First Sunday in Lent, Year B
February 26, 2012
Scripture: Genesis 9: 8-17; Mark 1: 9-15; Luke 4: 1-13
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Matthew Lawrence
I have a good friend who happens to be an atheist. The other day we got into one of our epic arguments: whether or not, in the end, when everything is said and done, it’s all good, or it’s all just a big waste.
My friend says it’s all just a big waste – except he doesn’t use that word. He uses a word for waste material – if you get my drift.
“It’s all waste material,” he says. “In the end, when all the stars implode and the universe finally collapses in on itself and everything that is returns to a state of rest in some enormous black hole, what then?
“Face it!” he says, “It’s all absurd; none of it means anything. All of our history as a planet, our entire existence from soup to nuts, all of it is nothing but a tiny little blip on the screen; we live on the remote edge of a vast universe that couldn’t care less about us.
I try my best arguments on him, but they just don’t get through. Not for lack of trying, though. The other night we got into this debate while driving to our favorite bar in Sebastopol. We continued the argument as we ordered and waited for our beers. We were still deep into it when the bartender brought our second round. That’s when my atheist friend asked the bartender what she thought.
“Which is it?" he asked. In the end, is it all waste material, or is it all good?”
And then she got into it. So while she was going on, I asked the woman sitting next to me at the bar, and she, much to her credit, rose to the occasion and joined in on the side of it all being worth it in the end.
Pretty soon we had the whole bar debating the question. The guys at the pool table, of course, were pretty sure it was all waste material; but the shuffleboard players were surprisingly more inclined toward a benevolent universe.
I just made that last bit up. It was rally just the 4 of us. But I like the idea of the entire dive bar coming alive at this question.
Anyway, I got to thinking about all this friend as I considered this story from Genesis about how God created the rainbow and made a covenant with his people that he would never again bring a flood to wipe out all of humanity.
"I establish my covenant with you," god says,"that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth."
- Gen 9:9-11
Now, I’m not sure if this is a correct interpretation. But this sounds to me like God is saying, “That flood? Big mistake. I don’t want to ever do that again – if I ever feel like doing it again, just tell me about the rainbow and remind me.”
Well, that’s very nice of God, to promise not to kill us all off – at least not all at once. But to me it sort of sounds like an abusive husband – he just beat up his wife and now he needs to apologize. It’s the morning after and the bruises on his wife’s face don’t indict him nearly as much as the look she gives him now. So he makes some kind of big promise to make up for his terrible destruction.
Well, you can imagine how my atheist friend likes this story – he has a field day with it – because of course it doesn’t paint a very flattering picture of God, to be honest.
When I was a seminarian living in Chicago, way back in 1985, I got into a conversation with the kids in the youth group about nuclear war. If you remember, Ronald Reagan was still in office, and there was a lot of controversy about the possibility of nuclear war going on. So I asked the kids in the youth group if they ever worried about nuclear war breaking out, and one girl said, “Oh, no, that would never happen - God would never let that happen.”
In her mind, the extinction of the human race by means of nuclear warfare was an impossibility – because of that covenant with Noah. It would be a violation of one of the oldest covenants we ever made with God.
And then another kid said, “Well, if there were a nuclear war, I don’t think it would be God who sent the missiles. It would be us – it would be people killing other people. God didn’t say he would prevent us from doing that to ourselves. In fact, we’ve been doing that to ourselves since the very beginning.”
And now, here we are with all the challenges we face: global climate change, which is turning the earth against us; not to mention the threat of bio-terrorism, nuclear weapons in the hands of rogue states – you name it. Talk to any high school kid today and you’ll find out that the possibility of our extinction– and the meaning of it all - is very much on their minds.
Last night I stayed up too late watching a film done by Masterpiece Theater, entitled “God on Trial.” It’s a beautifully written play about a time during the Holocaust, when some inmates at Auschwitz decided to hold a trial. The accused was God. God, according to the charge, was guilty of breaking the covenant with his people – the covenant he made, beginning with this covenant that we read about today – the covenant with Noah.
A trial was formally held. There was a panel consisting of three judges. Experts were called to provide testimony: a rabbi, a Biblical scholar, a scientist. And ordinary people also testified, some defending God, others accusing him. Chilling stories were told about the atrocities people had witnessed up to that point.
At one point, a man made a passionate argument for the idea that God was with them, even then, in the midst of their suffering. Maybe he’s right here – I think he is - suffering right along with us. But he was interrupted by another man who said, “Who needs a God who suffers! What use is that to anyone? What we need is a God who will come down from on high, with his host of angels, and kick these Nazis into hell!”
In the end, the judges reached a verdict: God was guilty as charged. God had broken the covenant. As the trial was coming to an end, the guards were approaching to take the men to the gas chamber. As they were being led away, one of the men said, “What do we do now?” And another man said, “Now, we pray.” And they go to the gas chambers, praying.
In my opinion, it would be irresponsible of us to teach this story about Noah and the covenant to our children without also teaching the story about the Holocaust. If the Holocaust has taught us anything, it is that extinction can come to any of us. Thousands of other animal species have gone extinct – what makes us think that we are immune? Especially since our own extinction will not come at God’s hands, but our own.
And so, what does that say about the covenant?
Well, this is what I say about the covenant. I am willing to say, with a certain degree of confidence, that God never sent a flood that killed everyone on earth but one little family and a boat full of animals.
That is not my God. I would not worship such a God.
No, that story of Noah is not a history lesson, and it is not a story about what God did to us, that story of Noah and the Ark is an ancient story, told by an ancient people, in order to understand how it was that such a catastrophic thing as a thousand-year flood could happen.
It’s a story that tries to understand natural disaster as a consequence of human sinfulness. I reflect an ancient idea of divine causation that I, for one, no longer find credible. Floods are not typically caused by sinfulness – except, of course, those caused by global warming.
When Jesus was in the wilderness being tempted by the devil, he was given three temptations: Bread, Power, and Freedom from Suffering. He could eliminate world hunger, turning those stones into bread. He could take on ultimate power, become the supreme benevolent dictator over all he surveyed. He could leap off the highest tower and not be harmed.
I wonder whether any one of us would be able to withstand any of those temptations.
Jesus answered each of those temptations by clinging to the God that exists, and by rejecting the god that he wanted.
Jesus came, not to avoid suffering, and not to take our suffering away. He came, not to promise a fairy tale ending in which suffering never comes to God’s faithful people; but rather, to point us to the necessity of suffering in the accomplishment of God’s love.
If it were left up to us, we wouldn’t choose this God of Jesus’ We would choose the god of the man in the concentration camp, who asked what use is a god who suffers. We would choose the god of Barabbas, who promised a host of angels.
But we don’t get to choose which God actually exists. We only get to choose whether we’re going to worship a true God, or a false god, unworthy of our devotion.
For better or worse, we have to make our peace with the God we have, not the god that our desires would have. And the God we have is one who comes to earth, not to eliminate suffering, but to show us there are some things worse than suffering.
Suffering is inevitable – but what’s worse is to let our suffering deprive us of our humanity. What’s worse is to let our suffering deprive us of our compassion, of our dignity, of our ability to give thanks for the sheer miracle of life itself. What’s worse is to let our suffering keep us from forgiving one another for the sin of being human; to forgive our enemies; to bless those who persecute us.
We will all suffer and we will all die: but this God of Jesus would have us go to our maker with our heads lifted high, despite our suffering, with our dignity and love intact. We will all suffer and we will all die, but that is never an argument against God, who is with us, even now, teaching us how to suffer in love; teaching us how to face it with courage and love.
I pray it may be so.