January 6, 2013 - Epiphany
This will be a year of
new beginnings along the east coast. After Hurricane Sandy, thousands of people
will try to begin again, rebuilding homes and businesses after the winds and
floods that devastated them in late October. A restaurant owner just reopened
last year after making repairs following Hurricane Irene and now is starting
those repairs over. A family watched a fire marshal spray paint a large orange
“condemned” mark on their house which had been swept off its foundation and now
they hope for a new beginning.
Part of the effort in
rebuilding after Sandy will go into finding ways to rebuild smarter, safer
infrastructure and homes. A new beginning needs to be a better beginning. The
same is true for all of us as we start the new year with our own new
The great storm and
flood of Genesis was followed by a season of new beginnings. We’ve embarked on
a new plan this year to read the 90 greatest chapters of Scripture. Today we
come to Genesis 8 where we read about the how the flood came to an end and the
world and human life began again.
We have so many
questions about this part of Scripture: historical, scientific, and theological
questions. Historically we may ask when this all happened.
Scientifically we inquire how it happened and whether there really could
be a flood that covered the whole surface of the earth. Theologically we wonder why it happened, why our good and loving God destroyed 99.999 percent of
all the men, women, children and animals on the planet.
I’m not going to try
and answer those questions adequately. We take Scripture seriously. I’m in no
doubt about the historicity of the flood. Peoples and tribes all over the world
have some sort of flood story in their folklore. Noah’s story is often compared
to the Babylonian story of Gilgamesh, but there are accounts of a great flood
among the Greeks, in India, in China, in Korea, among Native Americans and
among native South Americans. Here in the Pacific northwest, the Sannich people
of the Olympic Peninsula have a story of a great flood sent by the Creator. But
the details and dates of all those stories vary widely and there seems to be no
way to pin it down even to a millennium.
And I’ve no idea even
where to begin with the scientific question. But I do know that if you start
out believing in God who created the world and can work miracles you will come
to a different conclusion than if you believe miracles are impossible.
As for the very
difficult theological question of why our Lord would do such a thing, there are
no simple answers. We need to admit our own lack of understanding both of God
and of the condition of the human race at that time. Genesis 3 and 4 and the beginning of chapter 6 offer us some perspective on just how wicked
human beings were, despite God’s grace and mercy offered even to Cain, the
first murderer. I’m inclined to speculate that God knew that no matter what He
did, people would not repent and change their ways. Beyond that, I can’t find
much more to say.
We can’t answer all
the questions we have about the flood, but we can learn from the new beginnings
that came after the flood. Whenever and however and whyever it happened,
God used the flood the bring new beginnings to the world and to Noah and his
The first beginning to
see here is in the first five verses of Genesis 8. The flood came to an end.
Verse 1 says that the beginning of the end of the flood was a wind that
God sent over the earth. There is a single word that means “wind” and “breath”
and “spirit” in Hebrew and that’s the word here. So the church father Ambrose
was utterly confident that it was God’s Holy Spirit who went out and pushed
back the flood, closed up the “fountains of the deep,” and stopped the rain.
We learn here the hope
that God will not allow the floods of our lives, whether literal or
metaphorical, to over whelm us. His Spirit will enter into the situation to
push the waters back. It may be slowly and gradually as verses 3 to 5 describe,
but eventually we will land on solid ground and dry land will appear. As the
hymn, “How Firm a Foundation,” says,
When through the deep waters I call you to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with you, your troubles to bless,
And sanctify to you your deepest distress.
Sorrow and trouble
will come to an end. That’s the first new beginning here. The next is in verses
6 through 12, the memorable story of how Noah sent out first a raven and then a
dove. The church fathers loved to find symbolism in every part of Scripture and
Bede said that the raven’s failure to return, flying back and forth until the
water subsided, is like sinful people who are pushed back and forth by their
desires and fail to rest in the Lord.
The dove is a symbol
we all recognize. It goes out, but, unlike the raven, doesn’t have the strength
to fly until the water goes down. So the first time it comes back to Noah in
verse 9. Then seven days later when Noah sends it out again, the dove comes
back with a fresh olive leaf in its beak, the sign that the waters had gone
down enough that there was an olive tree above the surface.
The images of dove and
olive leaf combine in both a classical meaning and a Christian meaning. For
other ancient people like the Greeks the olive branch was a sign of peace. The
combination of a gentle dove and an olive leaf was a clear indication that God
meant peace to return to the earth, that the time of destruction was over.
In our time the dove
carrying an olive branch is a fairly universal symbol of peace. That image is
taken up in the Great Seal of the United States which you can see on the back
of a dollar bill. Our American eagle is given an olive branch in the talons of
one foot and a bundle of arrows in the other, which shows that Congress has the
power both of war and of peace for our country. With Noah we hope and pray and
look for the peace.
Yet as Christians we
also recognize the olive-bearing dove is another sign of God working through
His Holy Spirit. It was as a dove that the Holy Spirit came down on Jesus when
He was baptized. And the oil which comes from the olive tree is the Bible’s
sign of the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit poured out on us like
So the new beginning
in the dove is a call to peace and to reliance on the Holy Spirit. Noah
couldn’t have saved himself. Noah didn’t even know when it was safe to leave
the ark, but God’s Spirit guided Him. In this new year, may you and I begin a
fresh time of seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The church fathers saw
another new beginning in the next section, verses 13 to 19. You and I would
miss it, would hardly even imagine it. But they paid attention to every last
detail of Scripture. So they read and compared verse 16 about God telling Noah
and his family to leave the ark with chapter 7 verse 7 about how they entered
the ark. Those careful readers noticed that when they went in it was “Noah with
his sons” and then “his wife and his sons’ wives.” When they went out, it was
to be “you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives.” In other words,
they saw men and women going in separated, but God sent them out together.
Combine that order of
exit with verse 17 and God saying that every living thing coming from the ark
is to “be fruitful and multiply on the earth,” and the fathers came to think that
the intimacy of marriage had been put on hold during the flood and then began
again after the flood. Noah and his family lived celibate in the ark, but then,
leaving the ark, husbands and wives came back together to renew the human race.
It’s pretty fanciful
interpretation to see a new beginning for marriage and family in Noah’s story,
but what does it hurt? Why shouldn’t we see here a call for ourselves to renew
our commitments to our marriages as we begin a new year? Why shouldn’t we see
even the hope that a relationship that’s been strained and pulled apart could
be healed by the grace of God and come back together? Let’s not be afraid to
let the imaginative wisdom of the church fathers guide us into a new and fresh
start on keeping our vows and being faithful.
Another church father,
Clement, saw an even larger beginning here. The time after the flood, with its
call to repopulate the earth, was a “new birth to the world.” The world itself
was being born again as the people and animals moved out from the ark to fill
the land again.
We of course remember
that God has promised a deeper, more lasting spiritual new birth to the world.
Those who believe and trust in Jesus Christ are given the new beginning of a
completely new life. They are born again by the Holy Spirit, forgiven and given
a fresh start. That new beginning is symbolized here in Noah’s story as well.
It’s that offer of new
birth for everyone that we see as those Persian magi come traveling to
find the toddler Jesus. God means there to be a new beginning in Christ for
anyone who desires it. That’s what Paul meant in our lesson from Ephesians 3 verse 6 as he said that both Gentiles and Jews share “in the promise of Christ
Jesus through the gospel” and what our Psalm, number 72 verse 19 implied by
praying, “may his glory fill the whole earth!” God has a new birth, a new
beginning in Christ for the whole world, for anyone who will receive it.
The last new beginning
found in Genesis 8 is verses 20 to 22. In thanks to God for the salvation of
his family, Noah offered sacrifices to God. And verse 21 tells us that God
smelled that burnt offering as a sweet indication of Noah’s gratitude and then
promised a new beginning in God’s own relationship with us.
God’s perspective is
that we are all sinners. The flood was well-deserved because of the wickedness
of the human race. Verse 21 tells us, “the inclination of the human heart is
evil from youth.” That’s what we learn from these early chapters of Genesis.
Human beings start out sinful. We are hopelessly inclined to do wrong.
And yet… and yet God is gracious and merciful. He says, “I will never again
curse the ground because of humankind… nor will I ever again destroy every
living creature as I have done.”
Then verse 22 promises
what is sometimes called a “common grace,” a mercy and blessing of God offered
to every person, regardless of his or her attitude toward God. It’s a promise
that the earth will keep turning, will keep traveling around the sun. The
seasons will follow each other, day and night will come. We don’t deserve it,
but God watches over this world, watches over us, with care and love, not with
an eye to death and destruction.
That’s the newest and
best beginning here, the one we’ve been touching on all along. God did and
still does offer grace and forgiveness and new life to sinners, to people like
you and I who don’t deserve it. That’s the new beginning we want to receive
most of all.
In Jesus Christ, God
is calling us out of stormy darkness, out of the smelly boat we’ve been trying
to sail in, and back into His good world, to offer up our lives to Him in
gratitude. As we come to the Lord’s Table we’ll confess our sins. I hope that
we will each not only confess the faults stated in that prayer out loud, but
that we will also set out before God all the evil inclinations of our hearts.
And then, receiving the grace God gives to us in Jesus, let us make many new
beginnings in this new year.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj