Noah epic awash in flood of controversy for green agenda and taking liberties with Bible was a headline last Easter. Hollywood studio adds "artistic licence" warning for "the least biblical biblical film ever made" starring Russell Crowe as Noah.
Anne and I saw it. Great effects, especially the semi- angelic beings represented by six-armed rock-creatures who build the ark and fight off Cain’s descendants. It had little about it of the counter-cultural faith of Noah. Typically there’s a ban against the film in Muslim countries since Noah is a Koranic prophet and they don’t like faith being mocked. Russell Crowe even failed to get an audience with the Pope. He did get a picture with an uncomfortable looking Archbishop of Canterbury.
Noah’s appearance this morning is, more positively, the beginning of our spiritual preparation for Easter. He appears in both the Genesis 9 account and in the second lesson from 1 Peter 3 which is a baptism sermon from the early years of Christian faith. It’s a sermon that quotes a hymn going back to the very earliest days. This hymn of faith can be reconstructed by joining up the first and last sentences of the second reading: Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit… [skipping to the end] has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
That Christ died and rose is our good news. He died and rose so we can die and rise. In baptism we see our salvation is the gist of today’s readings. Remember you died to sin. Remember you’re raised with Christ. Seek God’s power, as he did in today’s Gospel, to overcome evil and temptation. As is written at the end of the Gospel in Mark 1:15 the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.
Keep that in mind as we go back to examine today’s scripture more carefully, starting with the Genesis passage. Bible scholars have identified four sources known as the Jahwist, Elohist, Priestly, and Deuteronomist sources for the first five books of the Old Testament. A final editor which might have been Moses drew on these different traditions in assembling Genesis through to Deuteronomy. Today’s passage comes from the Priestly author’s account of God’s covenant through the flood and its aftermath. His account differs from the others. Whilst they stick to one basic covenant between God and Israel he or she recalls a number of different covenants and they’re not just made with Israel. The story of the flood and God raising up Noah and the ark of salvation heralds, for the first time in the Old Testament, a universal covenant between God and humanity.
Through Noah God says he’ll never again allow the world’s destruction and he signs his promise physically with a rainbow. The refraction of light was only understood quite recently so this awesome, God-given sign was to the Priestly writer of the 6th century BC the explanation of an awesome phenomenon. It was two thousand years later that 13th century Roger Bacon gave some sort of natural explanation and, 500 years after that, Isaac Newton demonstrated the refraction of white light through a prism into the colours of the rainbow.
When we see a rainbow, whether we’re 6th century near easterners or 21st century Sussex folk, we are awed. ’Come and see’, we cry to our peers. God’s word in Genesis resonates with that instinct – see this sign and think what he must be like who is its ultimate author, and know his desire for the good for the world. No God here like that of comedian Stephen Fry “utterly evil, capricious and monstrous”.
Here’s beauty, the beauty of a God who knows what he’s about and who he’s about in his love for all that he made including you and me.
It’s time to move on to the second reading which speaks of how God in Christ suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring [us] to God. To bring Stephen Fry and all of us to himself. This hymn is quoted by the author of 1 Peter who leaps away from it to speak of a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. In the movie we saw the semi- angelic beings represented by six-armed rock-creatures as God’s instruments fighting off the wicked desperate to get into Noah’s ark. The author of 1 Peter is building from the flood an image of being saved through water which parallels the flood with the waters of baptism and Noah’s eight people with the immensity of the Church. Some medieval fonts were built like Noah’s ark with the church, the baptized, seen as ark of salvation.
In the early days of my priestly ministry I spent time on occasion dissuading superstitious folk, usually grandmas, from baptizing children for fear they ‘wouldn’t get on without it’. Whilst I’ve seen evidence galore of the power of the sacrament of baptism that power saves, as Peter makes clear, not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience. I remain troubled by the hordes who gather round our font never to be seen again. Not much conscience there methinks!
The Church like Noah’s ark is a place of salvation, but, as with a life raft, you’ve got to lay hands on it, you’ve got to cling to Christ in word and sacrament and not just rely on the odd ceremony. Saint Augustine taught the whole purpose of earthly life is to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen. So many baptized people don’t know God, don’t see him, because they’ve never learned to seek and own the healing that’s been given them potentially at their baptism.
Lent is our preparation for the Easter festival and the renewal of our baptism vows. Last year we made that very physical by writing letters to God and burning them in the flame of the Easter Candle. This year we’ll do it in our own way but you’ll still be asked to say I turn to Christ, I repent of my sins, I renounce evil. Further reflection on Noah may help you. Do I see myself as in need of escape from the world, the flesh and the devil? How much do I value church membership? Do I see and know God? Is the blindness in the eye of my heart being seen to?
Our Gospel reading moves us on from Noah at the flood to Jesus at his baptism when we read in Mark 1:10 he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. That anointing, and the sense he gained of being God’s beloved Son, empowered him. So in Lent we take his words to our heart of hearts, the very last words of those set to be read on this first Sunday of Lent: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.
Like Noah we need the bad news and the good news. We need reminding we’re sinners worthy of destruction. We need to know afresh that’s not God’s will for us or for anyone whatever Stephen Fry imagines. Christ died and rose to show us God’s great love and that we too can die and rise. In baptism we see the shape of our salvation.
Remember you died to sin - and live that way!
Remember you’re raised with Christ – seek his empowerment!
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.