Sunday, February 21, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
First Sunday in Lent
watch this service online (readings start around 14:10; sermon starts around 20:22)
The story of Noah and the flood is the kind of classic story that Sunday school lessons are made of. It’s such a charismatic story: you have all these animals going up two by two into the “arky arky” – and the whole story ends with a rainbow, like we read in our first reading for today.
But if you look any closer than that at what actually happens in the story, it is downright horrifying. Humanity has become so wicked and violent and corrupt that God regrets ever creating humans in the first place. And so God sends a flood that drowns everything on earth except for eight humans and some animals in a boat. Even for those fortunate few on the ark, what an utterly gruesome experience that must have been – to watch the flood cover everything and everyone you knew, to hear their cries for help as they drowned in those waters. It’s bone-chilling to imagine.
And for this reason, I find it really troubling in our texts for today – especially our second reading – to see this explicit connection being made between the flood and the waters of baptism. The waters of the flood were destructive and deadly, while the waters of baptism are life-giving waters, waters through which God comes to us in love, waters in which we are cleansed and made new. But the author of 1 Peter describes the flood as somehow “prefiguring” our baptism. He makes this connection because eight good and righteous people were “saved through water.”
There’s a terrible irony in this story, though. Noah and his family are spared from the flood because God believes that they are good and righteous people, unlike the rest of humanity. But if you read even a little bit further in just this same chapter of Genesis we read from today, you discover that Noah and crew are not quite as saintly as you might believe. Literally the first thing we see Noah do once he’s fresh off the boat is to plant a vineyard so he can make some wine – he then proceeds to get absolutely hammered and passes out in his tent buck naked. His son Ham comes in the tent and “sees the nakedness of his father” – it’s really not clear in the text what exactly Ham does, but whatever it is, it enrages Noah. And in retaliation, Noah decides to punish Ham by cursing his son, which hardly seems fair to that kid. So in just the space of a few verses, Noah gets off the ark, gets wasted, passes out naked, and curses his own grandchild. Not a great look for God’s chosen.
And even before all this, in chapter eight, there actually is a moment where it seems like God realizes that all humans – including Noah and his family – have this capacity for corruption and violence and unrighteousness. As God is beginning to make a promise to Noah, God says, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.” God realizes that humans are born this way – because of our brokenness and sinfulness, we all have this inclination to use our free will in ways that do not please God.
But this is where the story actually gets pretty amazing. God has wiped out almost all of humanity and is now realizing that the small handful of people whose lives God chose to spare might not actually be the best people. It would be so easy at this point for God to just say, ‘The heck with it!’ and just snuff out those last few crummy humans – and maybe God would decide, ‘You know what? Dogs! They’re so much better than humans – lets focus on dogs instead!’
But instead of wiping out Noah and his family along with the rest of humanity, God decides to commit to them. Even after seeing them as they truly are, flaws and all, God makes an everlasting covenant with them, promising never to give up on humanity like that or to wipe them out ever again. God repents of the flood; God turns away from destruction and wrath and turns toward humanity with unfathomable mercy and grace and love. Instead of writing humans off as a lost cause, God commits to working with humanity and within them to help them keep getting better and better.
Because I think that maybe what God sees in Noah is that even a good, righteous person has the capacity to do bad things. And by the same token, that means that even an “evil,” unrighteous person is capable of doing good. Like we believe as Lutherans, no one person is truly all sinner or all saint. Even the worst of us has the capacity to turn around and do better.
And that is essentially the call of repentance – a call which we hear most prominently during the season of Lent. It’s the call to turn our hearts and our lives back to God – just as God turned toward Noah in the waters of the flood – and just as God turns toward each of us in the waters of our baptism. We are called to repent of the ways of sin that draw us away from God. And we are called to remember that we are capable of better things than what we often settle for.
That’s a call that can really sting. It hurts to be told things like, “You’re better than this,” or, “I expect more from you than this,” or, “You need to change and do better.” It’s uncomfortable to be called out like that, and it can be really challenging to receive it with grace. In fact, it’s pretty natural for us to respond by getting defensive and angry instead.
I think about this a lot when it comes to stuff like antiracism work. I feel pretty confident saying that most people would agree that racism is a bad thing, and that we’d all like to live in a world without that kind of prejudice. But I also know, as a white person, I have often been confronted with how little I understand about what racism really looks like in the wild. It’s not always some belligerent dude with tattoos of swastikas – in fact, more often than not, racism works in much more subtle and systematic ways. It shows up in attitudes and assumptions we might not even be consciously aware of.
And there have been times that I have been called out when my words or my actions revealed some of those prejudices that I wish I didn’t carry. And I remember exactly how that felt. I remember feeling my face flush and my shoulders clench and my stomach turn when someone told me that I needed to do better. I wanted to push those words away and not let them be true.
But over time, I came to see that these kind of call outs weren’t from people who wanted to write me off or “cancel” me. The people calling me to do better were people who cared about me. Calling me to repentance was an act of love. After all, why would anyone invest the emotional energy in calling someone to account if they don’t care about that person? I realized that when someone takes the time to call you to repent, it’s a sign that they care enough about their relationship with you to say something. It’s a sign that they think enough of you to believe that you are capable of better things.
God cared enough about this world to come here in the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, who calls us all to repentance. With Noah, God had the chance to “cancel” humanity, but God chose instead to act out of love and to invest in that relationship; God chose to believe in our potential to do better. And through the covenant God makes with Noah, God promises us life, and promises to walk with us, helping us grow more and more into the people we were created and called to be.
In light of all this, it is especially meaningful to get to see Jesus being baptized in our gospel reading. Because Jesus brings together both the human and the divine, and in his baptism, they pass once more together through the waters of the covenant. And in case anyone had any doubt as to the significance of this moment, the heavens are torn open, and God thunders down, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The incarnation of Jesus is the ultimate sign of God’s love and commitment to humanity. And his baptism confirms that the waters of God’s grace and mercy are waters that run very deep indeed.
The waters of baptism continue to wash over us, connecting us with the covenant God made with Noah. These waters baptize us into the death and resurrection of Christ. And as they wash over us, these waters cleanse our hearts and give us a fresh start, so that every single day, by grace, we are all given the chance to do better.
I just read your “Waters” sermon, and I thank you for it. You don’t run way from complex texts and serious issues. Neva prints out all your sermons, so we have quite a collection!
I still wish you could preach for us. I Iike our chaplain, but her sermons are so underwhelming.
Aww, thanks Phil — that’s so sweet that Neva prints all my sermons, and I’m honored that you both read them! Heh, I hope I’m carrying on the Hefner theological legacy well.
Maybe when this pandemic is finally over and I get a chance to get out to Chicago again I could guest preach sometime — I’d totally be up for it. At any rate, I look forward to visiting you and Neva again when things open up! Hope all is well with you. 🙂