Preached by Dr Richard A. Davis at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Suva, Fiji Islands (22 February 2015)
Reading: Genesis 9:8-17
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
Our Old Testament reading today from the book of Genesis speaks of the covenant God makes with Noah, his descendants, and all living flesh. It is a well-known part of the larger Noah narrative, in which God floods the world wiping out sinful humanity and giving life on Earth a fresh start.
Coming toward the end of the Noah story this particular reading from Genesis would have to be one of the most repetitive pieces of scripture.
When we see repetition, we can assume a bad writer or editor, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that instead God really wants us to learn the point. Repetition here is giving emphasis for a humanity that is perhaps slow to learn. Or, perhaps God wants to reassure Noah and his family about the his change of behavior. I think it is significant that when God asked Noah to build the ark he spoke to Noah alone, but here God, in making the Covenant makes sure that he speaks to Noah and his sons. Noah and his family had just seen everything they knew wiped off the face of the earth, so God was at pains to reassure them all directly that he would not do it again.
The lesson is clear enough it seems, God will never again flood the whole earth. He wants this point to sink home. And it is one we must remember too.
Some might think that because of this covenant it is impossible that God will allow climate change to cause water to inundate low-lying areas or counties.
Sadly, this covenant does not prevent natural disasters and floods. It did not prevent the 1931 Chinese floods that may have claimed up to 4 million lives. Closer to home, it did not prevent the Fiji floods of 2009 that claimed at least 16 lives.
God’s covenant with Noah will not prevent flooding due to climate change either. Evil remains with us, but through the covenant we can be sure that those disasters that do occur are not the products of God’s anger or rejection.
In many cases, disasters have very human causes. While Western politicians debate resolutions at big international conferences while increasing their emissions at home, and protect and subsidize oil and coal industries, communities in the Pacific are already being relocated.
For people tied so closely to the land and sea where their ancestors lived I can only imagine the disruption caused – not only to the communities, but also in the hearts and minds of those affected. We should never underestimate the attachment to a place, especially those who have not much else but the land they farm and which has provided for them and their communities.
Instead of coming from God’s hand, the rising waters of climate change are the waters of human sin.
Humanity was all but wiped out due to its sin. In this covenant with Noah, God will no longer send waters of destruction. This does not mean that Noah’s family and their descendants will eradicate sin. What it means is that sin will not punished in this way.
It is sin nonetheless that leads to climate change. The greed of the West and the violation of mother nature is what lies behind climate change. The curious thing here is that the unintended result of climate change was just that – unintended. No one desired to pump gases into the atmosphere to change the climate. That would be a sin. No, the sins that eventually lead to climate change are most likely greed, pride, and gluttony. These sins continue to drive an inhumane global economy to the brink of destruction.
In some ways we deserve the punishment of a word wide flood as people implicated in the causes of climate change. Some have more emissions than others, but we all have emissions and many of us use beyond what is acceptable for a stable climate.
In our text for today, God makes humanity a promise. God promises never to flood the whole earth and all flesh ever again.
Humans make promises too. And children seem to have a very good memory for promises made to them by their parents. You parents know what I’m talking about.
Have others made promises to you? Too often when people make promises to us we remember the broken promises that that person made before. This reveals both their shortcoming and ours, as we shouldn’t dwell on the failings of others.
But when God makes a promise to us, we should remember all the promises God has made and fulfils on a daily basis to us. God’s promise in our story today is that God will not allow the forces of chaos to destroy us.
Other promises of God include that found in Jeremiah 29:11: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
But these promises may have a hollow sound to those facing dislocation through climate change induced sea level rise. Those faced with losing their lands and ancestral homes in the Pacific, are in some cases our families and friends and they are certainly our brothers and sisters in Christ.
But a sea level rise is not a flood to destroy the whole earth and all flesh.
To think that the flooding of our land is a flood for the whole earth is self-centred. In itself such a view is a sin that somehow our world is the whole world. That somehow if our world is destroyed, the whole world is destroyed. This is not how we should think at all.
Those displaced by climate change may wonder what God has done in allowing this to happen.
Instead of thinking about what God may have taken we can choose to see what God has given us.
Perhaps these people displaced by climate change can be a gift to the church. They might be able to teaching us that our home is not this earth.
But that I do not mean that our home is in heaven and we should simply accept what we are given here and wait for death. No. I mean that they can teach us how to live here and now.
Those victims of sea level rise forced to leave their homelands have been called rightly been called refugees. This appears to be a correct use of the term. But I want to apply another, more theological, term to their plight, and that is the term “exile”.
An exile is someone forced to leave their home for one reason or another. But it allows us to draw on our own traditions of the Bible and theology as we understand the plight of those moved on from their homes by climate change. They will move, like all exiles, to a strange place and encounter the unfamiliar.
But they are not the only exiles in the church. Our ancestors perhaps faced a greater disruption with the arrival of missionaries and colonization. Christians today face being exiles in a culture which has increasingly little place for faith. All exiles need to help one another deal with the unfamiliar.
For many dislocated by rising sea levels they will end in exile. But unlike the exile of the Hebrews in Babylon, there will be no chance of a return home. They will need to learn how to sing their songs in a new land
The question for them is: How do we learn to be resident aliens, living in exile?
In the famous “Epistle to Diognetus” early Christians were reported on in the following way:
“They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers.”
Christians were seen in a way that transcended boundaries with a light connection to place
Noah was also an exile. For Noah there was no going back. His homeland was flooded and everything he had in the whole world was in the ark. Most likely, he and his family had drifted a long way from home. He had to accept his new location as being provided by God.
He demonstrated this acceptance by immediately planting a grape vine. Given that grapes can take about three years to produce fruit, we can see that Noah was taking a long-term view and adopting his new home.
In fact, some scholars suggest that the first 11 books of genesis were written during the Babylonian exile. If true, then this would suggest to us that we might see a criticism of Empire and a way of dealing with Exile in our text.
One thing that the Creation narrative of the first 11 chapters of Genesis makes clear is that our God, the God of Noah, is the God of the whole world.
God not only made the world but is also everywhere present in it. God was with Noah when he set off in the ark and was there when the ark came to rest. Few gods of the ancient world could achieve that feat. They were often being located in just one place.
Climate change forces us to rethink our God. God is not the God of our village or the god of our farm. God is the god of the whole world.
Can we nurture the faith of an exile? -With eyes on the Kingdom of God, which is above nations, hovers over the waters and the land and has no regard for arbitrary national borders.
Can we demonstrate a new way of living – clinging lightly to this earth and the things of this world? I hope we can.
Part of this poses a responsibility on those receiving the exiles too.
Take Deuteronomy 10:19: “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Refugees, asylum seekers, and exiles are being treated terribly in Australia and other countries around the World. We Christians need to open our hearts and encourage government to do better in welcoming the stranger.
As someone in self-imposed exile, a New Zealander, a Kiwi living and working in Fiji, I love the communal life here in Fiji. People are friendly and here in the middle of the Pacific Fiji and other countries are surrounded by some of the worst climate offenders in the World, USA, China, Australia and New Zealand.
What do we have to offer them? I think we can live a life that shows how people can live in harmony with nature and each other under God.
This was the task given to the exile Noah, It is remains our task today.