The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
I am not a seafaring man. I knew ponds and streams as a boy, but I knew hills and fields better. 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 the kindly strangers, friends one has just not yet met, but dark and mysterious strangers. I suspected, just below the surface, there was danger.
I still shy away from any 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 too much unknown. Under the surface are creepy creatures that I cannot see, that I am pretty sure want to touch me or 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'm not interested in that. Am I afraid? Maybe. I might prefer to say I am sensible. I'm sure it is a matter of interpretation.
But if am afraid of the water, I am in good company. The ancient Israelites were a desert people. They wandered in the emptiness of rock and sand for generations. They led their flocks between sparse pastures – always looking for a land able to sustain life. 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 boundaries. 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 full of darkness and 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. God split the water of the Red Sea. God brought water from a rock in the desert. God gave God's prophets the authority to shut up the heavens and open them back up.
And 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. The chaos barely under control – hanging over their heads, lurking at their shores. 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 would mean a flood – instant devastation and death.
And we know that is exactly what happens. God lets the chaos loose. 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 to destroy all flesh...' 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. 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.
This post-flood reading from Genesis is the very first Scripture reading in this new season of Lent. And while the passage repeatedly uses the word “covenant”, this is not a covenant. It is a promise. A covenant is two-sided. An agreement between two parties. When we renew our baptismal covenant with God, God promises to love and keep us forever. We make promises 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. And God, in God's inexhaustible mercy, continues to renew covenant with us.
But this is not that. This is one-sided. And a one-sided covenant is not a covenant; it 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 rest in God's promise. And just to be sure, God hangs God's 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 overcome. It posed a threat to their very existence.
They had two choices: allow the fear to eat them alive or hand it over to someone or something who could handle it.
This season of Lent is a time of self-reflection and prayer. Many of you are planning to give something up. What about fear? All of us carry fears deep within us – fears that control us and dominate us. Fears that would prevent us from becoming the men and women God is calling us to be, preventing us from growing into the full stature of Christ. What the Noah story, especially the piece of it we heard today shows us, is that God is strong enough to save us from those things that we most fear. Are you willing and ready to trust God with your most precious fears? Do you trust that God is strong enough to tame that chaos?
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 depths of our fear. God is everywhere. And God is strong – stronger than our most precious fears.