s098o00 Somerton Park 12/3/2000 Lent 1
"I will see it and remember ..." Gen 9:16
I suppose it is a bit of a "toss-up" as to whether Noah or Jonah is the favourite Sunday School story from the Old Testament. Both have strong action and naturally appeal to young people. But I confess the story of Noah makes me cringe.
Actually it goes back a long way, to when my own mother used to teach religious instruction at Brighton Primary School. She occasionally used to tell the story of a pupil who during the class, asked her why, in the story of Noah, God destroyed so many people. Surely, the pupil reasoned, there were more than just eight people who were not filled with violence. Very resourcefully, my poor mother told the pupil that she would ask the priest and give an answer the following week. The priest's answer was that if a little bit of an apple was bruised, one inevitably cut off some of the good parts of the apple along with the part that was bruised. So God had to kill some who were good, to eliminate the bad. In modern warfare this is probably called justifiable "co-lateral damage". It shows that even primary school aged children have acute logic and a sense of right and wrong. But really this answer is not especially satisfactory. If God can't deal with individuals individually, God is pretty inept. Of course precisely this issue is debated in the dialog Abraham has with God, where Abraham is pictured as more merciful than God. It was Abraham who was trying to save Sodom (Gen 18.16f) not God! The same theme later reappears in the prophet Ezekiel, where we are told "only the person who sins ... shall die" (Ezek 18.4).
I cringe at the story of Noah, because the violence so objected to on television is nothing compared to this. God arbitrarily eliminated the whole human and animal population bar eight people and two (or seven pairs) of every kind of animal. (We assume, I think it was Methuselah, was a very strong swimmer). When one considers the enormity of the rage that must have lay behind this action of God, we surely tell this story very carefully. Told properly, it would make a deep impression on young souls - it could make them terrified of God - with considerable justification.
Let us be clear that this wanton destruction was wrought on humanity with no warning what so ever. No laws had been laid down, other than the command not to eat of one tree in the garden (Gen 2.17) which, of course, was hardly given before it was broken. But it was not even possible for humanity to repeat this offence, having been expelled from the garden of Eden. (Gen 3.24) The only other explicit wrong - doing described is the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. (Gen 4).
Indeed the Bible makes clear that the wickedness in humankind which precipitated the flood was not entirely of humanity's making. The first verses of Genesis chapter 6 spell out that part of the problem lay with the "sons of God" and the "Nephilim" who took human wives. So this wanton and arbitrary destruction of humanity was at least partially unjust.
It had come about, we are told because "the earth was corrupt .. and ... filled with violence" (Gen 6.11), not incidentally, a wholesale apathy toward religion. It was clearly violence wrought by humanity against others. It was long before the judgement on Sodom and Gomorrah, for which the root cause was again bullying and violence, not incidentally, inappropriate (but tender) human intimacy (Gen 19).
Whatever the reason for the flood, we are left with a very ambiguous relationship with God. The picturesque rainbow, which I am heartily pleased that in Sunday School is portrayed as something of a comfort to humanity, is actually a reminder to God, not to let rage again overpower him / her, justifiable though that rage might be or not. From the story of Noah I get a picture of a God seething with anger, and it is only a divine action of creating the rainbow, which self - limits a second or subsequent outburst. Neither humanity or God is any better off. Humanity survived and lives to repeat the former violent behaviour with impunity. The rainbow is there, so a similar judgement, however justified, will not reoccur. Humanity can do worse things to one another and get away with it. And of course humanity did, as Jesus was killed on the cross - by those who claimed to be religious.
If we use the story of Noah as a basis of our picture of God, then we don't have many alternatives. If we believe that God is unchanging ("I the LORD do not change" Mal 3:6), for all that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus may have done, we still remain in a highly ambiguous relationship with God. We can only conclude that God sent Jesus as another, but more persuasive rainbow, not to fix humanity, but as another self restraint on divine anger. The cross is in this view, only secondarily gracious towards humanity. Primarily the Cross shields us from God's anger. Now if Jesus was the son of God, and the son of God was killed unjustly by those who claimed to be religious, if I was God, I would be more angry, not less. The divine patience by now would be wearing pretty thin, for it is obvious that violence still reigns both inside and outside the Church.
It would be completely emotionally and ethically impossible to love such an angry god, anger only held back by the Cross, so it would be impossible to fulfil even the first of the great commandments. And failing to love as the first of the commandments commands, incurs yet more guilt. It becomes clear that the wrath of this "god" is inevitable by this "god's" very nature.
Indeed, even though the phrase is used in that most loved and used of psalms, 23, I cannot love a god who is gracious to humanity only "for his name's sake". (verse 3).
And for all the statement may be justified biblically, I believe that it is quite impossible to love a god who demands that "Either we accept what Jesus has done for us on the cross, or else one day we will pay the just penalty ourselves for the things we have done wrong" - to quote an Alpha manual. ("Why Jesus?" Nicky Gumbel HTB publications 1997 p14) This makes a merit of our acceptance, and "justification by faith alone" has gone out the window.
If anyone chooses to worship this sort of god you are most welcome to, but you can count me out.
The good news which is announced by Jesus in the gospel reading, shows us a God quite different from this. We see in Jesus God most clearly portrayed. "If you have seen me you have seen the Father" (Jn 14.9) says Jesus himself. "He is the image of the invisible God" (Col 1.15) says Paul. He is the "Word made flesh" says John (Jn 1.14). And the picture of God that Jesus gives us is a God who reaches out in graciousness and love to one and to all - but particularly towards the religious outcast - in acceptance and love. The bullying and violence in Jesus' time lay solely with the religious authorities who denied that God was like this, who worshipped a fantasy of a god who limited grace to the few (most importantly including, of course, themselves) rather than to all.
Even today's reading from 1 Peter gives evidence that it is not just my opinion that the grace of God is ill described in the story of Noah. Peter tells us that after he was crucified, Jesus descended to the dead, in order to proclaim the good news to the disobedient even from "the days of Noah" - a message they had obviously not heard previously. Presumably, if we believe this happened literally, the descending to the dead was not a pointless exercise or mere symbolic action, and many souls, unjustly "in prison", did hear and respond to Jesus.
I began with the very words of God: "I will see it and remember ..." I believe that the Cross was not primarily to fix God's personality problems, ethical dilemmas or lapses of memory. I believe that the Cross shows us once and for all what God is really like. The Cross shows us that God is, and has been eternally, gracious and merciful particularly - towards the religious outcast - far more gracious and merciful than ever humanity expects, desires or asks for - and certainly more gracious and merciful than often the Church appears to be.
And it is the Cross alone which enables us to actually love God, because we know that we will be loved whether we love God in return or not. We are given a choice, and choice is of the essence of love. Our personal sovereignty is not invaded, and in response we are bidden not to invade in any way another's personal sovereignty.
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