It was a storm to end all storms.
Waco, Texas. About 2 years ago. When it storms in Texas, it storms. Then again, you know the kind.
The momentary purple flash that lights up the otherwise desolate night. The all-encompassing lightning and the simultaneous crack and crash so loud, so powerful, you wonder if you still have a roof.
It was that kind of storm. Water coming down not so much in drops, but sheets. And the lightning only getting brighter, and the thunder coming now both from above, and from the ground. There I was, slowly increasing the volume of the television pretending I’m not really afraid. Proving something to the storm by pretending to ignore it all together.
But this kind of storm will not be ignored. Power. Out. This was no surge. It is out. Silent and dark. Without power I fumble around—thankful for a roommate who labeled an entire drawer “emergency”. It’s truly dark in this house. In the wee hours. Without even the faint glow from the tv, dvr, oven, coffee maker. It is dark. The water keeps coming, I can hear it on the roof, and I can hear it flooding the gutters.
It was a storm to end all storms.
This was a storm to end all worlds. Can you imagine? Rain. Sheets of it. Buckets. The heavens, it says, opened up, and the water wouldn’t stop. It just kept coming, until all there was, was water.
What do we know of this story, really? Our childhood nostalgia calls to mind animals, a big boat, and a rainbow at the end. God’s promises. We hear the story again, with older ears and hear a story of fear, anger, and retribution. It’s a story that makes us uncomfortable, and understandably so. We like to sing about God’s grace and love and promise and creation. We like those things.
So a story about a God who punishes, and punishes entirely? About a world where more animals make it out alive than humans? Let’s just skip to the part about the rainbow, okay?
I mean, this story uses all sorts of vocabulary we’d just as soon consider a dead language—the story relies on a vocabulary of sin—using words like ‘wicked’, corruption, and destruction at the hands of a jealous God. This is not our vocabulary—this is the vocabulary of people like Pat Robertson – folks who jump to blame the ravages of natural disasters on human action and attitude.
It’s hard to recognize the God we sing to in this story. And we don’t want to see ourselves as worthy of this kind of obliteration. We resist a language that points to shame—darkness—and overwhelming, chaotic floods. That cannot be us.
But it is. If we think about it—we know this story.
It’s a world that probably doesn’t sound all that different from ours, if you maybe added the internet. (Which adds another layer of sin to the equation.) The main characters may need a little tweaking, but we know this story.
We don’t need the Bible to tell us what evil looks or feels like. We know intimately violence and vengeance. Of selfishness and self-promotion. We are more-than-familiar with our attempts to be like God, and the destruction and alienation that serves as a painful reminder of the place this leaves us—far away from God. A place of feeling forgotten by the very One who created us.
This story is not unique to the Hebrew scriptures—other ancient traditions tell tales of a devastating flood. And in many ways they all told this story for the same reasons.
In a world more defined by ambiguity than fact, defined more by what remained hidden than what could be proven, this story was told for a purpose—to explain why something scary and inexplicable happened—why does the world open up—why do the forces that sustain us sometimes turn chaotic and seem to attempt to swallow us whole?
The answers seemed easy enough. They saw the forces of corruption, violence and incivility that they were more-than-capable of wreaking on one another. The storyteller labels these collectively as evil—and it is so ubiquitous it must exist in the human heart itself. These people could understand a God who would choose to destroy a world that had, well, as my grandma might say, “gone to heck in a handbasket.” God must be Angry. And, well, we probably deserved it.
But what makes this story different, and why is this fairly common story worth inclusion among the Hebrew scriptures?
Quite simply, the deity at the center changes the story entirely. God at some point helped re-tell the story to say, “No, not quite. I wasn’t angry. I was sad. Deep in my own heart, out of which I imaged you, I was grieved. This is not who I created you to be. These were not the relationships I intended you to have. I grieved. As you grieve for your own wanton children, all the deeper did I grieve for my world.”
We recognize the troubling and painful destruction of the flood, but listen to how the story describes God—God was sad God created the world. God grieved in God’s own heart for creation.
The word used in the third chapter of Genesis, upon Adam’s and Eve’s banishment from Eden, to describe the pain of childbirth, is the same word used to describe the pain God now feels over the broken and alienated world. This is a story about destruction, yes. But this is also a painful story of forgetting and grief. We wish we could skip ahead without thinking about it. We’d rather just focus on what happens next.
Listen, now as the waters subside, from chapters 8 and 9:
But God remembered Noah … And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided; the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, and the waters gradually receded from the earth.
Then the earth was dry, and God said to Noah, ‘Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.’ So Noah went out with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. And every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out of the ark by families.
Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt-offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelt the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.
As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night,
shall not cease.’
God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.
‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 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. 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.’ 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: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 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. 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.’ 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.’
So, yes, this is a story with a different God at its focus, and what we learn from this story is that we can no longer talk about God without talking about us. In many ways, I think the Israelites told this story as their own creation story. This is a story about the genesis of their Covenant.
Through the Covenant initiated with Noah, the story of relationship with God begins. We learn about a God who chooses and a God who remembers. First, the story says that God remembered Noah. I don’t hear from this that God had forgotten Noah, but that God re-membered Noah into the Covenant he had promised in the verses prior. And in the restoring of the Earth and the renewing of the command to “be fruitful,” God re-members Noah into creation.
And then there’s the rainbow. There’s the covenant, which doesn’t happen without the chaos and the water. And if you listen closely—the rainbow is not really for us. It is God’s gift, and ultimately God’s own reminder of the promise not to destruct. God gives the promise of Covenant that if it were up to us, we would break every time. Yet, God sees the bow in the clouds and remembers. God remembers the sadness and the pain. God remembers the destruction. And God remembers the promise. In remembering, God keeps God’s covenant.
Moreover, God chooses what kind of presence among and relationship with his people to have. The people who told and heard this story knew of God’s power—they knew that God tamed the waters and created Heavens and the Earth. They knew enough to fear God. They knew what kind of havoc they could wreak when left to their own doing.
But they also knew—and believed in – a God of goodness. A God who called the finished product “very good”. A God who created us in God’s own image – to love and exist in community. A God who told us to rest and enjoy. This is a God of grace, and mercy and remembrance, but also a God who restores, renews and recreates.
We might not admit it, but perhaps some of us wouldn’t mind a great flood. We might look around and agree with God that the whole earth has turned wicked and rotten and the best idea would be to just wipe it all out and start all over.
The promise though is that becomes an impossibility. The story is not about the water. The point is not in the chaos. The story is not even about us. The point is a God who loves and grieves so deeply God cannot bear give us what we deserve. The story is not even about the rainbow—the first, striking image of color against a still-grey sky. The point is a covenant that we are most certainly going to forget. The promise is that God will not forget.
The way I see it, too, we are to act out that covenant. We know intimately chaos, but we renew the covenant with God, and find our hope and rest in a God who created us for each other. We find our own promise in a God who looks to the sky created by his own hands and says, “I remember.” In God’s remembering, we, too, are called to remember God’s own image in us.
In God’s remembering the covenant, God also re-members us, which is not to say a ‘mere’ memory, but God brings us back into the fold, brings us back into relationship, restoring the promise signified in the rainbow. We are re-membered to the fold in which we are already deeply known and loved.
Today we remember once more around the table. We remember along with God the Son, the Christ who called out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” In both the flood and the crucifixion, we feel the universal experience of feeling forgotten, of feeling abandoned. It appears as though God forgets.
It seems obvious that a God who unleashes chaos and overwhelming waters has forgotten God’s precious creation that only chapters before, sat back, satisfied, and declared “very good.” Meanwhile, God is grieving in his heart for what has become of this ‘good’ creation. God is sorry to the core that the freedom and goodness and the image he gave transformed into violence, vengeance and wickedness.
It only appears that as Jesus hangs innocently from the cross, a martyr for a cause not yet clear, that God has forsaken this one, this one who brought a renewed promise and a new freedom. God, yet again, grieved, and remembered. The resurrection is, of course, the ultimate sign of God’s memory.
The Gospel of God’s grace and God’s renewing presence did not begin with Christ; it was present even to Noah. God remains, and is saddened, even when, according to the writers, God doesn’t even know if God wants to be present anymore. It results ultimately in the election of grace—God is for us. God elects God’s own being to be love. God’s remembering here is to be a God of the covenant – in deep and intimate relationship with creatures.
Even to the depths of Christ’s own experience of alienation and loss, God remains present, with the final word being God’s calling all things into being once more—for God and with God.