So, Noah’s ark, huh? The way we are all introduced to the bible as kids. I think it deserves a childs-eye hermeneutic. One day in the nursery room at church, I sat down to read a little book called LEGOS: Noah and the Ark with my three year old son, Taal. Every page was an elaborate lego setup: Noah and his family, the building of the ark. Look at the cute lego trees! The adorable lego animals! Look, the lego ark is floating away on the lego sea, tip-tapped by lego rain beneath gray lego clouds!
Then suddenly a two page spread: a brown expanse of lego mud, with the lego ark parked in the brown mountains in the background, and the foreground filled with little lego skeletons. Animal skeletons, people skeletons, bones and skulls everywhere scattered in the lego mud as far as the eye can see.
Well, probably like most of us, I quickly went on to lego rainbow, and showed the book to the child care person who found it so disturbing that she removed it from the bookshelf permanently.
Now, for some reason – probably also having to do with Sunday school — all the mental images I’ve had of the Noah’s ark story are just a little less disturbing. The dove brings back the olive branch, everyone gets out into a newly flowering semitropical paradise, rainbows and good times are back again. But that’s not actually what the biblical story says. Lego’s on to something here. Just before today’s reading, the bible says, twice, that all life was blotted out. Everything that had breath died, people, animals, even insects. It took the waters months to recede, even after the ark came to rest. If we imagine the reality of the world post-ark, we must imagine unlimited devastation.
And for some reason now, as I envision that skeleton-strewn muddy lego landscape, I envision God wandering through it, and saying to Godself, I will never do this again. I envision the repentance of God from the unrestrained use of power, even righteous power, even power in the service of righteousness. And the scripture says, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.”
The covenant that God gives to Noah – and to all who live, animal, insect, plant, human – is the promise to never again destroy all that is. And the promise is unconditional. Whereas the destruction of the flood comes in response to human evil, the free covenant of the rainbow does not depend on human good behavior, luckily for us, because nothing has changed for humanity’s ability to live up to God’s expectations. In fact, the next thing we hear about Noah is that he gets falling-down drunk and curses his youngest son to eternal servitude and exploitation. It’s a good thing that humans don’t have to earn God’s favor. For as God meditates upon the devastation God has wrought, wandering in the wasteland that was the world, God sees that unlimited power and punishment, even to ensure the good, does not change hearts, especially not the hearts of human beings.
This does not mean that God’s just giving up. God will not simply to accept the evildoings of people, their injustice and abuse of others and of creation. The entire Hebrew Bible is a testament to that fact. God still has a goal for humanity and creation. But after the disaster of the Flood, God says to Godself, “I will find another way.”
The power that God instead chooses to use will be shaped henceforward by the goal God has for creation. The desire of God, as we see in today’s psalm, is summed up in the words “justice” and “reconciliation” – weak words for a reality rooted in a love beyond our comprehension. God will regard the prayer of the destitute, set free those doomed to die, hear the groans of the prisoners. God’s power will be moved and shaped by God’s compassion for the suffering.
How will God accomplish this, without using unbounded divine power against creation? How will God’s desire come to be in the world?
This is where we can turn to the Gospel today. It is clear that the Messiah, the anointed one of God, will not pursue God’s goal in human terms. Not through kings or military might. Not through destruction. Not even through the overwhelming divine glory that no human being could resist. The divine power will work through the renunciation of forcible power, through shared suffering – literally, compassion. From the power of the flood to the power of baptism, the water of destruction to the water of transformational life. This strategy of renunciation, of love, of meekness before the powers of the world rather than the blazing power of legions of destroying angels – this, of all things, is God’s change strategy.
I will say, it doesn’t seem immediately very effective, and not very emotionally satisfying. Like Peter, I imagine, I would like to see the Messiah protecting the innocent and punishing the evildoers of the world. I want karma in action, right here, right now. But perhaps that is because I am putting my heart on human things, and not divine ones. The story of God’s choice to avoid the devastation of absolute power is still quite realistic about human evil; God does not assume that evil will depart from us. Perhaps the power that could destroy the universe holds itself in check at our profound capacity for hurting ourselves and others because of compassion for our limitations, and desire for us to grow not into citizens of a totalitarian system who toe the line in fear of destruction, but into true partners and friends, giving our hearts to the transformation of ourselves and the systems we live in, willing and creative citizens of the reign of God.
This is a time in our national history when we are giving much thought to power, to what is legitimate use of power, what is abusive. Our power, of course, is different than that of God, yet we do have power of various kinds. The Hebrew scripture for today again gives us a hint, for God has given even more power to human beings over creation than they had before the flood. All animals will live in fear and dread of human beings, and all animals are given into human hands. Despite God’s knowledge of human tendencies, God continues to share power, even the power of life and death, with humanity. And so as human beings desiring to move towards God, to share in God’s purposes for creation, we must consider our power carefully. What should be renounced? What should be creatively used? How can we, as Christians, judge the uses of power? When faced with devastation, what strategy of power can we embrace? The story of the flood, and the story of Jesus, show us one important axis of judgment, one which even God has promised to adhere to. Power must be rooted in compassion. Power – even legitimate power – is to be judged by the ways in which it nurtures life, reconciliation between peoples, and justice for the poorest and least.
Sometimes, my child’s innocent view of the unvarnished story brings me to new places. A few weeks ago, after one of our many rainy days, Taal and I were driving across the Bay Bridge. We saw a rainbow, and Taal said, Mommy, God put it there so we could see it. How do we judge and use power? How does God’s power work with us? The flood and the passion, the rainbow and the resurrection: God put it there, so we could see it.