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Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
February 18, 2018 – First Sunday in Lent
Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning and survivor of Nazi death camps, said, “To live is to suffer. To survive is to find meaning in your suffering.”
There is a flood narrative in the creation stories of every major religion. Gilgamesh in Babylonia, Manu in Hindu, even Plato’s Timaeus, and in Genesis, Noah, are all central characters in flood narratives.
Many of them have been warned of the impending flood by a divine presence who also told them to build a great boat while there was still time.
This is an ancient story we set our eyes on this morning and it appears to be corroborated in remarkably diverse geographic settings.
These histories grew out of a time when distance communication was very limited. Some archaeology confirms floods in Iraq/Babylonia and there is speculation that the North American flood narrative may have originated at the time the great glaciers were melting 8,400 years ago.
I think we have all lived long enough to have seen or heard first hand accounts at least a couple of unprecedented weather events or other natural disasters.
Earthquakes, fires and floods have all been in our world news roundups in the last half-year. They have been the biggest ever or worst ever or the greatest ever.
But what if there was an event that affected people all around the world …that decimated the human population of the earth? How differently would people look upon the God that they give thanks to and worship?
I was confronted one day in Billings by a friend of mine whose nephew had had a skateboarding accident that killed him. He was such a good person. This was so pointless. She was mad at God that such a thing could happen in the world.
Many of the Jews who went through the Holocaust quit believing in God. They protested, “If God can let such things happen, then I will not follow that God.”
How can a loving God wipe a whole human race off the face of the earth? Is that truly a loving God? If that is in the offing, then why should we follow…much less obey…and even less worship…such a God?
But here we are, my friends, clinging to the surface of a rock spinning around a sun hurtling through the universe. Dinosaurs once roamed and ruled the planet and now they are gone.
Still, if we do not believe in a loving God, what do we have to believe in? If we believe we are the creatures of a harsh and angry God, what is to constrain us in our dealings with one another?
Who are we and what are we here for? What is the meaning in such a life? Where can we find hope?
And so we come back to Viktor Frankl and Man’s Search for Meaning. To live is to suffer and to survive is to find meaning in your suffering.
Frankl said that they could tell when one of their fellow prisoners had given up hope because they quit hoarding their cigarettes to bribe the guards and began smoking them.
Jay and Sandy Whitney just lost a nephew who had battled with depression for a long time. One of the telltale signs…looking back… was that he had started giving all of his stuff away.
He had lost hope and maybe…just maybe…hope is all we have. So the story of the great flood in Genesis ends with a streak of bright color across the sky…a rainbow dedicated by a loving God with these words:
“Never again will I let floodwaters destroy all life. When I see the rainbow in the sky, I will always remember the promise that I have made to every living creature. The rainbow will be the sign of that solemn promise.”
The promise God made to us was that the earth and those living on it will never again be destroyed by a flood.
It is what we called in law school a unilateral covenant. One party agrees to be bound by the terms of the covenant without any promise having been made by the other party…whether they have promised anything in return or not…whether they deserve it or not.
One of the boldest secular covenants ever made is a little over 240 years old now…the blink of an eye in cosmic terms. We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all people are created equal and that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, and among these rights are the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
That is a promise that America made to its citizens when it cast off the bonds of second-class citizenship…and it has worked beyond the wildest dreams of the founders.
To have a vision is to have a dream and to have a dream is what makes life worth living. It was Langston Hughes, the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance who said, “Let America be the dream that the dreamers dreamed.”
In Exodus, God got angry at humankind again…at Moses’ stiff-necked people and God thinks about wiping them all out when they make the golden calf. But Moses talked him down.
Remember your promise to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and how you said you would make their descendants like the stars of Heaven, he said, and God relented.
Interesting that he didn’t say anything about the bow in the sky… the rainbow…a promise that was older even than his promise to Abraham, but we don’t read about it in Exodus.
But the bow in the sky was to remind God of his promise to all people, and this is when he became the all-loving, all-forgiving God that we know in our Judeo-Christian tradition.
It is that promise, that hope, that makes us better…that encourages to do good whenever we can and to become better for having done it. If it were not for this unilateral promise we would have little to lose by being beastly.
But this requires thinking…not fast thinking like taking a bite of something, but slow thinking like chewing before you swallow.
We don’t just ask ourselves what we want to do right now. We also ask how things are likely to turn out if we do that. The first kind of thinking, the biting fast thinking, is the kind that we will apologize for when we have had a chance to do our slow thinking. It’s the kind of thinking we do when we’re angry.
Our slow thinking is what keeps us from continually shooting ourselves in the foot. It is the thinking that Lincoln did, and Washington did, and Gandhi did…reflecting, turning the idea over many times, finding the best answer in the long run… for everyone…here and now and a hundred years hence.
Kenneth Clark produced a BBC series in the late 1960’s, the world was going down the drain then, too. He wanted to speak to the protest that draft-age young people were engaged in then against ‘The Establishment.’
He wrote, in the series he entitled ‘Civilisation’, “I believe order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta.
“On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven't changed much in the last two thousand years; and in consequence we must try to learn from history.”
We need to stop, take a deep breath, consider all of the alternatives, and play them all out in our mind before we launch off on one. The kind of thinking Jesus did in the wilderness when he was tempted by Satan.
We read that he was with wild animals then, but angels took care of him. We are with wild animals, too, now: ISIS on one hand and Facebook on the other. We need what Lincoln called the angels of our better nature to take care of us…we need our slow thinking.
So maybe…just maybe…Jesus Christ is the product of God’s slow thinking…and maybe…just maybe …he is God’s compensation to humankind for the great flood that wiped out all living creatures on the earth…not just evil humans but birds and flowers, horses and oxen …even innocent children.
Peter writes to us today with a thought that fits well into this passage of our weekly meditation.
“Christ died once for our sins. An innocent person died for those who are guilty. Christ did this to bring you to God, when his body was put to death and his spirit was made alive.”
Let us stop demanding that the world should be the way we think it should be. Let us try harder to think of the way we should be. If we were as good as the world we think we deserve, maybe…just maybe…we’d get it.
But we don’t get it. Frankl said that his task when they saw a prisoner giving up hope was to try to get them to see that it was not their role to say what the world should be like.
“Ultimately, a person should not ask what the meaning of their life is, but rather must recognize that it is they who are being asked. In a word, each person is questioned by life; and they can only answer to life by answering for their own life; to life they can only respond by being responsible.”
So let us be responsible. Let us remember our call to responsibility every time we see a rainbow in the sky. Let us turn away from our vengeful and self-defeating knee-jerk reactions to things that happen to us.
Let us imagine what the right thing would have been instead of dwelling on the wrong thing we have just witnessed. And let us become the answer to our own question.
Let the flood waters of Noah’s day become the waters by which we ourselves are baptized again this day. Amen.