Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
There was once a pastor who was talking about the Flood during a children’s sermon. The children were called to the front of the sanctuary and asked to use their imaginations in thinking about the story: “What do you see? What do you smell? What do you hear?” One youngster answered, “I hear the people in the water outside the ark screaming for help.” That was not an answer the pastor was expecting. The story of Noah and the flood is one of those biblical stories that can reveal a lot about what we think about sin. Many contemporary authors think that the story of Noah’s Ark portrays a wrathful God who flies off the handle in a fit of genocidal violence. Is that really the picture of God that is portrayed here? Let’s not rush too quickly to the rainbow. After all, it won’t mean anything to us until we come to terms with the why there is so much death and destruction.
The Consequences of Sin
When most people think of sin today, they think of a killjoy, finger-wagging, holier-than-thou moralism, with a fussy, nit-picking concentration on small personal misdemeanours that ignore major injustice and oppression. Sin isn’t just about “doing bad things.” Genesis 6 says that “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (6:5). And this wickedness is not limited to ourselves. The account continues, “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to corrupt them along with the earth”(Ge 6:11–13). That corruption in us, seeps out into our behaviour, our thoughts, our relationships, and the world around us.
God had created a good world; God sees a world that humanity has ruined. God had created a world that humanity was commissioned to make work harmoniously; humanity has done the opposite. When God looks at the world, God sees violence and evil all around. Sin isn’t about a a failure to keep an arbitrary list of rules. It’s failure to be human as God intended. It’s a failure to live up to our responsibility to love God, and to love one another. When we fear, love, or trust in things other than the one true God, that’s sin, and as a result, we have become distorted, corrupted, and ruined. Humanity has ruined themselves and ruined the world around them, so God will ruin humanity and ruin the world.
The point here is that sin has consequences. The death and destruction in the Flood are not the result of a genocidal God with anger issues. No, the Flood was the fault of the human men and women who sought to undo and ruin what God had created. The flood was inseparable consequence of this course of action. What am I getting at? There is a difference between the ticket you will get if you are caught driving too fast and the crash that will happen if you drive too fast around a sharp bend on a wet road. The ticket is arbitrary, an imposition with no connection to the crime. The crash is a direct and inseparable consequence of the behaviour. In the same way, the Flood is the direct result of sin, not simply an arbitrary punishment.
Human corruption leads to the corruption of the earth itself, and the consequence is the flood. The destruction of the earth is the inseparable consequence of humans corrupting themselves and their world with violence and evil. God takes evil seriously. Not only does the punishment fit the crime, the punishment grows out of the crime. God doesn’t just punish sin, sin IS the punishment.
The Flood did not cleanse the human heart of sin, and this we know all too well. Our world is still filled with wickedness, violence, and injustice. The season of Lent is a season for brutal honesty about our sin and us. It’s a particularly good time for God’s baptised people to be honest about the mess we’ve caused. If we are going to be brutally honest about sin, we’re going to have to admit that in regard to the Flood, God did nothing wrong. If we are going to be brutally honest about our own sin, we’ll have to admit that we’re part of the problem. Death is the inseparable consequence of a life of rebellion against God. We need to admit that we deserve to be wiped off the face of this earth. The Bible also speaks of a second world-wide catastrophe at the end of history. According to Jesus it is “coming soon,” and he said it will be “just as it was in the days of Noah” (Lk 17:26). Those who forget the past flood may also forget what awaits our world in the future (2 Pt 3:1–13).
A Covenant Despite Sin
The focus of the story is not on the destruction of the Flood, but on the mercy of God. God’s response to human sin is not one of wrath or revenge. Rather, God was “sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Ge 6:6). God sorrows over the corruption of the creatures that he made with such care and love. While human hearts may be filled with evil, God’s heart is grieved by our betrayal and rebellion. God is pained to see his creation being ruined and corrupted.
At this point, the flood is over. God has spared Noah and his family. God now does something unexpected, he makes a covenant with all humanity and every living thing. The meaning of “covenant” here is “promise.” God has made a covenant, a unilateral, unconditional promise. “Never again” God says. There’s no hidden threat here. “Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.” Three times in just five verses God says, “Never again.”
Why unconditional? Since we are all corrupted by sin, it is no use for God to make the future dependent on us. God is making a promise despite human sin. That’s why nothing at all is said about what human beings should do. God alone takes on this obligation. God reaches out to the world, and God does all the heavy lifting. The rainbow does not require human cooperation to make it shine. It does not require any assent, action, or ratification. It is purely a sign that speaks of God’s grace and mercy. It is unconditional because there will never be another cosmic destruction by water no matter what we earthlings do.
God always attaches a visible sign to his promises. He does this because humans need a tangible, physical sign of reassurance. How do we know that God is merciful? How do we know that he isn’t going to destroy the world in anger? Because he promised. And with that promise, God gives a tangible sign—a rainbow—in the sky to assure humanity that we do not need to fear another flood like that one. The rainbow is is an outward sign, a Sacrament, that reminds us to have confidence that our God is kind and merciful. The rainbow is testifying to the patience and mercy of God. The rainbow is a visual reminder to us of God’s faithfulness to his promises. Whenever a rainbow appears, it will remind God of his own commitment never again use a flood to wipe out humanity.
The waters recede, the sun shines, the winds blow, the ground dries, and a new green world starts to blossom up out of the sodden wreckage of the old. Yet, there’s still sin lodged deep within human hearts. So what happened to all those direct and inseparable consequences for sin? The Flood did not change the human heart. The world is still ruined, because we continue to ruin it and fill it with evil. So, what happened? God made a covenant, a unilateral, one-sided promise. God alone took on this obligation. God reached out to the world, and God did all the heavy lifting. He took on the burden himself. He became one of us. God came down, and was born of a virgin. God became a man. Upon the cross of Jesus, all of the direct and inseparable consequences for our sins were heaped upon him. He stood in our place and exhausted all of the ruin, all of the disaster, all of the violence generated by our sin.
This means that God has done all the heavy lifting. You don’t do anything. The Gospel is a unilateral promise of forgiveness. And this promise of forgiveness is also confirmed to us by outward “signs.” To us in the New Testament, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper have been given as visible signs of God’s mercy. How do we know that God has been merciful to us in Christ? Because in Holy Baptism you have already drowned and died, and now you have risen to new life. Just like Noah was saved through water, so your Baptism saves you because it is a rainbow-like promise that your sins have been forgiven through Christ’s suffering and that we have been redeemed by His death. The voice of Jesus himself tells you today, “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood.” A New Covenant: a unilateral, one-sided promise of forgiveness because Jesus and his blood remind God to have mercy upon sinners.
The focus of the story of the Flood is not on human sin but on God and God’s commitment to be merciful. The gospel is the promise of forgiveness and eternal life because of Christ. It is a unilateral, one-sided covenant, that’s yours today. That promise of mercy that was made to Noah is ultimately fulfilled in God’s Son who lived among us, died our death, and then, on the third day, rose again.
May that peace of God, which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.