Monday, June 2, 2008


As many of you know, I often start sermons with questions. Sometimes those questions have many answers, and sometimes the answers can be surprising. I was on the internet a few weeks ago, and I ran into a long list of question. These are questions that don't really have any answers at all. They just make you go "hmm". So before we get serious, I'd like to share some of the better ones with you (I’m sure many of you have heard most of them):

1. How do "Do not walk on the grass" signs get where they are?

2. How do you throw away a garbage can?

3. If a train station is where the train stops, what is a workstation?

4. Why do we park in driveways and drive on parkways?

5. Why didn't Noah swat those two mosquitoes?

What is it about the story of Noah and jokes? Really quick: God tells Noah to build a large boat, and then God helps Noah fill that b
oat with a pair of every kind of animal just in time for a flood to come and cover the world. It does sound a bit funny, doesn’t it? In fact, one of the most popular comedy monologues of the twentieth century was Bill Cosby's "Noah" -- do you remember it? "How long can you tread water?" In fact, even my Dad contributed to my collection of Noah jokes -- he sent me this picture…at least the monkey is laughing:

Here are a few more Noah jokes…

  • Why didn't Noah do much fishing?
  • He only had two worms

  • Which animal brought the most onto the ark?
  • The elephant brought his trunk

  • Where did Noah keep the bees?
  • In the ark-hives

  • Which animal could Noah never trust?
  • The cheetah

Now as much as I like those jokes, I have to ask: why do we make jokes? Because it is fun, sure – but sometimes we joke about things to make it easier to deal with things that make us uncomfortable, don’t we? People who make movies know this. The easiest way to make people laugh is to create a situation that makes people really uncomfortable. When folks are uncomfortable, they want an escape, and even a bad joke at the right time can be a lot funnier than a great joke at the wrong time.

And so it is with the story of Noah. The reason that we joke about it; the reason that we hide the story in Sunday School and represent it with multi-colored toys is that this story could easily make us feel uncomfortable. Yes – sorry about that: if you came to church this morning wanting to feel better about yourself, it is going to have to wait. The sermon this morning might be a little bit disturbing. But it has to be if we want to be honest with what the Bible is actually saying.

When three thousand people die in a terrorist attack, the whole world rightly and naturally says, “how terrible,” and the history of the world changes abruptly. When two hundred thousand people die due to a tsunami, the world rightly and naturally says, “how terrible,” and a huge effort begins to clean up the mess. But as serious as they are to the people involved, these disasters represent tragedies that will be forgotten in time – almost certainly.

Did you know that there have been natural disasters in which more than two hundred thousand people have died? The most deadly natural disaster on record happened in China – an earthquake caused the deaths of an estimated eight hundred thousand people. But I’m betting that most of you didn’t know about the great Shaanxi earthquake. You see, even the biggest of catastrophes fade out of history over the centuries. Indeed, we could even measure the extent of a natural disaster by how long it remains in the collective consciousness. Small ones get forgotten quickly; big ones not so quickly. And by this measure, the flood at the time of Noah must be the largest disaster of all time. We don’t know when it happened exactly, but it might have been as much as five thousand years ago, but we do know that it comes down to us in at least six different written accounts all numerous oral traditions from many different cultures. It is true: you’ve heard of Noah; you might have heard of Gilgamesh; you might not have heard of Atrahasis, Ziusudra, or Berossus. Each of these represents a tradition going back to the earliest recorded history. And each of them describes God telling a man to build a boat to save himself and his family while disaster fell on the world. People who have studied all these stories have found remarkable similarities between them.

So at the heart of the story of Noah is a really enormous tragedy. The Bible says in Genesis chapter 6 verse 5: “The LORD saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.” And so God decided to destroy them all. Well, not quite all – God saved Noah.

The Bible says: “Noah found favor in the eyes of God.” Now it is only natural to identify with Noah in the story – after all he is the hero, and it is traditional to identify with the hero in all stories. So let’s pay some attention to what makes Noah the hero of the story this morning; let’s pay attention to what gives Noah God’s favor. Genesis chapter six, verse fourteen: God says to Noah: “Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out…. The ark is to be longer than a football field, as wide as this building is long, and a little bit higher than this ceiling. It will have three decks and a roof. Oh, and you can use my Reno Depot account – be sure to put it all on credit.”

You know, sometimes people think that God only asks us to do things that we are good at; that we’re prepared to do; that we’ve practiced. But Noah had almost certainly never built an ark before. As Bill Cosby tells the story, when asked to build an ark, Noah says “right…. What’s an ark?” So God sometimes asks us to do work for which we have little or no experience. No matter. Sometimes God asks us to do things that we don’t think we are capable of doing. No matter. When God’s work is involved, God always fills in the gaps; God always covers for our weaknesses and provides protection along the way. God was asking Noah to build a huge ark; nearly all by himself; without a pickup truck to haul the wood; without Reno Depot to buy the wood; without power tools to cut the wood; without nails or glue or clamps or practically anything. It took him a long time. The Bible doesn’t say how long it took, but some people have estimated that it might have taken as long as one hundred years to finish. This means that Noah’s work probably took longer than you are going to live.

But building the ark wasn’t the most difficult thing that God asked Noah to do. Seriously! In verse nineteen, God tells Noah “You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you.” Can you imagine that? Even with rope, tranquilizer darts and jeeps it would take a really long time to fill up two football fields with hundreds of different kinds of animals. Did Noah have a jeep? No! Did Noah have a gun with tranquilizer gun? No!

Now I’d like five volunteers to come and help me with a game. It is a game with animals, and it illustrates Noah’s job of finding the animals for the ark. I have twelve cards with six pairs of animals. I’ll need you to stand here in a line, and your job is to find two animal cards that match. If you do, you get to have a little prize. All you have to do in order to make it work is to remember the instructions. And those instructions are quite simple: “Bring them two by two”. It also helps to be able to spell. Sometimes, if we want to get instructions right, it helps to have them spelled out for us. Now you will notice that the instructions have five words “bring them two by two”, and there are five of you. Each of you will find one pair of animals, and the last pair will be left over for me. Ready? I’m going to put six cards over here, and six over here.

Now I’d like A to start. First, I’d like you to choose either of the two piles. Do you remember the instructions? Your word is “bring”. Do you know how to spell it? For each of the letters in your word, I’m going to take one of the cards from the top of your pile and put it on the bottom. But in between, you’re allowed to tell me to switch piles, ok? B-R-I-N-G. That’s it. We have a match! Good job! Now B. Please choose either one of these piles. Do you remember the instructions? Your word is “them”. Do you know how to spell it? We’re going to do exactly what we did with A, ok? And you tell me when to switch so that we make another pair. Ready? T-H-E-M. Next is C. Do you remember the instructions? “bring them two by two”. Your word is “two”. Do you know how to spell it? T-W-O. Next is D. Do you remember the instructions? Your word is “by” – it is spelled with just two letters, isn’t it. B-Y. Last but not least, E, please tell me which pile you choose. Do you remember the instructions? “bring them two by two” – that’s right. And your word is “two”. T-W-O. There we have five winners. And five prizes. Please let’s give my volunteers a hand.

Now just like the animals sorted themselves out in spite of our best attempts to mix them up, God also helped Noah do his job. In chapter seven, verse nine says that pairs of animals came to Noah. Noah didn’t have to go capture lions and tigers. The animals cooperated. God fills in the gaps. And we do well to remember that, and do what he tells us without arguing - even if the task seems large. But you can still be sure that Noah had to do a lot of work. One hundred years of building, and he needed to gather enough food for the animals, and all kinds of other things. Work. It is a good thing. Believe it or not. Solomon, the wise king wrote this: “There is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, and even this is a gift of God. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.”

At this point some of you might be thinking “Hold on.” The Christian life is not about work – the Christian life is about faith. And you’d be right – at least partly. Remember Paul wrote that we need to “work out or salvation.” And what did Jesus say? “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” Now when I was young, I thought that Jesus was just being clever when he said this – that he was trying to tell us that God wants belief and not work. But the older I get, the more profoundly I realize that believing in Jesus is indeed hard work. It is not the work of a moment either – it is the work of a lifetime. Work and faith are not disconnected. Work is spiritual and belief is work. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the…spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Not only can believing in Jesus be the struggle of a lifetime, but sometimes we don’t even get to see the results of our work in the present life.

Let me tell you a missionary story – a true story. We can never hear enough true missionary stories…

Back in 1921, a missionary couple named David and Svea Flood (that’s right – with a name like that, these folk belong in a sermon about Noah) – David and Svea Flood went to what was then called the Belgian Congo. They felt called to a remote area but the chief there would not let them enter his town. The Floods chose to go half a mile up the slope and build their own mud huts.

The only contact with the villagers was a young boy, who was allowed to sell them chickens and eggs twice a week. Svea Flood decided that if this was the only African she could talk to, she would try to lead the boy to Jesus. And in fact, she succeeded. But there were no other encouragements. Then Svea found herself pregnant in the middle of the primitive wilderness. A little girl was born, but the Mom, who was already weak with malaria, died. In that moment, something snapped inside David Flood. Giving his newborn daughter to another missionary couple, he snarled, "I'm going home. I've lost my wife, and I obviously can't take care of this baby. God has ruined my life." And he left.

Many years later, this little girl had grown up and become known as Aggie Hurst. Her adoptive parents had been open with her about her heritage, and so one day she saw a picture in a magazine that jumped out at her:

There in a primitive setting was a grave with a white cross-and on the cross were the words SVEA FLOOD. The article in the magazine was about missionaries who had come to Africa long ago ... the birth of a white baby ... the death of the young mother ... the one little African boy who had been led to Christ ... and how, after the missionaries had all left, the boy had grown up and finally persuaded the chief to let him build a school in the village. The article said that gradually he won all his students to Christ... the children led their parents to Christ... even the chief had become a Christian. Today there were six hundred Christian believers in that one village... all because of the sacrifice of David and Svea Flood.

A few years later, the Hursts were attending a conference in London, England, when a report was given from the nation of Zaire (the former Belgian Congo). The superintendent of the national church, representing some 110,000 baptized believers, spoke at length of the spread of the gospel through his nation. Aggie could not help approaching him afterward and asking if he had ever heard of David and Svea Flood. "Yes, madam," the man replied, "It was Svea Flood who led me to Jesus Christ. I was the boy who brought food to your parents before you were born. In fact, to this day your mother's grave and her memory are honored by all of us."

And if that wasn’t enough, Aggie went to Sweden and brought her father back to the Lord before he died. This was the person closest to Aggie’s Mom, and he had concluded that the work was in vain, and that God had abandoned him. But God looks at things slightly different than we do. Don’t give up on God. Let him work in the world through us, and let him work without having to keep us informed of his progress.

Just like Svea Flood, Noah devoted his entire life to the work that God had called him to. So how are we doing identifying with the hero in our story this morning? I know that some people in this church work really hard. But maybe others struggle with hard work. Not to worry – there must be other things besides hard work that made Noah find God’s favor. What were they? Genesis chapter six, verse nine: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.” Oof. Blameless. Do we have any blameless people here this morning? You should be preaching. But Noah was not just blameless. He walked with God. There is only one other person in the Bible who is said to have walked with God, and that was Noah’s grandfather, Enoch. Enoch was so special, that the Bible suggests that he never died – God just took him away! Are you blameless? I’m not. Sure, I’d like to be, but I’m not. Are you walking with God? I’m not. Sure, I’d like to be, but I’m not. Are you willing to work for a hundred years on a project that makes you the biggest joke in history? Not sure about that one either.

So if what if…I know it isn’t a very comfortable idea…but what if we might be a little bit more like some of Noah’s neighbors than we are like Noah. Seriously. What does the Bible say?

  • In Jeremiah: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure”
  • In the Psalms: “All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.”
  • In Ecclesiastes: “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.”
  • In Romans: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Sorry about that, but in the story of Noah, the character that you represent – the character that I represent – the character that we represent, is not Noah. Instead, we first need to identify with all those who were left behind. What did Jesus say? “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be when I return….they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be when I come back.”

But hold on, you might say, Jesus also told us to be watching for his return…and Christians should be doing that. Well, that may be true, but also remember what Jesus asked his closest followers to “keep watch” in his moment of greatest sorrow, but when he returned from prayer, he found them sleeping. He woke them up and told them to “watch and pray” a second time, but when he came back from prayer a second time, they were asleep again. This is the story that the phrase comes from: “the spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” And while our spirits might be willing, God knows our bodies are weak – yes, every one of us.

And so we should be going into the story of Noah not as the hero, but as someone who makes jokes about the hero. Not as the savior of the world, but as someone who needs saving. But there is good news! Not only are we in need of saving, but God wants to save us, too. At the end of the story of Noah, God put a rainbow in the clouds. And the rainbow was a sign of his promise never again to judge the world in this way. Here’s the way the prophet Isaiah describes it (54:7-10)

“For a moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. In anger, I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you,” says the LORD your redeemer – “To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters would never again cover the earth. So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again. Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the LORD, who has compassion on you.

If we want to be saved, we need to get to know the carpenter. Only he can save us. The Bible says that the flood that Noah went through is really just a picture of baptism, where, trusting in the carpenter from Galilee, we can be saved by his work from the biggest danger of them all – the danger to our very soul. Don’t miss that boat! Jesus has prepared the way to be saved, and we need to listen carefully to his instructions. Do you know that the Bible even says that Jesus went and preached to all the spirits of the people who died in the flood. God loved them even though their hearts are inclined to evil. And God loves you, too.

One last quick true story to finish up. The boxing day tsunami in 2004 was certainly the greatest natural disaster of modern times. It overwhelmed the beaches in Indonesia, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka. Dayalan Sanders looks after an orphanage in Sri Lanka. The grounds of the orphanage were on a little piece of land jutting out into the Indian Ocean, exactly the part of the country that was hit the worst by the Tsunami of 2004. That day, he was working on a sermon and his wife rushed in to tell him about the giant wave. Very calmly, he got up and started down toward the water. But when he finally looked up and saw the tsunami, he turned and shouted, “everyone to the boat!” Afterward he wrote this: “usually, to get all the children and staff to one point it takes a good ten minutes. That day we were all down at the boathouse in ten seconds…. We never leave the outboard motor on the launch. This was the first time we had done this. And it was also the first time that Stefan, the boat man was able to get the motor going on the first try. I called upon the Lord. I prayed and my God answered my prayer.” The God who directed Noah to a boat before a flood, the God of Jesus, whose commands the wind and the waves obeyed. That was the God who saved Dayalan Sanders and every one of his staff and orphans.

God is still in the business of saving people. Pay attention to his plan for you, listen carefully to his instructions and don’t give him a hard time if he asks you to do a bit of work.