Promises, Promises: Never Again
I will never forget that fateful day, about two years ago, at 10:45 one Sunday morning. It was the day I sat down to print out my final copy of the sermon for that morning and somehow that I can’t figure out still to this day, managed to delete the file.
It was not a delete in the “undo edit” sense of delete. I completely, somehow, destroyed the entire file and had no sermon on paper that morning. In the fifteen minutes that passed between my deleting the file and the start of worship, I decided I could either run away and never come back…or wing it, which I ended up doing.
I did not intend to press the delete key (or whatever I did) that morning. But however it happened, in that moment the entire sermon was gone. It still gives me chills just thinking about it. Anybody besides me remember that day?
As we look to our Hebrew scripture this morning, I think it’s clear that God meant to press the delete key. If you’re unfamiliar with the story of Noah and the great flood, you can back up about two chapters and read the entire story, in various versions, from God getting mad, to Noah building a boat, to the animals filing in two by two.
But I’m fairly sure you know the story, as does most everyone, because it has been told and retold with cute little furry animals and an ark that looks like a Carnival cruise ship in Fisher Price’s interpretation. In fact, you can buy stuffed toys of Noah and the ark; or wooden figurines that make up a whole set. You can decorate your baby’s nursery with a Noah’s ark theme, or, like me, sew your kids the cutest Noah’s ark curtains for their bedrooms. Some of you may even have received a notecard from me with a picture of Noah and his wife on the ark with the animals, and she’s saying: “Noah, sooner or later we need to talk about the elephant in the room….”
But the story of Noah and the great flood is really not a laughing matter at all, and probably not that appropriate for your kids’ bedroom theme, either. The story of the great flood is a story of fear, terror, and regret, it’s God pressing the delete key—on purpose—on a creation that had violated, over and over again, the relationship between created and Creator, that had taken the gift of free will and gone, well, crazy.
The world in Noah’s time was not what God envisioned. It was not what God wanted when God entered into relationship with human beings. It was a situation so bad that God hit the delete key—on purpose—and the whole world was destroyed.
Someone asked me this week if the story of Noah and the ark was a true historical story. Since I suspected this might be a trick question, I think I fell back on my standard safety answer, “What do you think?”
As we know, the Bible was not written as a historical record of events. Instead, it’s a grand and sweeping story of God’s interaction with the world, of the relationship between human beings and their Creator. This flood story is the Hebrew version, one of between 250 and 300 flood stories found by anthropologists on every continent in almost every group of people.
So since this was probably not the ancient version of CNN’s story of an actual, historical flood, we readers of the text have some deeper and more universal truth to learn about God or about ourselves through the telling and hearing of this story. In other words, whether or not an actual historical event took place just as reported here, the story of Noah and the flood is true, and it has something to teach us about relationship with God.
Specifically, today on the first Sunday of Lent, we read this story as the first of several “covenant stories” found in the Hebrew text and think about promises. The word covenant means promise, and as we’re embarking on a season of the church year when we are invited to take a long, hard look at our lives and think about making some changes, we’re looking back at stories of faith in which promises are made, broken, renegotiated, and kept.
Let’s review a little bit of what how things were before the story of the great flood. The story of God’s relationship with humanity begins with the creation of the world, as you recall, but in the six chapters between that and the flood, things really start to go downhill. There’s the whole Adam and Eve with the snake and the tree of life situation, followed closely by their banishment fromEden. Then their sons Cain and Abel get into some trouble resulting in murder. Things get worse even from there until, at the beginning of chapter 6, the text says: “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 had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”
And so it was that God starts over, presses delete, begins again. Of course the events of the flood changed the earth. Populations were decimated; the whole of the earth was covered with water; only Noah and his family survived on the ark. And did that fix the problem of sin? Did it stop acts of human selfishness, anger, and greed? Well? What do you think?
No, of course it did not. Creation continued. Humanity rolled along as it had before. People made mistakes and betrayed each other and disobeyed God, destroyed the earth and still cause all sorts of trouble. Don’t think God is smiling down benevolently at our antics these days, given up on expectations since the whole flood. I don’t think that God’s hopes for us are any less rigorous or lofty than they were then. But it is true that something changed with the flood.
And God changed because God made a promise—a promise to hang up the bow of vengeance and retribution, to retire from battle, to forgo our destruction no matter what. A promise. God’s promise didn’t change our behavior; God’s promise changed the nature of God’s relationship with us…a change from humanity getting what it deserved to an offer of grace and relationship, no matter what. God changed when God made his promise. We change when we make promises, too.
In 1999, Michael Ackerman was a pediatric cardiologist in training at the Mayo Clinic. One of his first heart transplant patients was eight year old Stefani Pentiuk, who had been on the transplant list for only two days after doctor’s determined she would not live without a transplant heart. When the call came that a heart was available, Stefani was in her hospital room with Dr. Ackerman and asked him if he thought she would live through the transplant.
Dr. Ackerman said later that no class in medical school prepared him for questions of life and death from little kids whose very lives were at risk, and he doesn’t recall what made him say it, but in answer to her question Dr. Ackerman made a promise…he told eight year old Stefani that he would be at her senior prom to dance with her, that the transplant would take and when it did, he promised to show up for a dance.
Sure enough, ten years later Dr. Ackerman was traveling from California to Florida for speaking engagements, but he stopped off inMichiganjust to make an appearance at Stefani’s senior prom. As you can imagine, there were tears all around.
Later, when interviewed on CBS this morning, Dr. Ackerman was asked why he would promise an 8 year old that he’d dance at her prom. After all, what eight year old really spends that much time thinking about a senior prom? Dr. Ackerman said he didn’t really know why he said what he did, other than the fact that he was thinking about Stefani’s father, and about himself as a father, and imagining that senior prom would mark a passage to adulthood that every father would want to see. Going to the prom didn’t mean much to eight year old Stefani at the time, but it did mean something to Dr. Michael Ackerman. It meant enough to see Stefani and her family through the transplant and then travel hours out of his way ten years later just to dance with 18 year old, healthy Stefani…just as he had promised.
In a little way, Dr. Ackerman’s experience when he made that promise to Stefani was a bit like what happened to God after the flood. With the making of a promise, with the hanging of the bow in the sky, something changed. God’s promise changed God—changed God’s regret over creating such sinful creatures into a resolve to love us, no matter what, to forgo our destruction no matter how and how often we miss the mark or fail to meet God’s expectations.
Promise making and promise keeping take courage, largely because they change us. Even God faced change so profound that he had to remind himself of the difference. InHawaiiwhere rainbows are a daily occurrence we learned that seeing a rainbow was a reminder to us of God’s promises. Turns out the text says the bow is a reminder to God…because perhaps even keeping promises is not that easy for God, either. Ancient deities are often depicted holding a bow and arrow. For God to hang a bow in the sky is a physical reminder that God has put away battle; that destruction is no longer an option on the table; that the promise God has made has changed…God.
As we set out on this season of Lent we give thanks that God’s memory is more powerful than our forgetfulness. God will not forget God’s promise to us, even when we forget our promises to God. Striving to keep a promise and failing: these often characterize our Lenten experience. But, though we fail, God does not, and God’s promises to us do not fail either.
The story of Noah and the great flood is a reminder of just that. God has hung God’s bow in the sky and put away retribution forever. God has changed God’s mind.
Perhaps even in our human failing, if we have the courage to make promises, we will change, too. If we examine our lives enough to promise something new, we might find that the act of promise making and promise keeping softens our hearts…that is shifts the focus of our lives from ourselves to others…that we will act responsibly in relationships and situations…that we will see the world in a way that doesn’t always require ourselves at its center…that we will change.
What signs might we need to feel the changes our promises make in us? How can we follow God’s example in the story of Noah and let our promise-making soften our hearts and change us?
This Lent, make your promises. And then, let them change you. Amen.