Forty Days of Rain
“Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport…, the thrill of victory (music – duh duh duh duh) and the agony of defeat. The human drama of athletic competition. This is ABC’s Wide World of Sports.”
I couldn’t help but hear these words this week, watching Olympic competition – figure skating, bobsled, speed skating, big air on skis and snowboards. But for the American viewer I am, the women’s hockey gold medal game has to be the highlight! The thrill of victory. And when I think of the agony of defeat, I go immediately to Lindsay Vonn, the US women’s figure skaters, and to the Canadian women’s hockey team.
The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. When I look at the Noah story, I wonder who was the winner and who was the loser? Noah? Humans? Earth? God?
There is a Midrash that explains that when the Red Sea closed around the Egyptians and drowned them, the angels in heaven cheered. God rebuked them, saying, “How can you cheer when my creatures are dying?” (Tractate Sanhedrin 39b). But God does not reprove the Hebrews who are dancing and singing with exuberance at their deliverance. After all, people are not angels.
I wonder how Noah felt. He boarded the ark, with his family and the animals and sealed the door. Did he hear people laughing at him? Did he hear people trying to get inside? Second-guessing himself and God. Sort of like standing in the starting gate, waiting for the starting signal. The thrill of victory? The agony of defeat? What awaited them?
For Lent this year we are looking at experiences of “forty days” in Scripture. In Jewish reckoning, the “forty days” accounting refers to an epoch-changing time, a turning point, when decisions made and actions taken change everything. Last week, was Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness to become secure in an identity as big as a lake to absorb all that he would yet encounter, after his forty days. Entering the ark was the beginning of Noah’s forty days. Forty days for earth and all her creatures. Forty days for God.
I wonder if Noah’s real trial time came after his forty days of rain. Were his forty days on the ark enough to secure who he would be as he faced building a whole new human culture? Jesus came out of his forty days changed and strong in his intimate oneness with the God of the Universe.
Frederick Buechner writes a piece that suggests that Noah may not have come out so strong on the other side of the flood.
…No matter what new meanness people might think up, surely the terrible thing would never happen again. As an expert in hoping against hope, the old sailor told himself that the worst was over and that as sure as God made little green apples, a new, green world would blossom up out of the sodden wreckage of the old. He then planted the first vineyard and invented wine. The way he figured it, wine would help him forget the dark past and, if all went well, would be like the champagne at a wedding that you toast the future with. And if all did not go well, if doubts and fears began to gather like rain clouds in his heart, then wine would help him ride out the storm within as before he’d ridden out the forty days and forty nights. In the meantime, he would keep his eye on the rainbow and his hand near the corkscrew…. [Frederick Buechner, originally published in Peculiar Treasures:A biblical Who’s Who, 1979.]
What if this story is not so much about Noah? I wonder who was most changed in these forty days? Who set a whole new direction? First we ask, Who is the primary actor in this narrative? Answering this question may tell us who this forty days is for.
When you go home this afternoon, read all of Genesis 6-9 and ask yourself, who is the lead character? I think it was not Noah, but God. God has already shown up in Genesis as the Creator. God is the one who made it all. Who breathed life into all that is. The ultimate artist. And with each new thing created God pronounces: It is good. It is good. It is good.
But something goes wrong. These humans God created – the crown of creation, the ones with whom God could walk with in the garden, commune as soul to soul – These same humans discovered that they did not have to do everything their Creator told them to do. And they set out to test the limits of their caretaker’s heart.
They are thrown out of the garden, they have to work and endure pain. But they are not deserted. Still they have a way of connecting with God, only hinted at in the text. God still comes to Cain to talk to him about his brother. God is still real in their lives and shows up for conversation and connection. Same with Noah. God is keeping an eye out and spending time with the humans. Noah walked with God.
Humans were out of the garden, yet something of the walking with God in the evenings seems to have remained. Over the generations down to Noah’s time, in God’s evening walks, God meets fewer and fewer people who want to talk with the holy one. They veer to the other side of the street. Eventually, they don’t even see God. Until God arrives at Noah’s house and is waved over for a familiar chat.
Tonight God is upset. God’s beloved humans have gone completely wild. They no longer remember who they are – the image of God, breathing divine breath! None of them are worth a hoot!, God complains. God has already limited how long they would live on the earth (Genesis 6:3), but that didn’t stop their all-out descent into evil. “Every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5), was God’s judgment. God had decided. God would bring an end to all human life and the whole earth with them!
Here is where winning and losing gets complicated. God has lost the love of his life! Humans are fickle, selfish and violent. They don’t even notice their beloved Creator, not even for a moment on Sunday. So, like an artist, God will crumple up the whole piece and throw it in the trash.
As God rants, Noah sits there patiently, wondering. Why is God telling me this? Is God talking about me? I thought we were friends.
Then God becomes aware of Noah’s discomfort, and immediately thinks of a softer alternative. God would make a way to save Noah and start over with a human culture based on Noah’s faithfulness. Here’s what you are going to do, Noah…. And the instructions pour out. Noah does everything he is told to do, but with a heavy heart. He simply obeys. This is not joyful work. To be complicit in the annihilation of all he has known, of all the people with whom he lived his days. Some of these people were his friends. They, too, loved their children. No, not the hopeful work of an athlete training for competition.
At Genesis 7 the work is done. The ship built. The animals and his family all in. The forty days and forty nights of rain begin. No word from God is recorded all those long days. Maybe the rain is the uncontrollable weeping of a broken hearted God.
When Noah finally gets off the ark onto dry land, he sees a devastated land, littered with the debris of flooding and death. Still he gives thanks to God.
But God is changed. God knows now that these humans are not enemies, but the beloved of God’s own heart, no matter how stubborn or evil they might be. It is God who feels the agony of defeat, even as God’s own judgment is complete.
Now will never give up on creation. Never. The rainbow covenant is God saying: “I know humanity is going to disappoint me and this world I’ve created will turn away from me, but I choose to be Love to this earth still. By virtue of the fact that I have created you, you matter.”
Winning is so often about revenge, conquering someone who has hurt you. God chose to wipe out all that God could not change. And it didn’t do any good. God’s heart was still broken. Winning wasn’t worth it!
And so, the good news: Never again! God pledges: never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood (Gen. 9:11). Then comes the amazing thing that came from God’s forty days of judgment: God hung up his bow, in the clouds. Sometimes we forget that the bow is a weapon, as in “bow and arrow.” God disarms! Never again will God use power to win over creation.
The sign of the bow in the clouds is forever a reminder that God’s way of “doing business” will forever be different. The epoch change that goes all the way back to the flood, is to the era of grace. The rainbow exists as a reminder that God has changed. No matter what, God’s way of dealing with creation will never include destruction again. God will not take out God’s hurt on humans, on creation ever again. It is a unilateral disarmament.
We will see this commitment again in Jesus, who refuses to bring heaven’s armies, but takes on all the evil humanity dishes out. It’s a way of saying that even this is not the end. God will outlive even this.
That bow in the clouds is the sign of God’s promise that whatever else God does to seek our restoration, destruction is off the table. God will seek us and seek us and seek us, despite or perhaps because of God’s knowledge of every sin, every grief, and every shame that veils our vision of who God is and who we are. God will not give up on loving us into restoration.