Lent 1 | Gen 9:8-17
I’d like tell you to story about couple who were in a difficult marriage. They had only been married a year when the fighting started. By the end of the second year their fighting escalated, until one night Dan lost his temper and pushed Becky down the stairs. Then he rushed her to the hospital. When she was discharged, she had a cast on one leg and had to move about on crutches. She was on crutches for more than a month.
As you might expect, during that time they had some difficult talks. They discuss divorce, but those discussions left both of them depressed, and left Dan especially desperate and in tears. He begged Becky not to leave him. He pleaded with her, and he promised he would never lose his temper like that again.
They both went through a process in their discernments. Once Becky actually packed a suitcase, but in the end, she could not bring herself to actually leave. Dan could see that her staying was going to be a hard sell. So, when it was clear that she no longer needed her crutches, he took them and hung them on the living room wall, forming an X over the sofa.
It was the only adornment on that wall for the rest of their marriage. Whenever they had a disagreement, whenever one of them raised their voice, a stillness would come over them, and they would look over at the crutches on the wall. And when they did, they would soften, and saying “I'm sorry” came easier to both of them.
Dan and Becky had as happy a marriage as most people have, from then on out. They had some rough spots, but no one ever went to the hospital again. They had kids, they raise them, they retired, and they saw a bit of the world. And when Dan died, Becky took the crutch off the wall and put them in his casket before they close the lid.
After all, wherever it was he was going, she didn't want him to forget.
That story is midrash, a retelling of our reading from the book of Genesis. When we read the story of Noah, we typically think of a cute children’s story, with a giant ark, and the animals coming two-by-two. We forget that this is a story of wrath, the story of anger getting out of control, we forget that it is a story of abuse.
Specifically, it is a story about the abusing God, and our section from Genesis today is the part where God pleads with what is left of humankind not to sever the relationship between them.
Note that unlike other covenants in the Bible, this one is not reciprocal. God says, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature.” God gives no conditions. There is nothing Noah, or his family—or even the animals—must do. There's nothing they must agree to, there is no end for them to uphold. This covenant is entirely God's doing, God's initiative, God's promise.
And because, apparently, God needs a reminder, God has taken the ancient weapon of war—the bow—and has hung it in the sky where everyone can see it, especially where GOD can see it.
From here on out, whenever God feels tempted to destroy humankind, the bow in the sky will serve as a reminder, as a confrontation. The bow says, “Never again.” Never again will I hurt you. Never again will I let my anger carry me away.
It isn’t a cute story, Noah’s story. It’s a story of wrath and rage and genocide. It’s also a story of a God who has a moral awakening, who feels remorse and regret for this behavior, who confesses God’s sin against humankind and promises real change.
There’s a lot of resonance between these stories and what has happened in our nation this week. Rob Porter, President Trump’s staff secretary, has resigned in shame over the revelations of his spousal abuse. And our own weapon of war has been used in the most horrific way against unsuspecting and innocent high school students in Parkland, Florida, killing seventeen people. How many more such tragedies will it take before congress agrees to hang these weapons up for good? What will it take to make them museum pieces, for us to look at and say to one another, “never again”?
But this isn’t a sermon about domestic violence or gun control…I don’t really do that kind of sermon. Not very well, it seems. This is a sermon about fear—specifically, fear of the abuser, fear of the killer…especially when that abuser, that killer, is God.
Many people think that the pivotal moment in Martin Luther's life was when he nailed his 93 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. But in fact, the true pivot point for Luther was one night when he was a very young man, a law student, and he got caught outdoors during the middle of a thunderstorm.
He could find no shelter, and lightning was striking the ground all around him—not once, but repeatedly—he was certain it was going to strike him and kill him. He saw it as the manifestation of God’s wrath against him for his sin. He ran flat out, and as he ran he cried out to St. Anne for help. He promised St. Anne that if she would spare him from God's attack, from God's wrath, that he would quit the study of law and give his life utterly and completely to God.
Well, needless to say, Luther survived. In part, we are here today, because he survived. The course and shape of our faith—if indeed there ever would be a Protestant faith—would look very different without him. But that moment of deliverance from God's wrath was not the end of the story for Luther.
He went on to spent years absolutely terrified of God, cowering before the divine presence, and tormenting his mentor by insisting on confessing his sins several times a day. This continued until Luther read a fateful passage from Paul's letter to the Christians in Rome, and it struck him like a beacon out of the blue.
He realized that our standing before God has NOTHING to do with our goodness, but everything to do with God’s goodness. It has nothing to do with our ability to perform, but it has everything to do with God’s grace. And that that grace was available, and reliable.
In some ways Luther’s whole battle against the Roman church was a big distraction, because Luther's calling, especially to himself, was clear. As far as he was concerned, the purpose of ministry was to soothe the troubled conscience. Let me say that again: The purpose of ministry is to sooth the troubled conscience.
Let that sink in a minute. Now, granted, your neuroses might be different from Martin Luthers’, but there are plenty of people who still struggle with being afraid of God. I was certainly one of them. Growing up Southern Baptist, I heard hellfire preached from the pulpit during my entire childhood, and even as a young adult, I would often wake up in a sweat from nightmares about God, about hell, about never being able to be good enough to escape God’s wrath.
The fear of God is not a museum piece. It may not be what you, personally, struggle with, but there are plenty of people in the world who do; people who are so terrorized that they cannot bring themselves to set foot in a church building. Some of us came to this place with great fear and trembling, and it is only by discovering the love and grace of God that we were able to stay. I count myself in that number.
The Old Testament is a harsh collection of books, in many places. When people recoil at the violence in it, and at God's own behavior in it, it is helpful to remember, I think, that it is the equivalent of scripture written by Dothraki, the barbaric horse-people from Game of Thrones.
When the Jews wrote much of it, they were, like everyone else at the time, little more than cavemen, and it is unfair for us to judge their morality by the standards of our own, because it took us a long time to get where we are now. C.S. Lewis called this “chronological snobbery,” and it is something we should be careful of. I mean, a hundred years from now, people will probably look back on us and how we think about things now, and declare us barbarians—especially our gun policy!
So, perhaps a little grace is in order for our Old Testament writers. And that goes for their understanding of God, as well. Because the picture they paint doesn't show us God as God really is, but only as God was perceived by the people who were writing. And even then, there are marvelous images of grace to be seen, like this bow, this weapon of war, discarded to the clouds, never again to be used against us.
This story is mythology, but the image tells us something true about God. Sure, there is much about the story, and about how God is depicted in the Old Testament, that distorts God's image. But the discarded bow is a trustworthy icon, for it speaks to our fear in the face of natural disaster, which is still with us. It speaks to our fear of divine wrath, which is still with us. It speaks to our desire for healing and restoration and harmony with both creation and Creator.
The dogma of the Christian churches has long been that God is immutable—which is a fancy seminary word for the idea that God never changes. But I don't think it’s true that God is immutable. Scripture is full of accounts where God messes up, does the wrong thing, apologizes, and tries again. Our reading today is just one of many. This God, to which the Jews give testimony, is a God who evolves, who changes, and perhaps most importantly, a God who LEARNS.
I don't know about you, but I don't really have much use for a perfect, remote, unchangeable God. You might as well be worshipping a rock. Instead though, in both the Old Testament and in Jesus, we get different kind of icon. We see here a God that makes mistakes, a God who bleeds, a God who would rather die than give up on the love that is even now being built up between us.
This is an important thing to say, here at the beginning of Lent. Lent is a penitential season, and we get plenty of images of wrath and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Self-examination is a good and healthy thing, and these poetic images can be a helpful aid. But if we have been given abusive messages about God in our past, they can also trigger us and prevent us from having the kind of loving and intimate relationship with God that we all desire, deep in our souls.
So if you have ever been afraid of God, I want you to hear me. God loves you and holds nothing against you. Not now, not ever. If in the past, God ever wielded the bow, God has hung it up. God has made a covenant with us, promising to love us, to protect us, and never to hurt us or abandon us or send us howling into the outer darkness.
You don't have to believe it, and there were times in my life when I sincerely doubted it, too. But living in fear…it's a hard way to live. Especially when there's no reason for it. And if Jesus has shown us anything, it's what God is really like, and what God’s heart is like.
For the God of Israel and the God of Jesus is not a God of vengeance, but of grace; not a God of wrath, but of mercy; not a God far off, but a God who is near; not a God unconcerned with you, but a God who is desperate for the very sort of intimacy that scares you most. A God who wants to know and to be known. To love and to be loved in return. A God who desperately desires to forgive…and to be forgiven.
Let us pray...
Remember, O God, your compassion and love, for they are everlasting.
You have hung up your bow, and vowed peace with us.
You made yourself vulnerable and came to live among us
to love us with your own hands, to woo us with your own lips.
Help us to trust in your goodness. Help us to put aside our fear and resentment.
Help us to enter into the kind of intimacy that we desire and that you desire.
For we ask this in the name of Jesus, who has shown us your heart. Amen.