “If all our government and President can do is send thoughts and prayers, then it’s time for victims to be the change that we need to see.”
It’s time for victims and survivors, it’s time for all of us, to be the change that we need to see.
That’s what Lent is all about. We are swimming in a sea of violence. The flood is all around us. It’s up to us to show the world a different way. It’s up for us to be the change we want to see.
And so yes, we need to pray and we need to work for the day when military assault rifles like the AR-15 that was used in Florida are banned from civilian hands. We need to pray and work for the day when certain Republican politicians are no longer puppets of the National Rifle Association.
Be the Change We Need
And we need to realize the good news that the vast majority of American citizens agree. 90% of Americans think we need stricter gun laws, including better background checks. That 90% includes 72% of NRA members and 81% of Republican gun owners.
And we need to work for these policies in a way that doesn’t demonize anyone on the other side. Our goal is more love in the world, not more hostility. Individuals that we might disagree with are not our enemies. For, as the Bible reminds us, our fight is not with flesh and blood, but with the powers and principalities.
And there’s even more Good News. As the flood of violence seems so overwhelming, remember that you aren’t swimming alone. Remember that when you walk through the desert, you are not alone. Jesus is there swimming and walking with us.
And you have your community, which is like an ark that floats upon the waters of the flood. Have you ever wondered how all those animals got along in that ark for 40 days and nights? The lion and the lamb? The snake and the rabbit? The skunk and…everyone else? With all those animals, it must have been a stinky mess. But they got through it together. Those animals in the ark had to change so they could all survive. And that’s what life is all about.
We’re in this ark together. Every community has conflicts and no community is perfect. But that’s the point. That’s why we are called to live the Gospel message of love, forgiveness, and mercy while we seek a more just world.
In a world flooded with violence, that’s the change we need.