And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth."
My uncle told me recently that he’s in the market for an alternator—or maybe it was a fuel pump or a carburetor. I’m not so good with that sort of thing. He’s been scanning eBay and reading collectors’ magazines, because you can’t just call up NAPA to ask them to order you one.
He’s restoring his grandfather’s 1947 Packard, and the old one has given way. It’s at least the second time he’s had to overhaul with that old car, and he said he’s wondering if it’s really worth all the fuss. It’s not quite old enough to be valuable, and it really isn’t all that stunning, the chariot of a second-rate insurance salesman. It’s never been all that reliable, and I think you can guess what the gas mileage is like.
It’s special to him, though, it reminds him of his grandfather, who gave it to him, and he loved his grandfather. It was also about the first real thing he ever owned, and he’s fooled with this car longer than he’s fooled with any other. Sure, there were lots of more impressive cars over the decade: a tail finned cruiser, a foreign sports car or two. They were fun and handsome, but when the price was right he left them go. But he held on to that old Packard, and he’s expects he’ll go to the fuss of finding that part so she can lumber down the backroads again.
Most of us have something like that old Packard in our lives, don’t we? Something that is mostly fuss and bother, something we should really replace, but we just can’t be persuaded to let it go. If it’s not a car, maybe it’s an appliance of some sort, or a camp along the lake. It could even be a job or our home, or a position of leadership we’ve assumed. We know it’s going to break down again. We’ll know that, in the end, it can’t really be as grand as we hope it might. But we love it, it’s important to us, and so, we’ll bear with it for a while longer.
Our Old Testament lesson today is the conclusion of the story of the great flood. And in it God announced his decision that, almost against His better judgment, this creation of his is worth keeping on. He makes a covenant, a solemn promise, that he will not again destroy the earth.
God had every reason to do it, you know. The story makes that perfectly clear. The first five chapters of Genesis are like a descending spiral of cruelty, violence and contempt. Not long after Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden for disobedience, their eldest boy Cain murders his brother Abel in a fit of jealousy. He’s succeeded by Lamech, a man fixed on revenge, and then there’s a confusing story about illicit sex between women and angels. The author sums up the whole mess this way: “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Everywhere the Lord looked on His creation, he saw sin and destruction and chaos. Once He had said, “it is very good”—but now He saw only wickedness.
And so, He just let it go. The Scripture, tellingly, doesn’t say that God was angry, it says He was grieved, that “he was sorry that he had made man and that it grieved him to his heart.” The floods of water are like so many tears. But they’re fitting as well. Because man had made the world ugly, and turbulent, everywhere there was chaos. People grasped at nothing beyond this world’s goods. And so, God let it loose upon them, He opened up the heavens, and uncovered the fountains of the deep, not so much as a punishment sent on them, as letting things run their course—stewing in their own juice, so to speak. Sometimes a man loves money so much that God lets him become nothing more than a change purse. Sometimes food drives people to be nothing more than a yawning belly. A man who loves drink enough can drown himself in it. And here, God let the chaos triumph, and it all became, as Genesis had begun, “without form, and void, and darkness over the face of the deep.” It became as if God had never even created at all.
Except for Noah and his family, and that boat full of animals. God saved them. He saved them because Noah was righteous, because he trusted God enough to listen to His commandments. But really, God saved them, because He hadn’t given up on all this, because He had made the created world in love, and for that sake of that love He would not allow it to destroy itself completely. God wanted something more out of this world than “the wickedness of man, and the imagination set on evil.”
And so, God begins again. When the sun returns and the waters dry up, He commands them to come forth from the ark. He calls them forth in the same divisions from the very beginning: the birds of the air, the beasts, the cattle, and man. He tells them to be fruitful and multiply, as he had told Adam and Eve in the beginning. Make no mistake, it is a new creation, a new start for the world.
It would be nice wouldn’t it, if God then said something like, “well now I know that you’ve learned your lesson. You must be different now. I’m sure that after all that we won’t be needing this kind of punishment anymore.” He doesn’t say that at all. In fact, once the waters have cleared, God promises, in the words of Genesis 8:21, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth.” Even though you human beings are still foolish, and cruel, even though you still are set on destruction, I won’t let this happen again. And sure enough, Noah the righteous ends his illustrious career by inventing wine and ending up drunk and naked, calling down curses on his firstborn son. God doesn’t remake human nature, he just says, I expect I’ll have to bear with it for a while longer.
In truth, He says an awful lot more than that. There’s much more to come in God’s story beyond the ninth chapter of Genesis. What God does here is to make a solemn promise to all creatures, the first of many covenants to come. And, as covenants go, it’s not a very ambitious one. God promises to hang up his warrior’s bow, to never again destroy the earth. It’s the prototype, if you will, a first step in the great plan He has made. There will be more to come. The covenant tells us enough of who God is and clears just enough space to make us want to know what must come next.
This much is clear. Human beings cannot save themselves. Our track record through history, the testimony of our own consciences surely shows us that “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” We know ourselves to be, as today’s collect says, “assaulted by many temptations,” each with his own weaknesses. Our education, our governments, our ideologies and technologies will not solve the ancient fault, the blot that marks our character. Only our merciful God, who holds back the waves of chaos. Only our merciful God, who comes as a Man to face temptation squarely, and to master it. Only our merciful God, who climbs the Cross when the sky turns black, and allows the flood of human sin gather to swallow Him up. Only our merciful God, who continues to work through damaged goods like us, broken people hardly worth the trouble, but whose lives are crowned with the fulness of His grace.