One of my favorite things when reading a great book or watching a well made movie is when the story takes a turn that I didn’t expect. Just at the moment when I think the story is headed in this way, out of no where comes a dramatic turn – that changes everything.
Some of the best stories – stories that we remember – stories that impact us are the ones that defied prediction and surprised us all.
It’s not that exciting when the #1 seed in the NCAA basketball tournament makes it to the final four – but when Butler and Virginia Commonwealth are playing – the story becomes so much more interesting.
We love the story of the underdog – or the story of those who staged a great and unexpected comeback – like when a powerhouse athlete like George Forman comes back late in his career to become the oldest heavyweight champion, or– for example – when THE Ohio State University wins the National Championship with their third string quarterback and with a defense that most doubted could measure up.
The power of the story comes in the surprise ending – the one that no one (outside the state of Ohio) saw coming.
As we’ve been talking about the last two weeks, the Jewish people – as they began to tell stories about who they were and who God was – they were breaking away from a worldview that had been entrenched for thousands of years – that the nature of life was going nowhere - that it was a circle – things just kept repeating themselves.
And they began to tell stories of a God that was doing something NEW. A God that was taking them somewhere. A God of surprises – a God of new things. Where the end of the story was not necessarily what you expect.
The bible is filled with stories with an unexpected and surprising turn.
The youngest boy in the family is the one chosen to be the future king and who, with only a handful of stones is able to beat the great giant Goliath, the young Jewish girl is chosen to be the Queen and at the precise moment when it seems that genocide is coming, she is in a position to sway the king and save her people, and of course – the Jewish boy from Nazareth, born of humble beginnings – who begins preaching and teaching about the Kingdom of God, the accessibility of God, and a whole new way to live – who, for his words and actions, is killed on a cross but then rises again.
Ours is a story filled with surprise after surprise. Which makes sense – because – this is the story of a God who is doing new things.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that some of the earliest stories in our tradition, when these new epiphanies were first forming and shaping the consciousness of a people – first giving them the language that they needed to understand this new kind of God.
It would make sense that the stories told around the campfires – would be stories with familiar elements – that people had heard before – but stories filled with new surprises – twists and turns that change everything and highlight the different place and direction where things were going.
The power of those first Jewish storytellers around those campfires was in the surprise ending – the one that no one expected – but everyone remembered.
The story of the flood was probably among one of the earlier stories told around those campfires. As people were beginning to shape their identity and make sense of this God of new things.
Last week we talked about how nearly every culture had a story of how the world began – something to explain the origin of humanity – but nearly every culture living in the age of Sumer – also had a flood story. A story that explained some of the devastating natural phenomenon that had taken place in a region that was frequently flooded. And a story that acknowledged and addressed the nature of corruption, evil, and violence in the world. And how the Gods responded to it.
The Sumerian flood myth itself might sound rather familiar to you.
After creation, the gods see the corruption of humans and have decided to send a flood to destroy mankind. The God Enki - warns Ziusudra, the ruler of Shuruppak, one of the great cities, to build a large boat. The terrible storm rages for 7 days until all of the earth is covered and then the Sun God appears, Ziusudra protrates himself and sacrifices an ox and a sheep. And after more deference to more of the Gods, Ziusudra is taken up, given the Breath Eternal and joins the Gods.
The Sumerian flood story, like many of the other flood stories of the time reflected the prevailing worldview – that at any moment of time, you could expect the gods to take vengeance on humanity – through an act of destruction. It was part of the circle that kept repeating itself. Periodic punishment for our wrongdoing when the gods became angry. So the goal would be to try not to do anything that would anger the Gods. For The curse of their anger could come at any time.
The early Jewish stories also reflect the acknowledgement and understanding that sin and wrongdoing was both displeasing to God and created a kind of curse – where humans became separated from their relationship with God.
We see this in the Adam and Eve story –
Where what happens?
And the words of God are –
cursed is the fertile land because of you; in pain you will eat from it every day of your life. 18 Weeds and thistles will grow for you, even as you eat the field’s plants; 19 by the sweat of your face you will eat bread— until you return to the fertile land, since from it you were taken; you are soil, to the soil you will return.”
And then in Cain and Abel –
And then we come to the flood.
And the story seems eerily similar to the story of the Sumerian Flood Myth –
What did you hear that is similar?
What did you hear that was different?
But the Genesis flood story has an ending unlike any other flood story at the time. It has a surprise ending - Because at the end of this story - a rainbow fills the sky. And God promises the unthinkable - to never flood the earth again in this way.
Read - 8:21
The Lord smelled the pleasing scent, and the Lord thought to himself, I will not curse the fertile land anymore because of human beings since the ideas of the human mind are evil from their youth. I will never again destroy every living thing as I have done. - Did you hear those words? Even though humanity is evil since their first thought. I will not destroy them.
Nothing about the nature of humanity changed. What has changed is how God will relate.
8:21 - it is the end of the reign of the curse. Curse will no longer be the decisive divine relationship to the earth. Where every violent action from humanity demands an equally violent response from God.
What God replaces the curse with is PROMISE.
PROMISE and COVENANT will be the primary means by which God will relate to humanity.
God makes the choice to stick with us - despite our wickedness.
And God makes a covenant – a one-sided covenant – to show us another way to live.
And so as graphic and destructive as the Noah's ark story is – the surprise ending – tells us that it's ACTUALLY a story about how God isn't like that. It's a story about how God will be different. That Violence and destruction will not be the way of this God.
The story is about the curse being over.
The curse is over – we stand instead on the promise of a second chance.
It is amazing to me how many people within the Christian community and beyond – have not REALLY heard this message. They have not really experienced the Epiphany – the new revelation, the new insight – the aha moment – that tells them – that they are not cursed.
That God is not ANGRY.
And that God is not interested in bringing about destruction and pain in their lives as a punishment.
People often talk about the Old Testament God as being the angry one – meting out punishment and judgment and wrath in heartless ways.
But the Jewish community who wrote these stories in the context when they did seemed to be trying to tell a very different story. Trying to use the same stories they had heard – but with a different ending – ours is a God who doesn’t behave that way – ours is a God who knows all of the wrong that we do – and responds with the promise to still remain with us.
Through it all – and to teach us another way to live.
A way of living that isn’t dependent on our own ability to get it right.
But rests in the promises of God.
So I wonder where you need to hear most – the epiphany – that God is not angry.
That God is not keeping score – but instead is standing with us – pointing us to the rainbows and the second chances – and a new way to live that leaves the cycles of violence and destruction behind.
And I wonder -
How we can be a people who stop perpetuating a curse?
And instead start living into our promise?
This weekend is Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday – we will remember it tomorrow.
A man who committed himself to the ways of nonviolence – that we would not repay violence with violence – that there was in fact, another way to live.
I think perhaps, that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood the epiphany that the early Jewish communities were trying to tell.
I think in fact, that he experienced the forgiveness and grace that was his from God – and insodoing – was able to stand on the promises and extend that grace to all those around him.
The curse has long been over. God is not angry. And we stand on the promise that God is with us. Extending grace. And teaching us a new way to live. May we be able to listen today.