Noah? For Lent? As soon as we think seriously about the story of Noah, we run into questions. Was there really a great flood that covered the whole Earth, or at least the Middle East, for 40 days? Did God really ask a man called Noah to build an ark? Did the animals really go in two by twosies, the elephants and the kangaroosies?
We easily get distracted by asking the wrong questions. Here’s a better question:
The story of Noah is part of God’s Word. Why has God given us this story?
There’s more to the story of Noah than animals in the ark and a rainbow. May I remind you of the main points?
- In God’s eyes, Noah is the only good man on earth in a corrupt generation.
- God warns Noah to build an ark, for himself, his wife, and three sons and their wives.
- Noah builds the ark out of wood.
- For a time of forty days, it rains, and there is a longer period of flood water.
- Three times Noah sends out a dove. First it returns with nothing, then with an olive branch; the third time it flies free.
- When the ark lands, Noah offers a sacrifice.
- Then Noah plants a vine and is said to be the first man ever to become drunk!
Some things are worth noticing. The rest of Noah’s family survive the flood not because they deserve it, but because God warns Noah to take them with him. So the whole family – Noah, the only truly good man in God’s eyes, and his family with him – survive God’s punishment by passing through water on a boat made of wood.
St Paul’s words today tell us that Noah helps us to understand the meaning of baptism. Anyone who has been baptised has passed through water and received new life from God. That sounds rather mysterious. But we can easily understand the idea of surviving a flood by being taken on board a wooden boat.
If we look carefully, we see that the story of Noah is a code for the story of Jesus!
- Noah was the only good man on earth in a corrupt generation; Jesus, as son of God, was the only truly good and perfect man who has ever lived on earth.
- Noah, using the skills of a carpenter, builds an ark out of wood, and uses it to save his family. Jesus, the son of a carpenter, embraces a cross made of wood and so saves every member of his family – those who do God’s will and are counted as his brothers and sisters.
- Genesis tells us that when Noah had boarded the ark, God himself closed the door – there was no return. In the garden of Gethsemane, God’s will compels Jesus to embrace the way of the Cross; he refuses to run from his duty, and is quickly arrested, reaching his point of no return, leading inevitably to the Cross.
- Noah, the good man, journeys on water while saving his corrupt family. Jesus, the one man who never needed to repent, is baptised, passing through water to share in the experience which saves his corrupt family.
- Noah, his family, and the animals are all saved by the ark. When Jesus dies on the cross, he himself is raised to everlasting life, he makes it possible for sinful human beings to inherit eternal life – St Paul says that as soon as he died, Jesus preached to the souls of the corrupt humans of Noah’s day, and brought them to heaven – and in some mysterious way, the whole universe is made good again in God’s sight, plans, animals, the whole of creation.
Well, so what? What’s this to us in Pontypridd in 2012? It’s about remembering who we are. Lent is a special time to remember what it means to be dedicated to God in baptism. It sounds rather abstract to say that our souls have been given entry tickets to heaven because Jesus died on a cross of wood. But we can well understand what it means to have avoided death by drowning because somebody else provided a lifeboat, and we climbed on board.
I’m sure that anyone who survived the wreck of the Costa Concordia will be profoundly grateful that lifeboats were available, and will have deep feelings of gratitude to those members of the crew and the emergency services who worked to get them safely to dry land. Over the years, those strong feelings of thankfulness will fade, but might be rekindled at an annual survivors’ reunion. Easter is OUR survivor’s reunion – we were saved by Jesus, who took us aboard the lifeboat called the Cross, and once again we gather to give thanks. The 40 days of Lent, like Noah’s 40 days in the rain, are given to us as an in-between time: What was my life like before I embarked on this 40-day voyage, when I was in the company of people whose values fell short of God’s values? How am I to prepare for my landing, when I start living my life in a new way at Easter? For on Easter weekend, each one of us will renew our commitment to God made once in baptism.
Now, a word to our candidates preparing for baptism this Easter season. Noah’s “baptism” in rain lasted 40 days. In a certain way, your baptism will also take 40 days and begins this weekend. You will be presented to our Archbishop, and that your status will no longer be that of “catechumen” or “learner”. Instead you will be one of the “elect”, chosen to become a member of Christ’s church.
During this time, you can expect to be tempted. Jesus was tested for 40 days in the wilderness. Imagine Noah shut in a boat with only 7 people for company and a whole menagerie of animals to care for! Not easy. You may also find special pressures at work in this season to dissuade you from taking the final step into God’s family. Resist! For God allows those he loves, to be tested, to prove their love for Him.
When the rain stopped, Noah sent out the dove three times. First it flew over the water and returned – reminding us that at Creation, the Holy Spirit hovered over the face of the water. On its second journey, it returned with olive wood – reminding us that the Spirit descended on Jesus giving him the strength to embrace the wood of the cross and fulfil his mission as Prince of Peace. When it was sent out the third time, it did not return. On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended on the followers of Jesus, giving them courage to travel far and wide as the members of Christ’s body at work throughout the world. You also will receive this spirit.
When the ark arrived on dry land, Noah got out and offered a sacrifice of animals. When you are baptised in the Easter season, you also will take part in a sacrifice – because you will receive Holy Communion for the first time. Each weekend in this church, we make present the sacrifice of Jesus, the Lamb of God, who died on the Cross. Once you are baptised, you will share in the sacrifice meal, which will connect you to God in the deepest way possible – you will receive the body of Jesus, hidden in the form of bread and wine, into your own body. God loves you and invites you to share in his banquet.
As part of his new life after the flood, Noah grew a vine and enjoyed the wine. At the Last Supper, Jesus drank three of the four traditional cups of wine, but told his disciples that he would not drink the final cup until they were with him in the Kingdom of Heaven. We know that through baptism, we have been rescued by the wood of the Cross not only to take part in Mass on Earth, but at the end of our life to be united with Christ in enjoying the banquet of new wine which lasts forever in Heaven. You are preparing for heaven by being baptised on Earth.
Finally, a word to all members of the parish. I would like to propose to you a prayer exercise for this week of Lent. Take ten minutes in a quiet place to imagine that you are one of the passengers on the Ark. Not Noah himself, but someone who has been rescued because you are a member of Noah’s family. God has rescued you from everlasting death, not because you deserve it, but because you belong to the Carpenter who is Good.
- What are your feelings about the life that God has rescued you from?
- What are your feelings about the 40-day journey you are now on, with all its restrictions?
- What are your hopes and resolutions for the new life when you come to dry land?
You have been saved by wood, through water. Enter into this prayer experience and you will be made ready for the new life of Easter.
Consider Noah! And consider God’s love in telling you this story, to help you understand the message of the Cross.