The covenant was a practice in use in everyday life for many centuries before it became a model for the relationship between God and God’s people. There are differences between covenants and contracts, which is a whole other sermon. But the covenant was a familiar model to those who would tell, and those who would hear, the story of God and us down through the ages.
It’s different when one of the parties is God.
To understand the relationship of God with Noah is to understand the breathtaking foundation of God’s relationship with us all. When humankind’s behavior so grieved God that God decided to begin anew, God remembered Noah.
In Genesis 8:1, not long before our reading begins, that simple statement stands out: God remembered Noah. That is the turning point of the whole flood narrative, because it marks the triumph of mercy over justice. Logistically, it would have been much simpler to flood the whole world, with no exceptions, and start all over.
Other ancient cultures have flood narratives. Other ancient cultures have stories of gods arising who are much more than humans. But those other flood narratives mostly have those gods behaving almost exactly like the humans when it comes to, well, human nature. Those flood narratives are distinctly lacking in what we encounter in the way that God is in relationship with Noah.
The triumph of mercy over justice. What does this mean?
It means that forever after, God chooses to make himself an unequal party in the covenant. It means that forever after, when we inevitably fail to do as we have pledged, God still does as God has pledged to do.
In 1936, Edward VIII, king of England, chose to quit being king of England. He loved Wallis Warfield Simpson, an American woman who had been married and divorced. In those days, the way the monarchy operated, because the king or queen of England was also the head of the Church of England, the monarch could not be divorced and could not be married to someone who had been divorced.
Edward VIII decided that being married to Wallis Simpson was of more value to him than being the king. And once the constitutional crisis had been averted and he had signed the abdication papers, he took to the Facebook of his day and made a speech that was broadcast on the radio to explain himself to the British Empire. One statement in that brief speech has become famous. He said:
You must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.
We all need the help and support of those we love to do what we believe our duty might be. Human relationships grow and change along the way. And sometimes our relationship with God might grow and change – and we draw strength in those times from knowing that God’s relationship with us never changes.
Edward failed to do what he had pledged to do in his role as king, and God remained in covenant relationship with Edward, the individual person, nevertheless. Why? Because at the early stages of our story of relationship with God, God remembered Noah, and after the flood, after God made that covenant promise with Noah, Noah got drunk and had a fight with his son Ham, and things started to fall apart pretty quickly.
And God remembered Noah.
God, who had only just regretted making humankind because of their behavior, and who flooded the Earth to start over with only Noah and his family. God, who had gone to great lengths to save Noah. God, who made a covenant promise with Noah. God, who then, right after that covenant promise, saw Noah get drunk and have a fight.
God did not then decide to make another flood, just a little one, and wipe out Noah and his family and start over.
God worked with Noah and his family. God continued to be Noah’s God. God operated within the covenant of mercy over justice. The covenant of God with Noah is the beginning of all that is to follow, the rainbow the sign of the covenant.
And God remembered that he had only just said to Noah, “I now establish my covenant with you and your offspring to come.” Which includes us. Very soon, we will be reminded of Jesus’ new covenant with us, symbolized with the bread that, like the body, must be broken to feed us and the wine that, like the blood, must be poured out for our forgiveness and for our very lives.
Today, I make my covenant with you. I will be your interim pastor. And because we are all human, this will be a human covenant, and human relationships. And with us in that covenant is God, who will always operate within the covenant of mercy over justice. Amen.
Preached Feb 18 2018 by The Rev. Beth Woodard