Last Sunday we launched into another fall here at Colonial Church—dousing ourselves in the spirit of Jesus who flows through our congregation and spills out into the world. You’ll note my choice of verbs: launch, douse, flow, spill. They’re all water verbs. How is “launch” a water verb? Did you ever watch a space shuttle lift off? I was reading about how just before the shuttle’s rocket motors ignite, 300,000 gallons of water cascade across the base of the launch pad, at a rate of nearly a million gallons a minute. As the shuttle roars skyward, the blast from its five engines erupt onto a 2.5-million-pound water cushion. The water had nothing to do with damping the heat from the shuttle’s motors. It was a sound suppressant. The space shuttle’s rockets are so loud that without a noise-absorbing water cushion, the roar from the engines would bounce off the metal and concrete base of the launch pad and ricochet back up, ripping the spacecraft apart before it cleared the launch tower.
The water used to launch the most advanced spacecraft ever created is the same water we use to brush our teeth. Water supplies the mystical beauty of a lake, as well the delicate filigree of a snowflake—we’ll worry more about that next month. As author Charles Fishman reminds us, “Solid water tore open the steel hull of the Titanic; liquid water sank her. You need great water to make great coffee and great beer, and pretty darn good water to make good concrete.” Water is both mythic and real, monstrous and routine, spiritual and Biblical. From start to finish, water washes across the pages of Scripture—and will serve as my sermon theme between now and Christmas. Last Sunday we read how “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” but already present at the beginning was deep, dark water, signifying for ancient cultures the presence of total chaos. Onto this chaotic tide blew the wind of God, the breath with which he spoke his creative calm and made all things good.
You know, the creation picture is sort of the opposite of what you’d expect. Normally when wind blows across water it churns up rather than calms down. I was kayaking the Apostle Islands last June, and the day appeared to be tranquil enough. But once out on the lake, a sudden squall whipped the water into some terrifying chop—eliciting a small craft warning—and threatening to toss me and my small craft into the cliffs I’d paddled out to enjoy. I’ve got a big kayak, but it’s a little boat, especially on Lake Superior. I got nervous. I dug in as hard as my paddle could dig. And I did what even the most skeptical person does when in danger of deep water: I prayed. The water that threatened to capsize me was the water that saved me—the tide and wind shifted enough to blow me onto the beach. I prayed again—thanksgiving this time. My brush with disaster compelled me to purchase a commemorative T-Shirt back at the gift shop which reads, “The Lake is The Boss.”
Of course at creation, God is the Boss of the Lake—which in Genesis meant separating the waters into sky and sea—redeeming the chaos into glorious splendor, a splendor I enjoyed for the rest of my kayak trip. That redemption occurred at creation was part of God’s intent. As I suggested last Sunday, the death and resurrection of Jesus was not some emergency mop up operation forced on God by human sin as if, somehow, creation had not been good enough. The book of Revelation describes Jesus as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” From the beginning, God has been redeeming creation and its creatures toward an ultimate future, pulling all things toward that new creation where God himself already abides. It’s a future so certain that the author of Revelation can speak of it as having already happened: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth,” he writes. But then he adds, “the sea was no more.” The water is gone. Lake-lovers no doubt find this terribly disappointing, but from a wider Biblical perspective, it makes perfect sense. New creation has no more chaos. No more danger. No condemnation.
Here in Genesis, however, there is plenty danger. The Lord tamed the chaotic waters in Genesis 1, but not five chapters later, deep water rises again in condemnation of all that the Lord God had made—the good creation turns in on itself. Only Noah and his ark-full of animals make it through safely. The earth succumbs to a watery madness so that a new beginning can occur.
I’m always a little surprised whenever parents show me a newborn’s nursery decorated in a Noah’s Ark theme. Don’t they love their baby? Rainbows cover the walls, chirping bird mobiles dangle over the crib—which is crafted to look like the ark itself. Cuddly stuffed animals, two of every kind, are strewn about as a jolly old Noah happily waves from the bow. I look around and thankfully there’s no Bible in sight. If it were somebody might accidentally open it and read the story. It starts in Genesis 6: “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. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So 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… every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.”
We’re so accustomed to rainbows, a petting zoo of animals and a Santa Claus Noah that we forget the part about God sadly obliterating not merely the entire human race except for Noah and his family, but also every other living thing. Even if we treat the story as an allegorical moral epic—like St. Augustine did—rather that as an actual historical event, Noah’s ark is still a story that depicts God as the kind of God who would do this sort of thing—and forcing us all to ask, “why?”
Not that the wickedness of humankind isn’t great on the earth. You see the news. You read the internet. You know about the atrocities being committed in places like Syria, Libya, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Last night the murdered remains of a young California nursing student who was just going to get something from her car were found. A six-year-old Oakdale girl came home this week to find her parents and babysitter killed. A newborn was thrown into the Mississippi River and drowned. Your own families and friends betray you, you’re rejected by those you thought loved you, abused by those in power over you—and that’s just this week. We see but a small slice of the cruelty we humans inflict on each other all the time. But God sees it all. If Noah’s age was anything like our own, it’s not so hard to imagine God doing what he did. Who at the depth of sorrow and grief wouldn’t want to rid themselves of their sorrow and start over?
Now I should add that even if we can empathize, God’s sorrow is not like ours; his is never spontaneous or self-serving. Rather, godly sorrow is fueled by a passion for justice, provoked by a pity for the abused and mistreated. God’s is a sorrow that serves the cause of righteousness.
We’re told that Noah gets saved because he was righteous, a blameless man in his generation—though given his generation this may not be saying much. We also read that “he walked with God” which meant he kept faith in the Lord. And yet to look at Noah’s life is to find scant evidence of any exceptional goodness. Jewish tradition actually regards Noah as the sort of leader from whom one should learn how not to act. Noah heard God’s decree of the coming flood, yet he neither argued with God nor warned his fellow citizens. That he found favor with God anyway reminds us that any goodness we possess always comes by way of grace. That God saves even Noah gives us hope that all will not be lost to God’s condemnation of evil. Amidst the judicial flood floats a life raft of mercy.
Of course for many of us, our trouble with God bringing his torrential judgment is less about his being the kind of God to do that sort of thing, and more about why he doesn’t do it again. Amidst all the horrific evil still in the world, where is God now? Why doesn’t he hit the reset button one more time and get it right? The saddest part of the Noah story is that the flood didn’t really fix things so well. Read on in Genesis 9 and you find that Noah and his clan don’t turn out to be any better people than the Genesis 6 people for whom “every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” Noah’s relations turn out to be a sordid bunch, hardly the kind of kids who’d make you want to have children of your own. It’s Noah’s children who get cursed by God, Noah’s descendents who will build the Tower of Babel, who will inhabit Sodom and Gomorrah, and who will commit every other evil that the Bible condemns—just like we do. This is the hard realization: To insist on God’s justice now is to invite our own destruction.
But this may not be such a bad thing. The floodwaters of Noah have always been understood to prefigure the waters of baptism. Baptism is not so much about having your sinful self washed clean as it is about having your sinful self killed off. Jesus referred to the cross as a baptism, and told anyone who wanted to follow him that they’d have to take up a cross too. More than a bath, baptism is a drowning—water that drowns in order to save. The apostles Peter and Paul both understood this. To the Romans, Paul wrote, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” In more cryptic fashion, Peter referred to Noah’s flood as a baptism too, recognizing that the water that destroyed the earth was the same water that saved Noah; the same water, Peter wrote, that now saves us. “Noah and his family were saved through water” Peter asserts, and the preposition through is important. Noah was saved through water, that is out of the water; not by the water, but by God’s grace. St. Augustine understood the wooden ark to foreshadow the wooden cross of Jesus. God saves us through the waters of his judicious and judicial sorrow by the cross of Christ, our ark of grace.
Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr maintains how in life we each will go through deep water—a crisis, a cross, a baptism—but that if you are open to it, you will enter into a space of spiritual refreshment and renewal, into a life that you could not have imagined before. “There always will be at least one situation in our lives that we cannot fix, control, explain, change or even understand,” the Franciscan priest explains. “Normally a job, fortune, or reputation has to be lost, a death has to be suffered, a house has to be flooded, a disease has to be endured.” However the crisis can also be more subtle: It may be that you suddenly realize that you’ll never live the life you dreamed of living.
Crisis undoes us. It devastates us. It kills us. The flood doesn’t just flood your house—it washes out your soul. What you thought you knew about your life and faith no longer suffices for the life you are living. It is at here, as the waters rise about your neck, Father Rohr reminds us to remember two things: First, God has not abandoned you even if you are sure that he has. Every book of the Bible agrees: “the LORD your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.” Second, you will grow much more by having done it wrong than by doing it right. I don’t think Father Rohr means that you try to do everything wrong for the sake of growth, but that trying to be right all the time never works. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “What so often makes us liars is not what we do, but the justification we offer for what we do.” Our justifications become our self-delusions, the stories we tell ourselves to convince ourselves that we have done as well as was possible. We’ve kept all the rules—but we’ve lost all compassion. Why can’t everybody else get their act together?
Now remembering these things may be cold comfort during your crisis—when your house is flooded, who cares about spiritual growth? But the point is that later you will notice. You will wonder how you possibly could have come to where you are without all that water.
We read that God remembered Noah and the animals. “God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided.” It’s a virtual redo of Genesis 1. Noah responded with worship—it’s the first time an altar is built in the Bible and the first time a burnt offering is offered. A burnt offering was the most basic of Old Testament sacrifices wherein an entire animal was consumed (This was why righteous Noah had extra animals on board). To totally burn a sacrifice was to pledge total devotion to God. To have it totally consumed was a sign of God’s total acceptance. Our text describes the aroma as pleasing to the Lord—so pleasing that God responds with his own pledge to never again curse the ground because of human evil. The evil returned to be sure, soon and often, but rather than flood the world, God sank himself. He took down evil by nailing it to a cross, suffering his own righteous sorrow against human sin; consuming himself for our sake, that the waters which rise around our necks might become, in Christ, by grace, the waters that raise us up.