As it looks like restrictions may begin to lift, how has lock-down been for you? If you’ve had to work from home, has that been a good thing or has it been a struggle? How about home schooling or being in all day with the pets? Perhaps it’s not being able to go out for a beer on a Friday night or not being able to sing in church or not seeing your family like you used to. All of those things are disruptive but maybe for some here it’s been a matter of life and death – you’ve lost loved ones or had Covid yourself.
Even with the restrictions, most of us have been able to get out of the house for essential shopping or to go for a walk. But perhaps there are a few on today who haven’t been outside all this time, for what is getting on for a year now.
But when this is all done and over, what will be the first thing that you do? Will it be going out for a meal or saying thanks to God – or perhaps down the pub to see your mates? Maybe you’ll have a few too many and be worse for wear after! I wonder if you’re anxious about what life will be like after-Covid?
It’ll never happen
As we turn to our readings today, let’s first look more widely at the flood. The Old Testament equivalent of weatherman Michael Fish would have said “a lady has rung me about an impending hurricane but don’t worry, it’s not going to happen”. And then they would have named it Storm Adam or Storm Abel as it started to get more serious.
Depending on how you read the story in Genesis, if you count up all the different stages, then you might find that Noah, his 7 other family members and all the animals were together, locked-down, self-isolating, in a rudderless ship (does that sound familiar?) for not just the 40 days and 40 nights when it was raining but for just over a year. A total of 377 days! No trips to the local park for a breath of fresh air, no visits to Tesco for the weekly shop. 377 days. Claustrophobic, smelly, noisy – and a really poor internet connection.
I’m paraphrasing, just a little, but it’s no wonder that the first thing that Noah did when he got out was to give thanks to God by having a barbecue, where he burnt everything, and then he got drunk. Maybe it was on a Friday night?
Just how bad was it?
But Noah didn’t have a wine cellar in the ark. He planted a vineyard when they landed and then supped too much of the wine that it eventually produced. This was a drinking session that was months in the making! Just how dreadful was it, locked in with all those others, so that months later he still needed to get sloshed? Maybe he was afraid of the responsibility of getting everything going again? Or was it survivors’ guilt? Afterall, other members of his family didn’t make it onto the ark. If you do your sums, you’ll see that Noah’s grandad died in the year of the flood. Maybe he was caught in the rising waters? We don’t know. You will know his grandad though – his name was Methuselah.
Our passage today comes after the burnt offerings and before the booze. God makes a covenant with Noah. A promise to never again send a flood which will destroy the earth. It’s the first of 3 covenants that we’ll see in the Old Testament during Lent. Next week we’ll have the covenant with Abraham and the week after, that with Moses.
But the covenant is not just with Noah and not just with his family – it’s with all living creatures. God is in relationship with all creation. And not just then – it was for all future generations to come. And as a reminder God sets his bow in the sky, rather like getting an alert from his on-line calendar or having a knot in his handkerchief. In this time of Lent we would do well to remind ourselves of that commitment to all creation. Because we were set here by God as his stewards to look after the world – and we need to repent for how we have handled, or mishandled, that responsibility.
Some of you will know that I love the book called ‘Noah’s Brother’ by Dick King-Smith. In the book, it’s Noah’s unknown older brother who is the real hero. He’s the one who actually builds the ark and gets all the animals in. It’s Noah’s brother who saves the ark from sinking by getting the elephants to stick their bottoms through the portholes when the ark starts to ride too low and water comes sloshing in. And at the very end, when God puts his bow in the sky, one end of that rainbow rests on Noah’s brother and on the two white doves that sit on his shoulders, doves that he named Peace and Goodwill. And according to the book they are still there now. Living happily, ever after.
A few too many
And back in the Bible, God’s promise comes after a blessing. In a repeat of the Garden of Eden, God tells Noah and his family and all the animals to go and be fruitful and multiply. It was to be a fresh start, a new beginning after a dreadful year.
Such a shame then that Noah blows it by having a few too many. They survive the trip, God blesses them and promises it won’t happen again, then Noah gets drunk. He doesn’t exactly cover himself with glory – in fact he doesn’t cover himself with anything at all! He gets naked. There’s a fall out within the family and after God blesses everything, Noah curses. In the very first thing that he’s recorded as saying in all the story of the flood, he curses the descendants of one of his own sons.
God in search of man
Isn’t life a bit like that though? We survive a really tough time, then feel like we’re in a period of blessing – and then circumstances change or we mess up.
But God’s pledge still stands. For some inexplicable reason, despite everything, he likes our company! Abraham Heschel once said that all of Scripture, is God in search of man. God won’t give up on us, he’ll carry on seeking us out – because the covenant, his pledge, was all on him – in his graciousness he asked for nothing in return.
Dryness, dust and desert
And I wonder how Jesus felt in our Gospel reading. In Mark’s typical shorthand, we see Jesus baptised, heaven torn apart, God saying he was well pleased – but then Jesus finds himself in the wilderness for 40 days with Satan, wild beasts and a few angels for company. This time it’s not 40 days of rain but 40 days of dryness, of dust, of desert. Then Jesus is off proclaiming God’s good news.
So, one minute Jesus is in the River Jordan with Cousin John, and God telling him he’s beloved – the next, bewilderingly, he’s in the desert. God’s not angry or punishing Jesus, after all he’s “well pleased”. No, after the baptism and after the blessing, after that wonderful affirmation, somehow this is a necessary time to prepare before Jesus can proclaim. He needs this dry time to be faithful and to endure and to totally rely on God’s provision. To grow and to find meaning. I believe that those temptations in the desert helped clarify for Jesus what he was there to do.
What’s next for us?
Perhaps we too need to stop, in this time of desolation, and ask what’s next for us? In this time of trauma and wilderness what are we being prepared for? What growth and meaning will we find in all this?
Maybe, like Noah, we are just being called to survive and start afresh and be good stewards of what God has given us. Or, like Jesus, are we being prepared to proclaim God’s good news? Perhaps it’s a bit of both. But let’s each one of us use these periods of lock-down and of Lent to ask ourselves exactly what God is asking of us.
I’m going to finish with a poem called: Where the breath begins. It’s by Jan Richardson and can be found on her website and in her wonderful book, Circle of Grace. Amen
‘A beer on a Friday night’ was delivered on Sunday 21st February 2021 by Ian Banks. This was to an on-line congregation from Bury, Heywood and Rochdale and was based on Genesis 9:8-17 and Mark 1:9-15.