Last week we learned about Joseph’s first job when he was taken to Egypt as a slave. He was pretty much in charge of the household of Potiphar, captain of Pharaoh’s guard; but after an unfortunate incident involving Potiphar’s wife—and in which Joseph appears to have been completely innocent—he gets thrown in jail, where, again, he prospers.
We preachers can sometimes be a bit pedantic.
I don’t mean all preachers are grammar sticklers like I am, so that it sets all our teeth on edge if someone uses “less” when they should use “fewer.” No, we can be pedantic about how people talk about God, what should be said in prayer, that kind of thing.
September 11, 2022
“No more water, but…?”
Genesis 6:5-22; 8:6-12; 9:8-17
We struggle with some passages in the Bible. They bother us, or they seem to describe God in ways that contradict each other.
For us Christians, the foremost way we understand God is by seeing what Jesus is like, what he did, what he taught, how he laid down his life for us. And some texts don’t portray God as too terribly Christlike—such as the ones in Joshua in which God seems to have commanded Israel to commit genocide.
We struggle with those texts. We’d really like to ignore them, to pretend they’re not in the Bible. (That is what the people who put together the Revised Common Lectionary did in many cases.)
Recently I heard one of our professors at Phillips say that it’s sometimes okay to preach against a Biblical text. That’s hard for us when we believe the entire Bible is the word of God—but we have to remember that the Bible may be the word of God, but it’s mediated through human hands, human minds, perhaps even human worldviews and biases. So maybe there is a place for it.
For instance, beginning with 2 Peter, there has been a pretty troubling interpretation of the covenant God made with Noah. 2 Peter 3:5-7 says this:
“…by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world of that time was deluged by water and perished. But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the godless.”
“No more water,” as the spiritual says, “but the fire next time.”
It’s not a belief that is ruled out by the story of God putting a rainbow in the clouds as a reminder to himself that he has promised never again to destroy the earth with a flood. But I don’t think it’s entirely in keeping with what we know of God through the whole witness of the Bible or through Jesus. I also don’t think it’s in keeping with what the Noah story tells us.
Our reading today is three parts of the whole Noah story. First we hear how God decides to destroy the earth and tells Noah what he needs to do in order to save his family and the world’s animals. We return to the story as the rain stops and Noah begins to check whether or not the flood has dried up. And then part three is the covenant God makes with Noah, and the sign of the rainbow that the earth will never again be destroyed by a flood.
“No more water, but…” 2 Peter adds the second half of that lyric, what comes after the but: “…the fire next time.”
We miss what comes between the second and third portions of our reading. Once Noah and his family and all the animals get out of the boat, he builds an altar and offers a sacrifice to God. The sacrifice pleases God, who then says to himself, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.”
If we didn’t have that part, then “No more water, but the fire next time” might be a bit more believable. But while Genesis 9:8-17 only says God won’t destroy the earth again with a flood because of human sinfulness, Genesis 8:21 says God determines he won’t destroy the earth again because of human sinfulness at all.
That isn’t because God has any illusions that the flood has wiped away all human sinfulness.
As a matter of fact, right after the third part of our reading for today, even Noah’s behavior is a bit inappropriate. After everything that had happened, after Noah’s sons’ families began to repopulate the earth, Noah took some of the produce of a vineyard he had planted, made wine, and got roaring drunk. He passed out naked in his tent.
This was the man God had considered to be the only one in the whole world who was righteous?!
Another problem I see with 2 Peter’s addition to the promise is that we tend to see that bit about fire in as referring to the fires of hell, which injects some meanness into God’s promise to Noah, signified by the rainbow. Next time you’ll all go to hell, we imagine Peter to be saying. Is that really what’s going on?
No, not if we take Genesis 8:21 into account. Even if we agree with Peter that there may be fire in the future for humanity or the earth, we don’t have to assume it’s the unquenchable fire of hell in which sinners spend eternity in conscious torment.
The notion of hell as a place of eternal fire and torment is something that developed rather late.
In the Hebrew Bible we see references to someplace called Sheol. It’s a shadowy place where the dead go. Early on there’s no suggestion that there will be a resurrection; it’s just where people go when they die, good and bad alike. Later we get the idea of resurrection (you can sort of see the development of it in the book of Job), and later still the notion of a last judgment in which some are sent to heaven and some to hell.
The lake of fire we sometimes interpret as being a metaphor for hell shows up in Revelation 19 and 20. The “beast” and the false prophet, along with the devil and death itself, are thrown into the lake of fire. Then the last judgment happens, and anyone whose name isn’t written in the book of life is also thrown into the lake of fire.
Once that’s done, the new heaven and new earth emerge.
And I’m frankly not 100% convinced that lake of fire is meant to be seen as eternal conscious torment (what a sadistic concept that is!). What is thrown in there is what needs to be burned away in order for the new heaven and the new earth to be fully realized—in other words, for all of creation to be redeemed and restored to what God intended at the very beginning.
And that brings us to what fire often signifies in the Hebrew Bible. For instance, in Malachi chapter 3, the messenger God promises to send is described as “like a refiner’s fire.” This messenger is meant to purify the people, to burn away sinfulness and anything that mars God’s image within them or keeps them from being faithful. It may be difficult, it might be uncomfortable or even in a way painful; but it’s not eternal torment.
That could be what 2 Peter is talking about—not a destroying fire, not an eternally tormenting fire, but a refiner’s fire, purifying creation in order for it to be perfected.
God’s covenant with Noah isn’t made because the flood washed away humanity’s sinfulness. God realized that almost immediately, and promised never to do it again.
First God promises simply never to destroy the earth again; then he promises never to destroy it with a flood and puts the rainbow in the sky to help him remember. There’s no meanness there, only grace—God promises to be with the people and never again pour out destruction on us, even when we inevitably sin—and God choosing to place boundaries around his own behavior.
And we don’t need to fear the fire next time as an eternal torment. Instead, it’s one more way we, and all of creation, are formed into who and what God intends for us to be.
Those of us who are a certain age will remember a certain recurring Saturday Night Live sketch, making fun of the public-access programs that proliferated on urban cable systems in the 1990s (before YouTube made that kind of video available for all the world to see). In the sketches, Mike Myers and Dana Carvey played a pair of (supposedly) teenagers—both of them well past their teen years, which I suppose increased the humor—who set up a camera to play a little music, talk about music, occasionally even have one of their musical heroes show up for a little chat. Whenever that happened, of course, they would bow down, saying over and over, “We’re not worthy!”
I didn’t remember to add one thing to my board report when I prepared it for today’s meeting: Among my activities over this past month was officiating at a wedding last Monday.
The couple had gone to the courthouse expecting to be married by a judge, but the judge doesn’t do weddings. Back when Lucille Mundey was the county recorder, she had contacted me to ask if she could refer couples looking to be married to me. I do get a few calls from time to time, and I had one this past Monday.
Once upon a time, Israel was freed from slavery by the strong hand and mighty arm of their God. After more than four centuries as slaves, Israel had a lot to learn about living as free people. So God led them out into the desert, where they wandered, following God’s lead, ate manna and quails that God provided each day, and drank water God made flow out of dry rocks.
Last fall, after my first knee replacement, I went over to the hospital to see Kim Winkley for a checkup. First I had to get an x-ray, so I went down the hall to the radiology department, escorted by a nice tech named Noah. We went through all the different shots he needed to get, with him giving me directions on where I needed to sit or stand or lie down and how to bend or not bend my leg; and I did what he asked so he could get the pictures Kim wanted to be able to look at.
Sometimes when I get to work on a Friday, the day I normally write my sermons, I’m really not in the right frame of mind for such things. Awhile back I had one of those Fridays. This was several years ago, before Mike retired.
Ringo Starr celebrated his 82nd birthday just a couple weeks ago. As he’s done just about every year in my recent memory, he asked for just one present: that everyone pray, or whatever they might do, for peace and love; and then post it on their social media. So I dutifully posted a birthday message on my social media, quoting the angels in today’s reading: “Peace on earth, and love and goodwill to all.”
One of my favorite pieces to sing with a choir on Easter Sunday is one based on a verse from this Psalm: the late Natalie Sleeth’s “Joy in the Morning.” It may start with Easter, but it goes on beyond Easter. Now that Easter has happened, according to the song, universal rejoicing, love and peace and contentment, along with the proclamation of God’s Name, will soon follow. It’s an exuberant shout that on Easter, everything changes.