In any children’s Bible or collection of Bible stories you will find a version of the story of Noah’s ark. Young children are often given an ark to play with – complete with animals that can be paired up, and be put into the ark, and figures of Noah and his family. There’s even a camp song or Vacation Bible School song about this: “The Lord said to Noah there’s goin’ be a floody, floody…get those children out of the muddy, muddy; children of the Lord.” So when we think about Noah’s Ark, these are most likely the images that come to mind, the way we understand the story.
And yet here it – at the front end of Lent, alongside Mark’s version of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, just prior to starting his public ministry; not exactly a simple and cute pairing. So what is the meaning of Noah and the Ark, and why are we hearing it now? If you were to take out the brown Bible in your pew and take a look at Genesis, right at the beginning of the Bible, you’d find Noah’s story beginning in chapter six and lasting for four chapters. In the world of the Bible, one story covering four chapters is taking up a lot of real estate. That tells us that for the ancient Hebrews who recorded this passage after centuries of remembering and telling it as part of worship, communal memory, and around the night-times fires of the nomadic tribe, it was very important. The story clearly conveyed to them something about God, humankind, and the rest of creation that was central to their understanding of the universe.
We have only the very last bit of the account, so to recap: after the creation of the world and men and women, after humankind had been expelled from the Garden, after Cain slew his brother Abel, after the spread of families and tribes, God that the evil of humanity could not be contained, so God decided to start the whole project over again. But God kept a remnant of the previous creation – Noah, his wife, and sons, and daughters-in-law were to build a ship, an ark, that would contain two of every kind of animal – including the unclean ones, such as bats, camels, eagles, ferrets, frogs, hares, mice, hawks, owls, to name just a few – and of course pigs. They were all to come into the ark, to be preserved from the great flood.
Genesis describes that the waters flooded the earth for forty days; and then for another hundred and fifty days the ark was still floating. Finally, “God remembered Noah, and all the beasts and cattle that were with him in the ark;” and the wind began to blow back the waters, and the rain stopped and the floods receded, but that took one hundred and fifty days. And the ark came to rest upon a mountain top, and it was another three months before the tops of the mountains could be seen. More time passed and Noah sent out a dove to see if the land had fully emerged from the waters, but the dove returned; there was no place to alight or to nest. Two more times Noah sent out the dove: first, she returned with an olive branch, and a week later she was gone for good, so Noah knew it was safe for his family and the animals to emerge.
Now adding up days and weeks and months in this story and coming up with a specific number is not fruitful; the Bible is not interested in exact chronology. What matters here is that creation in microcosm was locked up, secure, safe, for a long time – long enough for what remained of the previous world to be wiped out. And we know from storms like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy what devastation water can create.
When it was all over, Noah, his family, and the creatures, emerged onto dry land, and Noah built an altar and worshiped God. And God made a covenant with Noah – a sacred agreement and promise that God would never again destroy the entire earth by flood. And the sign of that covenant, God said, would be the rainbow; literally hanging up the bow, the ancient weapon of warfare, in the clouds. It was a promise to humankind and all creation that God was done with this kind of destruction. For better or worse, God and his creation (including human beings) were going to be in it together for the long haul, no matter how much sin and evil was in the world.
So the story has a happy ending…sort of. When Noah and his family stepped out onto the earth, the landscape must have been pretty bleak. We know what the Jersey shore was like after Hurricane Sandy. We know what it was like around here after Sandy, with all of the trees toppled and torn up. Friends who lived on the Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina and survived its ravages have told me that all the trees were stripped bare by the salt water, and even though the day after the storm was beautiful, warm and clear, it seemed like winter in late August, and they felt that the world would never be right again. But long about November the live oak trees began to send out new little shoots; spring was coming even before Christmas, and they took it as a sign that life would slowly return, and they could look forward with hope.
Our lives are like that too, sometimes. We go though difficult or painful circumstances, personally or with our families. Or we suffer losses – maybe a job, a business, a home, maybe with our health. Or we look at the world around us and see how much has changed in our society and our culture, and for the church, and perhaps we feel that the challenges we face are too much, too difficult in a landscape that is so radically altered from the one in which most of us grew up and came to expect. Life looks bleak, and we don’t know where we can find hope.
We are like Noah, stepping out into strange and unsure territory. Life is to begin again, but how, and what will it take to make it happen? The promise that God made to Noah still holds true: the earth and its people will be held in God’s providential care. Life in all its fullness will return, and flourish, but it will be different. Because of God’s promise, we can have hope – not optimism, but hope – that spiritual reality which says that we, too, are invited into God’s generous goodness; not because we earned or deserved it, but because it is God’s nature to want us to be close and connected to him.
And that is what Lent is about – knowing that despite all of our sins and shortcomings, that God wants us to be close to him, and connected. God offers us hope: the hope of new life in Christ; the hope that he is still at work in his world - saving it, blessing it, drawing its people closer to him and to each other; the hope that our lives matter, even if the cultural, spiritual and emotional landscape are very different.
We look back to Genesis and we see the sign of the rainbow. It was the promise given after the after the Flood, but in truth was present right from the beginning of creation, when God said “Let there be light”; the promise of the rainbow spectrum encapsulated in the very first moment of light, and hope. And we look forward and see the sign of the Cross, that symbol which was darkness and pain and suffering beyond all measure; yet it was transformed by the death and resurrection of Jesus to be the means and the sign of new life and of hope, from here to eternity. All this Jesus did for us, so that God’s goodness and life could be available to us once and for all, a future of hope.
Signs of promise, lives of hope, staying close and connected to the generous God of all creation, even in the midst of a new and strange landscape… that is the meaning and purpose of Lent and our lives of faith.
Let us pray.
“God, of your goodness, give me yourself; for you are enough for me, and if I ask anything less, I would ever be in want, for only in you have I all. Amen.” ~ Julian of Norwich