The First Covenant – Lectionary 02/21/2021

Genesis 8:20 – 9:17

[When the flood had end…] Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, “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.

As long as the earth endures,  seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life.

Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind.

And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.”

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.

When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

Sermon Text

            Our first Lenten sermon looks to the first few moments after the Great Flood. In preceding chapters, Genesis describes a world that has gone far afield of what God would have had it become. Though little is given in terms of specifics, it seems that Cain’s sin of murder has become the norm. Tales of great heroes were spread over the land, but greatness and goodness are not always tied to one another. God moved against God’s own creation, wiping clean the slate that would be used to create a new world – one hopefully free from the previous evil of this post-Edenic hellscape.

            God spared only Noah and his family among all the people of the world. We are told that Noah stood out as a righteous person, blameless in all ways a human may be. As a model of virtue and righteousness God sought to rebuild the earth with Noah as the foundation. Humanity had the chance to start over strong. Led by righteousness there was hope for the future to be completely unlike the past. Perhaps in this new world, death would not be the chief legacy of humanity, perhaps there would come a time where peace could reign over the land. God set the stage for a complete renewal of creation, but as we know we seem to have fumbled that chance.

            We live in our modern world, far removed from Noah and further removed from Eden than we could ever imagine. We know that humanity did not overcome their evil and that we still sit heavily in a world that is corrupted by our wrongdoing. Murder is still close at hand, and privation of one another’s needs make it so few, if any, of us have completely clean hands in regard to the lives of our siblings. Sin, deep within the heart of humanity, cannot be simply removed with time or disasters, no amount of flooding or catastrophe. No, something deeper and stronger is necessary to purify the human heart, something closer to God. Stronger than death there exists the love of God, and close to that love is the transformational potential that comes when we look to God to make our broken world right.

            We are told that God knew that all the earth’s problems would not be fixed magically following the flood. We hear this in God’s words at the end of chapter 8, “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.” God is aware that there are some things about humans that cannot be punished into oblivion. The Flood may have been a cosmic reset of some kind, but it did not rewrite this tendency of humanity. Noah, for all his goodness, was still fallible and his children along with him. If God truly desired only a world without evil, humanity would need to be erased entirely. Yet, God does not desire wonton destruction, but rejuvenation. God does not seek wrath but mercy.

            In a decision that would shock anyone in God’s position, God seeks to reclaim humanity through the long and difficult work of Covenanting with them. This decision is described by several Old Testament scholars as, “[God’s] unconditional commitment to stay with the world.”[1] Covenant, that ancient system of legal and relational agreements we hear about in scripture, has suffered for centuries under the burden of improper teaching. Many have reduced it to a legal contract between parties – one party agrees to be a patron to the other and both set up conditions for what should happen if they fail to meet those expectation. Yet, covenant was so much more than this. Covenants were agreements between two parties to take one another seriously, to never part from one another, to do all they could to promote the mutual good of one another.

            The Covenant we read about today is especially striking. It begins with the sacrifice which Noah offers to God. The smell of the sacrifice is described as reaching Heaven, and God breathes it in with the same nostrils which scattered the Flood waters and that would later separate the Red Sea. God looks upon the Earth, cleared now of water and ready for a new era to begin and sets up a new relationship between God and God’s creation.

            Though Covenant is implied in God’s relationship to Adam and Eve, this is the first instance in scripture where a Covenant is cut. God is the sole participant in setting the parameters of the arrangement, but we should make note of how gracious the terms are. God only forbids two things, the act of murder which had defined the previous era of human existence and the eating of blood in any form. To this day, observant Jews must ensure meat has been drained of its blood completely before it can be certified as Kosher for this reason. Yet, beyond these conditions, little is asked of humanity in this Covenant.

            God lavishes upon humanity so much more than this. Beyond a commitment to stay involved with humanity, God takes the rainbow and uses it to paint a powerful picture. The “bow,” of God, a visible sign of a weapon of war, is pointed at the Heavens. God is saying, in essence, “If I violate any aspect of this covenant, then this bow will shoot me down.” An immortal God threatening bodily harm against their own divinity is a complex thing to think about, but the truth remains. God is saying that God is putting down all weapons of war against humanity, something new is happening, a commitment to transform rather than destroy the evils of this world.

            This would not be an easy task to set out on, as God would soon see. Noah took the open land that was before him and planted a vineyard, drinking himself into a stupor in short order. His son, Ham, then shamed his father in some way. The text is not clear outside of the fact that it involved revealing his drunk father to his brothers. Noah was enraged when he awoke and learned of what had happened, cursing Ham’s firstborn, Canaan, and setting up a long line of conflict between his descendants.

            Yet, the vision which we are given at the close of Noah’s life is not meant to be one of division and shame. Within a few scant verses the conflict of Canaan and his relatives is overshadowed by an immense and powerful reality. The Table of Nations, as it is called, takes up all of chapter 10. Within that single page, the claim is made that all people – no matter where they are – are inheritors of God’s covenant with Noah. All humanity is blessed, all people receive the goodness which God has given to the world, all contain the spark of hope for a new and better creation than the one which preceded the Flood.

            The rest of Genesis comes round to tell a more particular story of God’s work through Abraham and his covenant and his lineage. Those two aspects of faith are closely tied to one another – the particular and the general. We cannot deny either aspect if we are truly to look at God’s goodness in this world. To all flesh is given the hope that Noah found long ago on a mountain top, and all live under the sky which God hung the rainbow upon. All humanity benefits from the goodness of God, whether they know it or not.

            Yet, transformation takes a more active participation in the grace offered us. As we inherited Noah’s covenant with God, so we inherited the deep festering sickness of our sin. We on our own have no hope of truly excising it – though we may for a time suppress it or even weaken it, it will always have roots dug deep within us. God offered us the means to truly separate ourselves from our wickedness, in yet another Covenant that was cut on Calvary’s hill. Where Christ died and the whole earth shook, where Heaven covered itself in sackcloth to mourn, and where all wickedness finally lost claim upon our hearts.

            We who are baptized into the Church are washed with a flood unlike the one Noah knew, a flood of grace and mercy that wipes away the evil within us. We are washed clean, and the Spirit is sent to dwell within us. We become holy, we become vessels of God’s mercy in the world – a living sacrifice offered within the living temple which is our body. We who are called to faith in Christ must take hold of God’s grace and not be satisfied merely to be saved from destruction, but to be saved completely from the sin which cannot be punished away within us.

            Among the many truths found within Noah’s sacrifice on the mountain and God’s covenant, there is the powerful truth that God is good beyond what we can imagine. As we said early on in our discussion today, greatness and goodness are not identical. God could have shown greatness in destroying the world, strength in pressing humanity into submission through still greater acts of violence and dread. Yet, God chose table fellowship and covenanting over destruction. Yet, God ended the Flood and birthed a new world for humanity to inhabit in the process.

            We who are called to repentance by this Lenten season must live into the grace we are given, not through sin that makes it necessary but through the righteousness that it allows us to partake in. We must love all people, Christian or not, American or not, West Virginian or not, with great fervor and intensity, for they are our siblings through Noah and co-heirs to his covenant. We must go further than abstention from actions that harm one another and actively promote one another’s wellbeing, putting others before ourselves in a mutual love which God invests in our hearts. We must be transformed, for only through a God initiated transformation can sin truly be stamped out of our heart.

            Commit yourself this day, to look up to Heaven and give thanks for the grace of God. Let us look upon the grace which the Heavens attest to – shown in the rainbow and the eucharist, in water and the spirit – and see it as a gift of another chance, of a life born again in the flood of God’s goodness. Repentance is a result, not of fear of God’s wrath, but a true acceptance of God’s abundant grace. Accept the grace which Heaven calls you toward this day. – Amen

[1] Bruce C. Birch et al. “The Created Order and the Re-Creation of a Broken Order.” In A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament. (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon. 2005) 58

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