God so loved the world

Message for the First Sunday of Lent, February 18, 2018
Glennon Heights Mennonite Church
Betsy Headrick McCrae
Scripture passage: Genesis 9: 8-17
God so loved the world
God created the world – night and day, the sea and the dry land, the sky, the
plants and animals and, finally, human beings, male and female God created us. God was
pleased with this creation. It reflected and embodied God’s love. Creation was, and is,
God’s vision statement. In it, God saw great possibility. And God proclaimed it good.
It was also free once it was put into motion. This is especially true for us human
beings. God created us with the ability to choose. We can choose to follow or to turn
away. We can choose to respect or to undermine each other. We can choose to protect or
to kill. We are not God’s puppets. Instead we are sentient beings worthy of respect.
Worthy of relationship with God. Worthy of autonomy. What a gift for us! What a risk
on God’s part! What an optimistic gesture of trust!
Unfortunately, the trust was broken. Things didn’t go according to plan. Human
beings did not live up to their better nature. Instead they chose evil over good. They
choose selfishness, greed and destruction. Things got really bad. Until “the earth was
corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence,” it says in Genesis 6:11.
God is extremely disappointed. The vision has gone sour. This is not the way things are
supposed to be. Something has to be done.
After making arrangements to save the animals and a few humans in the ark, God
allows a great flood to come, a flood that will cover and destroy every living thing on the
earth. Pretty drastic measures. God participates in the destruction. But apparently – and
this is the crux of the story – this is a turning point for God. Now that’s a fascinating
point to ponder. We think of God as unchangeable, but that’s not being true to the Old
Testament story. Time and time again, God has to stop and take stock of how things are
turning out. Then God has to adjust God’s expectations in order to be able to continue
being in relationship with human beings. This story of the flood is a case in point. We
learn a lot about God from this story. We learn a lot about God’s deep love for and
commitment to the world.
I am indebted to Leander E. Keck, who wrote the Genesis commentary for the
New Interpreter’s Bible, for many of the insights I will share with you next.
The flood story is all about God, Mr. Keck writes. It’s about God’s decisions and
commitments regarding the creation. It’s about God’s love for the world. The beginning
and goal of the event lie with God. Noah, his family and the animals – the parts of the
story which we tend to focus on – are actually secondary characters.
The images of God developed in the story are striking and very familiar from a
human perspective. In this story we see a God who expresses sorrow and regret: “The
Lord was sorry that he had made humankind and it grieved him to his heart.” (Genesis
6:6) We see a God who judges, but doesn’t want to, so that judgment happens carefully
and with forethought. Think of all those exacting instructions on how to build the ark
and who and what to bring into it. We see a God who goes beyond justice and
determines to save some creatures, including every species of animal and bird. We see a
God who commits to the future of a less than perfect world; a God open to change and to
doing things in new ways; a God who in the end promises never to do this again. This
story reveals and resolves a fundamental tension within God, a tension between
perfection and love, emphasizing finally, not a God who decides to destroy, but a God
who wills to save, a God who is committed to change based on experience with the world
as it is, and who promises to stand by creation no matter what.
Seeing these familiar human feelings in God reveals something to us about God.
The grieving divine response to the great wickedness and corruption on the earth harks
back to the morning of the world and relates to all creatures. God loved the world that
God created and God continues to be open to and affected by the world. God’s judgment
is not a detached decision like the flicking of a switch or sending an impersonal
command through a subordinate. No, God is caught up in the matter. God’s judgment is
a very personal decision, with all the mixed sorrow and anger that go into the making of
decisions that affect the people whom one loves. God grieves what has happened. Grief
is always what the Godward side of judgment looks like. Let me say that again because I
think this is important for us to understand. Grief is always what the Godward side of
judgment looks like.
The change that happens in God is fundamental to this story. It is a change which
makes possible a new beginning for creation. The flood doesn’t change humankind. But
it irreversibly changes God. It is now clear that a commitment to creation on God’s part
is costly. The God-world relation is not simply that of strong God and needy world.
Now it is a tortured relation between a grieved God and a resistant world. What God
does in response to the flood “recharacterizes” the divine relationship to the world. To
put it simply, God decides to put up with this state of evil. This startling divine
commitment signals the end of any simple sin and consequences arrangement. The new
covenant truly is one-sided. We still have a very hard time wrapping our heads around
this one. God covenants to stick with us no matter what we do or how we respond.
But the change in God involves something other than a patient tolerance of human
sin. For God to promise never to do something again, and to be faithful to that promise,
requires self-limitation regarding the exercise of divine freedom and power. God has to
be OK with limited options, in this case, no more flood-like responses to evil in the
world. But God does not and cannot simply resign to evil. Therefore, God must find a
new way of engaging evil. This is where we get to the challenging heart of the matter:
God takes the route of suffering. Yes, you heard correctly: God chooses to suffer.
Deciding to endure a wicked world, while continuing to open up the divine heart to that
world, means that God will continue to grieve. In order to continue relating to
humankind, God decides to take suffering into God’s own self and bear it there for the
sake of the future of the world. This is a consistent posture. We see this suffering God
revealed in Jesus.
God’s regret-filled response – taking the route of suffering – accepts the fact that
humans have resisted God’s will for creation. To continue to interact with creation God
must choose to continue to live with such resisting creatures (not your typical CEO!).
God decides to go with the world, with all of us come what may in the way of human
wickedness. God makes this promise, not simply in spite of human failure, but because
we human beings are sinful. The way into the future cannot depend on human loyalty;
sinfulness so defines humanity that, if human beings are to live, and perhaps to thrive,
they must be undergirded by the divine promise. Because of human sinfulness, God
promises to stay with creation. Because the need is desperate and God’s love is deep,
God decides to stick with us anyway. Amazing.
There’s a mixture of realism and promise here. On the one hand, we human
beings remain sinful creatures through and through. The flood cuts us off from any
return to paradise; access to that idyllic world cannot be bridged or developed by gradual
improvement. For the sake of creation, God must formulate laws to restrain negative
human tendencies and behavior. On the other hand, human beings remain in the image of
God; we are so highly valued that commands must be put in place to conserve our life,
and we retain fundamental responsibility for the larger created order. But humans do not
possess sufficient resources for the task; only God can assure creation’s future. To this
end, God tweaks the workings of divine judgment and promises an orderly cosmos for
the continuation of human and nonhuman life. We humans may, by virtue of our own
destructive behaviors, put ourselves out of business, but this is not because God has so
determined it or because the created order has failed.
That’s the meaning of the rainbow. “When the bow is in the clouds, I, God, will
see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of
all flesh that is on the earth.” We take comfort in this visual promise but it is actually a
reminder for God, not for us. It is a reminder for God of the changes that have happened,
of the commitment made, of the conscious choice to suffer with and for rather than
annihilate. It is a reminder that God’s love for creation and us human beings is stronger
than any evil we can produce or any goodness we destroy. God knows the extent of the
damage we can do and God has determined to stick with us anyway. This is truly an
upside down/inside out kind of arrangement. One that doesn’t make sense but given
some of the evil acts and environmental damage in our world today, it is a promise that is
full of incredible hope.
We do worship an amazing God. One who loves us and all creation beyond all
that is reasonable. One who knows who we are and what we are capable of and is
sticking with us anyway. To this our only response is humble, grateful praise.
In a bit we will sing together these words of praise as our hymn of response.
Listen with open hearts as I read them now:
We would extol thee, ever-blessed Lord.
Thy holy name forever be adored.
Each day we live to thee our psalm we raise.
Thou, God and Sovereign, worthy of our praise,
Great and unsearchable art all thy ways.
Age shall to age pass on the endless song,
Telling the wonders which to thee belong,
Thy mighty acts with joy and fear relate.
Laud we thy glory while on thee we wait,
Glad in the knowledge of thy love so great.
Thou, Lord, art gracious, merciful to all,
Near to thy children when on thee they call.
Slow unto anger, full of pity, kind,
Thou to compassion ever art inclined.
We love thee with our heart and strength and mind. Amen.

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