Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 18, 2018
Genesis 9:8-17 Commentary
21st century society seems to largely believe that people have the world and its future squarely in our own hands. They claim that if we don’t somehow make history turn out right, it simply won’t happen. Yet experience suggests that if it’s up to people to make things right, we’ve got real trouble on our hands. People, after all, don’t have a very good track record of making things right or turn out right.
Those who proclaim Genesis 9 might want to explore with hearers evidence of human failure to fix what’s wrong with us. They may note that, for example, though we fought several “wars to end all wars” in the last century alone, war and rumors of war still flourish. Even when people try to do what’s right, we find that we still make things a mess. We declare a war on poverty . . . and yet it still flourishes, right around our corners.
I think of the mess white people like me have made of race relations. White folks, after all, participated in the unjust horror that was slave trading. White preachers, including some in my own Reformed tradition, abused the Scriptures to try to justify slavery and segregation.
By God’s grace, we’ve tried to make some things right.
Yet various issues still deeply divide Christians of different colors. We still have a hard time talking and especially listening to each other. The church is among the most racially divided institutions in all of America. If it’s up to people to make things right in the world of race relations, I fear we’re in a world of trouble.
The season of Lent is traditionally a season for honesty about our sin and us. So perhaps it’s a particularly good time for God’s people to be honest about the mess we’ve put our world in. But how can we dare to be so honest about our sinfulness and ourselves?
Maybe it will help to think about that this way. What would happen were I to report only half my earnings to the United States Internal Revenue Service? Well, I’d only pay half the taxes that I should. So I’d get to keep quite a bit of money that I’d otherwise have to give to the government.
But what would happen if I decided to be honest about such cheating? At the very least, I’d have to pay back what I owe. What’s worse, the government could throw me in jail. It’s enough to make one think at least twice about being honest about cheating on income taxes!
In a far broader way, how can people be honest about the way we’ve contributed to the mess our world is in? How can I dare to be honest about my greed that has contributed to others’ poverty? Think, after all, about how people would view you and me if they knew we were so sinful.
If we’re going to be honest about our contribution to the world’s mess, we’re going to need some assurances that the consequences won’t be dreadful. If you and I are going to be honest about things like our prejudices and selfishness, we’re going to need some promises.
God created our first parents to perfectly obey the Lord. Yet they quickly proved to be stubbornly disobedient. God gave us this wonderful creation that God consistently evaluated as “good.” But look at what we did in only nine chapters of Genesis.
In fact, by Noah’s day, God deduces that every inclination of the thoughts of peoples’ hearts is evil all the time (Genesis 6:5b). Things are about as bad as they can get. So we could hardly have blamed God if God had just drowned all of us in the floodwaters.
Yet Genesis 9:9-17 opens with rescued Noah, his family and at least two of every kind of creature standing on “completely dry” ground. But now what? Will Noah and his family have to somehow make things turn out right? Is the future after the Flood up to people?
Noah’s drunkenness and his sons’ disrespect show that the thoughts of post-Flood peoples’ hearts remain quite evil. The mess you and I have made of our world also shows that our own hearts are still naturally evil. So if the post-Flood future is up to people, God help us. We’re in a lot of trouble.
Thankfully, then, in many ways the future is up to God. God is willing to basically start over with humanity after the flood. After sending so much water, destruction and death, God promises to graciously give the human race a kind of “do-over.”
Genesis describes God’s act of creation as God’s separation of the waters from the earth’s floor. In the flood, God, in a way, reverses that order, blurring the boundary between water and land. However, after the Flood, God graciously steps back in. God restores order out of the chaos and brings life out of death.
Genesis’ stories, our history and the current world show that we will lie, rebel, kill and push our way into the future. God, however, responds by insisting, “I now establish my covenant with you and your descendants . . .” (9). At the heart of that covenant with Noah and his descendants is God’s promise that “Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life” (11b). In other words, God seems to promise that God will never again use a natural catastrophe to destroy all earthly life.
Yet while God says “never again,” God doesn’t add, as we might expect, “but in order for me to spare creation, you must do this and that.” God’s post-Flood covenant is unconditional. God simply promises never again to wipe out every living thing with some kind of natural disaster.
Perhaps the Lord does this because the Lord knows that if the Lord’s restraint depends on us keeping our end of a bargain, the Lord will have to destroy it again. People after the Flood, after all, aren’t much different than they were before it.
So if we are to have a future, it will be the future God gives us. Thankfully, God extends that future not only to Noah, but also to all succeeding generations, Jewish and gentile alike. What’s more, God’s protection extends not just to people, but also to all living things.
Of course, people won’t deserve that protection. Again and again and again we’ll show that we deserve punishment as we make our way through the world after the flood. Thankfully, then, the story of our world after the flood isn’t about humanity’s goodness, but God’s great goodness.
That God graciously continues to make and keep promises to people even when we don’t keep our promises. God refuses to destroy us even when we consistently destroy each other and scar God’s creation. While our thoughts and our tendencies remain stubbornly evil, God promises never again to obliterate creation with a natural disaster.
Yet just, as it were, to make sure God keeps God’s promise of “never again,” God drapes a rainbow across Genesis 9’s sky. Curiously, however, God doesn’t seem to hang it there to remind us of God’s promise to protect us. No, verses 14 and 15 suggest the Lord somehow hangs rainbows in the sky to remind himself of the Lord’s promise not to give up on people.
Of course, you don’t have to watch or read the news very long to see why God might be tempted to break that promise. So while we may fully not understand why God needed it, we thank God for God’s rainbow-reminder not to give us what we deserve. And we always pray that the Lord keep an eye on that rainbow.
After all, at the end of Lent’s forty days we plan to remember a particularly bloody and horrible weekend of death at a place called Golgotha. You and I will see perhaps the fullest expression of the evil inclination of our hearts at the cross of Jesus.
Yet even after the earth shakes and chaos seems to break loose again, God keeps an eye on the rainbow. Sunday comes. What some thought was the deathly end of the human story turns out just to be another kind of new beginning. What we might have assumed was the end of God’s gracious dealings with us turns out to be just the first chapter in a kind of new story of promise.
On January 30, 2018, cnn.com noted, “Rachel Den Hollander was the first woman to accuse Dr. Larry Nassar of sexual abuse. However, she was the last of more than 150 women and girls to confront him in court during Nassar’s sentencing hearing for criminal sexual conduct.”
While Den Hollander’s statement lasted nearly 40 minutes and was delivered in a court of law, parts of it could be delivered in any church. After all, they powerfully speak to both the mess people have made of the world and God’s gracious determination to address that mess.
Ms. Den Hollander told Dr. Nassar: “In our early hearings you brought your Bible into the courtroom and you have spoken of praying for forgiveness. And so it is on that basis that I appeal to you. If you have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way.
“You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen this courtroom today.
“The Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you throw into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds.
“The Bible you speak carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.
“I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.”
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