Once Upon a Time (Or Maybe Twice)
What does it look like to start from scratch? Scripture is filled with cold starts: creation, where word gives way to explosions of light; Pentecost, where fire births a church. And, of course, our Genesis lesson this morning. The world is full of wickedness, God decrees, and so it shall be washed clean. But first, a remnant is plucked out for the sake of hope: a handful of every species, including Noah and his family. Rain swallows the earth whole, until the only thing that survives is one boat, teeming with life. Slowly the waters subside, and creation gets a chance to start all over again.
The story of the flood is a brutal one, though we tend to forget this. Instead, we focus on the animals, domesticate the story, and tell it to our children in the cuddliest voice we can muster. And when we do, we forget the tragic cost of this moment. A friend of mine once noted the tendency for parents to decorate nurseries with the Noah theme, arks and animals and rainbows stenciled around the room. “But,” she said, “they always leave out the floating bodies.”
It’s a grim point, granted. But the truth is, if we get down to it, the flood is a ghastly story. Imagine the Haitian earthquake or the Indonesian tsunami or even the Darfur genocide multiplied around the world. Though the waters leave, forty days and forty nights could not have been nearly enough to cover the stench. And yet, the author utters not a word of it. Instead, the story keeps moving. God speaks of rainbows and promises, and the ark empties as life begins again.
What is happening here? Is this a textbook case of denial? Or is there something else at stake?
Remember, the story begins in Genesis 6 with these words: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humanity was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord, whose heart grieved, was sorry to have made humanity.”
In other words, it was bad. We often complain about the state of our own world, how it seems so much worse than it used to be, but if we can take Genesis 6 at face value, it’s not that bad. There is evil around, no doubt. But only evil, without even a hint of good? There are days that feel bleak, but never that horrific. There is always at least some trace of goodness still at work. Though there is war, there are always peacemakers. Though there is brutality, there is always mercy. Though there is tragedy, there are always those who bring healing. Evil is persistent; and yet, goodness just won’t take the hint.
It makes me wonder if the story keeps moving because the focus is shifting. Creation is deeply corrupted; and yet, Noah and his family and his floating zoo represent the possibility of hope. This was a one-time event. There is no need to speak of death because the rainbow rises in the sky as a marker of life; so as you depart the ark, let life be the first word.
So…what does it look like to start from scratch?
It’s no accident that the two lessons we read today focus on water. They were written, after all, in a time and place that was marked more by scarcity than abundance, more by desert than by garden. Jesus is taking the very first step of his public ministry, heading off to the Jordan River valley where his odd, prophetic cousin John is baptizing. Jesus goes under the water. And when he comes up, the sky splits open, a dove descends, and God’s voice comes echoing across the sands: “Pay attention to this one.”
Two moments of submersion; two moments of emergence; two moments of cleansing; two moments where the distance between earth and sky becomes minute; two moments where the voice of God makes it clear where we stand; two moments that start afresh.
Both of the stories become richer when read side by side. The flood is no longer just about rain and rainbows, but becomes a story where all of creation is baptized! And baptism is no longer just a quaint ceremony, but it becomes to moment where our old selves are drowned, while the promise that life has the last word rings in our ears!
Where does that leave us? Are we open to the possibility that God hasn’t given up on us yet, either? Can we trust that we, too, can be refreshed, renewed, restored, re-birthed into the presence of God?
Friends, let’s be honest for a moment: each one of us has something that we wish we could leave behind, that we could submerge beneath the waves. We live with the reality of regret: things we have done that we wish had never happened, or things that we could have or should have done but chose not to at the time. We have habits that have more hold over us than we would like to admit. And though we work to chart new courses, it is so easy to fall back into old patterns. We complain about things that merit no mention. Anxiety gets the better of us. And despite our better intentions, we let fear get a hold of us and keep us from stepping out in faith.
We are not, by any measure, purely evil; and yet, it seems like we so often let goodness slip through our fingers…
So…what would it look like to start from scratch?
The truth is that, in God’s presence and in God’s time, there is always the opportunity to start again. It doesn’t matter how many times we have done it before. We can always do it again. Conversion is rarely a “once upon a time” scenario, or even twice. We may have those moments of clarity, where we can look back and see, for sure, that we are living different lives now. More often, though, conversion describes a life-long process. We progress and regress. We are up and we are down. We are cleansed, renewed, refreshed; we are broken, exhausted, parched.
And that’s exactly why we return here, again and again. We know we can’t go it by ourselves. When left to our own devices, we sink beneath the waves. We gasp for breath. We feel frightened, alone. And so, when we gather here, we remember that we aren’t alone. We have each other, yes; and, even more so, God has us! Whatever it is that keeps pulling us down, God’s strength keeps us afloat.
We have just begun this season of Lent. And as we move through these weeks, progressing our way to the cross, we will read and reflect on the breadth of God’s story. In the midst of it, there will be moments to connect – with one another, with God, with the salvation which gives us hope. My prayer is that this story will become far more than that, more than just a fairy tale, but a word that connects with our inmost being, a lifeline that reminds us that this story is our story, too.
And so, I want to offer an invitation to you today. What is it in your life that you want to leave beneath the waves? What are the old habits that refuse to die? Where is it that fear has a hold of you? What keeps getting in your way? What keeps you from charting a different course, of sailing on to new and miraculous discoveries? Can you trust that, in this Lenten journey, earth and sky will become one, and God will let you know in no uncertain terms just where you stand? The signs are already there. May we have eyes to see them.