8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 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.”
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
In other years, 40 days might sound like a long time. We tend to emphasize that Noah was on that ark for forty days and forty nights. Post-baptism Jesus embarks into the wilderness for forty days. But if you’ve been living semi-quarantined for almost a full year now it could be easy to think “40 days? Now, Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years - that is hardship, but 40 days???”
And while that attitude is certainly understandable this year, it’s not exactly helpful as we seek to renew our faith. Lent has never just been about our personal sacrifice, but the spiritual renewal of the entire church, the body of Christ. And this year in particular, I think it might be interesting for us to think about how God is calling us not just as individuals but as the church to confess our sins and renew our faith - to partner with God in recreating a more just and compassionate world.
In the past month or so the leadership of this church has been referring to the “Matthew 25 initiative” a lot. Back in the spring of 2020 our session accepted an invitation from the denomination to become a part of this initiative, which challenges churches to become a more relevant presence in the world by taking steps that will:
build congregational vitality
dismantle structural racism
and eradicate systemic poverty
The motion was unanimously approved and then the idea sort of sat for awhile. Of course, we were already doing many of these things through our long-standing commitment to Presbyterian Community Ministry as well as our more recent relationship with the Becoming the Beloved Community project. But as was the case for a lot of things in 2020, we got distracted and Matthew 25 was certainly not forgotten but also not at the front of our minds.
And then earlier this year we began preparing for the season of Lent and it became clear God’s Spirit was calling us back to this commitment. The staff felt it coming together, but we were also encouraged by the members of one of our Sunday school classes, who had recently read LaTasha Morrison’s book, “Be the Bridge: Pursuing God’s Heart for Racial Reconciliation.” Perhaps this year, Lent would not be as much about our individual sacrifices as it would be about us coming together to think about how God is calling us as a church to confess our sins and renew our faith. To become partners with God in recreating a more just and compassionate world.
Work like this hard. As we come to subjects like systemic sin and injustice, it’s very easy to feel defensive — before one another and before God. That’s where I think we might find a good role model in Noah.
You know, the whole reason Noah and his family were saved from the flood waters is because they were good. Genesis tell us that Noah was a righteous man - better than the rest, that’s the whole reason God chose him.
And despite the fact that God instructed Noah to build an ark and saved him and his family from chaos and destruction, they still suffered a great deal. In that flood they lost their friends, their home, everything they’d worked for — gone. It wasn’t just forty days of wilderness they had to endure. When they finally walked off that boat onto dry land there was plenty more wilderness staring them in the face. They were going to have to start from scratch and rebuild everything.
So what did Noah do?
Did he make his way onto dry land with a huff and say to God, “Look, don’t you think we’ve been through enough, Lord?”
No he did not.
Instead, Noah’s first act post-flood was to build an altar and offer sacrifice to God. It was to acknowledge that in life and death, all that he is and all that he has belongs to his Creator. He thanked God for not forsaking him during those 40 days.
In the opening chapter of the book, Be the Bridge, Morrison refers to what she calls, “the posture of humility”. We see it in Noah’s first-act post-flood, his willingness to prostrate himself before God and acknowledge his reliance upon God for all things.
When Morrison talks about this “posture of humility” in the context of addressing difficult topics like structural racism and systemic injustice. She writes,
“…the work of racial reconciliation requires a certain posture. If you’re white, if you come from the majority culture, you need to bend low in a posture of humility… If you are black… or part of any non-white group, need your own posture of humility but it will look different than your white peers…” she gently acknowledges that non-white members of the body “will have to correct, instruct, and recognize the effort of those trying to cross the bridge, even if imperfectly.”
“Even if imperfectly” is key here.
But I love this image because it acknowledges that each and every one of us has some bending to do - even righteous Noah, the one person chosen out of all humanity to be saved from the flood - even he bent low before the Lord when the time came to renew the world. And that is what Lent is all about. Changing our posture toward God, bending down in humility to admit our complete and utter reliance upon the mercy and grace of our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.
But you know something really surprising happens in this story as Noah is settling into that posture of humility.
I imagine the infinite, eternal God could have said a lot of things in this moment.
God could have given a list of instructions (like Moses and the commandments)
God could have preached a sermon (like Jesus and the beatitudes)
God could have given a charge and said, OK Noah, now go forth and…
But instead God says:
“Noah, never again.”
Three times in God’s response we hear God say, “Never again. Never again.”
It is as close to an apology as we will ever hear from God.
As Noah is bent low toward the Creator, we see God assume a posture of humility and the relationship between God and Noah, Creator and Created is transformed. God remains sovereign, there is no doubt of that, but God’s stance is now one of grace, of mutual respect, and unconditional love.
“Never again will I forsake this world” is the promise God offers at that altar.
And it’s a promise God remains faithful to in the days ahead as Noah and his family rebuild the world around them. As God remains with the Israelites in the desert during on their journey toward liberation. As the incarnate Christ seeks out those persecuted and oppressed. Even at the cross, as God’s only son endures the pain and suffering of crucifixion.
When God says “Never again”, we can be sure of that promise.
This is what we must remember as we assume our own posture of humility in Lent and attempt to rebuild the world around us in the aftermath of a pandemic — that as we bend low before God and one another in repentance, that same God is bending down and reaching out for us. Ready to receive us, ready to welcome us - ready for us to become co-creators in the work of renewing the church so that we might be agents of Christ in the world.
This is why we, as a church, have committed ourselves to the Matthew 25 initiative, not because it’s trendy but because it’s a calling for Christians to confess how we have participated in systems that have made the rich richer and the poor poorer, that have given some of God’s children more or less opportunity based on the color of our skin.
We have every reason to believe that the flood waters are subsiding just a bit right now. We’re not there yet, in fact we still have a long way to go. But that is what Lent is for — preparing ourselves for Easter resurrection while we are still in the wilderness. Now is the time to renew ourselves in anticipation of that day when we will exit the ark and place our feet upon dry land.
It’s time for us to ponder:
What systems have sin have we participated in - perhaps without even knowing?
What will our first act be once we are on dry land?
Will we say to God — we’ve been through a lot, surely you owe us!
Or will we, like Noah, prostrate ourselves before the Lord in thanksgiving for remaining true to that covenant promise, “Never again will I forsake you.” Praise to the God who loves us despite our sin. Will we give thanks for God’s faithfulness to us in Jesus Christ, who is our hope, and will we raise our eyes to God and ask,
“What do you need us to do to help you recreate this world for the better?”
May it be so.