Linus and Lucy are standing at the window watching it rain. You know who they are, I’m sure -- two of the children from the classic comic strip Peanuts. The cartoon I’m thinking of is based on today’s Old Testament lesson from Genesis 9. Lucy says, "If it doesn't stop raining everything will be washed away."
"Oh no!" Linus assures her. "Genesis chapter 9 says that never again will God wash everything away."
A relieved Lucy says, "Thank you, that is a great comfort to me."
Linus replies, "Sound theology will do that."
The story of the flood, despite the fact that it comes from the most ancient and murkiest period of stories handed down in Scripture, actually has a lot to teach us. It is full of sound theology -- which, as Linus reminds us, is the only kind that really works because it is the only kind that describes reality.
The story goes that God looked down on earth and saw what a mess people had made of everything -- of the ecosystem, their government, their communities, and their own lives. So, they say, God decided to try and solve that problem by ditching his whole "creation experiment," flooding the world out, and starting over again with a better gene pool. (We may smile at how simple this sounds, but let's remember that stories like this have played an important role in people's spiritual lives for centuries.)
Only Noah and his family, who had so far shown nothing but obedience to God's Word, were allowed to take refuge from the flood and save their lives. Surely a planet with nice folks like this as its ancestors would turn out better. So they build their ark, load on enough animals to repopulate the world, and set sail. They pass through the waters, and the ark keeps them safe, and when they have made it to dry land everything starts over again.
But then what happens? Just a few verses later, good-guy Noah reveals himself as bad-guy Noah, getting blind drunk and passing out in the living room, and his family in turn begins behaving as dysfunctionally as you might expect the family of such a man to. So much for the idea of starting a new world with only the nice people. And in fact, as Genesis goes on to the story of the tower of Babel and of the patriarchs and matriarchs, it's clear that the world is just as full of violence and lies and bigotry as it was before the flood.
So where’s the comfort and the sound theology Linus is talking about in this story? Well, it all turns on God's choice to make a promise.
You probably noticed that Genesis 9 repeated several times the word "Covenant." God says over and over that now that the flood is finished, he is making a covenant. A covenant in Hebrew society usually was a two-way deal, like a contract. This covenant, however, is different. It's not a two-way deal. God promises something, but Noah doesn't have to promise anything back. He doesn't have to earn the benefits of the covenant. He just has to be in the covenant -- like all he had to do to be saved from the flood was to be in the ark -- and like all we have to do to be saved from nothingness is to be in Christ. And in fact, God says the covenant is not just for Noah and his family, but for every living creature, the entire earth.
So note that God doesn't tell Noah, "If you do these sacrifices and don't sleep around and don't tell lies and don’t miss worship too much, I will be good to you." He says, "I myself unconditionally am making a promise. Here is what I covenant with you: I will be for you, not against you. And I am putting a rainbow in the sky as a reminder to you and to me and to the entire creation of what kind of God I am."
The story reads almost as if God has figured out something very important: that relying on human goodness will not produce reliable results. We can't be counted on to behave the way we ought, and even when you think you have managed to create an environment which will exclude the so-called bad people, badness just crops up again. So rather than promising to give people what they deserve, God promises not to give us what we deserve. He promises to be for us, to take the responsibility for goodness himself.
Throughout this Lent we will see in our first reading a series of Old Testament covenants. And what they show, and Scripture in general shows, and our own daily lives show, is that no matter how much people try to better ourselves and live our best lives, or to exclude and cancel others whom we think have transgressed, God does not deal with us that way. God’s love and forgiveness are never because of what we do but always because of who he is. God's solution to the problem of people being so unreliable is to be reliable himself, and invite us to rely on him.
The ultimate invitation to rely on God comes in the story this season of Lent leads up to: God goes to the Cross to die for our sins and rise for our redemption, and he welcomes us all into the living ark of salvation that is Jesus Christ. We are saved not because of what we do, but because of who God is. That's a great comfort to me, but no surprise there -- sound theology will do that.