God’s change of heart

Message

In the face of human evil, God has made a personal commitment to persevere in loving us and drawing us towards fulfilment.

Sermon

Many of the best known stories in the Bible are also the least understood, and tonight’s first reading would have to be right up there in that list. You would be hard pressed to find a person in this part of the world who had never heard of Noah’s Ark, and yet you would probably be almost as hard pressed to find anyone who could tell you what it is teaching us that is actually relevant to us here and now. Many could perhaps tell you that God sent a flood to wipe out the world, and that a man named Noah built a big lifeboat and took his own family and breeding pairs of every kind of animal on board so that, after the flood, God could make a fresh start for life on earth beginning with them.

Beyond that, this story is usually reduced to just an animal story for kids, or used as another battle ground for those who want to fight over whether every story in the Bible is factual historical account of an actual event. You may have heard of the fanatics who invest everything in archaeological quests to Mount Ararat in Turkey to try to locate the fossilised remains of Noah’s lifeboat. For some reason they seem convinced that if they could just prove the historical accuracy of these three chapters of Genesis, then the world’s people would turn back to God. They think this despite the fact that godlessness is almost never caused by a lack of historical certainty, and more surprisingly, in spite of the fact that the story of Noah’s Ark itself tells us that even direct experience of the flood failed to reverse the corruption of humanity, so why would some archaeological relic linked to it fare any better?

There is a great deal in this story which we could profitably explore, but tonight I am going to focus on just one aspect of it, but the one which I think is central to it and most important for our whole understanding of faith and life. To catch it adequately, we need to look at the whole story, not just the edited highlights we heard read; and we need to read it as a story which is first and foremost about God, rather than about Noah, a boat, the animals or even the flood. And if we can do that we may discover that this is one of the most revealing disclosures of the nature of God in the whole Bible. And if we really catch a sense of the truths about God revealed in this story, we will probably be overwhelmed with gratitude and ready to offer our whole lives to God in worship and service.

The story opens with a penetrating look into the heart of God, and we find a God in pain, a God in the agony of heartbreak and grief (6:5-7, 11-13). So soon after creating the world and everything in it and expressing delight in how good it all was, God is bitterly regretting having made any of it. God has been betrayed. Having created the world and humanity for a faithful loving partnership, God is now the heartbroken lover whose beloved’s infidelities are the talk of the town. And like most betrayed lovers, God’s reactions veer back and forth between searing grief and a raging anger that wants to punish and destroy. If anybody ever tells you that God is so detached and above us that nothing we do really affects God in any way, tell them to read this story again. It is, then, in the midst of this picture of God’s deep pain and anguish that we are told that God so bitterly regrets making the world that destroying it, completely and utterly, seems to be the only option.

But by the end of the story, something different has happened. God is in a different emotional space. There has been some change of heart. And I don’t just mean that God has let a handful of people off the hook and decided to repopulate the animal kingdom. It goes much deeper than that. You see the story actually tells us that God acknowledges that the flood hasn’t purged the world of evil and that the human heart continues to be corrupt (8:21). And yet in the same breath, God promises never to ever again take action to wipe out all life. And this is not God saying, “Stuff the lot of you, I’m out of here,” and giving up on the world and leaving it to its own devices. Rather God is right here entering into a new covenant relationship with life on earth. God is the lover again — a scarred and wiser lover perhaps — but a lover who says, “Despite the pain I know it will cause me, I am committing myself to you, and promising never ever to give up on you and write you off.”

This is the gospel, is it not? This is the good news of God’s love that was made so compellingly clear to us in Jesus the Christ. This is the good news that was spoken of in our reading from Romans (1:16-17; 3:22-31) as the divine forbearance, or God’s willingness to wear the pain of our betrayal and go on loving us anyway, accepting us on no other basis than sheer grace.

This story is telling us that God neither gives up on us, nor clings to the right to wipe us out if we get too out of hand or the pain we cause becomes too great for God to bear. It tells us that God voluntarily gives up some freedoms; voluntarily accepts some new restrictions on what God can and can’t do. God signs away the right to simply treat us as we deserve; to dish out punishments that are simply direct and proportional consequences to the crimes. God swears off such options, and makes an irrevocable commitment to wildly disproportionate generosity and mercy. And God does this with open eyes, knowing that such a commitment means signing on for continual betrayal and heartbreak, continual grief and frustration and pain. But that is a price God is prepared to pay. God makes a personal commitment to be open to the pain, to enter into the pain, to absorb the pain, and to go on loving without limit.

Somewhere in all the bitter regret and searing grief and destructive fury, God had a change of heart. Somewhere in all that, God found the capacity to love us unreservedly no matter how far we had fallen and how corrupt we had become. But God didn’t just become resigned to evil and despair of ever bringing the world to completion and fulfilment. Rather, in that new commitment to personally absorb the pain and grief and to extend to us a deeply intimate love and mercy, God found a new way of setting us on the path to wholeness. As we see so dramatically in Christ as he offered himself for us on the cross, and as he goes on offering himself to us at this table, God enters into our brokenness in order to draw us into God’s wholeness.

God continues to long for the world and its inhabitants to live up to the image of God in which we were created. And God continues to feel deep grief and hurt at our resistance. But God has built an ark of gracious love and mercy to preserve us from destruction and carry us safely to the place where we can make a new start and fulfil our ancient destiny, and this time we are all in the same boat.