Our reading today from the Old Testament is the closing scene of one of the most widely recognized stories from the bible. The flood, the big boat, the animals two by two, the kindly looking old man with the long white beard are all familiar set pieces in this story. And who can forget the beautiful rainbow? The disembarking scene with tons of animals marching out of the massive boat beneath a colorful arch can be found on nursery walls and baby accessories everywhere. It is the happy ending to the story that we see in these images. It is the happy ending we heard in today’s reading where God puts that beautiful rainbow in the clouds and makes his covenant promise to Noah and all creation. And they all lived happily ever after.
Honestly, I have never liked the story of Noah’s Ark. In fact, I more than dislike it; I find it terrifying. When I heard this story as a child, I did not see rainbows or hear the resounding promise of God “never again!” in the story. Not the happy animals, the sweet white bearded man or even the great big boat. Instead, I saw the rain, the thunder and lightning, the rising unstoppable waters. The fear. I could not keep from thinking, “what if I hadn’t gotten on the boat? What if God had forgotten me?” I have never been so certain that this was just a children’s story because it is, when you really look at it, dark and frightening. But the ending is good. Not just a happily ever after kind of good either, but a new beginning for the whole world.
For the beauty of the rainbow and dry land and promises of God to mean anything, we have to go back just a bit to see how we got to this happy ending. The earth was corrupt in God’s sight and filled with violence. God saw this corruption and said to the righteous man, Noah, “I have determined that, because of the violence and corruption of all living things, I am going to destroy them and the earth along with them.” God instructs Noah on the construction of the ship that will hold him and his family and a pair of every kind of living animal. They all enter the ark and God shuts them in.
The rain pours. The waters rise. Life is lost. This is not a sweet nursery story. This is real destruction. God blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the earth, humans and animals. Everything.
But then, God Remembers Noah.
This word: Remember, is very interesting and it is the key to this whole story. We use it today to mean something we do with our mind or our heart. I remember that great vacation or I remember my college days. We think of the past and reminisce about how things used to be. But in Hebrew, this word means something more than mere thought or feeling. It also means action—it is a word of action. Thought and action are one thing. To remember is to act, to do something about the remembered person or thing. So when the story says that God remembered Noah and all those in the ark with him, it means that God did not remember Noah in some sentimental way, but that he acted on behalf of, did something for Noah and all those in the ark. God remembered and God caused the waters to subside. Dry land is finally found and all come out of the Ark. Noah could not do anything to save a single person or animal on board that Ark. It was because God remembered them that they lived.
But here we return to my childish fear. Is it really a childish fear and is it really only my fear? What if God has forgotten us? No matter how strong or powerful we are, not matter how intelligent or influential we are, there comes a time when we are not master of our lives. For all of us there is a time in life when we look at the world and realize that it is bigger than we are. We come face to face with our smallness, our insignificance, our powerlessness. We come face to face with the overwhelming walls of water and know that no matter how strong or smart or powerful we thought we were, there is no way we can make it through. We can do nothing to save ourselves. Our smallness and helplessness are utterly undeniable.
Loss of the job we thought was secure. Death of the husband or wife who meant everything to us. Betrayal of friendships we relied upon daily. Faith that seems to falter at every turn. Illness that tears apart our bodies or, perhaps even worse, the bodies of those we love and are powerless to help.
We are also small and feeble when facing our own sins; our own shortcomings and failings. We make mistakes, betray friends, harm others, behave unfaithfully to those we love and those who love us, not the least of which is God, misuse that power and influence we are so proud of, and rely upon our own pitiful strength to find dry land. But we are again, powerless without God’s help.
The rain pours. The waters rise. We are Lost. What if God has forgotten us?
At the end of Noah’s story, God makes a promise—a covenant promise—that he will never again destroy the earth by water. He puts the rainbow in the sky as a sign for him to remember. The rainbow—a word that can also mean a bow of war, a weapon—is placed at rest in the clouds. In ancient times, the warlord or king would, upon returning home from the end of a war, hang his weapon on the wall. Knights, as well, would hang their swords on the wall. All this was to say—the war is over. I am done with battle. This is what God did. It was not simply a pretty arch of colors; this was God’s weapon that he hung in the sky to say: the battle is over; I am done with war. This bow, says God, will remind me of my covenant. The rainbow is not there for our sake but for God’s. He did not put it there so that we would remember but so that God would. In fact, twice in today’s passage does God say that he will REMEMBER. When the rainbow is there, God remembers his promise he has made to all living creatures to never again destroy the earth by water. God remembers and acts on that remembering to save us.
How does that happen? How does God stop the rain, the rising waters and find us dry land? How is it that God remembers us? Floods still come. Pain, loss, grief and failure still come. The rain pours. The waters rise. Are we lost? Does God remember us?
The biggest promise we have that God will not forget us is found in our baptism. Even in our baptismal service, there is mention of the flood. “By the waters of the flood you condemned the wicked and saved those whom you had chosen, Noah and his family.” In the flood waters of baptism, our old, sinful self is blotted out. In passing through those waters, God makes a covenantal promise with us that we are never forgotten. God does not promise that it will never rain, that the waters will never rise, that we will never have loss, pain or struggles with the sins of others and of ourselves. He DOES promise that he has liberated us from sin and death. God REMEMBERS and ACTS for us in Christ’s death and resurrection—a final defeat of all that could destroy us. God also remembers us and acts for us in our every day life as well. God acts for us through us. The helping hands of one who opens the door to a neighbor in need. The church community that provides a place of support as we all struggle with our own sins. The listening heart that is there for those who grieve. The words of hope shared by someone who has struggled as we are struggling.
So, does God remember us? I believe it is so. In the words of Isaiah 43, God tells us, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name and you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you. And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you… for I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” The story of the flood is scary because life is scary. All around us, the flood threatens to overwhelm. But we have a God who will never forget us. A God who Remembers.