Lent 1, Year B, February 18, 2018
Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Covenant. It’s an important word in the Bible, an important concept, but it’s not one that we really understand today. A covenant is a solemn promise, like a treaty or a marriage … but in a world in which half of all marriages end in divorce, we might view such promises with jaded eyes. We can also think of covenants like a code of conduct, a set of agreements about how a group is going to live together or work together. A condo association might make a covenant, or the people living on the same floor of a dorm, to establish what the expectations are for people living together. A covenant is not a legalistic “you better follow the rules or else!” type of rulebook. A covenant is instead a model, an agreement of how to live together, in which expectations and boundaries are clearly set. The covenants in the Bible are all between God and humans. They set the standard for what our relationship with God is going to be like. This Lent, our Old Testament readings go through the covenants in the Bible, and the first one is the covenant with Noah after the flood.
Well. It’s called the Noah Covenant, because Noah was the only human there. But it wasn’t just a covenant with Noah, it was a covenant with every living creature. All humans, but also all animals, every living thing on the planet. It’s the foundation for how God deals with us. And it’s a promise of mercy.
But to go back to see why we need that mercy, let’s go back to the beginning. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and all the plants and animals on the earth. And Genesis 1 tells us that when God created each new thing, it was good. Last of all, God created humans … and humans weren’t just good, humans were very good. Life was a paradise and all of earth was a garden. God had created a world in which everyone had enough, and no one had too much, in which everyone received everything that they needed and nothing profited by preying on other creatures. The humans had work to do to maintain the garden, but it wasn’t hard work. There were no weeds, no need for backbreaking labor. It was all the fun and satisfying bits of working with your hands with none of the frustration or heartache or physical problems that come with it. And even the animals were safe. No preying on each other or on humans. All things—plants, animals, humans—living together in perfect harmony, together, no pain or fear or any other problem.
Then came the fall. Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and everything changed. It wasn’t just that they knew about evil, after eating the forbidden fruit; it was that the possibility for evil corrupted all of creation. The land became hard to work. Plants and animals became dangerous, just as humans did. People and animals started preying on each other, so that one might benefit from the pain and destruction of another. Weeds sprang up, not just in gardens but in human hearts. And it wasn’t just a few bad people, either. Even the best humans had jealousy and fear and hate in their hearts. The question wasn’t “is there evil in this person’s heart?” but rather, “how much evil is in their heart?” And evil thoughts and inclinations lead to evil actions. Murder, abuse, violence, injustice of every kind. And then we get to Genesis 6:5—“The Lord saw that humanity had become thoroughly evil on the earth and that every idea their minds thought up was always completely evil. The Lord regretted making human beings on the earth, and he was heartbroken.” God had created the world to be good—God had created humans to be very good! But that goodness was completely overcome by evil. And God grieved.
Imagine yourself in God’s shoes. You made this wonderful world with everything in it set up perfectly for the good of all. You created everything in it to be good and wonderful. The only thing anyone needed to do was maintain the existing good order. But humans failed even at that! And so now not only is creation not good, it’s pretty thoroughly bad. Even when someone or something looks good on the surface, you know there’s rot beneath it. And every time you get your hopes up, they’re dashed. And if humans couldn’t keep doing the right thing when everything was perfectly set up, what hope do they have of staying on the right path now, when everything is so messed up? Put yourself in God’s shoes. What do you do? What do you do, with everything and everyone that you love bent on destruction? Imagine that, for a minute. How you would feel. How God must have felt, grieved, and heart-sick.
Everything was all screwed up. Humans most of all, but also the rest of creation. So God decided to start all over again: destroy almost everything, and keep just enough of the best of creation—human and animal—to restart things. You know the rest of the story: God found Noah and his family, who were righteous and good and the best people in the entire world of their generation. And God told Noah to build an ark, and gathered animals to go on the ark, and then God flooded the earth and everything that wasn’t on the earth drowned. Human and animal and plant, if it wasn’t on the ark, it was gone.
But even as angry as God was at all the evil in the world, God still loved the world. And as God watched the destruction, God realized that God could not and would not do it again. That the gain was not worth the cost of all the lives. And yes, every one of those people and animals that died was marred by sin. Yes, there was wickedness in the heart of every human who perished. But they were still God’s children, and he loved them, and he couldn’t just write them off and start over.
And even though Noah was the best man of his generation, the most righteous, and his family were just as righteous as he was, they were still full of sin. You know what the first thing Noah did, after everything with the flood was all over? He planted a vineyard, made wine, and got drunk. And then one of his kids mocked him for it. The most righteous humans of their generation, and the first thing they do once they’re through the flood is go off the rails. The flood did not solve the problem of human wickedness. Even watching the destruction of everything they had known did not remove the evil from the hearts of Noah and his family, and it didn’t scare them into doing the right thing, either.
So God made a covenant, a promise, a new type of relationship, not just with Noah, but with all of creation. God promised never to destroy the earth again. No matter how bad things get, no matter how much wickedness there is in the world or in human hearts, God will not just write us off and start over. I’ve heard some people talk about this promise like it’s just about a flood, that God’s covenant here means that next time God will use some other method to destroy the world and humans, but that is missing the point. God regretted the death. And God promised twice that he would never again destroy the earth. This covenant isn’t about the method of destruction. This covenant is God changing God’s mind about how he’s going to restore the good creation he made. Not with destruction … but with redemption.
Human nature did not change because of this covenant. We still have wickedness in our hearts. We still hurt ourselves and one another. We still destroy when we should be building; we still wound when we should still be healing; we are silent when we should speak and speak when we should be silent. We let hatred and suspicion of people who are different lead us into all kinds of evil thoughts and deeds. All of that was true before Noah, and it was true after him as well.
What changed was God’s reaction. God promised to live together in relationship with us even though we are sinners, even though we fall far short of the good people we were created to be. God promised to find other ways of dealing with human sin … and that other way turned out to be Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.