As part of our recent sermon series on people of faith, I preached on Noah’s faith and faithfulness. I think that Noah is one of those Biblical characters who gets rather overlooked; partly because we think we know him through children’s versions, and perhaps partly because we’re too busy arguing about the historicity of the events to think about what they might mean for us. I hope that this sermon helps think about what Noah would have meant for the author of Genesis and what Noah can teach us today. One way we can get a better understanding of what the account of Noah meant is by comparing it with other Ancient Near Eastern accounts. I do a bit of that in the sermon, and I’ll blog about it more soon.
The book that I found particularly helpful was James McKeown’s commentary on Genesis, which is part of Eerdmans’ still expanding Two Horizons commentary series, which I’ve found to be universally excellent so far, for both the Old and New Testaments. It will probably also be helpful to know that it was a communion service.
Wet, wet, wet! (readings Genesis 6:9-7:5 and Luke 22:17-20)
This is the second in the sermon series on people of faith, inspired by Hebrews 11. This one is on Noah and is entitled ‘Wet, wet, wet’. I was tempted to see how many ‘Wet, Wet, Wet’ song titles I could get into this sermon, so I went on Wikipedia to find out what songs they’ve sung. I then realised that there’s only one ‘Wet, Wet, Wet’ song that people actually know, so I almost gave up on that idea!
My daughter is coming up to her 2nd birthday soon, and over the last couple of years I’ve seen many different Noah’s arks – plastic ones, wooden ones, jigsaws, pop-up stories of Noah, touch and feel board books of Noah, and there’s even a Noah’s ark outside Chester Zoo! So, I guess that many people think they’re familiar with the story of Noah – it’s a staple Sunday School and school assembly story, one which many people who’ve never looked inside a Bible will be able to tell you about.
And that’s the problem really; the story of Noah is too familiar, without being familiar enough. It’s too familiar, in that we think we know what happens, and its not familiar enough because we don’t actually read the biblical version itself. It’s also a bit too long to hear read out in church, so I’d encourage you to have a read of the whole of Genesis 6-9 when you get home.
The first few chapters of Genesis were written with a particular mission in mind, a mission to expand people’s understanding of God, of humans and of the earth. The surrounding cultures had their own stories of creation and floods and towers, full of squabbling gods who argued and tricked and killed one another, where the flood was brought about because the humans were making too much noise and the gods wanted some piece and quiet. And then these same gods cowered in terror because of the destruction they had unleashed and were surprised when some humans managed to survive.
It’s helpful to compare the differences between the biblical account and the other ancient Middle Eastern flood stories; it helps us to understand the important differences and what the Bible wants to emphasise. Because, the writer of Genesis had a very different understanding of God from the peoples around him. God was not some petty tyrant who did things on a whim, he had not created humans to be his slaves and he did not regard the earth as something to be exploited. No, God is the just and loving Creator. Humans had been created in God’s image, to have a relationship with him, to enjoy life and to care for the earth. The earth was an expression of God’s love and creativity, freely made and part of his plans from the beginning.
One of the more significant differences between the flood stories from the Middle East and the biblical account is the relationship between God and Noah. the faith and faithfulness of Noah. “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.” Noah doesn’t allow himself to be deflected by the people around him, by their lives, by their opinions, by their understanding of how the world worked.
God is concerned about the destruction and violence, is concerned for the whole of his creation, and works and plans with the only human who will listen to him. The God who created everything entrusts one human family with the responsibility with saving all that he created.
The ark is built to God’s design. And one of the problems with us knowing this as a Sunday school story is I don’t think that we realise exactly how enormous the dimensions of the ark are. 135 metres long, 23 metres wide, 14 metres high. 450 ft high, 75 ft wide, 45 ft high. In other words, it’s longer than a football pitch! I reckon that if you took 4 All Saints churches and stuck them end to end that’d be about the right length and width.
This isn’t something that you could have hidden; everyone around Noah would have seen the work, seen this ridiculous boat being built, and seen the ridiculous amount of food that he had to get as well. And this wasn’t miraculously built – it was hard graft by Noah and his family. And that’s quite impressive. It’s one thing to hear directly from God, and then try and follow him. It’s another level of faith when you don’t hear directly from God, but still try and do what you’re told and come to know is his will. And of course at this point, we have the Sunday school pictures of animals lining up two-by-two. The better drawn ones even show the animals lining up in size order, stretching into the distance. None of which is in the text. That says ‘you are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures’. Not ‘I’m going to bring to you two of all living creatures’. More hard work I expect!
Notice also what isn’t in God’s design for the ark – there’s no rudder, no sail, no oars, no anchor. It is God who shuts the ark door, and tells Noah when to open it again. When Noah, his family, and all the animals are in there, there is nothing they can do other than wait and hope. There’s no way they influence events, or steer this massive ship. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve certainly had times in my journey of faith when there’s been nothing I can do but wait and hope. And I don’t know about you, but when I’m in that situation it’s quite often rather frustrating. I say ‘rather’, I do of course mean ‘very’.
And that frustration is emphasised by the length of time it takes for the flood to go away. 5 months of flood, and then 5 months of waiting before Noah and his family can actually get out! This is another difference between the biblical account and the other accounts, and emphasises Noah’s patience and faith, in waiting for God. As Hebrews 11 defines faith ‘being sure of what he hoped for and certain of what he did not see’. That’s a challenge to us I think, a challenge that we can fall down on – the building of massive, seemingly pointless boats is one thing, the hanging around waiting for God to hurry up and do something, anything, is another!
And then, right at the end, Noah blows it. And this is the part that doesn’t get into the children’s stories, and is the bit of the account that we don’t really know. The first half of Genesis 9 is the familiar ending, with God using the rainbow as a symbol of his covenant, of his promise to Noah that this sort of disaster will not be sent by God again.
But, that’s not where chapter 9 and the account of Noah ends. In the second half of chapter 9 we’re told that Noah plants a vineyard. So far, so fine. Then, he drinks the wine. Fine. And then, he gets drunk, with rather significant consequences, not so much for him, but for his son. Our worse mistakes can often have more significant consequences for other people than for ourselves.
So, Noah blows it, but over quite a long period. Because, it’s quite a laborious business producing wine. You have to prepare the land, after you’ve found the right spot, and then vines take about 3 years to produce grapes, with a lot of pruning and weeding inbetween. Then there’s the harvesting of the grapes, pressing them, and a few months at least to actually produce the wine.
That’s a reminder to us I think, that even if we have a significant encounter with God, even if our faith and hope are high they can be worn down through the daily slog of living, after all the excitement, after all the hopes and fears. It’s in the complacency of looking to the past, or in the daily slog of living when we most need to fix our eyes on Jesus, and be sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. We need to kept renewing our hope, renewing our vision, through our worship, through our support of each other.
But even so, Noah is faithful, Noah’s family is faithful. But, more than all that, God is faithful. God is concerned not just for human beings, but for the whole of his creation. We heard in the gospel reading Jesus at the last supper bringing the new covenant into being. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God’s rescue plan includes the whole of creation, and involves us working in that rescue plan. God’s rescue plan involves a renewed heaven and a renewed earth where we will enjoy life with no worries, where our new bodies will enjoy the new creation and where we will be truly able to worship God, where indeed “Love Is All Around”!
We know that God is faithful, so we can look forward to this renewed heaven and earth in faith and hope. More than that, though, to help our faith and hope we can catch glimpses of in our worship, in our lives shared together, and particularly in our sharing of communion. That is a foretaste of the great heavenly banquet to which we are all invited. Communion is about feeding our hope and faith and sending us out in renewed faith and hope, in the knowledge and power of the faithfulness of God. Amen.