Narrative Lectionary: Genesis 6:16-22; 9:8-15

A Way Out of Now Way

The major claim made – and supported – by this series is that God is able to make a way through dark times when we’ve lost all hope of finding a way forward ourselves.  The phrase “a way out of no way” comes from the African-American spiritual tradition, from people who had experienced God’s power firsthand and bore witness to it in song and speech.  In this series, we’ll be delving deeply into the experience of another group of people who, three millennia earlier, were led through some desperate circumstances themselves: the Hebrews.  We will explore their stories with an eye to what they teach us about opening ourselves to a God who loves us beyond our wildest imagination and is both willing and able to aid us even in the most desperate circumstances.

Starting with this series, we are also embarking on a four-year cycle of readings known as the Narrative Lectionary, developed by Luther Theological Seminary in Minneapolis.  In the last few years, hundreds (perhaps now thousands) of churches have adopted the Narrative Lectionary as a way of structuring their liturgical year to explore the great stories of the Bible, from Creation to the early Christian church.  These stories give congregations a significant grasp of the grand sweep of the biblical history, helping people sense the inner coherence behind the Spirit’s interaction with our world and how the Spirit literally makes “a way out of no way” in our lives to this day.

One of the key assumptions of this present series is that the Spirit does not make “a way out of no way” without our participation.  You can’t just pray your way out of a jam.   Prayer is extremely helpful for nurturing our connection to God, but if the Spirit is going to do something dramatic to help you through a seemingly impossible situation, something will be required from you in return.  At a minimum, the Spirit requires your trust.  The reason why trust is so important is because if we honestly can’t see the way forward in a given situation, then whatever direction the Spirit may lead us in will more than likely run counter to “common sense.”  After all, if “common sense” was all that was needed, we could get by just fine on our own.  The Spirit’s promptings often feel uncomfortable – uncomfortable because those intuitions invite us to take a step into the dark where the way ahead is uncertain.  If we don’t trust the Spirit’s guidance enough to take that step, we often remain stuck in a holding pattern until we do.  Either that, or the situation devolves into something much harder to negotiate – in which case the need for trust is even greater.

Do you trust the Spirit to guide you in the right direction when you’re stuck?   Do you even ask for guidance?

Trusting the Spirit is hard because the world seems to offer so little evidence that the Spirit can create a “way out of no way.”  Just look around at our world today.  From ISIS wreaking havoc in the Middle East, to Russia giving the West severe gastric indigestion in the Ukraine, to the United States Congress seemingly being unable to do anything but fight relentlessly with one another when they should be taking decisive action, to the world-wide ecological crisis we’re now facing, it would seem that God created a world that is now beyond anyone’s ability to save, including God’s.

If this is your impression, then our story this morning will both affirm and challenge it. Even as it appears to offer little hope that God can do much of anything with us, it is precisely at the point of your hopelessness that you may just discover God acting in a completely unexpected way.  This has been my experience of the story, anyway.


Against the Wall

The year was 1987.  I was working as a Quality Assurance Manager in the seafood industry trying to earn enough money to attend seminary.  I was quietly reading the Bible in my state room aboard a fish processing vessel in Alaska when I suddenly became so angry that I literally threw the Bible across the room.  As it slammed against the wall, it seemed to hang in mid-air looking back at me in shock and amazement before slumping to my bed. I did not pick up the Bible again, or at least the portion I was reading – the Old Testament – until I went to seminary.

For years leading up to that fateful day in Alaska I had wrestled with the Old Testament and its God.  I thought the Old Testament was little else but a dry, dusty Law book whose God had disturbing anger management issues.  I much preferred the New Testament, which in my view was a lively, vital book about Love and Grace. Knowing I was heading to seminary in two years, I had decided to face my fear and loathing of the Old Testament by reading it from cover to cover.

On the boat I started literally “in the beginning” with Genesis 1:1 and began to read chapter by chapter.  Before I even reached Chapter 10, I’d thrown my Bible against the wall!  What got me so stirred up?  The story of The Flood.  I wasn’t disturbed so much by whom God chose to destroy so much as who God chose to save!

While the Bible says Noah and his family were singled out for salvation because Noah was a “righteous man,” “blameless in his generation” who “walked with God,” Noah directly contradicts these assertions through his actions immediately after God sets a rainbow in the sky, promising never to destroy humanity again.  Assured that the earth is going to be around for awhile, Noah plants a vineyard, grows grapes, and makes wine.  Then he gets completely hammered and passes out naked.  Discovering Noah in this sorry state, Noah’s youngest son, Ham, rushes to tell his two brothers, Shem and Japheth.  As the story goes, these older brothers carry a blanket backwards so as not to see their father’s nakedness as they cover him. When Noah finally wakes up from his stupor, he remembers that Ham saw him naked, at which point Noah gets so angry that he curses Ham’s son Canaan forever.  Noah vows that Canaan will serve as his uncles’ slaves. Yet Canaan was perfectly innocent.  He never had anything to do with what happened – and what happened wasn’t worth getting mad about to begin with.  If it was, surely the only one to blame here is Noah who got drunk in the first place and cursed an innocent child.  At this point in the story I cursed Noah, bitterly complaining to God, “This is supposed to be Holy Scripture?”  “Not for me!” I declared as the Bible sailed across the room.

Thankfully for me, in seminary I was forced to pick up the Old Testament again – only now with the help of biblical scholars and theologians who could help me set what I was reading in a far larger context than I’d had on that boat in Alaska.  I learned, for instance, that the stories of the Old Testament are often meant to tell us not so much about God’s condition as the human condition, which is often a lot messier than we’d like to admit.  The story of Noah was not meant to illustrate God’s righteous ideal.  On the contrary, it forces us to confront the fact that even the most righteous among us are prone to very real failures.  Sometimes the failings of even the righteous can have effects that are capable of outlasting us for generations to come.

In our day, when there is so much going on in our world that may very well have detrimental effects for future generations, the stories of the Old Testament take on surprising relevance.  For they not only force us to be more realistic about ourselves and our (in)ability to create a world where righteousness and justice prevail, but they invite us to see how even in the midst of great human failings God is able to do a new and unexpected thing – to make a way out of what appeared to be no way – if we have a modicum of trust in the Spirit’s guidance.  With just a small amount of faith, God was ultimately able to work wonders through Noah, despite his formidable failings.

When I discovered this aspect of the Old Testament, I fell in love with it, eventually earning a doctorate in Old Testament Studies.  I guess it just goes to show that if you want to make God laugh make plans.  Or throw God’s holy book against the wall …


The Fall of Satan

Curiously, as much as I gained an appreciation for the messiness of many Old Testament stories like Noah and the Flood in seminary, I must confess that I did not grow to really love the story of Noah until much more recently, as a result of reading the Qur’an. The Hebrew Scriptures are considered sacred to Muslims, and Noah is mentioned a number of times in the Qur’an.  It wasn’t so much what the Qur’an has to say about Noah that raised my appreciation for him, however.  It’s what the Qur’an has to say about Satan.

Seven times the Qur’an tells the story of Satan’s fall from heaven. The story is similar to the Christian story of Satan’s fall – a story which is found not in our Bibles but in later Christian tradition – only the Qur’an gives the story a counter-intuitive twist.  The fact that the story is repeated seven times gives us a clue about how important its lesson was considered.

According to the Qur’an, when God created humanity and gave us dominion over the earth to act as God’s stewards, the angels politely questioned God’s sanity.

“Will You put there one that will do evil and shed blood,” they ask, “when we have for so long sung Your praises and sanctified Your name?”

God responds simply, “I know what you do not.” Then God commands, “Prostrate yourselves before Adam.”

All the angels and other divine beings immediately prostrate themselves – all except Satan (known as it Iblis in the Qur’an [1]).  When God asks, “Why did you not prostrate yourself when I commanded you?” Satan responds, “I am nobler than he.  You created me from fire, but You created him from clay.”

In this respect, Satan is perfectly right. But God is neither impressed by Satan’s logic nor pleased with his disobedience.  God casts Satan out of heaven henceforth to make mischief on earth until the Day of Resurrection.

On the surface of things it seems like Satan is the only one in the story who has any sense.  The angels bow down to a vastly inferior creation they know will commit evil and violent acts.  Satan responds to the outrage much as any of us might do ourselves.

Yet from the Qur’an’s perspective, if God created humanity, loves humanity, and chooses to work through us, then refusing to bow down before humanity is not so much a rejection of human imperfection as a rejection of God and God’s perfection.  Satan’s problem was that his focus was us, not God.  He did not love what God loved.  His lack of love for us, and lack of trust in God, set him against God.


Where Evil Comes From

To me, the story of Satan’s fall in the Qur’an brilliantly reveals the root of all evil. In its purest form evil is failure to submit to God’s will.  God chooses relationship over perfection.  Thus, what causes us to turn from God’s will is self-righteousness.  When we perceive that we are more righteous than another, even if our perceptions are accurate we commit evil when we refuse to honor the fact that God loves those less-righteous others and has chosen to work through them despite their imperfections.

In this respect, the Qur’an reflects Jesus’ own understanding of evil.  What sort of people did Jesus rail against the hardest?  Was it tax collector, prostitutes, and other sinners?   Or was it the scribes, lawyers, and Pharisees who were in all likelihood more law-abiding and righteous than the others.  This latter group was the subject of Jesus’ strong criticism because they could not bear the fact that God loved the unrighteous and did not make righteousness a precondition for relationship.  In essence, like Satan in the Qur’an they did not trust that God knew what God was doing.  They refused to bow down before God’s will and God’s love.  In response Jesus insisted, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you.” (Matthew 21:30).


Where My Evil Comes From

I don’t now about you, but I feel significantly comforted by both Jesus and the Qur’an when they insist that God prefers relationship over perfection.  When I consider how little I truly understand God, and how much I fumble with even the little God has given me to know, I feel profound gratitude for God’s grace.  When I take a good hard look at my life and admit how often I fail to trust the Spirit’s guidance or move in the opposite direction entirely, I feel relief that God still loves and choses to work through me anyway.  This helps me trust that God can and will “make a way out of no way” in my life because I know that, for reasons known only to God, God does not wait for me to attain some unattainable wisdom or holiness before working a miracle in my life.

That God has chosen to love and work with me my messiness is the heart of the Good News for me. What I have a far harder time accepting is God’s love for you in your messiness!  After all, sometimes your messiness affects me – even hurts me or those I love.  Of course when I say “you” I really mean anyone who’s not me.

When I look out at the world and see groups like ISIS rampaging around the Middle East, or the Russians rampaging around the Ukraine, or our own political representatives rampaging around the halls of congress and making decisions meant to enrich and empower themselves to the detriment of others, I can feel the flames of purest righteous indignation well up within me.  I feel the same raw emotion I felt when I read about Noah passing out naked and cursing an innocent child to serve as a slave of his uncles and threw my Bible across the room.  In my righteous indignation, I feel an uncomfortably close affinity with Satan when he was asked to bow before humanity knowing full well how horrible we can be to each other.

In the Flood story, God set a rainbow in the heavens vowing never to destroy the earth again no matter how bad things get.  In essence, if I am to take the story of Noah and the Flood seriously, the rainbow presents me with a challenge every time I see it.  The rainbow challenges me to ask, “Do I trust God?  Do I trust that God knows what God is doing by creating and loving such imperfect beings as me … and you?  Will I bow be God’s bow?”

If the Old Testament is correct, if the Qur’an is correct, and if Jesus is correct, then our righteous indignation toward others – including our enemies – is exactly what blocks us from allowing God’s will to be done in our lives.  For effectively we tell God, “I won’t accept you working through anyone who is less perfect than I am.”  The more righteous we are – or think we are – the fewer people we will accept God working through to help us.   Given that when we are in a jam and can’t see the way forward, God’s solution is normally going to be counter-intuitive and run against “common sense,” these are precisely the kind of people God is likely to work through.

The next time we cry out to God despairing that God has failed to “make a way out of no way,” we may want to ask ourselves if we have bowed before God’s bow lately.  For it may just be that God has made a way for us.  Only God has chosen to work God’s miracle through the very people we want nothing to do with.

[1] In the Qur’an’s understanding, Satan is a jinn.  A jinn is a supernatural being that is like an angel.  Only in contrast to the angels, a jinn has freewill and thus the power to choose whether or not to obey God’s commands whereas the angels do not.  So Satan is like us with respect to freewill only his power and perfection is many orders of magnitude greater.

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