The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
What About Fear?
I know it doesn’t seem like it, but this part of the Noah story is about what is left when fear is no longer in the picture.
You should know, I am not a seafaring man. I knew the fields and hills of Ohio as a boy. On those rare occasions, when I would gaze over the vastness of Lake Erie – or even rarer still, the impossible expanse of the Atlantic Ocean – those bodies of water seemed to me strangers. But not kindly strangers, not friends one has just not yet met, but mysterious strangers, foreboding strangers. I suspected danger was lurking just below the surface.
I am still suspicious of water that has not yet been domesticated. I am very fond of the water that comes from a tap, that courses through the copper pipes of my house. But I prefer to keep the water that fills lakes, rivers and oceans at an arm's length. There is simply too much unknown in there. Under the surface are creepy creatures that I cannot see, that I am pretty sure want to touch me, even bite me. There are currents that are trying to pull me under, as if that body of water was hungry enough to swallow me whole. I am not interested in that. Am I afraid? Maybe. I prefer to say I am sensible.
But if am afraid of the water, I am in good company. The ancient Israelites were too. They were a desert people. They wandered in the emptiness of rock and sand for generations. They led their flocks from sparse pasture to sparse pasture. When they settled down, they built their Temple in the rocky hills of Jerusalem. They were not a seafaring people.
In fact, as far as they could tell, the sea was simply chaos with a shore. The sea was the realm of monsters and terrors. It consumed ships and ate sailors alive. To a desert people the sea was a stranger – a mysterious stranger teeming with danger.
And this fear surfaces in their sacred stories. God's command of the waters is proof of God's might and power. Only God was able to tame their most worthy adversary and the existential fear it inspired. God split the water of the Red Sea. God brought water from a rock in the desert. God gave the prophets the authority to control the rain, to shut up the heavens and open them back up. That Jesus was able to tame the angry sea was enough to cause the disciples to start asking some pretty dangerous theological questions.
But it all began in the beginning. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep waters, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” It all starts with this wrestling match: God versus the Waters. In the creation stories found at the beginning of the book of Genesis, God's most significant challenge is to tame the chaotic waters. And so we read that God created a dome in the sky – something like a force field to protect the creation from the chaos; the dry land formed the earthly boundaries. In creation God tamed the water – that terrifying water. That is how the people knew God was powerful; God wrestled what they most feared into submission.
With the waters under God's control, life could emerge and thrive on the earth. But it was always there, that dangerous water – threatening to destroy them, threatening to drown them. Chaos barely under control – in that ancient worldview it was hanging over their heads, lurking at their shores, rumbling beneath their feet. In the desert not enough water would eventually lead to famine, would cause them to pull up the tent stakes and journey on; but too much water too quickly would mean a flood – instant devastation and death.
And we know that is exactly what happens. In the Noah story, God releases the chaos. Biblical scholar Tony Cartledge points out that, “God does not say 'I will make it rain' but 'I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth...' The word translated 'flood' is...a technical term for the waters of chaos, not a simple flood.” The Bible says that “the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened.” Cartledge continues: “Water comes up as well as down, and the very order of the universe is threatened, like creation in reverse. In Genesis 1, God separated the chaos waters from the dry land. During the flood, that part of creation was reversed and chaos again imperiled the earth.”
This was the nightmare scenario. This was the worst case: the sea coming to find them. Their deepest primal fear realized. That is what the Flood story is – the story of their fear come to life. And that is why today's passage is so important. They need to know this will never happen again in the future, that God will always protect them from the threat of chaos, from existential destruction.
Today we begin this Lenten season in the aftermath of the Flood, after God again tames the waters. And while the passage, in English, repeatedly uses the word “covenant”, this is not a covenant. It is a promise. You see, a covenant is an agreement between two parties. When we renew our baptismal covenant with God, God promises to love and keep us forever. And we make vows too. We promise to live lives worthy of God's love. We of course continue to fail to live up to our end of the deal. But God, in God's inexhaustible mercy, continues to renew the covenant with us.
But this is not that. This is one-sided. And a one-sided covenant is a promise. God promises Noah, and his descendants, and every living creature: never again. Never again will chaos reign. Never again will the water overcome them. Never again will their worst fear be realized. God is strong enough. They can trust God; they can look into the future with hope, not fear. And to seal the promise, God hangs a bow up in the clouds as a reminder – not for us, but so that God will always remember the promise.
We all have fears. Israel's greatest fear was the chaotic depths, the waters. It represented to them the thing they could not control, could not tame, could not overcome. In their minds, water posed a threat to their very existence.
We all have fears. I am afraid; I am afraid for my children. This week, in our nation, there was yet another mass shooting, another mass shooting of children, another school shooting. This is the fear that haunts me: that, at any time, my children could be taken from me in a chaotic flood of bullets. My children are in kindergarten and pre-school and they run through drills so that they are ready in the event someone comes to their school to kill them. That’s where we are; this is the reality with which are children are living; this is their normal. And I’m also afraid that our country is so broken and divided, so partisan, that this plague will only grow worse. I’m afraid of that. To try to keep from losing my mind, I try to assure myself that it won’t happen to me and my family. But there are grieving parents all across this nation who probably thought the same thing until it happened, until they lost their child on what was a normal day until it became the worst day of their lives.
This is what my wife and I talk about. We talk about it every time it happens. And so pretty often. And we talk about how we feel desperate and helpless and sad and afraid. This is the existential threat of our time. The fear: it is so big; it feels overwhelming, paralyzing, like it might devour the future. It can cause one to sink into despair, to lose hope. The fear is so invasive; it chips away at our ability to trust in God, to believe in love, to find the beauty in the world. And it so stubborn. We spend our lives locked in a staring contest with fear. And in the face of fear, we have two choices: allow the fear to devour us, to plant seeds of hatred and violence in our hearts until we rot from the inside out or we can hand it over to someone or something strong enough to handle it.
This season of Lent is a time of self-examination, repentance, and prayer. Many of you are probably planning to make a change, to give something up. What about fear? Just because there are things in this world that are scary doesn’t mean we have to be afraid.
Fear causes us to lock up our hearts and makes us want to hide away from the world and all the bad things that happen out there. When fear takes over trust fades and hope withers and love grows cold. And when that happens the future feels bleak and everyone everywhere starts to look like an enemy, a threat. God wants better for us, a better world, a better future; God wants “on earth as it is in Heaven.” That will not happen until we learn to love better than we fear. Trust and hope and love are risky in this dangerous world but they are the only path into a better tomorrow.
What the Noah story, especially the piece of it we heard today shows us, is that God is rooting for our future. In the story, God hangs a bow in the sky. We tend to think of this as a rainbow, a weather event – and that is true enough. But the text does not say rainbow; it says bow – as in bow and arrow. God transforms a symbol of violence into a sign of hope. That is why we don’t need to fear the terrors that await us in the future. Because while God is here with us today, the God of the promise is also there, in every moment beyond this present one, calling us to walk boldly into that place where fear thrives. God is strong enough to carry our most haunting fears so that we can keep moving ahead.
And when we give our fears to God, when we trust God with our fears, the bad things don’t go away, but our hearts open and our love is set free in this scary world, this world that desperately needs to be confronted by the power of love – a love that is stronger than violence, stronger than hatred, stronger than division, stronger than fear, stronger even than death. Rather than allow fear to take us out of this world, we can transform this world through the power of love. Because God is with us.
Abba Doulas, the disciple of Abba Bessarion said, ‘One day when we were walking beside the sea I was thirsty and I said to Abba Bessarion, “Father, I am very thirsty.” He said a prayer and said to me, “Drink some of the sea water.” The water proved sweet when I drank some. I even poured some into a leather bottle for fear of being thirsty later on. Seeing this, the old man asked me why I was taking some. I said to him, “Forgive me, it is for fear of being thirsty later on.” Then the old man said, “God is here, God is everywhere.”
In the chaos of the sea. In the suffocating depths of our fear. In the darkness of the darkest night. In the big scary future. Ever calling us to plunge into the dangerous future armed with only trust, hope, and love. God is here, God is everywhere. And God is strong – strong enough to handle even our greatest fears.