And God Remembered Noah – a Community Talk

  • This is the main thrust of the community talk by Jon the freelance theologian on Sunday 16 May. It was based on the reading of Genesis chapter 6, verse 9 to chapter 8 verse 19.

    Noah’s Ark is a Bible story that has wormed its way into our cultural consciousness. Go into Clintons and you’ll find a greetings card with Noah’s Ark on, go into a craft shop and you can sew, stitch or knit your own ark, go into a toy shop and if you know where to look, you can buy your kids a plastic Playmobile Ark (with lots of cool Playmobile animals). Turn on the TV and even the Tweenies and Teletubbies have retold the story of Noah’s Ark and the animals going in two by two. I only know that because in the not-so-distant past I was a shift worker and saw a lot of morning telly.

    In the past fortnight Noah’s Ark has been ‘disproved’ in a documentary on TV and on the news it has been announced that a geographical expedition has been launched to investigate the strange rock formations at the top of Mount Ararat. Spy satellites have spotted the formations and there’s a bit of excitement that they could have something to do with Noah’s Ark. So, even in the grown up world the story seems to go on and on.

    There are a number of Christian organisations who could lay out very convincing scientific arguments proving every bit of Genesis is true, including the account of the flood. I’ve read some of their literature in the past and it’s all very interesting, but at one level it’s a bit irrelevant.

    Christians spend a lot of time and effort in making sure that people can believe certain things. But the story of Noah was not included in the Bible to test our faith or our doctrinal orthodoxy. People who make it a mark of correct doctrine whether we believe in a literal Noah and a literal flood are missing the point somewhat. It is obvious that whoever wrote the story of Noah did so because they believed it was true but that person also wrote it down because they believed it illuminated a greater truth as well.

    So let’s take the story at face value. Things have gone wrong in the world and God has pronounced judgement. He picks one guy and his family to survive the coming flood and orders him to build a big boat. That done, God arranges for animals to arrive and get on board and he seals Noah’s family and the animals inside the boat. Then it begins to rain.

    We can only imagine what it must have been like inside the boat. It would have been fairly dark for one thing – this was the era before electric light. Gradually you could tune out the drumming sound on the roof. The animal noises would take a little bit longer to get used to. Suddenly the floor moves – the ark has begun to float. Hopefully the animals are all tied down or firmly penned in, because otherwise with each pitch and bob, everybody and everything would be thrown from side to side. From outside you begin to hear other sounds too. People are banging on the side of the ark and screaming to be let in. If you ever get to sleep – that sound will be the one that haunts your dreams.

    The rain continues for forty days flat. Inside the ark nobody knows how long this is going to last. Will the food run out? Will the rain stop? Where will the ark end up?

    Eventually the rain does stop and the Ark floats around for 150 days. That doesn’t sound too long, I know, so perhaps we should say it the other way – five months! Five months floating around who-knows-where, with no direction, no idea if, let alone when, this was going to end, with the food supplies dwindling and the animals getting fractious. Let’s not talk about the smell, or the heat, but you know how at a zoo if you go into the ‘night-time animal house’ where it’s overwhelmingly hot and stinks of bat-do…

    There are times when we can empathise with Noah. When we seem to be floating along in the dark, with no control over our future, wondering how much longer we can carry on with it all, we are having our own ark experience. Noah is obedient – he does what God asks of him – but then it seems as if God has abandoned him, left him to sink or swim (well, float) and forgotten all about him. Noah’s story is, as it were, the archetype for all our experiences when we no longer feel close to God, despite doing everything right.

    One of the things I’ve said a few times when speaking at our gatherings is that we are not called to success, we are required to be obedient. Sometimes that means we do everything that God asks of us and yet it seems like nothing happens. We do everything right, but everything turns out wrong. There’s a reason for that – God’s measure of success is how obedient we are, how faithful we are to the call. And sometimes a situation that sucks is better than the alternative. Even when he was floating along wondering if he would ever get out of this situation, Noah must have been aware that if he had been disobedient he would have been dead already.

    The most encouraging sentence in the whole story, for me, is the first verse of Genesis chapter 8. But God remembered Noah and all the animals in the boat. Now at first reading, that phrase makes it look like God had forgotten about him? We mustn’t read too much into that – it’s not as if God was thumbing through his diary and then thought ‘Yikes, Noah! I ought to do something about him. It’s been, my goodness, five months. I could have sworn it was only last week.’ It’s more a question of perspective. From where Noah was floating, it must have felt as if God had forgotten him, particularly as it was five months since the rain had stopped.

    But God remembered Noah and all the animals in the boat. Perhaps a better way of putting it would be ‘God STILL remembered Noah’ or ‘God hadn’t forgotten Noah’. As the months slipped by and he was still floating around, Noah may have been wondering about whether he had slipped the Almighty’s mind, but that wasn’t the case – God still remembered him.

    A wind stirs up and begins to dry up the waters. The Ark bumps down onto a mountaintop and Noah begins his experiment of sending out birds to see if it’s safe to go out yet. The next bit of the story after Noah and his family have left the ark, if you want to read on, concerns God’s further instructions to Noah and also a promise. God tells Noah that the rainbow that comes out when it rains will be a token of God’s promise to never again destroy the Earth through flooding.

    In Chapter 9 God says: “I am giving you a sign as evidence of my eternal covenant with you and all living creatures. I have placed my rainbow in the clouds. It is the sign of my permanent promise to you and to all the earth. When I send clouds over the earth, the rainbow will be seen in the clouds, and I will remember my covenant with you and with everything that lives. Never again will there be a flood that will destroy all life. When I see the rainbow in the clouds, I will remember the eternal covenant between God and every living creature on earth.” ~ Verses 9-16

    The idea here is that God has set up something like a giant post-it note, a reminder that another flood won’t happen. But the implication is that when we see the rainbow we’ll be reminded of God’s promise too. It’s not as if God needs a memory aid, but as human beings, we do. So it goes in our everyday walk – there will be certain things that will spark off memories. Sometimes they will be reminders of times when God blessed us; sometimes it will be a reminder of how we failed. Sometimes it will just be a reminder of God, his grace and persevering love.

    In the New Testament, when Jesus is crucified, his cross is the central one of three. On either side of him are two thieves. As the crowd jeer Jesus, mocking him and telling him that if he was the Messiah he should come down from the cross, one of the thieves joins in. The other thief sticks up for Jesus, telling his fellow criminal where to get off. “We deserve what we’ve got,” he says. Then he turns to Jesus and he says “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

    It’s the ultimate cry of faith. Nothing can save that guy. He is going to hang there until he is dead, with the breath slowly being choked out of him until his strength gives in and he can no longer push himself up to breathe or until the Romans break his legs to speed up the process of asphyxiation. He knows there is no way out – and that the teacher dying next to him is the only possible source of hope. Much has been made of the thief’s penitent plea. But he doesn’t have time to ‘pray the prayer’ – and there’s nobody around to guide him through it anyway. He certainly doesn’t have time to go through an Alpha course and get baptised and attend church services. He doesn’t even have time to become a Christian – whatever that may mean. All he can do is look to Jesus and say ‘remember me’.

    Jesus knows this man, what he has done, what he needs and his reply is one of hope. “Today, you’ll eat with me in Paradise.” In one sense he is telling the thief what the thief already knows – ‘You’re going to die, you’re not getting out of this one.’ In another sense he is giving the thief more than he could ever have stolen if he had been the greatest thief in the entire world. He is saying ‘Yes, I will remember you.’

    Jesus tells us, his followers, to carry our cross daily, which is why sometimes our walk with Jesus feels like we are being crucified. It’s why we risk mockery, cruelty, injustice, condemnation, prejudice, persecution and hatred. “If the world hates you it’s because it hated me first,” Jesus tells his disciples. But we have that promise – that welcome to come when Jesus greets us and says ‘well done, servant.’ In a personal letter to Timothy, Paul says: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4 v7) Even though Paul’s race was long and hard and he was staring death in the face as he wrote those words, he knew that a prize was waiting for him, that Jesus remembered him.

    There will be times when we will feel left in the dark, when we will wonder where we are going, how long these circumstance will last. Our immediate future may seem uncertain and we may even doubt the call of God on our lives. But our future is certain. We follow a God who will not forget us. Regardless of where we find ourselves, if we ask him to remember us, he will. And in our certain future, when we finish our race, have fought our fight, sailed the stormy waters and arrived safely on dry land, on that shore we be welcomed by the master who remembers us from before all time.

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