FLOOD AND FAITH
By Dr. Richard Guentert
Two of our four lectionary passages this week spotlight the story of Noah and the flood: Genesis 9:8-17 and 1 Peter 3:18-22.
I can seldom approach this ancient story without being reminded of the cartoon which pictures Noah’s Ark beached on the ice of Antarctica. Stranded on the frosty lip of the continent! Marooned aground on this expanse of white ice! Noah’s wife is standing beside him complaining stridently: “I told you that you should have sent forth the dove instead of that stupid penguin!!!” Much humor and wisdom have found their source in this rich story from the Hebrew tradition.
As we approach the text this week, our homiletical consideration needs to move beyond the question of “Did it really happen?” to an affirmation about the “multiple meaty meanings” that are encapsulated in this remarkable tale.
I would quickly acknowledge that some of its wording demonstrates a deficiency of scale. The covenant, according to verse 13 is “between me and the earth.” This raises an intriguing issue. What does it mean to hear this passage in light of a God of the whole universe? Since people of earth will eventually move to populate the planets, does the covenant extend to the reaches of interplanetary space? In order to make application to a people who will ultimately be living in a larger frame of reference, if not actually pioneering new realms beyond planet earth, we 21st century Christians (who know little of existence beyond terra firma ) stand on the verge of having to re-articulate much of our “earth centered” testimony about the nature of faith and the message of Scripture for a new time.
As we re-read this oft-told narrative many other thoughts, questions and concerns come to mind (each of which will shape the way we deal with this foundational text).
>> Is the flood story an abrogation of “the good” of the original creation? Or is the flood story God’s “new strategy” for re-creating a people who are willing to live in an obedient faith relationship with their Creator? Or is it a story that encompasses both of these truths?
>> In the Noah epic God’s creative work appears to have moved from populating the earth afresh, to re-populating the earth all over again. And is there a sense in which the new circumstances of each generation re-present us with this task of re-populating the planet (so to speak) with a fresh incarnation/embodiment of new life and innovative experiences of reconciliation?
>> Whatever the real dimensions of the flood, it covered the whole known world, of its story-teller. The author’s intent was obviously to connote both the dimension of the catastrophe, and the breadth of God’s act of ultimate salvation in the 15th verse of today’s text: “and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.”
>> This week’s lectionary segment, only part of the larger story, emphasizes the Compassion of God for both the human and the non-human creation.
>> The quality of what occurred in the concluding promise of Noah’s epic is, in many ways, a foretaste of John 3:16 … a portrayal of the kind of God who “so loved the [entire] world.”
>> This passage is ultimately about “covenant.” And covenants, by their very nature, require fresh signs and repetitive affirmations of them.
>> It is not insignificant that this covenant is God-initiated. Verses 9 and 11 both say, “I am establishing my Covenant.”
>> Verse 13 says that it is when the bow is in the clouds that we will be reminded of this covenant promise. In other words, it is in the “stormy” times that remembrance re-occurs. (Parenthetically, I just purchased a new Blackberry Storm …. with a GPS navigator function. My Blackberry, along with this passage, remind me that it is in the midst of the “storm” that I most need navigational assistance.)
>> In this story God seems to be shaping God’s own divine identity around being “a God who remembers covenant.” This engenders the insight that “being created in the image of God carries with it the obligation to be a people who keep on rehearsing/remembering the Covenant Relationship.”
The second lectionary text (I Peter 3:18-22) also depends on knowing the Noah flood epic. It tells us that following Jesus’ crucifixion his resurrected spirit visited those sinful scoffers of Noah’s flood-time warnings. The resurrected Spirit of Jesus “made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark” (verses 19-20).
Many centuries after the flood story, we have again in First Peter the portrayal of a pursuing God’s compassion. Noah’s God is unwilling to let the drowned-deny-ers and the ark-scoffers soak in their sinful consequences. No! With the resurrection of Jesus, our Christ’s Spirit reaches back to rescue and redeem them, each one.
In what seems to be a stretch of “comparative effort gone amuck,” the I Peter text then notes how “eight persons were saved through water” [verse 20], (i.e. riding out the flood in a vessel of salvation, populated by 8 humans and a passel of animals.) And this, says our author, is a “prefiguring” of the Baptism “which saves us” (verse 21).
The waters of Baptism put our minds at ease (i.e. "a good conscience" in verse 21) . . . even as Noah and kin had some peace of mind in riding out the storm and being rewarded by the covenant promises of God. And if such a good outcome came to Noah, how much more can we, who believe in the resurrected Christ, trust in the covenant relationship and look forward to composed minds – tranquil and serene – calm with shalom and benefiting from the serenity of the Spirit?