Sunday, February 21, 2021
What do you think of when you hear the word, “promise?” Empty promises? Disappointment? Hope? Trust? Perhaps some of you, especially if you are in the field of education, are familiar with developmental psychologist Erik Eriksen’s stages of human development. For each of our life stages as we grow older, Eriksen argues that we need some basic concerns addressed for us to develop normally as human beings. The first stage for the first 18 months of a human’s life is the most important, he says. It is the “hope” stage of trust versus mistrust. If a baby learns that his basic needs will be met, he will be able to trust others as he grows older. Babies who don’t have caring adults nurturing them consistently, researchers have found, can develop serious disorders, including infant attachment disorder. The ability to trust is a basic need for healthy human development.
Even if we grew up with nurturing parents and other loving adults as babies and are generally trusting of others, almost all of us have been betrayed at some point in our lives. We all know the hurt of experiencing broken promises. As a parent myself, I know that I have made empty promises to my children – I try really hard not to: if I say I will do something, I do it almost always, but there have been the occasional slips: we can watch an extra TV show after dinner, but then we run out of time getting busy with other things, or you can have dessert if you eat all your vegetables, but then I forget and it’s time for bed. Betrayal can run much deeper – if it’s another adult we trust who abuses that trust, it can take a long time for us to move beyond that experience. Perhaps we ask a friend to keep something confidential, but she doesn’t, or our spouse hurts us in some way – an affair or some kind of abuse. Trust, once broken, is hard to restore.
Today, we begin a series on looking at God’s promises to us in scripture, and we start with the covenant God makes with Noah and his family. Noah’s story is about trust. In stages of faith development, this is the most basic question of faith: Can we trust God? Is God trustworthy? If God makes a promise to us, will he keep it? Unfortunately for some people, the answer is no, for whatever reason. But the story of Noah is also about God trusting us as human beings, and being sorely disappointed. Humans don’t live up to God’s expectations, and so God tries again. After the flood, God promises to renew the relationship between himself and us, and most importantly, to never, ever give up on us again.
My argument, of course, is that God can be trusted. God often becomes the scapegoat for human betrayal, in my thinking. Sometimes we blame God because it’s less emotionally painful than to admit our own or others’ wrongs. If we can trust God, then we can move toward a more mature spiritual development on our faith journey. Noah trusts God and builds an ark when God asks him to, even though his neighbors probably think he is crazy to build such a giant boat. And here’s the really miraculous thing about this first promise to humans from God after the flood: God doesn’t just make a promise to Noah and his family, not even to all humans. This promise is to the entire creation, to the whole Earth, to all living creatures. God says, “never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
The story of Noah and the flood is the first time the word “covenant” appears in the Bible. It doesn’t just appear once, but seven times in the short passage we read this morning. This means it’s really important to God that we hear and understand this promise. As we continue to look at the covenants God makes with people in the Old Testament, usually a covenant requires something of both parties. “If you do this, then I will do this.” If Abraham and Sarah are faithful and worship God, for example, then God will bless them with descendants and land. We might think of a marriage as a covenant – a promise that both people make to be faithful to one another until death do us part. Or a neighborhood covenant, where homeowners agree to certain rules in an association. The remarkable thing about this covenant to Noah and all creation is that it is really simply a promise with no strings attached, no expectations or requirements of us. In chapter 8, God actually says “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth, nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.” Even though humans are evil, God will not try another do-over! Never again!
With the flood, God gives the Earth a second chance. It’s a big “do-over.” And yet, when it’s all over, God realizes that the problem is not solved. Human beings still have an inclination for evil, even Noah and his family. God’s promise to never destroy the Earth again is a commitment to us despite ourselves. God knows the worst of who we are and yet loves us even still, and sticks with us even still. God will try a different strategy. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son…”. God loves us despite ourselves, and God can be trusted to love and care for us and this entire Earth, no strings attached. This is the basic point of Noah and the flood.
As we continue to look at God’s promises to us as people of faith in the coming weeks, you’ll notice that each time God makes a covenant, God includes a visible sign of that promise. The sign for this promise today of course is a rainbow. Rainbows still today are a sign of hope and promise. Scientifically we know that rainbows appear after a storm, a phenomenon of the sun’s refracted light from water vapor and clouds. Remember at the beginning of the pandemic when people all over started putting rainbows in their windows for children to look for on walks throughout the neighborhood? I joined a Facebook group called Rainbows over Nassau and Suffolk Counties after that. I just checked back on the page this week, and they’re still going strong. People are posting rainbow crafts, where you can get rainbow foods like cookies and ice cream on the island, pictures of rainbow sightings, and so on. Where a lot of social media quickly becomes negative, it’s refreshing to see something so positive and encouraging that continues to give people hope. God created a world he loves too much to destroy, in spite of everything wrong with it. God created rainbows to remind us of his great love, and to sustain us with hope, too. Rainbows come after the storm. Life is not without challenges and suffering, but God will continue to give us life abundant. Never again, God says. In this promise, we place our hope and trust. Amen.