Thursday 20 August 2009

God's grief, God's judgement, God's grace (Genesis 7)

The Flood

Taiwan sees a dozen typhoons this time of the year, but a recent tropical storm that hit the southern region last week on August the 4th caught everyone by surprise. Yesterday’s news report estimates the death toll at 500 due to extreme flooding and mudslides burying whole villages. The international media refer to the storm as “Typhoon Morakot”, but the locals in Taiwan know it by another name. They call it “Devil Typhoon”[1].

What was unusual about Typhoon Marakot was not the intensity of the rain, but its length. Three to four days of sustained rainfall resulted in flood levels reaching 2.5 meters. Worldwide, the typhoon affected tens of thousands in Japan and the Philippines, 1.5 million in Taiwan and 11 million people in eastern China.

Today we read the biblical account of a deluge that lasted not 4 days but 40 days and 40 nights. It was a flood which waters reached not roof tops but mountain peaks. In Genesis 7 we read the account of the flood and Noah’s ark.

In case you think this is just a story or a myth. Let me start by saying that accounts of the flood exist in just about every single culture, nation and religion. In India, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia, in China, Europe and the Americas[2] – civilizations the world over have some form of a great flood recorded in legend, scripture and history.

Noah in the Quran

Interestingly enough, even the Quran records not just the event of the flood but even the person of Noah. In fact, there are no less than 7 references in the Quran.[3] The Muslims regard Noah as a prophet of Allah who preaches to his people of the coming flood only to be laughed at. They even made fun of Noah for building such a silly thing as a boat. Partly in judgement and partly to vindicate Noah, Allah finally sends the waters of the flood. There is a tragic end to the story as on the day of the flood, Noah pleads with one of his sons to come into the boat; his son refuses and perishes in the waters.

Noah in the Bible

And yet, when you look at the bible, Noah does not speak – he does not utter a single word in Chapters 6 to 8. Instead Genesis 6 verse 5 opens with these words:

5 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. 6 The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. 7 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." 8 But Noah found favour in the eyes of the LORD.

A devout Muslim hearing these words of the bible would be deeply and profoundly offended. To speak of a God who is hurt by our sin is to insult God – it is to blaspheme the name of the Almighty. Yet three times the bible makes it clear. The LORD is grieved, the ESV has “the LORD is sorry” and his heart was filled with pain.

God sees our wickedness and sin and it brings pain to his heart. The God of the bible takes no pleasure in the death even of wicked men and women who deserve his judgement[4].

The bible presents God as the central character in the story of the flood. It is the LORD who sees mankind’s sin. It is God who sends the flood. All through Genesis 6 to 9 it is only God who speaks – with one exception: right at the end of chapter 9, when Noah opens his mouth only to curse his own son.

The great temptation is to turn Noah into a hero deserving to be saved. But verse 8 says Noah found favour in God’s eyes. The word favour is the Hebrew word for “grace” – this is the first time it is used in the bible. God chooses Noah out of his generosity, not because of Noah’s goodness but because of God’s mercy. Grace found Noah[5].

But what about everyone else? Couldn’t God be gracious to them too?

God’s instruction to Noah to build the ark was a display of grace to all mankind. It was a massive building project. The ark was about 4 times the size of the Grand Arcade[6]. It would take Noah 120 years[7] to build – and so there was 120 years between chapter 6 and chapter 7. Everyone could see the ark and it would a signpost for them of the coming flood and reality of the judgement of God.

When we come to Chapter 7, these 120 years of waiting have passed. God now tells Noah he has only 7 days before he send the destruction. In this final week, God speaks to Noah once again with instructions to finally enter the ark. He is to bring with him his wife, his sons and their wives. God also instructs Noah to bring aboard every kind of animal to preserve their lives after the flood has passed.

For 4 verses God speaks. And for 4 verses, Noah obeys every instruction of the LORD. Verse 5 says, Noah did all that the LORD commanded him.

The last day

The rest of the story focuses on this one dreadful day of the flood. So many words are given to this one fateful event.

If you look to the previous chapters, Chapter 5 traces the generations spanning over 1600 years. Genesis 6 took place 120 years before. But this one day of final judgement is recorded in detail. Each idea is even repeated again and again – as if to drive home the point – make sure you get how serious this day is.

So as I read to you these words, I want you to imagine what it was like. For Noah: having waited 120 years in dread and fear of God’s certain punishment. For God: waiting hundreds of years for mankind to repent. This is the day of the LORD – a day of judgement; the day the earth died.

11 In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, on the seventeenth day of the second month

Notice how Genesis wants us to know the exact date of a real historical event.

on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. 12 And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.

This is a reversal of order of creation. Here at the end of the world, Genesis brings to mind the beginning of creation.

On the second day of creation, the LORD God created an expanse[8], a dividing layer to separate the waters above from the waters below. But on this day, God removes that layer – like pulling away rug – and the two waters begin to merge. The mention of the “great deep” is evocative of the state of the world before creation when “darkness was over the surface of the deep[9].

These verses tell us that the only reason the world hasn’t been destroyed before today, is that God has been patiently and powerfully holding back destruction.

13 On that very day Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, together with his wife and the wives of his three sons, entered the ark.

This is a roll call of the survivors – all of Noah’s sons are mentioned by name. They and their wives are the only people on the boat. 120 years had not convinced anyone else to join them. In 1 Peter 3[10] it emphasizes only 8 people saved – Peter even adds the words “only a few people”. “Why? Why so few after so long?”- it sounds to me.

14 They had with them every wild animal according to its kind, all livestock according to their kinds, every creature that moves along the ground according to its kind and every bird according to its kind, everything with wings. 15 Pairs of all creatures that have the breath of life in them came to Noah and entered the ark. 16 The animals going in were male and female of every living thing, as God had commanded Noah. Then the LORD shut him in.

Together with Noah were two of every kind of animal and bird. The scene here is evocative again of the creation. The description of every kind of animal, identifying them as wild, livestock, creeping thing and birds – these are all categories of wildlife and the exact same words used in the first 7 days of creation[11]. God is using the ark to preserve life and preserve all creation. He specifies that there will be 2 of each kind, male and female thereby planning that life will continue. The only condition is they must go into the ark.

Verse 16 emphasizes that from start to finish this is the work of God. The animals come to Noah just as God had instructed. God shuts them in – he closes the door of the ark.

Water, water everywhere

17 For forty days the flood kept coming on the earth, and as the waters increased they lifted the ark high above the earth. 18 The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. 19 They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered. 20 The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than twenty feet.

Why does Genesis keep repeating that same phrase? The waters keep increasing and rising. It does this for 4 times.

Scholars tell us that the Hebrew word used for “increasing” is the same word used to describe armies in battle[12]. It is a military word which is why the ESV uses the word “prevail”. The waters prevailed against the earth.

The message is simple. There is nothing that can stand the force and power of coming flood. Not the strongest man. Not the highest mountain. No one can escape the judgement of God.

21 Every living thing that moved on the earth perished—birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind.

Everything goes. All creation. All that God has made. Every living thing dies.

22 Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died. 23 Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; men and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds of the air were wiped from the earth.

Can I ask you a silly question? What is shocking about these verses?

For many it will be the scale of the deaths. Every person, every life, every thing dies. But even as we hear this: why, isn’t that true? Death is 100% Every single one of us will perish.

It seems like we only notice death when it happens on a large scale. A tsunami, a war, an earthquake. But every single day hundreds of thousands of individuals die[13].

It is not that we shouldn’t be shocked by death. Rather the bible shows us how we are not shocked enough.

Genesis 5: Adam dies, Seth dies, Kenan dies, Enosh dies. But we don’t notice that. Not when death is merely trickling down. We can ignore that.

All God has done here in the flood is move up the timescale. He has given everyone extraordinarily long life – hundreds of years. He gives them an additional 120 years. And then they, like all of us, come to the end everyone knows is there – and end no one can ignore, that none of us can deny. We all die.

What is life?

And yet these verses are not here to describe death. You will notice that Genesis uses several euphemisms like “wiped out” and “perished”. There are no gory details. No scenes of masses rushing to the mountains or the agonising battle with the rising floodwaters.

Instead it spends time describing what is life: different kinds of life, abundant descriptions of life. Here is the bible challenging our understanding of what it means to live.

Firstly it says:

o Life is not just creation
Verse 21: It is not just that you have been made by God as amazing as that is.

o It is not just existence
Verse 22: It is not just that you are being sustained by God, with every breath and every heartbeat given you as a gift by God

o It is not just blessing
Verse 23: It is not just that God gives you this world and environment in which you can grow and flourish.

Life is not defined by God’s creation, God’s sustenance or God’s blessing.

Oh, these were all true – before the flood.

But after the flood, life has a new meaning; life is verse 23:

Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.

After the flood, life is defined by God’s salvation – only Noah and those were in the ark continued to live.

Through the waters of judgement

Peter puts it this way in his first letter:

… God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

We read about Noah’s ark and our usual conclusion is

o The ark saves Noah

o The waters destroy the world

But notice that Peter focuses not on the ark but on the waters. Do you see that?

Firstly, he says the ark was an instrument of God’s patience. It was an opportunity for the world to turn to God. For 120 years God waited patiently – Obviously not simply for the ark to be built but for mankind to repent.

He sent them Noah and today he sends us his Son.

The cross of Jesus Christ is a symbol warning us today that judgement will come tomorrow. We must repent today. But many ignore the cross, the same way they ignored the ark. Judgement seems so far away.

The cross reminds us that judgement is very, very near and very, very real. Could it be that the reason some of us haven’t given our lives to Jesus is simply that we think we have time. We think it isn’t urgent – “Oh, there’s always tomorrow!”. We think it isn’t all that real – “Judgement? Don’t be silly – what judgement?”.

The God of the bible with pain in his heart sees our sin but instead of responding with immediate justice offers you a way out. He offers you the cross a way of salvation. Some of you need to not put off any longer the seriousness of God’s wrath and anger hanging over your lives and come to Jesus who is your true life and salvation.

The waters of salvation

But then again, I said earlier that Peter focuses on the water and not the ark. He says that Noah and his family were saved not from the water, but through the water.

For Christians, Peter is reminding us that we are not simply saved from judgement. We are saved through judgement. It is the judgement and death of our Lord. The waters that destroyed the earth are the same waters that lifted the ark higher and higher above the earth[14].

The only reason you will escape the certain and horrible punishment that we all fully deserve on that last day when Christ returns, is not because:

o you come to church today

o because you have been an altogether nice guy

The only reason you will escape judgement is because Jesus took your punishment and your death upon himself on the cross.

Our salvation through his condemnation

Our life through Jesus’ death
Through the cross, we receive the righteousness of Christ that we might approach God confidently, pure and blameless in his sight.

For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.
1 Peter 3:18

[3] Michael Raiter – in a message delivered at the Centre of Preaching (COP) Conference organized by Adam Road Presbyterian Centre, Singapore

[4] Ezekiel 33:10-11

[5] David Jackman – in a sermon on Genesis 6 available from the Proclamation Trust Website

[6] Grand Arcade Shopping Centre, Cambridge – estimate based on Google Map layout; Genesis 6:15

[7] Genesis 6:3

[8] Genesis 1:6; Genesis 1:8 – The expanse God names “sky”.

[9] Genesis 1:2

[10] 1 Peter 3:20

[11] Genesis 1:24-25

[12] Wenham in Genesis WBC, page 182 commenting on Genesis 7:18 – literally “triumph”, cf. Exodus 17:11

[14] Genesis 7:17

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