Covenant Faith

Transcribed from the sermon preached February 22, 2015

The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

Scripture Readings: Mark 1:9-15, Genesis 9:8-17

Imagine we had no pictures of earth from space, no satellites, no planes or cars, no weather reports of high and low pressure, wind or precipitation. Imagine you lived in one place your whole life. And then one day there is a flood. The rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Nile have no barriers, nothing to keep them from flooding their banks and going whichever direction they please. It rains and rains and soon there are mudslides and rushing flash floods. Many lives are lost. And so people look for reasons. It must be that the gods are angry.
Now since the preservation and formalization of story is done by the winners, those in power, the common flood story became a means to explain why humans should stay quiet. The Babylonian Creation Story, dated about 1800 BCE, the Atrahasis begins, “When the gods instead of man did the work, bore the loads, the gods’ load was too great, the work too hard, the trouble too much…” They created humans so the gods could rest. But soon the humans became too loud and disturbed the god’s rest. What you miss in explanation when you look the story up on the internet, are the obvious economic and political implications. The noise the humans are making is the anger and complaints of the peasants who suffer under the slavery serving the gods. And of course, there is the issue of population; as the humans become more populous, they are harder to control. So the gods send plagues, drought, pestilence, famine. That doesn’t work so finally the gods cause a flood. But the god Enki takes pity on his servant, the wise and kind Atrahasis, warns him of the coming flood and tells him to build and ark and put two of every animal within. Another god, Enlil, is angered when he finds out there are survivors, but Enki explains a way to keep humans quiet and less trouble: Make a new kind of human that has disease and make them less fruitful. Meanwhile, Atrahasis, the Noah like survivor, represented by the king of course, is whisked off to a garden paradise to live apart from these new human beings.
Now if we are hell bent on insisting that the bible’s version of the flood story is the literal truth, that the flood covered the whole earth and Noah was able to get either two or seven of each species of animal on the boat (depending upon which version you choose), then we miss the real significance of the biblical story, which was written first by David’s scribes, and then added to by the priests who had been dragged off to Babylon.
In the biblical version, humans start out in paradise, and it is Cain, the father of the urban elite, who begets violence, murder and oppression that spreads like a disease throughout humanity. So it isn’t the noise of the people slaving after the gods that causes the flood, but those who act like gods and oppress and murder the people, thereby making them cry out loud. It is violence that gets God angry. And after it is over, and God feels bad, he decides to hang his battle bow, unstrung, up in the sky to remind him he is willing, even though humans may sin, to stay in covenant with them. And rather than preventing them from being fruitful, he says, be fruitful and multiply.
Up to this point God hasn’t given humans permission to kill anything, but now he gives them the specific law against murdering humans, but gives them the permission to kill certain animals and eat them, as long as they don’t eat or drink the blood. Now since the winners write the stories which help them justify their position, the Priestly writer will establish a good meat supply for God and the priests of the new temple, but we still have a priestly class that is a little more humble and moral, and a notion of God that is evolving into more than the servant of the elite. The bible still puts a revolutionary twist on an old mythical story. And in that sense, the biblical story of the flood holds truth that we need to hear.
Now the issue of being noisy and overly fruitful will come up again. Where? In Egypt, when pharaoh decides there are too many Israelite slaves and so he decides to kill a bunch of babies. But baby Moses escapes the flood of violence in a little baby ark. God hears the noisy cries of his people and delivers them. Along the way, the Israelites escape through the waters of the sea, the pharaoh’s violent chariots are drowned.
As we approach Easter this Lent, we will take a look at God’s covenants with his people as recorded in Genesis and Exodus. A covenant is an oath, a bond, an agreement. Covenant is of importance to the Priestly writers, during exile in Babylon or shortly after their return to Israel. There are three main covenants in the Hebrew Scriptures. The first is the covenant with Noah, concerning the spilling of blood and symbolized by the bow or rainbow. The second is the Covenant with Abraham, whose symbol is circumcision, and is the promise of the growth of a particular people. The third is the covenant with Moses, whose symbol is Sabbath law, which is also labor law, and the way the descendants of Abraham are to guide and order their lives.
W.M. Loyd Allen, in Feasting on the Word, edited by David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor notes this covenant doesn’t settle all. “God’s vision of a unified, harmonious cosmos remains in conflict with humanities corrupting violence. Lent recognizes this imbalance,” encourages us to repent, accept our finitude, and stop acting like we are gods who can get away with murder and oppress other people so that we can rest. This cosmic drama continues in Marks Gospel, as Jesus, covered by the waters in baptism, comes up and is driven out into the wilderness. Will Jesus succumb to the violence and power games of the devil and a humanity fighting against the facts of its own limitation and mortality? Or will he show that God’s original blessing is possible? Jesus gives us the fourth covenant, represented in the sign of baptism, a New Covenant, universal like the first with Noah, where the power of God for new life and love comes through grace. By faith we commit to this vision, to this covenant. By faith we let go of murder in the name of our God, by faith we recognize God’s love and good intention for all humanity, regardless of race or culture. By faith we give ourselves, our work, our words, our intentions, our heart to this God who will see us through.