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August 27th, 2017

Never again will a storm be the end of a story.

Genesis 9:8-17

 

The Historical Point of View

Today we turn in our studies of Genesis to chapters 6-9. It is also the Sunday on which I am concluding a Sunday School class on C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape is a senior devil guiding a young tempter as he learns to lead humans astray. In Letter 27, Screwtape discusses The Historical Point of View. He says that one of Hell’s goals is to cut every generation off from the wisdom of those who came before them. He’s not just talking about the Bible, but he includes the Bible when he says the devils don’t want a “learned man” to read an old book asking whether it is true. Instead, with the Historical Point of View,

He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the ‘present state of the question.’

Why is the Historical Point of View so devilish? Because it does nothing to draw us closer to God. It makes us arrogant, condescending, and less likely to open ourselves up to what God wants to do in our lives.

When we turn to the story of Noah and the Great Flood, the devil has been quite successful in his use of the Historical Point of View. In this context, it sounds like this:  “In what ways did the author borrow from other Mesopotamian flood stories like the Gilgamesh epic? Since this story comes from a pre-scientific age, we certainly know that it’s physically impossible for the entire earth to be flooded to the top of ‘all the highest mountains’ (7:19) and for ‘every living thing’ (7:21) to be destroyed.” When humans pay too much attention to questions like the extent of the flood or the extra-biblical flood myths, they have fallen into the devil’s trap of The Historical Point of View – regardless of their conclusion.

Let’s instead focus on the question of why the Holy Spirit inspired believers to write and preserve this story for us. What are the key truths in the well-known story of Noah and the flood?

Three words

What we have in Genesis 6-9 is something we could title, “Take 2.” God starts over. There are many parallels between the creation story in Genesis 1-4 and the story of Noah in Genesis 6-9. Both stories begin with chaos, continue with God creating a new world, and conclude with sin. Both stories move from universal water to the creation of land, including plant life. In both stories, animals figure prominently, and in both stories, man bears the image of God with responsibility to rule the earth. In both stories, humans plummet quickly into sin.

So if Genesis is a book of “Beginnings,” what begins with Noah that didn’t begin with Adam? What’s new in Take 2? I can summarize what’s new in the flood narrative with three key words: covenant, sign, and remember.

Covenant (8-11). The word “covenant” appears in Genesis 6:18 for the first time in the Bible. God meets Noah and tells him to build an ark because God is “going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens.” God goes on to say, “But I will establish my covenant with you.” Genesis 9 is that post-flood covenant.

Note several important points about the covenant. First, it is not only with Noah but with his descendants (9) and “with every living creature on earth” (10) – birds, cattle, wild animals, all of it. The covenant is this: “Never again will all life be destroyed the waters of a flood” (11).

You’ve probably heard, even from me, that a covenant is like a contract. It’s a deal, a commitment between two parties. The problem with that definition is that even if it works with other covenants in the Bible, it doesn’t work here. This is a one-way promise that asks nothing of Noah. Further, it’s a promise also to all of Noah’s descendants, most of whom don’t even exist yet. And the animals included in the covenant – well, bears and cows and frogs can’t make or keep any promises.

This is exactly the point of the first covenant in the Bible. Later covenants (with Abraham, Moses, and David, for example, and the new covenant Jesus establishes) will expand this rich metaphor. But let’s get this straight from the first covenant – this is no relationship of equals. The most common type of covenant outside the Bible in ancient times was a suzerain-vassal covenant – a covenant where a sovereign king or state agreed to provide for a city or community. There may have been conditions involved, such as the payment of taxes, but there was clearly a superior, sovereign power that exercised control.

Every covenant between God and human beings from this time forward is initiated by God and its terms are established by God. God doesn’t negotiate deals. God initiates promises and informs us what, if anything, is our part. Twice in this text God calls his covenant with Noah “my covenant” (9, 11). It’s not “our covenant.”

This is what Take 2 is all about. With Adam, God gave provision and instruction:  “I’ve created you in my image, so rule the earth and populate it. And by the way, don’t touch that one tree in the garden I made for you.” Here in Take 2 all of that is included, but God also includes a promise. He doesn’t ask anything as he will when he instructs Abraham to circumcise his son or the children of Israel to obey the commandments or us to believe in Jesus. We’re not ready for those advanced lessons yet.

We’re just ready for one step forward in grasping who God is and how he operates. He’s a God who makes and keeps his promises. If you make this story about the quantity of water or the size of the ark or the pairs of animals or anything except the promise-keeping character of God, you may or may not be right about your conclusion but you will definitely have missed the main point. God’s faithfulness is the main point.

Sign (12-13, 17). The word “sign” is the second key word in this text. God not only gives a covenant, but a “sign of the covenant.” The word “sign” appears before this point in Genesis only once, when God creates the sun, moon, and stars to “serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years” (1:14).

In a couple of weeks, we’ll start our First Communion class for kids in third grade and up. One of the key requirements of readiness for communion is the ability to grasp “sign language.” You shouldn’t take communion until you can not only embrace Jesus’ death for your sins, but also grasp symbolic language. There’s a difference between the thing itself and the sign that points to it. A sign is always a pointer.

“Sign language” continues through the Bible in connection with all covenants. The invisible God knows we need tangible evidence of his promises. In mercy, he gives us things we can see or touch or smell or hear or taste – or maybe all of the above. When we begin to wonder whether God is good for his word, we need signs.

The sign in Genesis 9 is a what? A rainbow? Yes, and no. Yes, because it’s that familiar 7-colored arc. There’s no indication in the Bible that Genesis 9 was the first rainbow ever, any more than the Last Supper was the first Passover meal. God takes a pre-existing phenomenon and fills it with rich meaning.

No, because even though it’s translated “rainbow” in the NIV and most translations, the Hebrew word is just “bow.” It’s the same word as an archer’s bow, and, in fact, this word is used more often in the Old Testament to refer to a war bow than to a rainbow. Tim Keller has a beautiful sermon in which he borrows from Charles Spurgeon to note that the direction of the arch in a rainbow means the arrow is pointing up, not down. He finds in that a vivid picture of God’s grace on the cross. God says, “From now on I will redirect wrath not toward the earth but toward myself.”

I love that, but it’s stretching this text a bit more than I’m comfortable with. God reveals himself in stages, and Take 2 is simply about the sign, the reminder, that God has chosen to act in what theologians would call “common grace” – grace extended to everyone. He will never again destroy the earth in a flood. This promise is unconditional.

The people of south central Texas need that literal reminder this weekend. They are expecting days of torrential downpours. This is still less than the forty days and nights in Genesis 7, but it’s terrifying to live through and will likely cause widespread destruction and fear. Every time we pass through a storm, literally or figuratively, we need a visible sign of God’s mercy and grace that this storm is temporary. As Walter Brueggeman says, “Chaos is not the last word.” Not ever.

The colors of the rainbow have been used by many groups and movements. Most famously, San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker popularized the rainbow flag as a symbol of LGBT advocacy in 1978. The rainbow flag was also used during the Protestant Reformation. It’s been used by Native Americans, Jews, and Buddhists. It has symbolized international peace and cooperation. It’s a symbol of hope and inclusion.

On one level, everyone who’s ever used the rainbow was right. The rainbow truly is a sign of God’s unconditional promise to every person, everywhere, and to all creation, that whenever a storm comes, God will not wipe everything out and start over. There will not be a Take 3. He will intervene, he will judge, but this universal cleansing won’t happen again. Whatever chaos we see, it will not be the end of the story.

Remember (14-16). The third key word in Genesis 9 is “remember.” We would assume that God wants us to remember his promise whenever we see a rainbow. That’s not what it says. It says that when the rainbow appears, God will remember.

The word “remember” also occurs for the first time in the Bible in the Noah story. Noah and his family have been in the ark for about eight months when Genesis 8:1 says, “And God remembered Noah.” That’s an important clue to the meaning of the word. It obviously does not mean that since God told Noah to load up the ark he’s been busy playing cards with the Trinity and the angels or off on vacation and suddenly Jesus says to his Father, “Oh, my God! (if you say that, it’s using the Lord’s name in vain, but not if Jesus says it to his Father) Noah! I forgot all about him. I wonder if he’s OK?” That is not what it means for God to “remember” Noah.

In the Bible, “to remember is to act.”[1] Remembering isn’t just about thinking of something, or about not forgetting. It is to respond. God says to Noah, “Whenever I bring the clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all the earth” (14-15). The same basic idea appears in the next verse to reiterate it.

The overall sequence, then, is this:

  1. You face a storm.
  2. A sign appears.
  3. God acts.

Don’t you need that kind of assurance from time to time? In the midst of your storms, don’t you need to know he’s still there and still working? The rainbow should not only catch your eye or shorten your breath. It should reinforce your trust. I’m amazed at how often people tell me they saw a rainbow just at the moment they needed help – or maybe they experienced some other tangible sign that God was working – an unexpected provision, a Scripture verse, a friend’s call, a turn of events, a sermon or devotional that targeted their situation precisely. God sends signs large and small to remind us he’s still very active and there’s reason to hope.

There’s just something about a rainbow, isn’t there? We grab our cameras (or at least I do) to capture and preserve a sign I have seen a thousand times before. I’ve learned a little about rainbows this week. Did you know you have to stand between the sun and the moisture to see a rainbow? Did you know the sun has to be at your back? Did you know a double rainbow is a reflection of the first rainbow, and the colors are reversed? Did you know a rainbow is really a circle, and the circle is sometimes visible from a tall building or airplane?

That’s it, isn’t it? After the storm, you see a partial arc – enough to give you some hope. But from God’s perspective, he sees the whole circle, the whole picture.

Standing on the promises

We’re going to close this sermon with a good old hymn from my youth – and maybe yours:  “Standing on the Promises.” At Christmas last year I preached a sermon that included some thoughts about “promises” in the Bible. I think it’s worth repeating because (a) you might have missed that sermon at Christmas and (b) this is a recurring misunderstanding for many Christians.

The Bible warns us not to make oaths and vows lightly.[2] Not every statement you make about your intention should be an inviolable oath.

The Bible also uses the word “promise” sparingly when it comes to what God says. This is often misunderstood in popular American Christianity. If you search the web for “Bible promises,” you’ll find links to 5467 divine promises, or advice on “Activating God’s Promises,” or “How to Pray God’s Word Back to Him.” Generally these sites are pointing to very comforting Bible verses like “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he’s old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:1), “You will run and not be weary” (Isaiah 40:31), “I know the plans I have for you… to give you future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11), or “My God will provide all your needs” (Philippians 4:17).

What’s wrong with that? First, the Bible never uses the word “promise” that way. You can search the word “promise” yourself in an English Bible. When the word “promise” is used, it’s used of his great covenant commitments to and through Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David – pivotal figures in his plan for Israel. In the New Testament, you never find this idea of choosing an isolated Bible verse and claiming it as God’s “promise” to you. The word “promise” is used in the New Testament about the coming of Jesus or the Holy Spirit, or the anticipation of Jesus’ second coming and of eternal life – the grand themes of salvation history. There are no guarantees at all of how the journey will unfold, but in Christ God will forgive your sins. He will bring you home to heaven. Along the way he will never abandon you on the journey.

Second, picking out Bible verses as promises can be very disillusioning to believers. We take Scriptures that might be out of context, or related to someone else’s situation or life, or misused in terms of their literary setting, and turn them into promises of privatized protection and provision. It’s another variation of our American “all about me” faith. Believers think God is supposed to keep them and their loved ones from harm when Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:27). So we end up blaming God for not keeping “promises” he never made to us.

It was the devil who misused a Scripture verse that way, telling Jesus to jump off the temple’s pinnacle because “it is written” God’s angels would take care of him and he’d never dash his foot against a stone. Jesus answered, “Don’t test God” (Matthew 4:5-7). Don’t take his word and set God up for failure in your eyes. He didn’t promise you won’t get sick or you’ll pay all your bills or your marriage will be happy or you’ll even get married or your children will grow up healthy and strong or godly.

How then should we read those texts we often claim as “promise”? They are indeed God’s “signs” – much like the rainbow. They are reminders that God is at work, but not specific guarantees of how he will work. When you read how God worked or spoke into someone else’s life in the Bible, don’t turn that into a personal guarantee of what he will do for you. Instead, find your encouragement in the knowledge that the God who is alive and active will finish what he started in you. His salvation promises are all you ultimately need, but know he has not forgotten you or his covenant with Noah. Here is his promise to you and everyone else who has lived since the time of Noah:  Never again will a storm be the end of the story. Amen.

[1] International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, “Remember.”

[2] Numbers 30:2; James 5:12; Matthew 5:33-37

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