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Sunday, February 26, 2012

God's Great Change

God makes a covenant with Noah where God promises never to destroy the earth again with a flood, where God promises to find non-violent ways to restore us.  This covenant of non-violence calls us to new way of being, a way of non-violence, of peace.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, First Sunday in Lent, year B; text: Genesis 9:8-17

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

Does God ever regret any action?  Can God’s mind be changed?

There are plenty of theologians who would argue against both questions – God is immutable and unchangeable they would say.  It’s been a topic of debate for centuries.  My own bias in any conversation such as this is that there’s no point in speculating.  Anything you or I could imagine about God could be true or false.  All we have to work with is the revelation of the Scriptures, and primarily what the Incarnate Son of God said and did.

And if we stay with the Scriptures, I have to say that the events in our first reading seem to me to flow directly out of God’s regret.  This covenant God makes with Noah and all creation is a covenant of life, an everlasting covenant, God says.  God’s sadness at the wickedness of humanity, God’s despair at ever creating us that leads to the flood – all this seems overwhelmed by the destruction of the flood.  There are many flood stories across hundreds of cultures from every corner of the world.  But the Hebrews have this powerful insight into the aftermath.  In their eyes, it’s as if God realizes, “this is not what I wanted.  This is not good, this destruction.  I’ll make a solemn, binding promise on myself to find another way.”  So the rainbow, a purely physical phenomenon, light through drops of water, is now imbued with meaning both for humanity and for God.  For God, it’s a reminder of this binding promise.  God says today, “I will see this bow and I will remember the everlasting covenant between me and you and every living creature of all flesh.”  God promises never to destroy the earth again in this way, and this is God’s reminder.

For humanity the bow is an even deeper symbol.  In warrior cultures when the warrior hung his bow in the great hall he was signaling he was done with war.  God’s use of the rainbow tells us that God’s weapons are now hung on the wall, and God will no longer go to war against us.  The rainbow now is a sign that God has made an everlasting covenant with us, and with all creatures actually, a promise to find ways other than violence to restore us.

In short, God is making a covenant of non-violence with us, one that transforms the whole world.

From this moment on in the Scriptures, God isn’t our angry judge, seeking to destroy us.  God our loving Creator now seeks to restore us.

The problem of God which led to the flood is the destructive, wicked, lack of love of humanity for God, for each other, and for creation.  That problem still exists after the flood –people still hate each other, kill each other, destroy the creation, ignore God.  Even Noah and his immediate family have serious problems after the flood.

But the rainbow says God will find another way to restore us.  And restoring us is the key.  If God’s problem is our lack of love for God, each other, and creation, how does violence restore that?  After the flood, how will those dead people love?  It seems Genesis is saying that is what God comes to realize.  The flood’s destruction satisfied a need for vengeance – but it didn’t solve God’s problem.

And the Scriptures show God beginning a new path after the flood, they show a great change of heart.  And this will be part of our journey these Lenten Sundays.  God makes covenant after covenant, promise after promise, to restore us, and bring us back.  Next week our focus is the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, the start of God’s new plan.  After that, a new covenant at Sinai, with the Ten Commandments as guide for life.  Then on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, we break the covenant.  One of many instances.  And God offers healing, life, forgiveness.  And last, we will hear God planning a new covenant, written on our hearts, a covenant of love and forgiveness.  This is the truth about the God of creation, the God who came to us in Jesus, as the Scriptures tell it: God will no longer use force against us.

The powerful thing about this first covenant with Noah is that God didn’t need to do this.  God, the creator of all that is, can create or destroy at will.  Most flood accounts I’ve read understand that.  Such a God need not care about the reaction of any creatures, and certainly need not promise a different way.  But in Israel’s understanding, God chooses to bind himself with an irrevocable promise, a promise never to destroy like this again.

And unlike other covenants in the Scriptures, as well as all covenants in the ancient and modern world, this one is completely one sided: God promises a new way to restore without demanding or asking anything from us in return.  The rainbow reminds God of the promise, God binds himself to this covenant.  A covenant which from the path God takes from this point in the Scriptures is a covenant of love and restoration for all creatures, not even simply humanity.

And that is a reason for hope and for joy.  We are free to live without fear, holy and righteous in God’s sight, knowing that God doesn’t desire the death of any of us.  Knowing that we are bound by an everlasting covenant promise between God and us and all living creatures.

This also means, however, that we are called to re-think some assumptions we’ve had.

First, if we hold this to be true about the Triune God, we use it as our way of reading the Scriptures.
As Lutherans we have the idea that we read the Scriptures through the lenses of God’s Word of life, Jesus, and his gift of grace.  This, as John reminds us in the first chapter of his Gospel, is because Jesus is God’s definitive Word, the living Word of God for us, so all Scripture is seen and understood through the grace and love of Jesus dying and rising for our life, and his call to us to follow and live new lives.

But such a lens can be complicated for us as well.  It could mean that on the basis of this Word of God we may decide that there are places in the Scriptures where we or the writers have misunderstood God.  Where people are mistaken about what God wants.

The stories in Joshua, for instance: is it really possible that the God of the everlasting covenant with Noah, and the Triune God whose Word became flesh in Jesus our Savior, truly demanded the total destruction of enemies?  From Genesis to Samuel, Isaiah to Hosea, God chooses not to attack, not to destroy, God calls us back in love.  God heals.  It’s time to rethink how we interpret Joshua and other passages.

And the question to look for in such interpretation is this: is there a predominant way God is shown in the Scriptures or not?  We Lutherans believe there is, and it is centered in Jesus, the Son of God.  And I believe the logical result of God’s covenant with Noah is Jesus coming to the earth in the flesh.  It’s the only way for the Triune God to bring us back without violence or force.

But second, following such a God calls us to reconsider how we live.  It calls us to choose a new way of living and being as Christians – new for us but not for Jesus and many others – a way of non-violence and peace in all aspects of our lives.

I find it very daunting to sort out the international problems and think of solutions.  It needs to be done.  But I believe the starting point for each of us has to be within.  Can each of us who belong to the God who has covenanted and in Jesus lived out non-violence begin to live as committed to non-violence?  Can we seek God’s transforming of our hearts to be in the image of God on this one?  Where we actively resist evil with our whole lives, but not with violence?

This is how God dealt with us.  God came to be with us, put aside all weapons of force, but also chose not to ignore our lack of love.  Jesus, the Son of God, put his body in the way of evil, and led us to a new way of being and living.  But it’s not an easy way.  It’s a harder way than violence, a harder way than passivity.  God’s active non-violence, begun at this critical covenant with Noah, inevitably led to the Son of God dying on the cross.  It’s potentially that hard.  Two of the greatest leaders of the last century to call for non-violent resistance, Gandhi and King, were killed for it.

Such a way will not mean easy answers to lots of questions.  It may make things more difficult for us in ways we cannot know.  Here are some of the hard questions that occur to me: can people who belong to a non-violent God endorse any violent destructive solution to any problem?  And when will Christians remove all sacred approval of any violence on the grounds that our Lord Jesus would have us live no other way?  We often have said that too many people over time have killed wrongly in God’s name.  I wonder if according to God as revealed by our Lord Jesus and by the covenant with Noah there may never be a right way to kill in God’s name.

The covenant the Triune God makes with Noah is our life-giver.

It tells us God is not our enemy but our lover, and God is seeking us to restore us.  It leads to Jesus coming to be with us and giving us life in his death and resurrection.  This is tremendous good news.

What it calls us to be and do in our lives, this I believe we need to pray and think deeply about.

But I know this much, that this is the critical question: if the God of unlimited power chooses another way to deal with hatred and wickedness and violence, how should we choose?

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

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