‘O hear us when we cry to thee
For those in peril on the sea.’
These lines come from the evocative seafarer’s hymn; Eternal Father, Strong to save. From earliest times, the sea was regarded as a place of great danger. It was to be feared and respected. Today, we are familiar with the work of the RNLI who have progressively found more sophisticated ways of rescuing those who find themselves in peril on the sea. Lighthouses warn of the danger of rocks and satellite navigation systems serve to keep ships on a safe course. Modern shipping is generally well constructed, and cruise ships provide a popular and cost-effective holiday option for many to sail the world’s oceans. Yet none of this takes away from the danger and menace of a stormy night at sea. Ship wrecks still occur, and dramatic rescues have to be made.
The bible was written in the lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea, the great sea as it was known. We often think of ‘the med’ as a lovely warm sea for holidays, but from October to March, fierce winds and storms can blow for days which certainly threatened the simple wooden ships then in use. Against his better judgement, the apostle Paul found himself in a ship sailing at the wrong time of year. Eventually it was driven aground off Malta but by God’s grace, all hands were saved. (Acts 27)
There are other biblical stories of rescue from ships such as Jesus calming the storm and walking on the water or Jonah being thrown overboard and rescued by a whale. In our New Testament reading today, (1 Peter 3.18-22) we have a reference to another rescue from a watery abyss. Peter talks of God waiting patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water.
The story of Noah’s ark is one of the few from the bible which children may be familiar with today. I guess it is the attraction of the animals going in two by two, the elephant and the kangaroo. But, in a culture where we often want to shield children from the realities of life, we tell this story of mass destruction in which the fountains of the great deep burst forth and the windows of heaven were opened. (Genesis 7.11) In a combination of torrential rain and tsunami, all the population of the world was destroyed apart from Noah, his family and the menagerie in the ark. The old testament reading (Genesis 9.8-17) picks up on the final outcome of the story with a covenant being established between God and Noah in which God agrees never to destroy the earth by means of a flood and establishes the rainbow as a sign of the agreement.
Today, we understand the science behind the rainbow; that it is caused by raindrops acting as prisms splitting the light from the sun into its constituent colours and projecting it on to the backdrop of the clouds. We may also be challenged by the idea of all the world’s species of animal about which Sir David Attenborough waxes lyrical surviving cooped up in a wooden boat for forty and more days. Imagine the smell! Yet, archaeology does reveal a thick layer of sediment in parts of the Middle East with the remains of settlement below indicating a catastrophic flood at least in certain localities and there are stories like Noah’s ark from other civilizations. I suggest that we best understand Noah’s as a story grounded in distance events which under the influence of God’s Spirit comes down to us in scripture with profound meaning.
The book of Genesis gives a clear reason for God to act as he does in the events of the flood. It states: ‘The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth and that every inclination of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So, the Lord said, ‘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.’’ (Genesis 6. 5-7) These words should bring us up short. They are really challenging. How can the God of love, the patient and long suffering one give up on his creation and want to destroy so much of it so soon after he has created it? Is he not just behaving like an impetuous child who tears up the picture he has just painted because he is dissatisfied with it? How could God cause such suffering just because he is unhappy with human behaviour?
Answers to these questions are not easy. What the story clearly illustrates is God’s intolerance of sin, evil and wickedness. We find that uncomfortable. It is easier to think of a God who turns a blind eye to sin and lets it go by, who is not too hard on the things in our lives which we know to be wrong. But we do want him to be as harsh as he likes on those who have hurt us or done something that our society considers especially bad.
Here in lies the issue. Our view of sin can be very variable and selective. Last week, the news has been full of the wicked actions of aid workers, notably Oxfam personal, who have abused their position in using prostitutes in Haiti. Certainly, their behaviour has been appalling and the way in which Oxfam dealt with it was unsatisfactory. The danger from all this is that it will discourage people from giving to support the needy through aid organisations. It will also increase self-righteous calls on the government to reduce the aid budget. Making much of one sin will lead to others, possibly worse.
God’s standard and will for us clearly expressed in scripture is faithful committed relationships in marriage. Attitudes in our society punish lapses of aid workers and philandering MP’s while seeing it as quite acceptable for celebrities to move from one relationship to another or the young to experiment with many sexual partners before ‘settling down’ even though they may cause much hurt.
God is holy. He looks for holiness in his creation. (Leviticus 11.44 & 1 Peter 1.16) May be against this background, we can begin to understand why God might want to scrub out his creation and start again. But critically for us, he agrees with Noah that: ‘…never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ (Genesis 9.11) Realising how close we all came to never existing due to human wickedness, we need to take sin as seriously as God does; to understand that his judgement stands against all sin equally in all generations and culture. God’s judgement potentially means the annihilation of our race and the planet we live. But and it is a very big BUT; because he is a God of love as well as judgement, the bible from Genesis 12 onwards tells of how he works with the human world to deal with and to rescue us from the consequences of sin. This culminates as Peter writes in todays second reading: ‘For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.’ (1 Peter 3.18) He then goes on to draw the parallel between baptism and the ark. Just as Noah and his family were saved ‘through’ water, so we are saved through baptism…simply the act of baptism but embracing what it means by faith…an appeal to God for a good conscience. (1Peter 3.21)
Our readings today on this first Sunday of Lent focus our thoughts on sin. It can be likened to a stormy sea in which human life will perish in the judgement of God and that threat is real. But so too is the love of God. Jesus comes walking out to us. He becomes sin for us and so deals with sin, makes atonement for it so that we are rescued into the life boat of baptism…true baptism, in which our hearts are repentant, and we believe the good news of the kingdom. Let us never forget how great a cost, the amazing rescue that God offers. May that give us fresh strength to make known that message of forgiveness to others. Let us never be churlish when, to end with the line from another hymn: ‘the vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.
Lent 1. 18.02.2018
‘O hear us when we cry to thee