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Arc of the Covenant

February 27, 2012

“Arc of the Covenant” Genesis 9:8-17 Lent 1B © 2.26.12 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

A Sunday comic I saw recently had the animals on Noah’s ark holding an election. A number of them had some quality that would fit them for leadership, but it was the penguin from Antarctica who was expected to win, because he did well at the p-o-l-l.

The cartoonist assumes we know the story of the ark and the Flood, so he doesn’t need to spend time setting up the tale. And of course we are indeed very familiar with it. It’s given inspiration over and over for crafts and paintings and jewelry, nursery murals and fun songs. The account of the ark is a staple Bible text for children. In fact, the first time we hear it is when we’re small. It’s just perfect, isn’t it, for little ones, with all those animals and birds? The cute giraffes with their long necks way up high above the roof of the ark. The elephants with their trunks hanging out over the stern. The creatures of all sorts going in two by two, while dove and ravens fly overhead. And Mr. and Mrs. Noah overseeing the project, making sure every need is filled. It’s a story of safety and protection and care, all the kinds of things adults want children to experience and depend on. And because teens and adults also crave and need security and peace and calm in chaos, we like to hear it over and over as well.

But the tale of Noah has been put to another use by those with a completely different agenda than delighting children and helping them feel safe. It’s been a fixture in the quest of some to prove the Bible is historically and scientifically true and accurate. You’ve probably seen as I have documentaries about people searching for the remains of the ark on Mt. Ararat or looking for geological evidence of a global deluge. At the same time, we also know of skeptics who wonder how two of every species could fit into the boat, how the place was kept clean, how they didn’t kill each other, and so on. The problem of space requirements is compounded when we realize that actually there were seven pair of each animal considered clean and one pair of those labeled unclean, along with seven pair of every kind of bird. I guess Noah had some sort of trick from Harry Potter going on, where the inside of the structure is bigger than the outside. Or maybe God instructed Noah in advanced quantum physics.

Actually, such matters are irrelevant. The Bible doesn’t stand or fall on archeological or geological evidence or on whether a story makes literal sense. Its truth is neither confirmed nor denied by finding the location of the Garden of Eden or discovering the hull of the ark or securing the Holy Grail. Both religious and secular people have fallen prey to the idea that there is only one kind of truth, namely, the sort that is quantifiable, verifiable by experiment, objective observation, and unbiased reason. The ancient peoples who wrote and read the story of the ark would have known better. It wouldn’t matter if Noah’s ark were pure fiction. There would still be truth for living to be found here. We should not confuse the vessel with its cargo or the delivery system with the payload.

But what if the story of Noah and the ark were neither just a nice children’s story nor fodder for debates about the reliability of the Bible? Suppose it were a serious theological reflection on the relationship between God and his creation. And what if it had to do with some of the most serious issues of our day? Wouldn’t that be worth the investment of our time and energy, if only for a little while this morning?

I hope and think so. And I want to invite you to notice a couple of things. For one, this story calls us to expand our notion of God’s purpose and relationships. It’s repeated so many times in this text that we can’t possibly miss how God’s covenant is with “all flesh” and with creation itself.

These days such an idea gets significant push-back from some who claim to base their theology on the Bible. Of course, the Bible can and does give rise to any number of theologies and practices. If we were to follow the customs and share the beliefs of biblical characters, some of what we did and believed would in fact be abhorrent and morally repugnant. And in fact, already in the New Testament there are different denominations, varying ways of understanding and following Jesus. There were significant arguments between Paul and the traditional Jerusalem Christian authorities, for example.

So maybe the best I can claim this morning is that this particular story leads us to a broader understanding of what God is doing. His purpose is far beyond just saving humankind or one group of people. A human-centered theology is in fact not a faithful theology. Even less is belief that focuses entirely on individuals or elite groups. You know the sort I mean. It’s the kind in which preachers take John 3:16, which of course says “God so loved the world” and make it say “God so loved you.” And God’s purpose for you is merely to get you into heaven. How you live this life is of secondary importance and has little to do with your salvation. Apparently it’s of no interest that Jesus and the prophets disagree.

If we want to know why our culture is in such a mess, why people are so focused on themselves, why we are suspicious of those who are different, why the environment is so disregarded, why animals are mistreated, we have to look no farther than the sort of Christian teaching that makes human beings, and the individual, indeed only certain kinds of people, the central and only focus of God’s love and care. When that corrupt religion has become the dominant form of the faith, as it has in our nation, then it’s no wonder that we forget our neighbors, refuse to do justice, and live with such arrogance and pride. I lay many of the problems of our land right at the feet of the practitioners of such narrow and misguided religion.

We’ve heard a lot of talk recently about what constitutes an authentic theology. For me, based on the Noah story, here it is: any theology that ignores care for the environment and the other creatures with which we share this planet is a bogus theology. This text tells us clearly that God’s agreement is with all creation, with every living thing, with whatever creeps, crawls, flies, walks, waddles, hops, slithers or swims, with feathers, fur, scales or whatever other covering, carnivore, herbivore, omnivore, from the smallest to the largest, ugly and pretty, plain and spectacular.

And his covenant is with every human being. Any theology that limits God’s love to one group of people is inherently suspect. God does not just love Christians of a certain stripe or a particular race or culture or economic class. The arc of the covenant, the rainbow, stretches from one end of the sky to the other. God is not limited by human categories and parochial concerns. Remember: he commanded Noah to bring clean and unclean into the boat. That tells me God cares nothing for our ritual requirements and exclusions; those are things our religions have made up to serve our need to have an “us” and a “them.” The Creator is not bound by geography or culture or race or creed or gender or lifestyle. He loves and made in his image all humankind.

And then there is the earth itself. Any theology and practice should be questioned that denies our connection with the very ground we walk on, the air we breathe, the water that sustains life itself. Remember we are adama, earth creatures, made of the dust of the earth. When we forget that we are but dirt, we begin to think we can do anything we like to the land, to the air, to the water, to non-human creatures, to our neighbors on this planet. We can pillage and plunder and use up resources. We can hoard what Earth has to offer, what God has given to all his creatures, and make his gifts means to our own selfish ends, to satisfy our greed and lust. Lent especially calls us to recall our deep connection with the dust beneath our feet, to remember that the root of the word “humility” is “humus,” the soil. We honor God’s covenant when we honor and care for the earth, when we honor and care for all God’s creatures, when we honor and care for our neighbors down the street and across the globe.

So, this story summons us to recognize that the scope of God’s care is comprehensive. But if the covenant is expansive, it is also utterly gracious. Most of the covenants in the Bible are between partners. They are “cut” as Hebrew puts it, and there are mutual obligations. But this covenant is not cut; it’s “raised up,” and only by God. It’s unilateral, one-sided. He says “As for me, I am establishing….” Noah doesn’t do anything, say anything, there are no requirements. This covenant is all about God’s graciousness that promises “never again” to destroy the earth. It’s not conditioned on behavior or morality or codes of conduct. God will later make such covenants, but this one provides the broad context for all those that follow. This covenant will be more about the action, the behavior of God than about that of human beings or animals.

To remind himself of his commitment to graciousness and not to wrath, his resolve to stick with humanity no matter what, God puts his bow in the clouds, his arc of the covenant. We are meant to think of this as an actual bow, a weapon of war, of destruction and pain and death. Indeed, it’s God’s favored weapon in the Old Testament, from which he shoots his arrows of lightning. Just a few examples: “The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side” (Psalm 77). “Make the lightning flash and scatter them; send out your arrows and rout them” (Psalm 144). “If one does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and strung his bow; he has prepared his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts” (Psalm 7). “He has bent his bow like an enemy, with his right hand set like a foe; he has killed all in whom we took pride in the tent of daughter Zion; he has poured out his fury like fire” (Lamentations 2).

But now the bow is pointed in the heavens toward God himself, as if to suggest that God will bear the punishment should humanity sin so terribly again. And the bow is undrawn, becoming a symbol, not an active weapon. It’s hung up, indicating an end to God’s striving against humanity. He has won the victory over chaos and has declared peace. God will not be provoked (see Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: 84).

The text reminds us that whatever comes now, God’s intention toward us is always gracious, never with the intent to harm or destroy. His purpose instead is to save. Worlds still end. Destruction and disruption happen. Loved ones die. Careers are shattered and reputations trashed. Economies collapse and savings are lost. We drown in a sea of troubles. But God’s promise remains: “When through the deep waters I call thee to go, the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow. For I will be near thee, thy troubles to bless, and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress” (“How Firm a Foundation”). God’s intent is for all generations, eternally, to be gracious.

God’s commitment is so strong that he will endure the hurt and the grief and pain himself. There was another flood centuries later. But this time it was a flood of tears from God’s eyes as Jesus died. It took such commitment, such sacrifice, such pain to complete the arc, the sweep, the scope, the inclusive circle, of the covenant.

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