“Visible Promises”

February 21, 2021 | Genesis 9:1,9-17; Mark 1:9-14

Genesis 9:1, 9-17

God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. …. 9 “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.[a] 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.

Mark 1:9-14

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved;[a] with you I am well pleased.”12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
About a year ago, Henny, a friend from the Church’s work in reconciliation with Native Americans, gave me this book:  The Impossible Will Take a Little While.  It’s a collection of essays about perseverance and hope in troubled times.  And every week during this past troubled year, I have read one of the essays.  This week’s essay included words from a poem by Adrienne Rich: “…so much has been destroyed.  I have to cast my lot with those who age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”[1] [repeat]

The story of the flood and the rainbow is a story of God’s commitment to reconstitute, to re-create, ongoingly, day after day, the world and all who dwell in it.  Before there was the destruction of the flood, there was the violence, evil, and destruction that was being caused by human beings.  The writer of Genesis tells us that God was grieved.  God’s heart was broken.  God wanted to re-create the world.  So, the story goes, with great flood God wiped out every living creature save those who were gathered into the ark.

When this story developed among the Israelite people, there were two very similar flood stories already circulating in the ancient middle east.  In both stories, the gods, plural, decided to destroy humankind, in one case because they were too noisy, and in another because they had overpopulated the region.  And in both stories, one man hears what the gods are up to and builds an ark to save his family and as many animals as the ark could carry.

It was commonplace in ancient religions to believe that natural disasters were caused by the gods.  The gods controlled everything that happened in the natural world.  So, we can say the Israelites borrowed this theology, this way of talking about God from their neighbors.  They had no problem imagining that God could destroy God’s own creation.  But, even while borrowing parts of the flood story and its theology from other cultures, our Israelite ancestors also tell a quite different story of who God is based on their experience with God.  God suffers with God’s creation.  God’s heart is broken, not because human beings are too noisy or too many.  God aches to see the violence, the inhumanity, the recklessness, the passive disregard, the intentional and unconscious destruction of life and of the earth.  God wants to save human beings from themselves, and save the creation from the destruction human beings unleash.  In the aftermath of the flood, God is changed.  God is converted.  God swears off the wholesale, clean sweep approach to re-creating, re-constituting the earth and its inhabitants, while staying absolutely committed to this reclamation project.

Two big questions are posed by this story:  First, How will God do this?  How will God engage and respond?  And second, can human beings be re-created?  Can we be changed and freed from our own harmful impulses and behaviors, many of which are rooted in the biological drive toward self-preservation.

I recognize that our drive to survive isn’t all bad.  It also causes us to cooperate with others, to build communities of shared labor and care.  We know that we can’t survive on our own.  We know that we can do so much more together than we can do all by ourselves.  And there is great joy and satisfaction in being together, sharing life, talking, shoveling snow, singing, praying, weeping.  There is real love.  There is real altruistic giving of self to other. But even in our supportive communal life, we can still compete, and still fear losing self, losing face, losing place, losing possessions, comfort, ease, we hurt one another, without intention.  So for all the goodness there is in the world, we also acknowledge with the poet, “so much has been destroyed….”  So much is being destroyed.  And the poet says, “I have to cast my lot with those who age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”

When the waters of the flood recede, God announces, “I cast my lot with all flesh, with all living creatures.”   God makes the unconditional promise that God will never again clean sweep the creation, and promises to stay engaged with an open heart.  God casts God’s lot not only with those human beings who are eager to be re-created themselves, and eager to participate in God’s re-creative activity.  But also with those who are resistant, destructive, stubbornly curved in on themselves, and with no desire to become different.  And depending on the day, any one of us can be eager or resistant to being re-created and participating in God’s re-creation of the world.

And God makes promises not just to human beings, but to all other living creatures–sheep and goats, moles and monkeys and mice, vultures and eagles and emus, felines and canines, wild and domestic animals.  God’s covenant promises are cosmic.  Universal.  God says, “I am all in with you all, for the long haul. No matter what.”  And God alone assumes responsibility for keeping the promises God has made to creation.  The future of the whole cosmos depends on God’s faithfulness.  And the whole story we have in scripture declares, God is and will be faithful.  The rainbow is the first of many signs that assure us that God goes on creating and re-creating the world to be what God intends.

And we are taken up into this process. From the beginning of creation, God blesses human beings and calls us to be partners in the unfolding of creation.  The blessing and invitation are perpetual:  be fruitful and multiply.  Bear the fruits of love.  Multiply life, beauty, goodness, and truth.

For forty days and nights, the flood waters poured out from above and below the earth, drowning the evil, washing away the forces that destroyed God’s good creation.   And when Noah emerges from the ark, he with all the other creatures are the first-born of a new creation.  And when Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan, he is the first-born of a new creation.  Beloved by God.  Blessed and propelled into the wilderness, by the Holy Spirit, the life-force of God.  To face his demons, commune with wild beasts, and receive the ministry of angels.  And in the waters of baptism, we undergo a drowning, a putting to death, a washing away of the forces that would destroy us, and God’s good creation.  And we emerge from the waters as people re-born into God’s new creation.  We are blessed, beloved, and propelled into the world, by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, the life-force of God. Like the rainbow, baptism is a sign that God is keeping God’s promises to the cosmos, and to us.  In baptism, God is claiming us and calling us to cast our lot with God, to trust our lives to God. It will take a little while, but the promises and presence of God, and our participation make it possible.

In Bible study this past week, we talked about the reality that “so much is destroyed.”  There is so much that is broken, so much that needs to be healed and re-created. It can feel overwhelming.  We reminded each other of the saying:  “think globally and act locally.”  To which Gilbert responded saying, “the most local place is my own heart.”  The most local place is my own heart.   Put your hand on your heart.  Feel it beating.  Feel it pulsing with life.  God thinks and acts cosmically.  God thinks and acts locally, in each of our hearts.  During these forty days of Lent, pay special attention to your own heart.  Where is the ache?  What is the longing you feel?  What feels impossible?  What demons hold you back from a free fall into the unconditional love and call of God?  Where do you sense yourself as God’s new creation?  What angels tend and encourage you to take even the littlest leap of faith deeper into God’s promise and call, to become the person God is re-creating you to be?

[1] Quoted in the essay “You Are Brilliant and the Earth Is Hiring,” in The Impossible Will Take a Little While,” edited by Paul Rogat Loeb, new and revised edition (New York: Basic Books, 2014).

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