1st in Lent
February 18 2018
Genesis 9.8-17; Psalm 25.1-10; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.9-15
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
Human history is a history of human wickedness and divine grace, and this history is reflected in the story that our Bibles tell.
Some Sundays it is reflected better than others.
The story of Noah and the flood presents us with a picture of God as a mass murderer: “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created… for I am sorry that I have made them.” This is, or should be, of concern to those of us who think of the Bible as holy writ.
To be sure, the focus of the story, and the focus of today’s reading from Genesis, is on Noah and those with him in the ark that he builds and on the covenant that God makes with them after the waters subside. But the story of the ark is not separable from the story of the flood and the deaths of countless women, men, and children.
Wil Gafney, who makes this point, says rather pompously: “Even though this story has been canonized, the casual acceptance of genocidal violence is not a value I wish to emulate or pass on, and certainly not as a children’s story, as the text is so often used.”
If we are to read this text responsibly, we need to step back from it and to see it in context.
Human wickedness and divine grace: the Bible is a story of salvation, beginning with Abraham and culminating in Christ. But this salvation history has a prelude: the primeval history we find in Genesis chapters 1 to 11.
Here is set out in three great movements the question God seeks to answer, the problem God seeks to solve. The overriding theme of these chapters is the spread of human wickedness, the human refusal to accept our creaturely status, as we seek to blur the all-important boundary between the human and the divine and, as a result, bring catastrophe upon ourselves.
In the first movement, we hear the stories of Adam and Eve, who ignore their manufacturer’s instructions, and of Cain who kills his brother Abel. In the third movement, we hear the story of the tower of Babel, that proud tower that seeks to reach to heaven. And in between we have the story of Noah.
God is the creator of our world and the author of our Bible. God is the playwright and we are the dramatis personae.
But in these early stories, as elsewhere in scripture, God steps on to the stage as a character in God’s own play. God, to use a fancy word, is portrayed anthropomorphically, as like us, speaking directly and frequently to human beings, condemning or sparing, announcing God’s judgment or merciful forbearance.
Genesis itself tells us that God isn’t like that. God isn’t like us. On the contrary, we are like God, made in God’s image and likeness.
But from the moment in chapter two where God forms Adam “from the dust of the ground” – a moment we were remembering on Wednesday – and the moment in chapter three where Adam and Eve hear “the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze”, Genesis choses to tell the story as if God were like us.
And that is bound to cause us problems, unless we think carefully.
In his book Very Near to You, the Israeli Jewish writer Avraham Burg offers us a human reading of the Torah, in 48 weekly portions. The God of these early stories, he says, is really rather childish. When Adam and Eve go off the straight and narrow, God loses his composure, becomes enraged, and banishes them from the garden. In the story of Noah, God does it again, this time on a global scale. God rebukes himself for making the world and lashes out murderously. “Only much later… does God mature, change, relax and become the God who is patient with his world and his faithful.”
The expulsion from Eden, the flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the killing of the firstborn sons in Egypt: At this stage in God’s development – which is to say, at this stage in the Bible’s telling of its story – every solution that occurs to God is “violent, homicidal, and vengeful”.
Jews and Christians know that God isn’t like that.
A God of fear, says Avrum Burg, is irrelevant to us who so desperately need a God of love, who “yearn for a God who forgives, a Father of mercy rather than vengeance, for a Lord of peace and not a Master of war.”
Burg’s way of cutting the Gordian knot is to relinquish the doctrine of divine providence, to dispense with the image of God as a divine babysitter. “Belief in God,” he says, “is possible only in a place where God has contracted himself and made it possible for [us] to choose in a space free of his divinity… A God who manages all the details is a God who leaves no breathing space for humanity to build, create, repair and be a partner.”
I want, in the nicest possible way, to say that this is idolatry. Divine providence is not divine babysitting. There is no space free of God’s divinity; and yet we humans are free.
We must not allow ourselves to be bewildered by the language of these early stories, which speak of God as if God were a being within God’s own creation and so a rival to God’s own creatures. We don’t need to escape from God, like Adam and Eve hiding in the trees. “God is not a coercive force outside us… We are not free in spite of God but because of God.” God makes us ourselves in our freedom; and in sending us his Son and his Spirit, God makes that freedom effective.
Our Gospel this morning shows us God rather breathlessly doing that.
In the other years of our lectionary, Matthew and Luke give us leisurely accounts of the temptation of Jesus. Mark gives us the short, short version: just two verses. And he stitches these verses tightly to his almost equally short accounts of the baptism of Jesus and the good news he proclaims.
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” God is at work, acting to put right all that is wrong in God’s world. In this season of Lent especially, the appropriate response is to “repent, and believe in the good news”.
Repentance here is not feeling miserable over our sins, regretting that we haven’t been more religious, or giving up chocolate. To repent is to turn around: to turn away from the idols that so easily captivate us and to walk in God’s way.
Belief here is trust: trusting in God’s power that shows itself as mercy, and aligning our hearts and minds with God’s purposes.
It is still rather obviously true, as it was in the story of Noah, that the wickedness of humankind is great in the earth, that every inclination of the thoughts of human hearts is only evil continually.
But it is not God’s plan to blot us out from the earth.
The good news in which we trust is that Christ dies for us while we are yet sinners. This is no narrow or exclusive affair. “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.”
The new covenant God makes with us in Christ’s blood is to be seen against the sprawling panorama of God’s covenant with Noah, which, as we read this morning, is a covenant with all humanity – and, indeed, with all life. God puts his rainbow in the sky and reaches out to the earth and to the rainbow coalition of humankind, strong to save.
Lent is a good time to think on these things.
Avraham Burg, Very Near to You: Human Readings of the Torah (Jerusalem & Springfield, NJ: Gefen, 2012)
C Clifton Black, “Commentary on Mark 1.9-15”, WorkingPreacher.org
Frederick William Faber, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy”, CH4 187
Wil Gafney, “Commentary on Genesis 9.8-17”, WorkingPreacher.org
Jon D Levenson, “Genesis”, in Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler, Michael Fishbane, eds, The Jewish Study Bible (New York: OUP, 2004), 8-101
Herbert McCabe, “Felix Culpa”, in God, Christ and Us (London & New York, 2003), 29-34
God in such love for us lent us this planet (CH4 240)
Lord, teach me all your ways (CH4 21 i)
God of freedom, God of justice, God whose love is strong as death (CH4 263)
Come down, O Love Divine (CH4 489)
Great God of every shining constellation (CH4 246)