The Ebola virus is spreading throughout the world, recently killing a renowned doctor. Financial turmoil has seized Argentina. A Malaysian plane was shot down over Ukraine, and fierce fighting has broken out around the wreckage. The death toll rises in Gaza as deadly violence occurs every day. Israel has attacked a UN school killing 20 evacuees. Mobs of Islamic militants have killed dozens in China. Christians in Iraq are being murdered for their faith. An unprecedented crisis at our own border continues. Immigrant families are being torn apart. Kidnapped Nigerian girls for whom churches all over the world prayed, including ours, are still missing. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright summed up the state of the world last week in one simple sentence: “To put it mildly, the world is a mess.”
I am sure I am not the only preacher to point out that the state of the world today is reminiscent of a story found in the early chapters of Genesis. It begins just one chapter after of the story of Cain and Abel, the world’s first two brothers. In Genesis 6 we read:
The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.
In other words, the state of the world, the state of the human heart, caused God great suffering. Other translations read that the state of the world “broke God’s heart.”
We know the rest of the story. The Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created” and in Genesis 7, we read that for forty days and nights the rains fell as God intended to start the whole thing over with Noah and his family.
It is an absolutely dreadful chapter. Whoever that first person was who decided to sentimentalize the holocaust of Genesis 7 into some sweet, adorable bedtime story for children needed to have their head and quite possibly their soul examined.
And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth.
We even teach our children silly songs to dull the horror:
The ark started moving, it drifted with the tide The unicorns looked up from the rocks and they cried And the waters came down and sort of floated them away That’s why you never see unicorns to this very day.
“Sort of floated them away.” That’s certainly a nice way to put it.
The scene is horrific; however, it makes perfect sense to many of us. And some of us, deep down, may even like it. For this is how we would rule if we were God; thus, this is how we like to picture our God. Our God is an awesome God. There is “thunder in his footsteps and lightening in his fists.” If you are wicked and evil, if you are mean and hateful, if you are not a Christian, you better look out, for our God will come down and blot you out! Our God controls the sea, creates and steers the hurricanes, breathes tornadoes and spits wildfires, speaks earthquakes and sends or withholds the rain. Our God is an immovable force with which to be reckoned. Our God is a volcanic eruption, an avalanche, a tsunami, a hail storm, and a great flood. After all, we don’t call those things acts of God for nothing. So you better be believing, be shaping up, be straightening out, and be getting yourself right. This is the portrait of the God made in our own image.
However, in spite of what we may have learned in Sunday School, and in spite of what we may want to believe, this is NOT the portrait of the God that is painted in the story of Noah. The God of Noah is not an immovable force that stands safely behind, lords comfortably over, or reigns painlessly above the brokenness and suffering of humankind. The God of Noah is very much moved by it, broken by it. The God of Noah grieves and suffers with, alongside it, in it, and through it.
Just one chapter after the flood scene, the futility of the intentions of the God made in our own image to rid the world of evil became painfully obvious, as the state of the world had not changed. It is the concept, the understanding of God that changes. After the flood “…the Lord said in his heart, ‘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.’”
In the following chapter, we read where the rainbow is forever a beautiful reminder of this great promise.
Sadly, I believe we tend to forget what this promise truly means. Perhaps it is due to the selfish inclination that we have had since our youth. But for whatever reason, we tend to only remember that the rainbow means that God will never again try to “blot us out.” Selfishly, we think the rainbow is about us.
However, this promise means so much more. And it is not about us at all. It is about who our God truly is and how our God acts and relates to this world. The rainbow means that our God has freely and deliberately chosen a path of suffering. God has intentionally chosen to grieve. The rainbow is a reminder to each of us that the state of our world, the state of our hearts, continually breaks the very heart of our God.
And again, those of us who call ourselves “Christians” or “Disciples of Christ” should not be surprised.
There is a reason that when we read the words of the 53rd chapter of Isaiah about “a man of suffering acquainted with infirmity who is wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities,” there is no doubt in our minds to whom the prophet is referring. And I do not think it is a coincidence that we find following words in the very next chapter:
“With everlasting love I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord, your Redeemer, “This is like the days of Noah to me: Just as I swore that the waters of Noah would never again go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you and will not rebuke you. For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you.”
Our God is an awesome God. But not because God is an immovable force to be reckoned with. Our God is an awesome God because our God is a suffering and grieving, merciful and gracious, compassionate and deeply-moved Spirit who beckons us to join with this Spirit in a loving relationship.
There is a reason Jesus said to his disciples that the “Son of Man must suffer many things.” It is the very nature of who our God is. There is a reason whenever Jesus encounters human suffering, sickness and death, the gospel writers tell us that he was moved at the very core of his being with compassion. There is a reason at the death of Lazarus we read, “Jesus wept.” There is a reason Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” For unimaginable suffering and inconceivable pain was his lot. Furthermore, there is a reason the soldier standing at the foot of the cross, standing under a bruised, bloody and crucified body exclaimed: “Surely this man was the Son of God” (Matt 27).
There is a reason that each Sunday we break bread, symbolizing the broken body of Christ and drink from a cup symbolizing the shed blood of Christ. And there is a reason those symbols of suffering give us hope and lead us to follow this way. There is a reason we sing: “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all”
There is a reason we are called to be with, and minister to, the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned, the sick, the grieving, the least of these our brothers and sisters. And there is a reason that when we do, we encounter God.
Before I went to seminary and thoroughly studied the scriptures, I used to think that the job as a minister was to have all of the answers for the suffering of this world. Stand above the suffering, over the pain. Thus, when I would visit the hospital or a nursing home or go the home of someone who had just lost a loved one, I thought I was supposed to say something that would bring healing and hope. I thought I was supposed to say something that would bring some type of cure. I was supposed to come with power and might, come with thunder in my footsteps and lightning in my fists, come with a vengeance and a cure, wipe out, blot out the source of their ill. However, I quickly learned that all I really needed to do was just show up, be present and care. Care; not cure. Be present with compassion, which means to suffer with, grieve alongside and hurt together with another. And when I truly care, when I truly have compassion, someway, somehow, I believe God also shows up. And it is through God, through God’s presence and God’s compassion, through God’s suffering and grief, through God sharing the pain with and alongside us, through God’s heart breaking with ours, through God’s care, that a cure comes. Healing and hope and salvation come.
This is the great promise of the rainbow in this world that, to put it mildly, is a mess. And this is the good news of the gospel. This is grace, and this is hope, yesterday, today and forever. Amen.