Plenty of Room

February 21st 2021 homily on Genesis 9:8-17 and Mark 1:9-15 by Pastor Galen

Half-filled Lifeboats

On April 14, 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg and was swallowed up in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Over 1,500 people perished as “the ship that not even God could sink” sank. Only about a third of the passengers lived to tell the story.

Although the death toll was staggering, the greater tragedy was that many more people could have been rescued, since most of the lifeboats were only half-filled.

The Titanic was certified to offer lifeboat space to 1,178 people. But of the twenty lifeboats lowered overboard, only a few were filled to capacity. 

The first lifeboat had room for 65 people, yet only 28 boarded. Another boat left with 24 spaces unfilled, another with only 26 of 65 spaces filled. One lifeboat could have accommodated 40 people, but only 12 people were on board. In all, only 711 passengers and crew were rescued, while 40 percent of the total lifeboat spaces remained unfilled. 

In the ensuing months, investigators sought to determine why so many lifeboat seats had been unfilled. They uncovered some startling realities. 

It was learned, for example, that some of the Titanic crewmen mistakenly assumed that filling the lifeboats to their “sea capacity” would cause the boats to break in two during the lowering process. Their extreme caution forced many people to plummet into the icy waters. But another sad reality was that quite a few of the passengers were reluctant to board the lifeboats because they didn’t feel that there was an urgent need. After all, the ship was supposedly “unsinkable!” 

Rend Your Hearts: Claiming the Promise

This month we begin a new sermon series for the season of Lent entitled, “Rend Your Hearts: Claiming the Promise.” Now I’ll admit that at first glance this may seem like an odd title. Rending, or tearing, evokes quite a different feeling from the phrase Claiming the Promise. And yet we’ll see that during this season of lent we are being invited not only to invite God to tear open, or expose our hearts, and to turn to God in humble repentance — but we’re also being invited to receive the wonderful promises that God has given to us. The grace, mercy, and healing which Jesus offers to all. 

Each of the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, readings during this season have to do with the idea of covenant. Covenants are sort of like contracts. They’re sort of legal agreements, entered into by at least two parties. And typically each party has an obligation to fulfill. But we’ll see this morning that the covenant God made with Noah and with all of creation, and the promises that God has given to us, are a little different from what we might expect. We’ll also see that, like the lifeboats on the Titanic, there is plenty of room for anyone and everyone to receive the promises that God offers to us — in particular the promise given to us through Christ Jesus — if we’ll only accept and believe.

Plenty of Room on the Ark

In the Bible, in Genesis chapters 6 through 9 we read the account of Noah, whom God instructed to build an ark (almost the size of the Titanic) in order to save his family and two of every kind of animal on the face of the earth from a devastating worldwide flood.

God had originally determined to wipe out all of the people and animals on the face of the earth, because, according to Genesis chapter 6, “the Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5-6). But “Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord” (Gen 6:8) and so God decided to spare Noah and his family. 

God provided Noah with specific instructions regarding the exact specifications and dimensions and even the types of materials Noah should use to build the ark. 

It must have taken Noah and his family years to build the ark and gather all the animals. A building project of this magnitude would have garnered much attention from Noah’s friends, family, and neighbors. While we don’t have much evidence that Noah and his family tried to convince others to join them on the ark, 2 Peter 2:5 refers to Noah as “a herald of righteousness” which suggests that he and his family did try to persuade others to join them.

In the end, however, it was to no avail. Only Noah and his wife, their three sons and their wives boarded the ark. (1 Peter 3:20 confirms that there were only eight persons who were saved on the ark).

Now, according to the dimensions provided in Genesis, Noah’s Ark was 7 stories high, and the length was equal to 1.5 football fields. Even though the ark was filled with animals, it seems safe to assume that there would have been plenty of room for more people to join them in the ark. But like many of the people on board the Titanic, it seems that the people of Noah’s day were also unconvinced of their need for salvation from the flood. Jesus says that people of Noah’s day “were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them” (Luke 17:27).

The ark, like the lifeboats of the titanic, floated away with plenty of room inside, while the world was devastated by the flood. How sad that the people of Noah’s day did not heed the warnings. They thought they were invincible, that the world was indestructible. How wrong they were.

A Covenant with Every Creature

After the flood, and after Noah and his family disembarked from the ark, we see a turning point in the narrative.  We see God making a promise that extends far beyond Noah and his family. A promise that extends all people in every place and every time. A promise that extends even to all of Creation. As we mentioned earlier, God calls this a covenant, and yet there is something quite unique about it.

Genesis chapter 9 tells us that 

God said to Noah and to his sons with him…I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Genesis 9:8-15).

Normally a covenant involves actions on the part of both parties. If you do this, then the other party will do that. Or, if one side fails to live up to their side of the bargain, then the other side is released from their responsibilities. 

But in this case, God made a covenant with all of humanity, and indeed with every living creature on the earth, but there seem to be no obligations on the part of the other parties! God is the solo partner here, the only one who is bound by oath to keep their side of the contract.

Indeed it would have been difficult for the wild and domestic animals, for the birds of the air and the fish of the sea to keep their side of a bargain. And similarly, God saw the plight of humanity, and realized that we too are prone to fail again and again. And so in this case, God made a covenant with all of creation never to destroy the world again by flood. God made a promise, symbolized by the rainbow that comes after a storm, as a visible symbol and reminder to us of the promise God made to us.

When we see a rainbow, then, we are reminded of God’s promises, and of God’s salvation. We are reminded that God desires for all people to experience God’s mercy and grace, and forgiveness. God knew that so often we go astray, that so often we choose the wrong path. So often we ignore the warning signs, the dire consequences of our situation. We fail to recognize that the path we’re on will lead to destruction. 

And so God made a lopsided covenant with humanity — a promise to never destroy the earth again with a flood.

That does not mean, of course, that we will never experience repercussions for our wrongdoing, or that the earth will never experience judgement in some other way. But the covenant, and the rainbow which is the sign of that covenant, is a reminder to us of God’s love, and mercy, grace, and forgiveness. I recognize of course that rainbows have taken on a socio-political meaning that perhaps extends beyond the Biblical text, but even in the Biblical narrative, the rainbow is a reminder to us that there is plenty of room, that there always has been and always will be. And that in response, we are invited to turn to God in faith, and repentance, and humble obedience. 

Jesus our example

Jesus is of course our example in this, as he is for us in all things. Jesus, who in humble obedience was baptized by John in the river Jordan, identifying with the people of God, despite the fact that he was sinless, and therefore he had no sins for which he needed to repent. 

After his baptism Jesus was driven into the wilderness where he endured temptation, further identifying with the plight of all humanity. Jesus suffered, and was rejected, and ultimately experienced death on a cross, and yet through it all Jesus was victorious. He refused to give in to temptation, refused to retaliate, refused to stop loving even his enemies. He submitted himself in humble obedience to God, giving his life to save humanity. 

And once again, in Jesus, God made a one-sided covenant with us. During the last supper, as Jesus broke bread with his disciples and passed around the cup of wine, he told his disciples, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). Jesus gave his life for us. It’s an unconditional gift, offered to us at no cost to us. But it’s up to us whether or not we accept it, and whether we choose to get on the lifeboats, to enter into the ark of salvation.

There is plenty of room in the ark. Plenty of room at the table. Jesus welcomes all to come. No one who repents of their sins and looks to Jesus in faith will be turned away. No doubt there will are many who will reject this free gift of salvation. Many who will continue on with their lives, eating and drinking, pretending that everything is OK. Many will think there is not an urgent need, that there is plenty of time. 

We do not know how long God will continue to wait. We do not know when the end will come, or when Christ will return. And so we must not give up. We must not give in to the temptation to think that everything is OK. We must be vigilant, paying attention to the warning signs around us. We must respond in faith, rending our hearts, and claiming the promises that God has given to us.
And so let us receive the great salvation that has been extended to us, the covenant that God has made with us. And let us proclaim to the world, as Jesus did, that “’The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near’” (Mark 1:15). Like Noah, may we too be heralds of righteousness. May we not be satisfied with half-filled lifeboats, but may we continue to invite anyone and everyone to join us in the ark, remembering that God’s kingdom is one of radical inclusion and generosity. Christ’s arms welcome all who come in faith and humble obedience. May we too welcome all with open arms.

Published by Galen Zook

I am an artist, preacher, minister, and aspiring theologian

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