Let’s start of by saying that 40 days is a long time to do any one thing – to be out in the wilderness, to fast, to be stuck on a boat with a bunch of animals.
At my house, it feels like 40 days since anybody’s been to school, but maybe that’s just me. You get four snow days in a row and you start to get a little idea of what it might be like aboard that ark for forty days.
My sister who lives in Boston, was visiting for a few days this week – she came south to escape the frigid temps and snow in the north. This didn’t work out so well this week… She said in Boston, where they’ve had some six feet of snow on some places, they were starting to wonder if the snow would ever end, if maybe they ought to build an ark or a giant sleigh and hunker down for the next forty days.
We ought to talk about that number 40, because it comes up all the time in the story of Lent, the story of how God works in the world. We ought not to ignore that. Forty days and nights of rain, forty years in the wilderness, forty days for Moses on Mt. Sinai before the ten commandments, forty days in the wilderness for Jesus after he’s baptized and before the time comes to proclaim the kingdom of God.
Forty years, forty days, to the Biblical writers, was a really long time — 40 years — long enough for an entire generation to shift. 40 days — more than a month, longer than anyone would ever want to be cooped up on an ark or out in the wilderness.
When we see the number forty, we’re meant to notice that something very long and probably very difficult is happening.
So, Noah. This is such an interesting story, when you think about it. We call it Noah’s ark, but it’s actually – I think – not all that much about Noah.
And then there’s the fact that this is probably the number one story we teach to kids. It’s got all those animals in it, of course, and we love to tell Bible stories with animals to kids — no matter how age-appropriate they are!
So this one often gets looked over by anybody over the age of seven because mostly what we remember is the lions and the giraffes walking two by two onto the ark before it rains.
But there’s a lot more here. It’s actually a fairly long story, too. It spans several chapters in the book of Genesis — by the way, this is sone of the stories we call the pre-history stories — the garden of Eden, the flood, the tower of Babel — all these stories happen before the stories of Abraham and Sarah, which then form the family stories that carry the story of the Hebrew people. The flood story happens before all that.
Also, interestingly, a lot of other faith traditions and cultures have some kind of story about a major flood, leading archeologists and scholar to think that probably at some point in those ancient days, there really was some kind of major flood event, that storytellers than tried to make sense of.
Anyway. Our story, you’ll remember, begins not with Noah and the animals, but with the people God created, and with the wickedness that the people were living with, and with God looking at the ways the people were living being sorry that they were ever created.
And then, depending on your translation – this is Genesis 6:6 – the text tells us that God’s heart was grieved, or that God’s heart was deeply troubled, or that God was heartbroken.
Hear that? God looked at the way the people were living — God’s beloved people — and God’s heart broke.
This is a love story right here, a love story between God and God’s people, and like any good love story, right at the center of it, there’s a broken heart.
God’s heart breaks at the betrayal and the distance.
God’s heart breaks at the turning away.
God’s heart breaks at the falling short.
God’s heart breaks, and God reacts with anger, deciding to wipe out the whole face of the earth and starting all over again.
Then comes the ark and the animals and the forty days of rain and the 150 days before the waters subside. …
And then, finally, when the flood waters subside, and Noah and everybody on the ark venture out, something amazing happens.
God looks around at the decimated land, the lost promise, the lost hope for the future, the devastated world, and God said:
No, I’m not that kind of God.
I am not going to do that again.
I’m going to make a new promise, a new covenant:
I’m going to love these people even if they disappointment me again and again — and they will.
And I’ll be brokenhearted again.
But never again will I destroy the whole earth.
See? God changes God’s mind. It’s sort of disconcerting to think of God changing God’s mind. We like to think of God as immutable, unmovable, unchangeable – we use words like everlasting and almighty and omnipotent to describe God — and all that’s true, but it’s also true that the scriptural witness gives us all kinds of ways to understand God, and this story of Noah gives us an image of God in which God is in relationship with us, with the people God created.
And when you’re in a relationship with somebody – aren’t you always changed?
So God changes God’s mind, and promises never to flood the earth again and then puts a rainbow in the sky.
Now listen again to vs. 13: “When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant…”
Is the rainbow there to remind the people of the promise? Maybe. But it’s there to remind God. It’s an act of divine limitation — God can do whatever God wants – flood the earth, or not. But God chooses not. God chooses grace, and relationship, and a future for the world, and hope.
That’s an incredible thing, when you think about it.
The rainbow reminds God of the kind of God God is.
Which got me thinking about Lenten disciplines. Sometimes we give something up, sometimes we take something on. But I wonder if lenten practices are, like the rainbow, reminders to ourselves of who we are — not just a practice of self-sacrifice, giving up something we really like. But a sign to ourselves about who we are and how we want to live.
So maybe you’re signing off Facebook for Lent: maybe that’s a reminder to you that you are more than an online presence, that your life is here and now in the flesh and blood, a reminder to you to be present to your life now.
Or maybe you’re taking on a practice of gratitude – making a list at the end of each day of things you’re thankful for: maybe that’s a reminder to you that you are a person who has much to give thanks for.
Or maybe you’re taking on a practice of buying a little extra food each week and donating it to the Servant Center food pantry: maybe that’s a reminder to you that you are a generous person.
Or maybe we take on a practice of forgiveness, of grace, of healing old hurts; maybe that’s a reminder to you that you, too, have been forgiven and the recipient of such grace.
All of these are ways of reminding ourselves of the covenant we have made before God and before one another that we are first God’s beloved people.
We always call this the story of Noah’s ark, but Noah’s not the main character here – God is. This is a love story about God and God’s people, from the love at first sight in the garden of Eden to the pain of the first argument to the totally and utter heartbreak when God’s people let God down, and straight through to the radial, undeserved forgiveness and reconciliation of the people and the God who loves them so very much.
There’s hope in this story, not because of how faithful Noah is, but because of how gracious God is.
God isn’t going to (anymore) just save the righteous — that broke God’s heart and God promised never to do it again.
And it’s not that God’s heart never got broken again. The people of God are always turning away and forgetting their end of the deal — but God never does.
Think about all those other forties we know about – forty years in the wilderness, forty days on Mt. Sinai….
In the wilderness, they start grumbling to be back in Egypt — and God gives them manna from heaven, a gift of grace – a renewal of the covenant and the everlasting promise.
The ten commandments, are a renewal of the covenant, a new way to live as God’s people, a reminder of the everlasting promise.
When they go into exile many years later, the prophet Jeremiah tells the people that there will be a new covenant, a new everlasting promise.
Over and over again, the people turn away, God’s heart breaks wide open, and then God welcomes them back home.
Which leads us then – once we’re beyond the waters of the flood, with God’s promise rainbow visible in the sky — back to the waters of baptism, with the new covenant before us, the promise of new life.
We ought not miss the fact that Jesus’ forty days comes right after his baptism. The waters of baptism remind us of the flood waters because right there, God renews the covenant again… the promise of new life always holds.
With our own baptisms, we enter into this ancient and everlasting covenant, with God, and with one another.
Frederick Buechner says that “The ark is wherever people come together because this is a stormy world where nothing stays put for long among the crazy waves… The ark, in other words, is where we have each other and where we have hope.” (Secrets in the Dark pg. 48)
And sometimes, we’re stuck in the ark with some people we secretly (or not so secretly) God would just strike down with some sort of mighty divine act.
But that’s not the way God works. what God realizes after destroying the earth is that God really loves all of creation – every last broken bit of it.
We are people of the covenant, of the rainbow promise, of the baptismal waters that hold the promise of new life. We are part of the love story that God has with the world, and we have received that everlasting grace.