The Obedience of Noah

Genesis 6-9

I know, you think Noah’s ark is a children’s story told with flannelgraph and VBS songs.  We fidget a little when we start suggesting that this story about one man (and three sons) building a boat big enough to hold 2 of every living animal, and enough rain falling to cover the earth 20 feet above the highest mountain is real.  But this story is crucial to our understanding of God and his relationship with his people.  It’s not just a story of God’s wrath, but a story of his relentless love for his people – and his determination to do whatever it takes to turn their hearts back to him.  So yes, I have no doubt that it happened just as it is written and that God will continue to do whatever it takes to draw our hearts back to him.

An ancient rabbinic story tells of a holy man who lived in a wicked city.  Every morning this holy man would go out to the gates of the city and shout back in through the gate condemning the wickedness and begging for the city to repent.  The other men would sit at the city gates and laugh and ridicule the man and tell him what a fool he was.  “You’ll never change the city,” they shouted out at him.  And the holy man responded, “I don’t expect to change the city – I just don’t want the city to change me.”

One observer of the religious landscape in America remarked that he saw great evidence that the world was becoming more like the church.  His observation was almost right (just as many Christian as non-Christian marriages will end in divorce, just as many Christians as non-Christians approve of homosexuality, co-habitation, abortion, etc.)– but instead of the world becoming more like the church, it seems to me that the church is becoming more like the world.  And in case I have to spell it out for you, that’s not a good thing.

But it’s a struggle that every generation of God’s people has had to deal with.  And if you feel sometimes like the wickedness of the world is pressing in from every side – you’re in good company, because you’re standing alongside Noah.

Back in the 1970’s Dr. Karl Menninger wrote a book entitled, Whatever Became of Sin? And in that book he observed that nobody talks about sin anymore – not that there isn’t sin – but that we have renamed and reframed it and obliterated the guilt and stigma that accompany it.  People continue to sin, but just aren’t bothered by it. 

Welcome to Noah’s world.  Genesis 6:5 tells us,  The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.  It’s not just that they had the best of intentions but couldn’t avoid sinning and that there was too much temptation and opportunities for sin, but that “every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil all the time.”  They invented ways of sinning; when they weren’t sinning, they were thinking of sinning; while they were sinning, they were dreaming of what their next sin would be.  It was consuming – “all the time.”

It’s hard not to see a parallel between their time and our time.  I ran across a book advertised on Barnes and Noble recently… YOUR AFFAIR!: HOW TO MANAGE EVERY ASPECT OF YOUR EXTRAMARITAL RELATIONSHIP WITH PASSION, DISCRETION AND DIGNITY.  From the Barnes and Noble book description:  In the face of near-universal disapproval, between one quarter and one half of all married Americans (including 15-30% of married women) will, at some point, engage in an extramarital affair. They will have either an enriching experience or the sad, destructive, ugly mess for which affairs are far better known. There is one self-help book that every one of these millions of people wants and needs to read. It has never been written. Until now. Affair is for them: a thoughtful, detailed discussion of every aspect of considering, preparing for, beginning and conducting a successful and emotionally fulfilling extramarital affair, including advice, case histories, numerous first-person narratives, humorous anecdotes and step-by-step guidance for every facet of the process.

I hope that shocks you.  It might not.  We’ve become pretty immune to shocking.  Extra-marital affairs are about the least shocking thing on television these days.  Things that we would never have dreamed possible on network TV (let alone the premium cable stations) are common fare.  And perhaps worse than the fact that they exist is that we aren’t shocked that they exist.

It won’t be long before it will be a hate crime to read Romans 1:26 from the pulpit, where Paul condemns homosexuality, and even now several Christian denominations not only allow but approve of homosexuality, not only among their members but even within their clergy.

I hope it shocks you, but as I said, we’ve become pretty unshockable.  We shrug our shoulders, shake our heads and sigh, “What is the world coming to?”

We find out pretty quickly in Genesis 6, that there is one person who is still shockable – it is God himself:  Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence.  God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways.  (Gen. 6:11-12)

How did it come to this?  Not overnight.  It began with that tragic day in the garden, when Adam and Eve violated the one commandment God had given them and were cast from Eden.  Not many years later, Cain, with jealousy and selfishness in his heart takes the life of his brother Abel  and becomes a fugitive wandering the earth.  Generations pass and Cain’s descendants fill the earth.  But even after Seth is born and a new start is declared, it’s not long before Seth’s descendants (Genesis 6 calls them “the sons of God”) begin to intermarry with the descendants of Cain (those are the “daughters of men”), and as we learn from Israel’s history, anytime God’s people think they can join themselves with the world without consequence, it is the beginning of the end.

But the Lord doesn’t just sit around bemoaning the sorry state of the world, he makes a decision:  The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.  So the Lord said, “I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth – men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air – for I am grieved that I have made them.” (Gen. 6:6-7)

What we find here in Genesis is not an angry tyrant whose commands have been disobeyed, but a grieving father whose children have gone astray.  Something is deeply amiss and it will not get better by ignoring it and hoping for the best.  What he had begun by saying “it is very good” has become very, very bad.  And like a gangrenous limb that, if left to decay, will bring death, he decides to cut it off and preserve what life is left.  What he created with joy and hope, he now decides to wipe from the face of the earth with a flood.

But, as we have come to anticipate, God is not finished.  And in vs. 8, the writer says, “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.”  We learn that Noah is “a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.”

And I’m curious as to how that happened.  Living in the middle of a world of wickedness, he remains righteous and blameless.  How?  You remember the closing verse of ch. 4?  That after the birth of Adam and Eve’s son Seth, “at that time men began to call on the name of the Lord.”  You know who his great-grandfather was?  Enoch.  Here’s what we know about Enoch:  Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away. (Gen. 5:24)  And like his great-grandfather, we read in vs. 9, “and Noah walked with God.”

Noah’s father Lamech named his son Noah and said, “He will comfort us in the labor and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the Lord has cursed.” (Gen. 5:29)

In the midst of hopelessness, Lamech sees hope in this son who has been born.  But this family isn’t perfect.  Noah’s grandfather was Methuselah, who lived longer than any other human being – 969 years.  But if you do the math, you find that even Methuselah died in the flood with everyone else.  The writer says that after Noah was born, Lamech had other sons and daughters, but everyone of them also died in the flood.  We can only assume that they lived with the same wickedness that had infected the rest of the world.  For 500 years Noah lived in a cesspool of sin, surrounded by a world filled with the descendants of Cain who lived separated from the presence of God, but even his own family, in spite of their spiritual heritage, live worldly lives, unaware and unconcerned with the catastrophe that is about to come upon them.

One morning God shows up at Noah’s front door, and he said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them.  I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.”  Can you imagine Noah’s reaction? But God isn’t finished – he tells Noah to build an ark to save himself, his family, and two of every creature on the face of the earth.  This isn’t a story of destruction, but a story of redemption. 

If it were you or I – we would have looked with disgust on what a mess mankind had made of it all, thrown up our hands and wiped the slate clean.  But God doesn’t think that way.  His first thought is always, “how can I redeem this situation and these people who are so dear to me?”

And so he chooses one man and his family to start over.

For the next hundred years Noah does two things:  he builds an ark, exactly according to God’s design and specifications, and 2) by his faith, he condemns the world.

The first we know because of the detailed description of the ark in Genesis 6.  It is 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high.  That’s 1½ football fields long, almost 1½ football fields wide and as tall as a 4 story building.  And it contained three interior decks.  It was a monumental undertaking.  And it’s not like he could run down to Lowe’s and order the lumber he needed – it is all hand cut, hand hewn, no nails or screws, it’s mortised and doweled. Imagine a ship with enough room for two of every living creature on earth (and actually, of the clean animals, it was seven pairs). It’s mind-boggling. 

Also during that hundred years of building, Noah preached.  The writer of Hebrews says this:  “By faith, Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family.  By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.”  Now, I don’t think Noah took to the pulpit and began preaching sermons.  I don’t doubt that he pleaded with and begged people to repent, but what the Hebrews writer is saying is that by his life, Noah presented such a stark contrast with the wickedness of the world that the world stood condemned.  By the righteousness of his life and the power of God working within him, he could not be ignored.

One hundred years after Noah began building the ark, he finished and then he gathered all the animals and enough food for a long journey, and the writer says, Noah did everything just as God commanded him. Three times in these four chapters, we’ll read that same tribute:  “Noah did everything just as God commanded him.”

And now the time had come.  Noah and his wife, his three sons and their wives all gathered into the ark, with all the animals and the Lord shut them in, and the rain came down and the floodwaters began to rise.  The text says, “on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened.”  The rain fell for forty days.  And the waters flooded the earth for 150 days, until every mountain peak was covered and all life was extinguished, except for eight people and the hundreds of animals upon that ark.

Chapter 8 begins, “But God remembered Noah…” 

Don’t read that and think that God had forgotten, or lost interest.  But many times in the OT, that is the phrase used to say, the time has come, God’s plan is on schedule.  In Exodus, the Israelites had been in slavery for 400 years and they cried out to God and, “God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob.”  And when God remembers someone, something good is about to happen. 

Now it is time to begin again.  It will still be another 150 days before the floods recede enough for the ark to come to rest on Mt. Ararat, another two months before the water has gone down enough to come out of the ark.  One year and ten days after the rains began, the doors on the ark are opened and Noah and his family and all the animals come out and the earth will once again be replenished and repopulated.

What is the first thing Noah does when he comes out of the ark?  He doesn’t look around and say, “What a mess, we’ve got to clean up.”  No – listen to vs. 20 – Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it.  The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood.  And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.  As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.  Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.’”

But what happens next is the point at which God’s attention has really been focused:  In vs. 8 – Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you.” And he gave a sign of this covenant:  “I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.  Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind.”

God will make many covenants with his people – with Abraham, with Moses, with David, and finally the new covenant through the blood of his own Son, but this is the first covenant – a promise of his love and his blessings.  A relationship with his people in which he binds himself to them in love so that they (and we) will know that God is with us and is involved in our lives.

And when we enter into a covenant with God, we are also entering into a relationship with a promise of loyalty and obedience and unconditional love. 

When things seem their worst – and I imagine when Noah looked out at the world covered with water, floating on a giant wooden box, it must have looked like the worst – that’s when God has us where he wants us – dependent upon him.  That was Paul’s assessment of what it means to trust in God:  To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:7-10)

Every time you look up in the sky and see a rainbow, every time you take the bread and the cup during the Lord’s Supper, you need to remember that God hasn’t given up on you – that he has promised you his love and his blessings, and on that you can depend.

I hope you have the heart of Noah. Tuned to God’s will, obedient to his command, living a life that glorifies God, even when you’re surrounded by wickedness.  The deeper the darkness, the brighter your light shines. 

God may not have an ark for you to build, but he does call you to live as a witness to the world around you.  In Paul’s words: For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?  (2 Cor. 2:15-16)  And God’s answer to that question?  You are.