Sunday, March 01, 2009

Absolutely Everybody

Sermon preached on the First Sunday in Lent at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Genesis 9:8-17, 1 Peter 3:18-22

It was just a few weeks after I had started in my last parish when the Sunday School year began and I offered to kick it off by telling the kids a story from the Bible. Unwisely, I did not plan ahead which story it would be. I thought I would see if the kids had a story they wanted me to tell. Pointing to a toy Noah’s Ark, one of the children said, “Tell us about the Ark!”

Well the Ark is cute and the rainbow is pretty, but the story itself is neither. I was, however, trapped. To make things worse I had just read a book with which I was very impressed that had argued for not keeping the hard stories of the Bible from our children. Tell them about Cain and Abel, the writer said. After all, what child with siblings has not contemplated murder?

So I told them the story about the flood.

When I had finished there was quiet for a moment and then a boy of about eight shot up his hand and asked, “Did God really kill absolutely everybody in the flood?” I swallowed hard and said, “Yes, the story is that the flood killed everybody except Noah and his family.” And I was going to add that the rainbow was the promise that God would never do such a thing again, when the boy interrupted me.

“Wow!” he said. “Cool!”

That little bit of enthusiasm notwithstanding; the story of the flood is a difficult story: all those people dead. True they were supposedly evil, but I suspect some of them no more evil than most of us. However you rationalize it, the story is that, save for Noah’s family (which proves in the end to be just as dysfunctional as the average family), God killed absolutely everybody.

Now we can also rationalize it by saying that we don’t believe it actually ever happened. It’s a story from pre-history, a story that got told among a group of people for generations that said something truthful about the God with whom they were in relationship. But why did they have to tell it?

Well, probably because they needed to say that their God was Almighty and held the power of life and death, and was a moral God, utterly opposed to evil living. But they also needed to tell it with the ending that they gave it—that God would never do this again, not even threaten it, which made their God unique among the competing gods of the peoples around them. Their God was ultimately Almighty, but also ultimately merciful.

Still, there are all those dead people. It’s a story we could perhaps live without, despite the cute Noah’s Ark play sets.

I think the people of God have always struggled with this story. I suspect this was true right from the beginning, from the early telling of it. One of the reasons I suspect this is because in the rest of the Old Testament there are only two mentions of Noah and only one allusion to the Flood itself.[1] It was not a story that Israel liked remembering.

And then there is this strange reference to it in 1 Peter, our second reading this morning. It points out how troubling the story was to the early Christians. A question on their mind was just what happened to all those people. Were they simply lost, forever damned for their wickedness?

No Peter says, and he repeats what must have become common speculation about what happened to Jesus between his death and resurrection. He did not passively wait in death. On what we call Holy Saturday, in death, he brought the good news to the dead, including all those people who died in the flood.

What a strange story, although we reference it every time we say the Apostles’ Creed—“He descended to the dead” (or, as we used to say more graphically, “He descended into hell”). One could, however, argue that we could survive without this bit of fanciful imagining just as much as the Flood story itself.

But the image, I believe, is powerful and necessary if we are going to keep telling the Flood story. The image proclaims the very depths of the good news. Absolutely everybody is saved. Jesus left no one behind. Jesus leaves no one behind.

The image gets picked up in Eastern Orthodox icons of the resurrection. In them Jesus stands over the broken gates of hell and with his two hands he lifts up Adam and Eve from the dead. Absolutely everybody. It’s an incredibly powerful image.

Yes, the story was told by our ancestors in time before time that God once regretted his creation and wiped out absolutely everybody save for one family. But the story is also told that even they are not outside the reach of God’s amazing love.

Which means, my brothers and sisters, that the good news is for us, for all of us, for absolutely everybody. There is no place we can go, nothing we can do that can separate us from that love. If there ever was such a thing as hell, its gates are broken and the good news is the good news even there.

Peter says,

Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.

Jesus has brought us to God. Jesus has brought absolutely everybody to God. He has literally gone to hell and back in order to do so.

It is that simple truth that we will celebrate at Easter, and it is that simple truth that Lent wishes to drive us into more deeply.

We have been brought home to God. Absolutely everybody has been brought home to God. How we would change if we actually believed it! How the world would change if it actually believed it!

[1] Isaiah 54:9 and Ezekiel 14:14 (the former being the allusion to the Flood).

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