Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A, May 29, 2011
Acts 17.22-31; Psalm 66.8-20; 1 Peter 3.13-22; John 14.15-21
PastorRenee Splichal Larson
Isaiah 43:2 says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you…” These words are our rainbow…our promise. If we find ourselves overwhelmed by the rising flood waters or by the prisons we find ourselves in, we know that God will meet us there, remind us of the bigger picture, and proclaim to us a message of hope and courage.
Grace to you and peace from the One who proclaims hope and courage to all hearts in every situation. Amen.
It is no secret that this is a highly anxious time in Bismarck/Mandan and in the state of North Dakota. Wherever I turn I hear something of the impending and in some places, the already happening great flood of 2011. I cannot drive anywhere without being behind truck loads of dirt and looking at people gathering with shovels and gloves to help fill sand bags. Everywhere on television there are pleas for volunteers to help fight back the flood waters and prepare the city and all of us for what is coming. It seems like every ten minutes on the radio there are new up-dates on how high the water will be or when more water will be released from the dams or how much rain Montana is supposed to get in the next week. How high the water will rise is dependent upon so many factors. It is almost impossible to know where the water will reach, how much damage it will do, if all the dykes will hold, and if all the sandbagging efforts will keep back the flood waters.
When we think of floods and think of Scripture, what story comes to mind for many of you? Yes, Noah and the Ark. I am not sure if you caught the reference to Noah and the flood in our second reading in 1 Peter, but it was there. The reference was quick and perhaps confusing, which is why I would like to spend some time on it this morning. Listen to 1 Peter 3:18-20, again: “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.”
Noah and the building of the Ark is probably one of the most widely known stories in Scripture. It is one of the first stories taught in Sunday School and used in many murals in children’s rooms…for some reason so many love the story of Noah and the building of the Ark. And why wouldn’t we?! There is the great task of constructing a huge boat (what’s not fun about that?), the migration of animals two by two onto the giant ship (the dinosaur joke: there is a photo of 2 dinosaurs watching the ark float away and one says to the other: “That was today?”), plus the sending of a bird to discover and olive leaf that gives hope of land and a new beginning. Last but not least we cannot forget the promise of God to never flood the earth again and the sign of the promise is sealed with a beautiful rainbow. Who doesn’t like rainbows?!
Now whether or not the story is historically true is not our issue to discuss today. For those of you who want to brush this story off because of fact or fiction, I ask that you open up your minds and hearts in order to find deeper meaning and truths in the story itself for yourself and all of us here today.
One thing about being people of faith is that we are to not shy away from the more troubling parts of Scripture. Parts that make us wonder who in the world God is; parts that make us say, “I can’t or don’t want to believe such a thing;” parts that have the ability to question the hope we have in God. We enter into Scripture and its stories together. They are our stories of faith and Noah and the flood is part of our story.
I almost feel like I need to put a disclaimer on what comes next for 2 reasons. One is because I’m going to say “hell” a few times, so don’t go home saying the pastor swore a bunch from the pulpit, and two, the stuff that follows is not easy, but is important to recognize as part of the flood story. The story of Noah is that eight people and 2 animals of every kind survived the flood. In this we rejoice, but it also begs to ask the question: “What about everyone and everything else?” Well Genesis Chapter 7.21-23 tells us that “everything on dry land whose nostrils was the breath of life died,” and that God “blotted out…every living thing…from the earth: birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings.” This part of the story is not often emphasized for obvious reasons. We want to push away the reality that lurks beneath the waters…suffering and death. It isn’t all rainbows, animals, and saving.
Here might be a good time and place to ask an appropriate question: What kind of God do we have that would allow such flooding and death?
The first answer to this question is: A mysterious God.
The second answer needs a little more research.
In first Peter we hear of the disobeying ones, who end up being the “spirits in prison.” This can be awfully confusing but not if we know the story. In Genesis 6.5-7, we hear of the situation that led up to the flood: “The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. 6 And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the LORD said, "I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created…for I am sorry that I have made them."
So, the disobeying ones, who end up being the “spirits in prison,” mentioned in 1 Peter are the ones who were so wicked and evil that God decided to flood the earth. Now fast forward a few thousand years to Jesus, who is fully God (the same God who decided to flood the earth because of human wickedness) in the flesh. Fully God and fully human being, Jesus Christ.
We know that Jesus suffered and died. And in the confession of faith we say that “he descended into hell (or the dead) and on the third day rose again.” We might ask, “What in the world was Jesus doing in hell?” Well from our text today we learn that Jesus made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey. A “proclamation” doesn’t mean, “Ha ha, bet you wish you would have lived differently.” No, a proclamation is the sharing of good news.
The profound and incredible meaning of this good news is that Jesus goes to the depths of hell, to be with and give hope to who we would consider to be the worst of the worst. God’s love in Jesus Christ even extends to those whose hearts were continually evil who were even already dead! This is completely mind-blowing because there is absolutely no one and nowhere that the love of God cannot reach. If you have any doubt about God’s love for you and what extent God would go through to communicate that love for YOU, this story should give you great hope that God’s love has the power to forgive the greatest offenses and can meet you wherever you are at…even hell…even prison. If this is not the grace of God, I don’t know what is.
It is ironic to read about “prison” in our setting. Sometimes we are literally in prison, but we also have the unfortunate ability to create our own prisons that keep us from living full and healthy lives: fear, anxiety, addiction, you name it. Is it in these “prisons” we set for ourselves that God can feel the most distant and uncaring. But it is my dearest hope that while you are here at the correctional center or while you might feel imprisoned by fear, addiction, or anxiety, that you can hear the proclamation of the love of God for you. That you can know deep down in your heart and soul that you are not unreachable, unforgiveable, or too far gone for God’s love to enter in to your confined spaces of unbelief and despair.
There are many living with fear and anxiety in Bismarck/Mandan right now. People are trying to build the “ark” so to speak, with sand bags and dykes in order to do the best they can to keep the flood waters out. This needs to happen and it is wonderful to see so many people working to
gether. At some point we all know that the sand bagging and dyke building will stop because evacuations will have to happen, and then all there is left to do is wait. But in the waiting we continue to pray and trust that no matter what happens God is with us. We cannot lose sight of the bigger picture when immanent flooding is at hand.
An here's the bigger picture: Isaiah 43:2 says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you…” These words are our rainbow…our promise. If we find ourselves overwhelmed by the rising flood waters or by the prisons we find ourselves in, we know that God will meet us there, remind us of the bigger picture, and proclaim to us a message of hope and courage.
Earlier I asked the question: What kind of God do we have that would allow such flooding and death?
Perhaps another question we can ask is: What kind of God do we have that would create all that is and redeem any of us?
The first answer to this question is: A loving God.
The second answer I will leave for you to continue to explore and delight in discovering answers to this question for yourself.
May God keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.