A week ago, during the Sunday school hour, a small group of us sat together, right here in the sanctuary, and studied the scriptures for today. 1 Peter 3 and Genesis 9. This was the trial run of what will be the norm during the season of Lent – a different group of six people each Sunday morning will be gathering around the lectionary passages for the following week – discussing, probing, poking, wondering out loud about these strange and wonderful words that make up the Bible. I will use the sermons during Lent to share some of our collective wonderings that come out of this time, and try and draw in a few other sources as well. Along with being great fun in and of itself, this feels like an Anabaptisty kind of thing to do, as we believe that two of the key sources for Wisdom are community and scripture. Mix both of those together with a little Holy Spirit, and you never quite know what you’re going to get. Whether there’s any Wisdom in these sermons during Lent will be up for you to decide. But I’d say that we got off to a great start in that time last week, and another group met this morning to have conversation around the passages for next week.
This is an open invitation, by the way, so if you’re intrigued with this and would like to participate, just let me know and I’d love to have you involved. It is an intuitive/personal reading of the text rather than a knowledge/scholarly reading that we are after in that time, so no previous study required. I would like to keep it at five-six people a week, and different people each week, but there are still several weeks to go, so be in touch.
I would like to give the names of the people involved in the conversation, and after that point to just speak of things generated as things that “we” said, rather than trying to quote anybody or remember who had what idea or thought first. It gets a bit mixed during group conversation, which, I believe, is the point.
So, this sermon emerges out of Bible study that I shared with Joe Luken, Jill Jantzen, Daniel Hershberger, John Bromels, and Cara Hummel.
We began with the Genesis 9 passage, Noah and the rainbow, and spent a fair amount of time just saying what we notice in this passage and what it made us wonder about.
We notice that this passage is about God making a covenant with humanity. And not only with humanity, but with pretty much all the animals and the earth itself. It is referred to as a covenant, that is the language that is used throughout, and we wondered how this is different than a promise. If there is a difference. It seems like there’s no backing out of a promise, but if one party breaks their side of a covenant, does that end the agreement? There was mention of being skeptical of promises.
It feels like Noah and the humans get off easy in this covenant. God is giving up any rights to destroying the earth. In exchange, the humans get to eat anything they want – no more restrictions on just plants, like in the Garden of Eden, and no tree of forbidden fruit. Too late on that one. The humans are told to be fruitful and multiply. So, on top of eating anything we want, we are commanded to have sex. One of the few commandments humanity has actually carried out. The only thing we’re not allowed to eat is flesh with blood still in it. Not a problem. And no murder. These are the very basic grounds of this new covenant that God proposes. We felt like the humans got a pretty good deal.
We also wondered about these very human attributes that are given to God in these and other scriptures. The reason God sets the bow in the sky as the sign of the covenant is so that God will remember the covenant with the earth. What does it mean for God to remember? Do it mean that God could forget? Thus the colorful sticky note in the sky about that agreement not to flood the earth ever again. Before the flood God is sorry to have made humans because they are so violent. God regrets having created them. Whoops. After the flood God seems to be sorry again, this time for having sent the flood. 8:21 – “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind; nor will I destroy every living creature as I have done.” In 1 Peter it talks about God “waiting patiently as in the days of Noah.” A God who remembers, who regrets, who waits patiently. We thought that this appears to be a God who is learning, right along with the rest of universe, how to do this whole creation, community, love thing. Like a parent whose child teaches them how to be a good parent and learn from their mistakes, God seems to be learning from us, the children of creation. We weren’t sure how we felt about this. It seems to take some of the divinity out of the Divine. It is reassuring that God is always learning in the direction of love and mercy, and peace.
A bit of extra commentary on that bow in the clouds:
We are so accustomed to thinking of this in terms of a rainbow, that it’s easy to miss this as referring to a bow. A weapon. An instrument of war and conquest and subduing one’s enemies. I did the word search throughout the Hebrew scriptures and the word here in Genesis is indeed the bow of war. The word occurs 77 times – there’s lots of war in the Bible. If you ever want to get little snapshots of the different times of conflict in the Old Testament, just do this word search and follow the bows and arrows all the way through from Genesis to the end. It’s a good time, let me tell you.
In the ancient world there are various depictions of different deities wielding their bow with arrows as a sign of strength. Ishtar of the Babylonians is shown standing on the back of a lion wielding her bow and arrows. Ashur of the Assyrians draws a bow. The Greeks pictured Apollo, among his other attributes, as having a war bow. And, of course, if the gods have bows, it’s not long before the humans get bows. There are numerous depictions in Egyptian art of the gods handing to the Pharaoh the weapons of war by which he conquered, the bow and arrow being the primary weapon. The subtext of these images is Don’t mess. I’ve got a bow and I’m not afraid to use it.
So, a bow was kind of the hip thing to have if your were an ancient deity of the Near East/Mediterranean region. And, Elohim, the God of Noah, has his bow as well. And it is a him at this point. Only Elohim does a very interesting thing with his bow. He says, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every creature that is with you, for all future generations. I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” After the rebellion of the humans in turning to violence against each other, after the divine retaliation of unleashing the destruction of the flood waters on the earth, God is unilaterally disarming, hanging up the bow, for now and for all future generations. The movement of God toward creation is no longer one of violence, but of covenant making peace. As pastor Rob Bell has said, the gods are not angry. As a reminder for all of us, including God, who no doubt needs that reminder when we’re at our worst, there is that bow in the clouds, unstrung, pointed away from humanity, with no arrows in sight. And very colorful, which is a nice touch.
So here’s a question: Is this enough? This covenant, with this sign? Can we rest assured that all is well in the world and that we are destined to journey safely through the millennia?
There was a weariness in our group.
The older among us remember the days of Cold War nuclear stand off. And nuclear weapons have not gone away. The younger among us are especially mindful of climate change, the global population explosion, peak oil, extinctions of species, and the heavy footprint our species is putting on this planet. We are pretty sure we will live to see very difficult times, and that, for a significant percentage of the planet, difficult times have fully arrived in all their fury. We wondered if we broke our end of the covenant, if God still has to uphold God’s end.
Elie Wiesel has made a similar kind of comment. This Jewish man who survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and wrote Night, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work, reading the account in Genesis once felt assured by God’s words. Then noticed that God had only agreed not to destroy the earth with water. There are other methods available. He’s got a point. It’s a pretty big loophole in the covenant. (Referenced in The Dogmatic Imagination, A. James Reimer, p.5)
We also realize that even if God doesn’t destroy the earth, it doesn’t mean we can’t do it ourselves.
We’re weary. We love the covenant, and the sign, but, in our darker moments, the radical freedom that we have been given scares us. Maybe it’s time we make a covenant of our own with creation. That we will find our rightful place in the web of life and work for the healing of our home planet. What kind of sign would be a reminder for us? Sometimes I feel like I’d like to hang my car up in the clouds, as a reminder to creation and myself of a covenant of peace. Keep all that carbon rich oil in the ground where the good Lord put it over those however many millions of years.
The 1 Peter passage has some interesting connections to Genesis 9. Rather than being a situation of humanity suffering at the hands of God with the flood, it is now the Christ who has suffered at the hands of humanity, “in order to bring us to God,” 1 Peter says. We wondered how that works. How is it that the suffering and death of Christ bring us to God? We have an awareness of there being different theologies about how this works, but it’s hard to grasp intuitively.
Those among us with roots in the Catholic church recalled how central the suffering of Christ was in their lives and in the church. That ever present crucifix. Jesus suffered for you. For you. It is quite a thought to have in your head throughout the day.
Water shows up again in this passage, and mention of Noah and the ark. Only this time we are challenged to make the connection between that flood water and baptism. The waters of destruction can also be the waters of life. The waters which symbolize the death of the old way and the birth of the new way, the new humanity. Baptism. How’s that for a sign? A sign of remembrance. Hang that up in the clouds of your consciousness. Remember your baptism, the sign you have been given that you now live at peace with God and with your neighbor and with all of creation.
An intriguing part of this passage is this whole idea of Christ “put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah.” It’s a remarkable picture that is in many ways foreign to our Protestant minds. The notion of Christ visiting those spirits in prison came to be called in church tradition “the harrowing of hell.” The apostles creed, an early formulation of Christian doctrine still recited in many church traditions states that Christ “descended into hell.” In Eastern Orthodox theology, the primary picture of the resurrection is not the empty tomb, but a picture of Christ having descended into hell, standing victorious over the gates of death, pulling up Adam and Eve, those representations of fallen humanity. That’s the resurrection. There’s a sense in which the work of Christ spans and redeems all of cosmic history and that nothing, nothing, is outside the scope of redemption. We still have radical freedom, but we are being pursued. We have different thoughts on how literal or figurative an understanding to have of hell, but the picture remains true. If we descend down into the depths of hell, whatever that hell is, Christ is there. You cannot go where God is not. There is no realm or state of being outside the reach of grace. It’s hard to think of a more hopeful teaching.
It’s Lent, and we’re in repentance mode. Repentance, metanoia, means, literally, to change your mind. To change your thinking. And God’s knows we need it. We are inheritors of a long tradition of being of the wrong mind. In the long scope of history it’s beginning to become clear that our species has a tendency to project our own thoughts and aspirations onto God. We have wanted to seek power and conquer, and so we have imagined a God who does the same. We carry a bow into battle, and so must God. We seek to destroy our enemies, wipe them off the face of the earth, and so must God.
The biblical story invites us into the lifelong journey of undoing these projections. Genesis makes important steps. God hangs up the bow and calls it quits on the narrative of destruction and redemptive violence. Humanity is invited into a peaceful relationship with God and one another and the earth.
Lent is an invitation to allow for the undoing of these projections. To strip away our own sinfulness and violence that we hang in the sky and call God.
But the biblical story goes even further. Beyond simply undoing all our projections of ourselves onto God, we are invited to receive God’s projections of Godself onto us. Jesus is on the forefront of God’s projection of godself onto humanity. A humanity made whole through the power of redemptive love. God projecting godself onto us such that even in the darkest caverns of hell we are being pulled up toward the light. Whether we think we are in heaven or in hell, we are being pursued with this kind of love, that would remake us in its own image, for the good of all creation. God would even make us to be a sign, our lives, a sign, of remembrance of the way of peace.