your Son battled with the powers of darkness,
and grew closer to you in the desert:
help us to use these days to grow in wisdom and prayer
that we may witness to your saving love
in Jesus Christ our Lord.
THROUGH WATER Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15
Do you know what part of a traditional church the nave is? It’s
the main body of the church where the congregation gathers for worship.
One theory about where the name came from is that it is from the Latin
word navis meaning “ship”. It is where we get our words navy
and navigate from. The idea is that the shape of a church’s nave
is like that of an up-turned ship with the point of the roof being like
the ship’s hull. Perhaps one of the ideas of the church being like
a ship comes from the story of Noah’s ark – the big ship in
which Noah, his family, and the animal kingdom survived the great flood
we read about in Genesis.
The story of Noah’s ark is an appealing one we teach our children
as they grow up and learn something of the faith. But as adults, once
you start asking questions about it, the picture is not quite as straight
forward. Was there really a flood that covered the whole earth? What geological
evidence is there for such a thing? If it was true to some extent, say
covering what seemed to the people of the day, the whole world, then what
are we to make of the meaning the Bible gives us about it? Did God really
destroy everyone because they were evil and only save Noah and his family
because they were good? If that is the case, what kind of God does that
present to us – a God who is hard to please, or who can sometimes
be extremely destructive? If God is a being who destroys wicked people,
doesn’t that give us a problem because no-one is perfect and there’s
some wickedness in all of us?
story literally may pose some very awkward problems for us. It is possible
that serious flooding did happen in prehistoric times with devastating
consequences. Who can forget the much more recent tsunami of Boxing Day
2004? In many cultures, not just those based on the Bible like our own,
there are stories of a great flood that seemed to divide history. We can
call this kind of story a myth, not because it is untrue, but because
it is a story which has a strong influence in the way we think. Just such
a myth is also included in the Hebrew scriptures and it has meaning much
more significant than whether it was literally true or not.
of the Flood Story
One meaning we may discover in the flood story arises from a reason for
it in the first place. It is a mythical way of explaining the natural
phenomenon of the rainbow. Where did the rainbow come from, we may ask?
Noah’s ark is a story-style way of answering that question. For
the compilers of Hebrew scriptures the reason for the rainbow is attached
to a promise of God given to all creatures after the devastation of the
flood. We may refer to this as the first covenant, or promise of God.
In succeeding weeks this Lent, the first reading each time tells of the
following covenants – with Abraham, with Moses and through Jeremiah’s
preaching, the promise of a new heart for each believer.
is, as it were, the good thing that came out of the tragedy of the flood.
The rainbow is a sign of God’s hope for the future of the world,
and the fact that a few survived by being preserved in the ark, means
that God was able to place his hope in some living and conscious beings,
including humans. God’s promise to Noah is representative of his
desire, not to destroy, but to save, to want the best for life in this
universe which we believe he created and sustains. Catastrophe is a fact
of the universe. From time to time, because of the forces of nature and
through chance, nature wreaks havoc on life. God’s main concern
is to bring life out of death, good out of bad, hope out of despair. So
we look to the rainbow, a mixture of light and tears, to remind us of
this truth. It is God’s pact with all creatures.
When we turn to the gospel we see a similar story of the role of water
and the covenant by which we experience God’s promise of life. Jesus
emerged from the symbolic flood of baptism in the Jordan. The sign that
appeared after that flood was not the rainbow but the Spirit descending
like a dove. In a symbolic reversal of the Noah’s flood story, Jesus
is then driven into the wilderness for 40 days after the overwhelming
event. It is the Spirit who drives him there as he spends time confronting
those choices that threatened to take the life from him. As Noah and the
creatures were tested in the ark during the 40 days of the flood, so Jesus
is tested during his 40 days in the wilderness. This prepared him to fulfil
his mission in the ways that his Father intended, eventually going through
to suffer and die on the cross before he was raised from death in the
It is through
baptism that we are brought into the special covenant that God offers
us through Jesus. It is through the life of the Holy Spirit that we find
life beyond the rainbow. To the gift of our physical lives, themselves
a promise of God, is added the gift of fullness of life, the richness
of a spiritual dimension to our lives.
It is in our spiritual lives that we find meaning and purpose to the existence
of life in the first place. Jesus is that ark by which this fullness of
life is preserved and brought to us. Through him God is pleased to bring
us the new covenant, the promise of life to all who believe.
The ark has often been used as a symbol of the Church – not just
the church as a building, but the Church as the living community of Christ.
The problem is that in the past or in the attitude of some Christians,
the ark has been treated as a tight ship, as something more closed than
open. You may have heard of the Catholic doctrine that “outside
the Church there is no salvation.” This has led to an attitude of
exclusiveness, of viewing those outside the ark as lost. It may not be
so much our own problem if we think of ourselves as more open-minded,
but we do need to be more clear-minded. If we believe that in Christ,
the covenant which gives us fullness of life calls us to be faithful to
him, on what can we base our other conviction that somehow those not in
the ark are not necessarily condemned? The answer, I believe, is in taking
Noah’s covenant seriously. God promised Noah that all flesh would
never again be destroyed through a flood. That covenant still stands,
it has never been revoked. If we are to take it seriously, and what it
means, then we are able to believe that in God’s good purposes,
those who do not necessarily come on board our particular ark are not
destroyed. It is with this confidence that we are able to respect and
accept those are not Christians. God promised life to all through the
sign of the rainbow. But we can also speak with confidence to those who
are not Christians and seek to understand what their understanding of
life is. We can explore with them on what they might base their faith?
We can challenge those who don’t profess any faith as to what they
might base their valuing of life.
The story of Noah’s ark, the world-wide flood and the origins of
the rainbow are a myth in the sense of being a powerful story, a story
that helps explain or give meaning to our lives. I hope that by tackling
some of the difficulties it can pose once we start looking more closely
at it, I have also shown that it can result in a deeper appreciation of
that story. That is power of myth – that it can be a great story
for children to enjoy at their level of understanding, as well as a story
full of meaning when adults approach it in their particular way. When
we look at the story of Jesus, though we believe it really happened, we
can understand it more deeply through the stories which his own people,
the Hebrews preserved as sacred scriptures. Through all of this we may
find our faith in God, the giver and preserver of all life, deepened and
strengthened. May God, through his Spirit and in our following of Jesus,
help us to withstand all the tests that come our way, whether they are
like a flood, or like the temptations that Jesus experienced in the wilderness!
© Rev Paul Smith