It was Kermit the Frog who famously queried “Why are there so many songs about rainbows?” And we might want to ponder why the story of Noah and the ark is so captivating. Every church nursery has an ark play set and when we renovated our nursery last summer we placed wall stencils of Noah and the ark around the room. Children, I think, are drawn to the animals and the imaginative possibility that all could get along in tight quarters. As we grow older other themes emerge from the story: Noah’s faithfulness in the midst of ridicule and his courage in the face of danger; God’s anger at human wickedness and swift judgment of the entire world; and God’s desire to redeem what is good and make a new beginning.
The elements of this story that are historical are hard to determine. So many different cultures have flood stories that it seems likely it has a basis in fact. The ice age 10,000 years ago dramatically dropped ocean and inland lake levels. As those massive sheets of ice (over mile thick) began to melt that water went somewhere, well, in fact, everywhere. Did it cover the whole earth? Probably not. But it certainly made an impression of clusters of people living in various locations around the globe some 7,000 years ago. Surely their stories and myths are based in a historical event.
The quest to find Noah’s ark is, for some, the search for the Holy Grail. For them, if found, it would validate everything the bible says. A Dutchman by the name of Johan Huibers has gone so far as to build a replica of Noah’s ark that welcomes 3,000 tourists a day. His enormous attraction features life-size plastic animals to show (in theory) how it all might have worked. For folks like these, faith is in the details. If the details are accurate, then the faith is reasonable.
But not for me. For me, faith is in the meaning. What does the story of Noah and the ark say to us? What meaning should we take from it? Is it only a cuddly story that should be consigned to church nurseries? Or is it a litmus test for biblical relevance? Or does it say something important about who we are to be in God’s world?
In this morning’s Old Testament reading we hear the heart of the ark story. After the floodwaters have receded and after all is said and done, God establishes a covenant with Noah. It is, in fact, the first covenant in biblical history. A covenant is a kind of contract between two people or parties. It speaks of a deep desire to be in a committed relationship. That is why we understand marriage to be a type of covenant and reflective of God’s love for us. God establishes with us through Noah a kind of marriage relationship, if you will. But notice that God’s covenant is not just with Noah and not just with his family and not just with the human family, it is with all of creation. God desires to be in covenant relationship with all that has been created and thus tasks Noah with preserving every specious on the face of the earth.
How should this covenant inform the way we live out our Christian faith? It says to me that we Christians have the highest possible reason to care for the health and wellbeing of all life on this planet because we are heirs of God’s covenant with Noah. Beyond the motivation of naturalists, members of the Audubon Society, and tree-huggers everywhere, we have a spiritual and theological mandate to preserve life in all its forms.
Did you know that based on geological records, our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals in the past half-billion years? It is the first mass extinction since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. And unlike the others that were initiated by a massive volcanic eruption or an asteroid strike, this one cannot be traced to a single naturally occurring event.
It is typical to lose one to five species a year, but we live in an age when we losing 1,000 to 10,000 species a year. Think about that for a moment. On this First Sunday in Lent alone, it is likely that several hundred plants, animal, insect, and aquatic species will disappear from the planet forever. By the year 2050, it is possible that half of the species now alive will be gone.
Here is where we stand today:
· 12% of all bird species worldwide are considered threatened.
· 21% of all fish species are at risk of extinction.
· 21% of all reptiles are threatened.
· 50% of all primates – our closest relatives on the planet – are endangered.
The numbers truly are staggering and the size of the problem is numbing.
Those of us within the Christian family have been involved in an on-going discussion that mirrors the national debate on climate change and global warming. In spite of this week’s frigid winter weather, that the planet’s temperature is rising is an irrefutable fact. Numbers don’t lie. What is up for debate is the cause of this warming and what human action can do to make a difference.
Here is something else that is irrefutable for us Christians: God loves all creation for the bible tells us so:
· Psalm 145:13: “The LORD is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made.”
· 1 Chronicles 29:11: “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours.”
· Luke 12:6: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight.”
· Colossians 1:15-16: “Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.”
The bible also speaks powerfully regarding God’s displeasure at the misuse of creation:
· Leviticus 18: 28: “If you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.”
· Numbers 35:33-34: “You shall not pollute the land in which you live.... You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I also dwell.”
· Hosea 4:1-3: “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Because of this the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying.”
The bible also speaks hopefully regarding the restoration of creation:
· 2 Chronicles 7:13-14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
Each Sunday in the season of Lent the Lectionary readings will expose us to one of the biblical covenants. The Worship Committee has come up with a plan to create a visual image that will develop over the course of our Lenten journey. We begin today with an image of the rainbow. It is a visible reminder of God’s covenanted love for us and for all of creation. And it is a reminder of our Noah-like role to care for this world.
I said earlier the statistics around mass extinction, along with the ferosity of the debate about it, is numbing. It tempts me to bury my head in the sand and pretend that it is not my problem and to believe there is nothing I alone can do about it. I wonder if Noah himself ever felt that way.
Throughout Lent, with each Sunday’s covenant, I am going to give you some time to reflect. I am going to ask you to make a commitment that will be held between you and God. On the last Sunday in Lent I will give you time to gather your thoughts, to commit them to writing, and to make a tangible offering to God that describes things you will do because you want to be in a faithful covenant relationship with God.
Today I invite you to ponder what you are already currently doing to care for God’s creation and I invite you to a prayerful discernment about something you are not currently doing, but might do. One thing. What is one thing you will do to be in relationship with God by caring for God’s creation?