Sermon: God of Judgment, God of Grace

“The judgment of God is that we are left to ourselves, that we are delivered up to the consequences of our own conduct.”

— Wolfhart Pannenberg

 

Texts

Genesis 6:5-10, 13-14a, 17-19, 22 & 7:23-24 & 8:1, 15-21

Psalm 9:7-10, 15-20, 1 Peter 3:13-22, Matt 5:43-48

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The story of Noah has long captured the American public imagination, and we’ve done some funny things with it. There was recently a hit movie that turned the Noah’s tale into a story about climate change. Maybe some of you know the poem Shel Silverstein wrote about Noah called “The Unicorn,” which explains how the unicorns died in the flood.

“the Ark started movin' and driftin with the tide, and the Unicorns looked up from the rocks, and they cried. And the water came down and sort of floated them away - and that's why you'll never see a Unicorn today!”

There are a lot of versions of the Noah story out there, and most of them aren’t very faithful to the text of Genesis. Emmett has more than one children’s Bible that in the Noah story completely leaves out anything about human evil or divine judgment.

And quite conversely, many non-Christians would see this story as evidence that the God of the Bible is capricious and violent, smiting people at random.

And then, our Christian conversation about this passage has spent a lot of energy arguing about whether or not it’s entirely historical. And while that’s a very important question for modern people, in the midst of the arguments, it’s easy to lose sight of the actual point of the story. (That’s something that I have personally found to be a major temptation.)

And I would argue that we ignore or overlook the meaning of this story in these various ways because we sense that this story is telling us something that we do not want to hear. It’s easier to change the story or argue about its historicity than to face what it is actually saying – and answer the incredibly pointed question that it wants to ask us.

And that is this: The God of Israel is the righteous judge of the world; what are you going to do about it? Think about that for a moment. God is the righteous judge of your life. God is the righteous judge of your people. How do you respond to that reality?

The idea of God’s judgment is very offensive to modern people. Albert Camus, back in 50s, wrote an entire book called “The Fall” about all the ways people try to distract themselves from their deep and pervasive fear of being judged. Camus says this: “Each of us insists on being innocent at all costs, even if [we have] to accuse the whole human race and heaven itself.” We hide our nakedness, and we hate the idea that we could be judged by any court of morality higher than our own inner compass.

To that heart resistance, the story of Noah replies with maddening frankness: the God of Israel is the righteous judge of the world, how will you respond? No apologies.

That is the question that is before us today, and to help us answer it, I want to take a little time to unpack what the story is saying. God is the judge, but what kind of judge?

The Point of the Story

For modern people, the flood can seem pretty arbitrary. God sees people acting in way he doesn’t like; so, he gets ticked off and hits them with a wall of water. But that’s not the story that’s being told here. I’ll give you two reasons:

One, God’s use of the flood as the means of destruction is a completely appropriate response to people who had entirely given themselves over to evil and violence. Because the means of God’s judgment here is perfectly fits the crime.

Genesis 1 told us how the world began as a watery chaos. Then, the God brought order out of chaos and created an organized and harmonious world. So, when humanity rejects God as Creator and chooses the way of destruction and evil, they are not only rejecting God, but also the order He created. Does that make sense?

Think about it like this: When revolutionaries overthrow a ruler, they aren’t just rejecting that one ruler, they’re rejecting that ruler’s entire way of doing things – their regime, their law. And ofttimes, revolutions end in political chaos. What’s happening here is similar.

In rejecting God, humans reject His order, and embrace chaos. Therefore, God responds by bringing back the waters of chaos to cover the land once more. It’s what you call, poetic justice. As Psalm 9 said, “the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands.”

So, God is in no way capricious. He is entirely fair.

Two, God is not only a fair judge, He’s a merciful judge. Again, that’s often missed.

We tend to think of Noah as a perfect person who escapes the flood because he is “blameless.” But the word “blameless” here does not mean “sinless,” in the way that Jesus was without sin. It’s more of a relative term. And look, God’s pronouncement of judgement is on all flesh, which would have to include Noah too.

When Noah is first introduced, it says that he had found “favor” in the eyes of the Lord. “Favor” there is the Hebrew word for grace. Noah was a person who honored God in an evil time, and he received God’s grace. So, this is a story about how God saves humanity by grace. Genesis it telling us that all of human history is under grace.

And what’s more, after the flood, God doubles down on this grace by promising never again to destroy the world like that. God commits Himself to a one-sided covenant with the world, despite the ongoing problem of human evil. And that is a commitment that can only be ultimately resolved on the cross of Christ.

As the first letter of Peter tells us: Noah’s passing through the waters of the flood prefigures the baptism that now saves us through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Once again, Genesis is pointing us to Jesus.

Putting It All Together

We started by saying, “The God of Israel is the righteous judge of the world; what are you going to do about it?” But now we can see that the Noah story is a bit more nuanced, saying this: God is the righteous, fair, & merciful judge of the world, whose grace has made possible our entire existence. How will we respond to that fact?

And it seems to me, that the answer for the Christian is clear, and it is twofold: First, we respond by throwing ourselves upon the mercies of God, which are revealed in the story of Noah, and more fully in the gospel. We depend on God’s mercy for our justification, for our sanctification, and for our future hope. Like Noah, we walk with God by His grace, “blameless and innocent, in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.”

Second, we follow Christ’s example and his instruction by loving our enemies. That might sound like a non-sequitur, but consider this:

Genesis portrays the sons and grandsons of Noah as the founders of nations. Israel and every nation they knew of were associated with one of Noah’s descendants. Which said to the Israelite hearer of the story, “all those peoples on your borders and beyond, the ones who so often mistreat you and threaten your very existence, those are peoples over whom God put the rainbow. Those are peoples with whom God has made a covenant of grace.”

As a Church in the Bay Area, we know there is a lot of tension and negativity – and at times even open hostility – toward the church here. And it would be very easy for us to start to treat our non-Christian neighbors as our enemies. And that wouldn’t have to be overt. Even if we simply treated them as people who will never be open to the gospel message, that would be a way of treating them like an enemy.

But that would be at odds with the spirit of the story of Noah. The story of Noah says that all those neighbors of ours are under God’s rainbow covenant of grace. And Jesus tells us to go out and invite them into the gospel covenant of grace for eternal life. And even if some of our neighbors truly want to be our enemies, Jesus tells us explicitly how to deal with them: love them, because God does – “He sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

Carl Medearis is an American Evangelical from Colorado Springs who was called to move his family to Beirut, Lebanon in the 90s on a mission to tell Arab Muslims about Jesus.

Carl and his missionary team were the first American civilians to go into Iraq after the start of the second gulf war, where they worked with school kids in Bagdad for several weeks.

And so, they were feeling pretty great as they drove home across vast reaches of open desert. But then, out of nowhere, another car appeared and rammed into them. The men inside pointed machine guns at them and signaled them to pull over. 

The men dragged them out of the car and forced them to the ground. Carl said, ‘have you ever heard about the bubble of peace that comes over you in those times like that? It isn’t true!’ When the men held a gun to Carl’s head and asked if he was afraid to die, he said, “uh yeah!” Then the men picked through their stuff and syphoned the gas out of their car.

That’s when Carl got a searing heart question from God, “Carl, why are you doing this?” And the question surprised him. And he thought, you know what, I don’t know. I would have said that it was because I love Arabs, but now I really don’t know.  And he suddenly had this life crisis wondering, why do I even do this? 

But then God answered His own question and said, “Carl, you do this because I love those guys.”  ‘As in, those guys who are robbing you right now. I love those guys.’

Then the bandits left, and Carl and his team drove back to the nearest city on fumes. And when the people there found out what happened to them, they became very upset and said, “the shame is on our heads!” And they filled their car with gas and lavished gifts upon them. And the sheiks and elders of the city invited them to lunch, and when they discovered that they were missionaries following Jesus, they all stood up and said, “We’re so glad you’ve come. Jesus has led you to our city today.” And that city was Fallujah.

The people we fear, the people who hate us (or the people we hate), the people who we think of as our perennial enemies, those are people over whom God raised the rainbow. Those are people for whom Christ was willing to die. Those are people among whom the Spirit of God may already be working in surprising ways, to lead them toward Jesus.

Therefore, in Christ, let us seek God’s mercy for ourselves, and seek the grace to love our neighbors – and even our enemies – as God has loved us. Paul says:

“We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ... Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others… because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and Christ died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”