As we begin our annual Lenten journey to the cross and the tomb, our Old Testament reading takes us to the new journey of the human race after The Flood. In words that almost directly parallel the Genesis account of creation, the opening verses of Genesis 9 lay out God’s mandates for the new human race: fill the earth, have dominion over the rest of creation, including animals who may now be eaten (minus their blood), and defend the sanctity of human life.
In those verses, God basically tells the representatives of the new human race to start over. But how can they do that? Humanity had made a total mess of everything. Now in the midst of the drying mud and the rotting death, how is it possible for humanity to make a new beginning and do better. Can they/we do it by immense human effort? No, answers our text, we can start over only by the grace of God. That’s how it was for Noah as the journey of humanity began again. That’s how it is for us as we begin our Lenten journey again.
In The Flood, the waters below and the waters above brought the original chaos of Genesis 1:2 (tohu wabohu in the Hebrew) onto the earth. Now by making a covenant, God brings order and life out of the chaos. The alternative to human sin is God’s grace. God is the one who makes life possible in a chaotic world filled with mud and death. Or to put it in the terms of our text, the alternative to chaos is covenant. That’s the great message of this text.
Immediately after speaking his commandments for new life in verses 1-7, God anchors the continuation of life on earth in a covenant, a covenant initiated and kept by God and God alone. Contrary to the universal belief of our day, the continued existence of life on our planet does not depend on human decisions and actions. Though we are responsible to live by God’s commandments, it is not finally up to us to make human history turn out right. If right living determines whether life continues on planet earth, may God help us, because we have demonstrated from the very beginning that we cannot do it. Ours is a legacy of chaos and rebellion and disobedience and death. May God help us. (Thanks to William Willimon for these last insights.)
That, of course, is exactly what our text is saying. God does help us, even after we have made a total mess of things. “Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘I now establish my covenant….’” What a crucial word that is! A covenant is not just a legally binding contract; it is a personal promise made from the heart. Life does not depend on the whims of a fickle deity. It depends on the firm promises of a faithful God. Though life does not finally depend on the choice and behavior of sinful human beings, it does depend on the fixed purpose and unbreakable promise of a holy and just God. “I now establish my covenant….” Thank God! Life on earth is guaranteed.
The terms of this covenant are remarkable by any accounting. Verses 9-10 detail the parties in this covenant: Noah and his family and all living things. This is a universal covenant—with the whole human race (not just with one tribe or nation as in the covenant we will study next week) and with every form of animal life as well. Indeed, as if to underline the inclusiveness of the promise, God repeats it four times (verses 10,12, 15, 16), always including “all living creatures.”
In verse 11, God gives the promise at the center of this covenant. “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.” What just happened will never happen again! That is unconditional. No matter what humans do, never again will God respond with a world destroying flood. Never again will the cycle of nature be disturbed so totally (cf. Genesis 8:22). Never again will all life be drowned by a flood. The waters of chaos will never again destroy all life on this planet.
As subsequent history has demonstrated, that promise does not mean that floods will never happen again. They are as much a part of human existence as their dry counterpart, drought. Floods will happen and, tragically, people will lose their lives. But life will go on through flood and drought. God has promised.
Further, as subsequent Scriptures reveal, this promise does not mean that God will never judge the human race again. As the next chapters of Genesis reveal, God’s effort to wash the earth clean of sin did not succeed. Indeed, sin immediately surfaced in righteous Noah and his family. The holy and just God will not and cannot let sin run wild and ruin his world completely. So, his judgment will fall upon a sinful world again.
Never again will it take the form of a universal flood, but it will take the form of a universal fire that will completely cleanse the world of all sin. II Peter 3:12-13 put it this way: “That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteous.”
God will keep this promise of continued life, even after the fire at the end of this earth. In the meantime, life on earth is assured by this promise. It is unconditional and eternal. The alternative to chaos is covenant, no matter what humans do.
God assures us of that with this business of a rainbow. It is the sign of this covenant with all humans and all nature. All ancient covenants were sealed with some sort of visible sign—a reminder to the parties of the covenant that the promises are sure. Sometimes the sign was a stone. Other times, as in our text next week, it was circumcision. Here the sign was a rainbow.
As usual, God chose some aspect of creation, some natural phenomenon, to point to the certainty of his promise. Obviously, there were rainbows before this covenant. But God chose this spectacular refraction of light after a storm to attest to the firmness of his covenant.
But interestingly, this sign was directed not toward forgetful humans, but toward his faithful Self. “Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant….’ Would God forget without the rainbow? Clearly not.
But God wanted Noah and his descendants to remember what God had said about the rainbow. Every time you see a rainbow, you can be sure that I am remembering my promise about life. Every day, all over the earth, rainbows testify about God’s faithfulness to his covenant, because God sees them too, and remembers his promise. No matter how sinful humanity becomes, no matter how many storms and floods wreak havoc on the earth, God will not wipe out life on this earth by a flood. Life will go on.
That’s the covenant underlying life on this planet. God promises physical life for all. But there’s a greater promise that we focus on during Lent—the promise of eternal life for all who believe in God’s Son. The God who cares about all life in this world has sent his only begotten Son into this chaotic, disobedient, rebellious, deadly world to bring life abundant and eternal.
Lent is a season of honesty about our sins and the human condition. The background of our text for this First Sunday of Lent reminds us of the destructiveness of sin. And this text reminds us of the persistent grace of God that keeps coming back to humanity, even after The Flood and even after the Cross. Let us consider the flood and repent. Let us remember the covenant and hope. Let us consider the cross and believe. “For God so loved the world….”
The difference between a contract and a covenant can be likened to the difference between a pre-nuptial agreement and a marriage. The pre-nup is a contract that is enforced by law. The marriage is a covenant that is held together by vows. To break a pre-nup is to violate the terms of the contract. To break a marriage is to violate the trust that made the promises. Breaking a pre-nup only breaks a law. Breaking a vow often breaks a heart.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 21, 2021
Genesis 9:8-17 Commentary