A sermon on Genesis 6 to 9 by Richard Keith on Sunday 4 June 2023
Some time, a few thousand years ago, there was a near extinction event that caused a massive flood, killing people and destroying cities, and the memory of this flood is recorded in the myths of Babylon, India and Greece. Something happened that almost killed all life, and the Bible story of Noah helps us not only understand why it happened, but why it won’t happen again.
God had created all things good. When he had finished his work and looked at all he had made he saw that it was very good. But the first human beings rebelled against him. They were not content to live in paradise. They wanted even more. Tempted by the snake, they wanted to be equal with God. Not happy just to know good and to be good and to do good, they wanted the knowledge of both good and evil. They were sent from the garden into a world of chaos and decay. They would experience frustration in their work and pain in their relationships.
It wasn’t all bad. They enjoyed the fruit of their work and the blessing of children. They developed farming and metalworking. They founded cities and civilisations. But wherever they went, they carried inside them the taint of the possibility of evil. Adam and Eve’s son Cain murdered his brother Abel. Seven generations later, their many great grandson Lamech boasted, “I have killed a man for wounding me.” Until the time of Noah when the people in power believed they could do whatever they liked to get what they wanted. Creation was filled with their violence. The world was suffering from a plague of homo sapiens and God decided that what his world needed was a humanectomy.
The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. So the Lord said, “I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth-men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air-for I am grieved that I have made them.
God decided to send a flood. It is not just an act of justice to punish human beings for the crimes they had committed. Although, I admit, it is that. It is an act of justice, meted out by the creator on his creature because of their greed and violence and lies and corruption. They had made crooked what God had made straight and they had perverted what he had made pure. God did what he did because he believed that it was deserved.
But it was not just an act of justice. By sending a flood God was sending the world back to the second day of creation. By which time God had made light on the first day and separated it from the darkness so that there was night and day and separated the water above the sky from the water down on earth, but before he had caused the water to gather into one place on the third day and set its boundaries so that dry land could appear. The flood would undo all of that.
So the flood is secondly also an act of uncreation. The Bible says that the Lord was grieved that he had made human beings that his heart was filled with pain. These expressions of regret motivate God’s decision to undo what he almost regrets doing. And so he would send a flood to take the world back to the second day of creation.
But not to before the first day of creation. God is not having a tantrum like a toddler who hasn’t got his own way and so smashes his favourite toys. Instead, he is wiping the slate clean, back to the second day. So he can start again.
And so thirdly the flood is also a work of recreation. Like a farmer ploughing a field full of weeds before sowing the crop. Like the builder tearing down the derelict house before building a new one. Like an artist painting over a project that somehow went wrong in order to paint something new.
God did this because
Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord. He was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.
And so the plan was not just for God to bring a flood but for Noah to build a boat, a ship, big enough to house Noah, his wife, his three sons, and their wives and a mummy and a daddy of each species of animal. Seven pairs, in fact, of the clean animals fit to eat. And so the ship would float like a coconut on the surface of the flood until it found dry land and sprouted once more with life.
By Genesis chapter 8 the flood had peaked and then ebbed. It had rained for 40 days and nights and the waters had continued to rise for 150 days and then they had lowered until dry land appeared again like on the third day of creation. Almost a year after it had started to float on the flood waters the ship Noah had built came to land on the top of a hill. Noah sent out a raven and then a dove which had returned with an olive branch, showing that plants had started to grow again like they did on the third day. God’s work of recreation had begun.
Although they could see the land and the proof of life returning, they stayed in the ark until God said they could come out. And then Noah worshipped God. He built an altar and offered a sacrifice to God. These came from the clean animals. The cattle and sheep that Noah had taken more than just one pair. And with this sacrifice Noah showed that he knew his place before the holy God. God was his creator, the source of his life and of all his good things. Noah was just his creature. And he showed his thanks and praise to God.
This pleased God and so God said,
Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.
Never again. This was God’s promise. Never again will I curse the ground. Just in case we missed it the first time, he said it a second time. Never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. God made this promise even though nothing has changed.
Even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood.
In fact, dare I say, that God made this promise because nothing has changed. He had sent a flood that had ended lives, destroyed cities and towns, brought down kings and their empires. It had scoured the earth but it could not wash clean the human heart. And so God promised, Never again.
For this reason, these chapters in the Bible not only tell us why the flood happened, but also why it won’t happen again. God has promised. In fact, it is almost as if the flood had to happen in order to show that floods don’t work. Volcanoes can destroy Pompeii but they cannot wipe out the corruption at the heart of the Roman Empire. Purges are ineffective. We can lock all the criminals in the prison. We can try to keep our borders secure and sweep all the poor broken souls into mental institutions. But none of these measures can solve the problem of the human heart. There is no secluded place that we can escape to, no gated community that we can build to protect ourselves from the problem of evil. Because wherever we go we will take the problem of evil with us.
Never again, God promised. Floods may be deserved, I’m not implying that they aren’t. But they cannot wash us clean. Never again. Instead,
As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.
No matter how cold the winter, spring will come. No matter how long the night, the sun will rise. It reminds us that God is not just as reliable as these regular cycles of nature, but these regular cycles of nature are only reliable because God keeps his promises.
In Genesis chapter 9 Noah’s role as a new Adam became clear as God repeated the blessing he gave in Genesis chapter 1.
Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.”
The flood took them back to the second day of creation. They had now been safely returned to the sixth day of creation. Like a coconut, the ark had found dry land and spilled forth with life. It was a new beginning. A second chance. A chance to do better. And the biggest difference was that the threat of a life ending flood now no longer lay ahead of them but safely behind them. God had promised, Never again.
And to reassure his weak and fragile creatures who would continue to fail him time and again, he ratified that promise with a solemn oath. A covenant.
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you-the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you-every living creature on earth. I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
A covenant is a relationship of belonging between two parties founded by a promise and leading to continuing responsibilities. The parties are clearly identified here in Genesis chapter 9. They are, on the one side, God, the Lord Almighty. And on the other side, well, it is not just Noah, and it is not just the generations of human beings who will come after him, but it includes every living creature. Human beings may have been made in God’s image. But God is not just their God. He is the God of every living creature, the koala, the kangaroo and the cassowary and the rest.
God is the creator of all things. His eye is over the whole universe that he has made. This world is not the devil’s playground. It is God’s garden, his pride and his joy. When your heart swells to see the sun shine again after the storm and to feel its gentle warmth upon your face, it is nothing compared to the pleasure that the creator takes in his creation fulfilling its purpose.
This covenant between the creator and his creatures is founded on the promise, expressed again in familiar words.
Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.
God has sworn to protect his beautiful but tragically flawed creation. He has declared eternal peace. Not just a ceasefire that could stop at any time. Not just a fragile negotiated truce in which the conflict could flare up again if certain conditions weren’t met. But an eternal and unconditional peace.
And the tangible sign that this is true is that God has thrown away his flaming arrows of destructive judgment and hung up his long bow in the sky. Physics may be able to explain the rainbow as the scattering of the different frequencies of light, but for God there is a deeper significance.
This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.
This is not a contract that has been negotiated between two parties. This is not a demand from an overlord upon his powerless subjects. This is the unconditional declaration of eternal peace from the eternal God. It does not depend on the obedience of humans. It is not threatened by their continuing rebellion. It is not motivated by any virtue or potential for good that exists with them. It is motivated only by mercy.
God’s purpose for us is not death but life. God’s purpose for us is that his peace take root in our hearts and bring blessing to every aspect of our lives. And if the promises of a covenant normally lead to ongoing responsibilities, God will shoulder them all. He is not guilty of sin. But he will take responsibility for it.
The new beginning made possible at the end of the flood didn’t last. Human beings spread all over the planet and took with them all their strengths and all their flaws. Their cleverness. Their ingenuity. Their fear. Their anger. Their unlimited potential for pettiness and cruelty and spite. Because no one can demean you and dehumanise you like another human being. And with our careless thoughts and words and actions we pass on the misery to others, justifying our sins by telling ourselves we didn’t mean it. But God withholds his hand of judgement and treats us with unceasing patience to give us the chance to find our life and peace in him.
This purpose of life and peace revealed in his covenant with Noah is ultimately only made possible through the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. He lived the perfect life to show us what it meant to be the image of God, to be truly human. He died by the injustice of human rulers to pay the price of sin. The death that God withholds from us was laid upon him. But he was raised by the justice of God and he pours out his Spirit like a flood of blessing and joy that washes clean our filthy hearts so that we may experience real and significant change, so that we may live again, not for ourselves but for him who died and lives for us.
This is what we celebrate in the Lord’s Supper. As you take and eat the bread and drink from the cup, rest in the promise of God. Find your true life today in God’s eternal declaration of peace in Jesus.