Sunday, June 9, 2013 – Creation Untamed Sermon Series – The God of the Flood Story and Natural Disasters

We continue with our series on God, the Bible, and natural disasters. We are trying to ask the difficult question of how God might be involved in natural disasters. What can be said about God with regard toward natural disasters? Is God causing them? Are they punishment for something we’ve done? Is it something beyond the control of God? Today, we take a brief look at the flood story and what insights might be gained from a close look at this classic story.

Last week, we looked at the creation stories. From these stories, we learned a couple of things. First, creation is messy and timely. Creation takes evaluating. God creates and then evaluates and adjusts as need be. Creation is not a finished product, but is a long term project. In short, God created the world good, not perfect. Secondly, we learn that within the creation process God shares God’s power to create. God invites the earth to create and bring forth living creatures; God invites humanity to be fruitful and multiply. God is not the only one who creates; God shares God’s power for the sake of the relationship with creation. Because as we learned, a relationship in which only one partner has all the power is an abusive relationship. And so God shares power with creation…for the sake of the relationship.

Now, let’s dive into the story. We begin in Genesis chapter 6
5The 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.
6And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
8But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord. 9These are the descendants of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. 10And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
11Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth.
13And 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 destroy them along with the earth. 14Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch.

17For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. 18But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.

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Then the Lord said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation. 2Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; 3and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth. 4For in seven days I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.” 5And Noah did all that the Lord had commanded him.

10And after seven days the waters of the flood came on the earth.
11In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. 12The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.

17The flood continued forty days on the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. 18The waters swelled and increased greatly on the earth; and the ark floated on the face of the waters. 19The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; 20the waters swelled above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep.
21And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; 22everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. 23He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. 24And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days.
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But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided; 2the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, 3and the waters gradually receded from the earth. At the end of one hundred fifty days the waters had abated;

20Then 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. 21And when the Lord smelled 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. 22As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

The story of Noah and the Ark is a classic Bible story that so many know. It is especially popular for children. There are entire baby nurseries based on a Noah’s Ark theme. There are children’s toys, like this puzzle that my sister got for Elliot. And I suppose on one hand, it makes sense, because this story is a great way to teach children about animals and rainbows. About God and boats.

But on the other hand, this doesn’t make sense at all. Have you ever noticed how when Noah’s Ark is told a children’s story – it’s always a peaceful portrayal of the story? There is never a cloud in the sky. There are never any images of what happens to everyone else, is there? 7:22 – everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. How come pictures of that are never painted on the nursery wall? Have we been distorting or ignoring the great suffering and pain that exists within this story? What can we say about this story at face value? What can be said about God?

As I said last week, natural disasters are often attributed to the judgment of God. That God is judging or punishing the people for something they have done.

I suspect that when we talk about the judgment of God, many of us have the image of a judge behind the bench, almost like being on trial. When we think of a judge, we think of someone who is a neutral party who knows the rules and the laws and hands down punishments that fit the crime. Does that sound about right? Now, imagine that you are the judge behind the bench and into the court room walks your child or your spouse, in hand cuffs and on trial. What would that feel like? Would the court system ever allow a judge take on the case of a family member? No, of course not. Because they couldn’t be neutral. There would be anguish and heartbreak that might cloud the mind of the judge.

If it is true that God has a relationship with creation. If God has chosen to share power with creation for the sake of the relationship, then the judgment of God cannot be a legalistic form of judgment in a courtroom. Rather, it is a personal and relational form of judgment, like that of a parent to a child. Think of the pain and anguish that a parent must go through when dealing with a wayward child. Do I kick them out of the house? It might be for their own good! Yeah, but I love them, how could I do that to them? But there needs to be consequences for their actions! But that’s not really who she is. I know her; she’s better than that. What to do, what to do, what to do.

At the synod assembly, this past weekend, Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Mark Hanson, spoke. He shared the story about how when his son was a teenager, he had already failed addiction treatment twice. When his son had been arrested for shoplifting, Mark stood before the judge at his son’s hearing. The judge asked him, “Would you like to say anything to the court, before I sentence your son.” With a wearied voice, he said, “Yes, I would. Please send my son to a locked treatment facility. So that he can get the help that we cannot give him.” They knew they wouldn’t be able to see their son for months. But they also knew it is what he needed. How agonizingly painful that must have been for them. Have you ever experienced anything like that? Could you ever imagine uttering the same words if you were in Mark’s place? Maybe you’ve been in a place with your own children or family members, when you were torn over what to do with them.

And so it is with God. When it comes to judgment, God is not neutral. God cannot be. For it is God’s very own creation, God’s child, God’s spouse, that God judges. We catch a glimpse of this in 6:6 – And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. It grieved God to God’s own heart to see what has happened. God experiences grief over what humanity has done. Not just anger, but grief. And that says something about the love that God has for this creation. God is grieved! God is deeply affected by humanity. God is not removed or detached but is engaged in the world. God, indeed, gives harsh words of judgment in this text, but that outward harshness is not met by an inward harshness (pg. 60). Rather, inside, God is a grieving parent, whose child has been arrested again for shoplifting and who has again failed treatment, and what else is there to do? “Please send my son to a locked treatment facility. So that he can get the help that we cannot give him.” God is grieved over what has happened in this story.

So, if the judgment of God is not so much like a cold, legalistic judge behind a bench, then how might we talk about the judgment of God? Old Testament scholar Terry Fretheim says that a biblical view of judgment is more like a consequence of action rather than a punishment for action.

Now, there is a difference between consequence and punishment, isn’t there? If I put my finger on a hot stove and I get burned, was that a punishment or was that a consequence? It was a consequence! No one would ever say, “Ugh! Why is God punishing me for putting my hand there?” We wouldn’t say that. In fact, we have common phrases that reflect this understanding of consequences – you reap what you sow. What goes around comes around.

So when the Bible talks about the judgment of God, it is often talking about consequences – the effects of human sin – as opposed to punishments sent down from above. What we do has consequences in this world! What we do matters to this world, because it has an effect on both us and the rest of creation! Remember in the flood story, the earth was corrupt. It was filled with violence, because all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. The earth was corrupt because creation was corrupt. God has built into the structure of creation consequences for human action. Creaturely corruption leads to cosmic corruption! Violence leads to violence. Might it be that the major flood was a natural consequence to human behavior? Not that God is sending in punishment but the effects of our behavior, our violence has an effect on the environment? Where it can be like when you put your hand in fire, you get burned.

With a close look at the flood story, “God does not act specifically to trigger the destructive flood…God states that destruction will be forthcoming…but God is not said to be the one who starts things.” (Fretheim, pg. 55) God is not the subject of the verbs. It does not say God causes the waters to flood the earth. It simply says the waters burst forth and the rain fell.

In trying to understand God’s role in this story and in natural disasters, it might be helpful for us to look at what the story says God does. God expresses sorrow and regret, God judges but does not want to judge; God goes beyond justice and decides to save some, including animals; God commits to the future of a less-than-perfect world; and God promises to never do this again (Ibid., p. 47)

Did you catch that part at the end of the story? God decides to never do this again. Rather than destroy all of creation, God says, “I’ll never do that again.” Sin continues to exist after the flood. Yet, remember how grieved God was by human sinfulness? The painful affects it had on God? At the end of the flood story, God decides that in the future, God will endure that continued pain rather than destroy creation ever again. God loves God’s creation so much, like a parent, that God decides to live with a wicked and sinful world rather than destroy it – which means God decides to live with a grieving heart for the sake of the relationship with creation. Not only that, but when God promises to never do this again, God limits God’s future options with regards to how God will respond to evil in the future. Whatever happens, however bad and evil the world gets, God will never destroy it again. Because of this, God is limited in what God can do with regards to human sinfulness. So notice, that in the flood story, it is God who changes, not humanity. Destruction is no longer an option for God anymore. God decides to remain faithful to a wicked world rather than destroy it again. Regardless of what the people of God do, God will remain faithful to them. That’s the promise.

We continue to ask: what kind of God are we working with when it comes to such natural disasters? A God whose creation is not neat and tidy, but is wild, a work in progress. A God that shares power with a creation. A God that doesn’t go around pushing buttons of punishment, but a God that has built into creation natural consequences for creation’s behavior. And perhaps, most importantly, a God who is deeply affected by creation. So much so that God is a grieving parent when God sees the extent of humanities sinfulness. So much so that God is willing to be the one who changes for the sake of a continued relationship with creation. A God who will remain faithful to creation, despite creations lack of faithfulness to God. A God who promises to never do this again.

That’s what I want you to take away from today’s look at the flood story. God is deeply effected by the actions of humanity. God is like a grieving parent when deciding how to move forward with the world. And finally, God makes the promise to never destroy the world again. That God would rather be in relationship with a unruly and wicked creation than no creation at all? How might that image of God impact how we think about and respond to natural disasters?

We will continue to explore this further next week when we dive into the story of Job and natural disasters. But for now, if there is anything of God that has been said in these, may it settle and take root in our life. AMEN.

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