Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Grief and Grace”
Rev. Art Ritter
February 18, 2018
Genesis 9: 8-17
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
I will always remember one of my mother’s favorite sayings, although until this week, I had no idea where it came from. I had to look it up but it seems that she was actually quoting the American Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier from his poem Maud Muller. Whenever one of her children would carry regret or reach a situation of wondering, “What might have been?” my mother would readily say this, “Of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’”
I thought about that Whittier quote this week reflecting on what might be the saddest words of tongue and pen. Perhaps Whittier was wrong. Perhaps the saddest words ever written or spoken were those from the book of Genesis at the very beginning of the story of Noah, words that came about three chapters before the reading we heard just a few minutes ago. The story of Noah, that wonderful tale of animals and arks and rainbows begins with these words, “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” That’s a painful sentence to hear, isn’t it? The same God who brought all of creation into being and pronounced it good, and created human beings in the likeness of the divine, is now ready to destroy everything. In just a few short chapters of the Bible, humans have gone from innocent, obedient creatures that share in the work of God to sinful, selfish creatures who think and act as if they are their own gods.
God’s heart is broken. God is grieving at God’s failure. Perhaps God felt the same sense of hopelessness we feel when we hear the tragic news of our world. God decides that there is no way out of all of the pain except to wipe the slate clean. God says, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created- people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” Those words also just hit you in the pit of the stomach. “I am sorry that you were created.” Can we even imagine God saying such a thing?
With a purpose moved by anger and regret and grief, God caused the rain the fall and the waters to rise. All was destroyed, except for Noah and his family and a sample of creation contained safely within the ark. And then we move on to a new part of the story.
For some reason, God hangs on to a thin thread of hope. Throughout the tale we read that “God remembered Noah and his family and the animals.” It seems as if there is something about God that can’t let go of this attachment to creation, no matter how much God grieves. The winds of grace begin to blow, creating a new beginning. The waters subside. Noah sends forth a dove who returns with an olive leaf. Humans and creatures leave the ark and God renews God’s blessing on Noah and every living thing. We read of rainbows and of a new promise. This new beginning is such a happy ending.
As much as we enjoy this classic Biblical tale, we usually read it the wrong way. This story really isn’t about us. It is about God. The last word in the story isn’t about how we are never going to sin and fail ever again; it is about God’s grace that reaches beyond God’s grief and disappointment. Human beings don’t change in this story. It is God who changes. God changes from a God of retribution and reprisal to a God of relationship and forgiveness. In this story we learn that God will never, ever let us go. God will go with us, lovingly seeking us to move to a divine intention, even through more darkness and sorrow, even through a cross. This story is about God’s grief and regret evolving into long suffering grace.
I always recall that in his PBS television series Genesis, journalist Bill Moyers asked several guests what kind of headline they would give to the story of Noah and the flood. One newspaper editor summed it up as we might write it with this rather predictable headline, “God Destroys World.” But one of the guests, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Proctor, pastor of a church in Harlem, NY, suggested an alternative headline that he thought better conveyed the true meaning of the story. His headline was, “God Give Humans Second Chance.”
As we begin this Lenten season, it is a good opportunity to be truth about who we are. It is right and proper to be honest about our sin, to understand that we have habits and desires and inclinations that break God’s heart. We are negligent enough about being true to God’s intention that we are part of the disobedient heritage that was strong enough to cause God to grieve. But we begin this season of Lent understanding the goodness of God’s grace. The God of the flood turned into the God of the rainbow. We learn that God chooses to be with us faithfully, whatever the cost. We understand that God deals with us in mercy. We come to know in faith, that God is part of our story, each and every day, despite the darkness and disappointment.