Collect for Trinity II
LORD, you have taught us that all our doings without love are nothing worth:
send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love,
the true bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whoever lives is counted dead before you.
Grant this for your only Son Jesus Christ’s sake, who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Genesis, 6, Vv 9-22 & 7 V 24 & 8 Vv 14-19
Romans 1, Vv 16-17 & 3 Vv 22b-31
St Matthew 7, Vv 21-29
In our Old Testament lesson we heard the wonderful story of Noah, his ark and the famous flood. Now, you might think that a flood of the magnitude given us in the book called Genesis was one to beat all rivals. I have to tell you that what is generally referred to as Noah’s flood was only one of several recorded in ancient writings. Perhaps the most famous, outside the pages of the Bible, is the Epic of Gilgamesh, set in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which is now in what is called Iraq. We haven’t time this morning to compare and contrast these historical events, but if you were to do so you would meet the Mesopotamian hero of the saga, one Utnapishtim, Ea, the god of wisdom and Enlil, the sky-god. The Atraharsis flood epic is a third, also with origins in Mesopotamia. Let us, instead, spend a few moments looking at the Biblical accounts of Noah’s adventure.
It was long thought that Moses was responsible for writing the Pentateuch, the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. This is very unlikely, especially since the closing pages of the fifth book, called Deuteronomy, actually record Moses’ death. In the last couple of centuries a number of analytical techniques have been applied to scriptural texts, especially one called source criticism. This complex, lexical analysis has identified no fewer than four main authors in these books; and authors writing centuries apart. Take our story of Noah and the flood: the text is generally thought to comprise the intertwining of what are called J and E passages. The author ‘J’ was so called because he regularly used the name of Jahweh or Jehovah for God. He probably wrote in the 10th or the 9th centuries BC. A second source was author ‘E’ who he wrote in the 6th or 5th centuries. He used the word Elohim, or Lord, when referring to God. So, the text of Genesis that we heard was severally composed by writers who lived from 300 to 500 years apart. I suppose it’s the equivalent of someone today combining texts from Martin Luther and Rowan Williams in one document. Just to complete the picture, the texts from author ‘E’ are usually long blocks of prose while those from ‘J’ are shorter interpolations. There are thought to have been two other writers, known as ‘P’ and ‘D’ respectively, but they seem to have written no part of the flood narrative. There was also a redactor, or editor, who shaped the texts into the form in which we have them. Our Bible is then an extremely complicated document and it is little wonder that myths, sagas and legends became incorporated from many sources. If you compare the Noahic and Gilgamesh flood accounts you will see that they are identical, almost word-for-word, in some sections.
There are three explanations for what are called ‘myths of catastrophe’, into which our flood stories fall. These are: the unfathomable and inexplicable will of the gods; some non-moral fault in mankind that has angered the gods or a moral sin. Only in the second and third of these can a flood or other such calamity be spoken of as a punishment. Various flood narratives have different interpretations on the relevance of human fault and the associated anger of a god or gods. Human failings, such as injustice, incest, quarrelling, war and disobedience to divine commands, are reported in such flood stories as the one in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and in a number of other deluge stories from such places as: Lithuania, Bengal, the Andaman Islands and New Zealand. Most of the great flood myths seem to show little concern for the reason behind the flood but are largely devoted to recounting how a few humans escaped, and the heroes of the hour who were involved in saving them. In contrast to this view, our Hebrew Biblel narrative, by appearing to introduce the flood as a punishment for sin, adds another dimension to the universal story of the primeval deluge. Thus, while in so many epics the flood is simply one of the many natural catastrophes that occur, in the Hebrew setting the flood is fundamentally a narrative of God’s dealings with humanity, and an expression of his will and activity. He alone is responsible for the calamity and there are no suggestions of inter-divine conflict or mere chance. Let us then ask ourselves, what caused the Biblical flood? We are told, ‘the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil,’ and, ‘the earth was corrupt in the sight of God; the earth was full of violence and all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth’. Is it any wonder that God was angry with his creation? Notice that we have a new definition of sin in these verses from Genesis. It is seen as a corruption of the original creation of God. God had seen all that he had made and it was good – now, because of changed circumstances, because of the Sin of Adam, it was no longer good. Observe the use of the phrase, ‘all flesh has corrupted its way upon earth’. Flesh, in this context, includes animals as well as humans. A comparison with the opening verses of this book tells us that the animals had abandoned their created condition as subject to human control, and they had become carnivores, a change from their created herbivorous status; it seems they were even preying upon human flesh. God certainly had to do something; why did he decide on the flood as a judgement?
God determined that the punishment should fit the crime. Let us look at how this works. The earlier expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden was not a petulant act of God. God did not say, ‘since you have disobeyed me, you cannot stay in my garden’. Rather, he said, ‘you have chosen to be your own gods, deciding for yourselves what is good and evil; go and learn to look after yourselves in a world where the decisions have not already been made for you, where you will have to make them for yourselves and pay the price of your make mistakes’. The punishment fits not only the crime, but also the criminal. The snake was fated to become a mere reptile; no longer, ‘the most subtle of all the animals that God had made’. The woman’s punishment struck at the deepest root of her being a wife and mother; increased pain associated with childbirth; while man’s penalty seriously affected his work, his activity in the provision of family sustenance. Earlier in Genesis, the punishment of Cain, who slew his brother Abel, was, appropriately, to be driven out from the society of humans. The punishment of the tower-builders of Babel, who sought to make a name for themselves, was to gain a name, but one that marked their dispersal and disgrace, not their cohesion and glory. Does the flood, then, fit the crime? Yes. This same understanding of punishment is discernible in the flood narrative. The earth had, in essence, destroyed itself; remember our earlier phrase, ‘all flesh has corrupted its way upon the earth’. Indeed, what God decided to ‘destroy’ had been virtually self-destroyed already.
In the six days of the Genesis story of Creation, God took a series of progressive steps, which culminated in the creation of mankind. The flood was a process of un-creation, of destruction. Man, the last to be created; he was the first to be destroyed. Chaos was re-constituted out of order – a reversal of God’s original processes. This all seems fine so far, if only from God’s perspective. After all, it was his creation that had suffered the damage. Where does the mitigating element of Noah, his family, the ark and the creatures, two-by-two, fit into our story? Was Noah saved because of his righteousness? A cursory reading of the text would indicate this to be the case. We read, ‘Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation’, and, ‘Go into the ark, for I have seen that you are righteous before me in this generation’. But, before this we read, ‘Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord’. Noah’s righteousness was not the reason that God invited him into the ark. There was not, as has been suggested, a declaration that Noah had passed some sort of test of faith. Rather, the sense of the verse is: ‘Go into the ark, for I have chosen you from among this generation to be my righteous one, my representative’; that is, the one through whom the salvation of the human race will come. The only other time we read of Noah is a rather reprehensible episode involving his drunken nakedness. This act of mitigation means that the ‘un-creation’ that God has worked with the flood was not final; God’s creative work would not become permanently undone. But, all would not be as it was before. There would be no simple return to the original state of perfection. The sin that caused the flood has left a mark that had not been wiped out by the flood. Human character and animal nature were not changed by this catastrophe. God’s creation ordinances remained, for this was still God’s world, but they did not remain unchanged, for this was a world where sin had become a permanent feature.
Yet, despite this retention of evil, God vowed never again to curse the earth as he has done in the flood. ‘I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall become a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.’ Despite this, human life is not absolutely assured. According to the flood narrative it exists simply by God’s good favour. The continuation of human existence lies between the extremes of creation and un-creation, subject always to God’s providence and judgment. But God’s good favour, according to the flood narrative, is not simply a matter of pleading on our part; it is assured in the sign of the covenantal rainbow. A long time ago God experimented with un-creation, and he has put this behind him forever. Yet, the theme remains alive in the New Testament. Even though dissolution of the earth is expected, there will be no un-creation. You will remember that Jesus said, ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.’ Saint Peter reminds us that this is but the prelude to a new heaven and a new earth. Some Christian writers have seen in the flood narrative an allegory, in which the ark represents Jesus, and subsequently the Church; those who shelter in Jesus are saved, all the others perish.
In spite of human sin and violence, God has committed himself to his world and to its human inhabitants. The unconditional covenant of the rainbow is his sign and promise of that. The story of the flood is therefore an affirmation of the story of creation. It speaks ultimately not of divine punishment but of God’s faithfulness to the works of his hands. Let us remember this covenant every time we see a rainbow in the heavens, which is not an unusual sight on this often rain swept island. Let us call to mind the cataclysmic, Biblical flood that destroyed almost all life on earth. Let us be reminded that, despite the mighty floods that have devastated parts of our planet, and the many that scientists predict may still befall us, God has given us his promise that never again will mankind have to endure the same level of catastrophe that Noah endured and survived.
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