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What a promise! - Genesis 9

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 23rd November 2008.

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I must confess that I am not a great one for making New Year resolutions, but I can see some value in them. Here are few reasons for making at least some resolutions as we see from the screen. Resolution 1: ‘I will not drive away from the garage without replacing the petrol hose.’ Resolution 2: ‘I will keep well within the speed limit.’ And resolution 3: ‘I will keep a safe distance from police cars.’ Now I guess that the attraction of making resolutions at the New Year is that they have the potential to offer a fresh start. We want to make some improvement and what better time to do that than at the beginning of a year? New Year- New Lifestyle. But the downside, as we know to our shame, is that no sooner have we made the resolution than we break it. So my resolution is not to make resolutions.

Now that is the sort of experience we see being played out in Genesis chapter 9. Everything looks like we are set for a new start, but before you know it we are back to square one bogged down in the mire of failure. But, as we shall see things are far from doom and gloom, especially where God is at work. So let’s take a look at this remarkable section under two headings.

First, God’s new start- vv 1-17. It is very difficult to miss the parallel with the early part of Genesis in chapter 1 and 2 and a comparison of Noah with Adam. You will remember that back there you had God demonstrating his overwhelming generosity in blessing mankind in at least three ways. There was the blessing of productivity- 1:28, ‘God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." Then there is blessing in produce, God providing food for humankind, v29 ‘Then God said, "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.’ And there is what can be called God’s blessing in protection in that we read, using that picturesque language of Genesis 2, that God formed man from the dust of the ground and then placed him within a protective royal park-Eden. And that same pattern is being repeated here as God’s man, Noah, steps out onto dry lad and into what is in effect a new world, a cleansed world following the flood. So there is productivity-v 1, ‘Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.’ You see God’s original purpose to lovingly rule the world through human beings has not been abandoned, no matter how bad they are God still wishes to see his creatures care for the things he has made. Chaos is anathema to God; he is a God of order and wishes to tame the world according to his will in co-operation with people. There are still ‘roads to build and fields to plough’ and mankind has not lost any of its dignity through sin. And so having children, raising families, working and, for the want of a better word, politics, are still good things in this post-diluvium age.

Then there is God’s provision for produce, v3, ‘Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.’ So not only is there a reiteration of the provision of plants for food taking us back to Genesis 1, but the giving of ‘everything’ for food which means animal meat, with the proviso of verse 4 that one does not eat meat with blood in it. Now this does not mean that prior to the flood event humans didn’t eat meat, it is just that now it is made explicit that they can eat meat. The point is God is the one who authorizes and provides these things for the good of humankind. Given the dreadful track record of the human race as we have had it painted for us in chapters 4-6 in such dark hues, one might be inclined to excuse God if he brought in the reigns a bit, putting man on a tighter leash, making things harder for man so as to remind him whose world this really is –God’s. But no. We still have God beside himself, as it were, just giving and giving- for that is the kind of God he is. Despite all that has happened from chapter 3 onwards, the rebellion in the garden, the murders and mayhem let loose in the world, the degradation and violence at home and abroad, this God has not changed his character. He is still the same God who in chapter 1 created the stars for his delight and ours, who seeing man alone provided a helper to complement him, who said, ‘From any tree in the garden, bar one, you may eat’, so here he says, you can eat anything bar meat with blood in it. He is a God who simply does not hold back anything which is for our good, do you see? But let me say this: if in the garden people were tempted to think that God was some cosmic killjoy, how much more so this side of Eden living in a world which is broken and under judgement, a world full of ambiguity. So when some tragedy crosses our path will we then say, ‘God withholds nothing good’ or will we side with the tempter into thinking- ‘No, this God is not good.’? So let me tell you about the Scottish minister George Matheson, who wrote the moving hymn, ‘O love that will not let me go.’ which he wrote on the eve of his sister’s marriage. His whole family had gone to the wedding and had left him alone. And he writes of something which had happened to him that caused immense mental anguish. There is a story of how years before, he had been engaged until his fiancé learned that he was going blind, and there was nothing the doctors could do, and she told him that she could not go through life with a blind man. He actually went blind while studying for the ministry, and his sister had been the one who had taken care of him all these years, but now she is gone. The Lord had richly blessed him in a church where he regularly preached to over 1500 people each week. But he was only able to do this because of the care of his sister and now she was married and had left. Who will care for him now, a blind man? Not only that, but his sister’s marriage brought a fresh reminder of his own heartbreak, jilted by his fiancé because he had gone blind. It was in the midst of this intense sadness that the Lord gave him this hymn – written he says in 5 minutes! Tell me, how could he maintain such a quenchless hopefulness in the midst of such circumstances and trials? His hymn gives us a clue. ‘O joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to thee, “I trace the rainbow in the rain, and feel the promise is not vain. That morn shall tearless be.’ He held to the promise of God, that even in the rain there is the sign of the rainbow, the sign of God’s blessing and peace.

The third aspect of God’s blessing his protection, protection from threats coming from three different directions.

First, God gives to man new rights over the animals so that they will not threaten him but serve him even as food, 2–3 says, "The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the air and upon everything that creeps on the ground and the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you.”’ So God supports man in his mission to fill the earth with the knowledge of his glory by removing the threat of animals: man now has the right to put them in dread and, as we have seen, even use them for food. Now this does not mean that man can do whatever he likes with animals. This is not a charter for animal abuse, but animal use. Whilst organically belonging to the animal kingdom, man by virtue of his God-given image, spiritually stands over and above the animal kingdom. As such he is to exercise responsible stewardship over the animal world, ensuring that species are cared for, but nonetheless are not to be elevated to the same level as man as if there were no ethical distinction between us. So Ingrid Newkirk, the President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals compares meat eating to the Nazi holocaust. She says ‘Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion chickens will die here in slaughterhouses.’ She also says ‘a rat, is a pig, is a boy.’ that is we are all on the same plane of moral value. And strictly speaking if we are nothing but the products of blind meaningless chance, who can argue with that? We may be more complex than chickens, but who decides that complexity is of a higher value than non-complexity? For such distinction to be made there has to be an authority outside man to pronounce on such rights- and here it is -God. We certainly shall have to give an account to him for the way we treat animals, but we are not to romanticize animals and treat them as if they are of the same value as humans. Sure, if animals are to be bred for food or used in forwarding science then we must make sure we are behaving responsibly and not wantonly towards them, but such treatment does receive its scriptural warrant here.

Second, God gives man a portion of the divine prerogative to take human life and thus guard society against murder. The mission to fill the earth is threatened by men as well as animals. Hence verses 5–6: "For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man; of every man's brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image." Before the flood God kept for himself the whole prerogative to take life. You recall God threatened sevenfold vengeance on anyone who slays Cain, even though Cain was a murderer (4:15). But now God makes a provision for murder to be at least partly restrained by man. He makes murder a capital offense. Now, I don’t intend to get into all the arguments for and against capital punishment, all I am saying is that this is not ruled out of bounds by God but is permitted by him.

And it is important to note the reason why it is permitted, it is not because people are of so little value that they can be executed, it is because they are of such immense value- made in God’s image. God's purpose is that people in his image fill the earth with his glory, reflecting more and more something of the Maker to the world around them. Therefore, when a man presumes to snuff out the potential of that glory, it is tantamount to an attack on God himself. How dare one take this man or woman or boy or girl or baby and treat them as if they are of no consequence when they bear something of Christ in them? It is a monstrous thing to take a life. Such a person in effect attacks God in such a way that his own forfeiture of life by men becomes a part of God's purpose.

If one is going to argue for capital punishment then it is to be argued on the proper basis. Capital punishment is not a matter of pragmatics which is the deterrent argument, you know, ‘We must introduce capital punishment for the murder of policemen for this is the only way we shall ensure that robbers won’t carry guns.’ No, the biblical argument is principled- murder is such a heinous crime for it is the ultimate crime carried out against a person. You may take away someone’s property and they still have other things left- but take away their life and they have nothing and to make matters worse you have removed from the earth someone who is god-like. No; life is not to be taken away it is to be given-v7, “As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it."

It seems to me that what is assumed by these provisions is that the world is going to be a pretty violent place post-flood. In chapter 8 God had reaffirmed his diagnosis of man’s nature- that ‘every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood’ (v 21). And so the new society which is about to be established is to proceed upon the assumption that man is intrinsically bad and not intrinsically good and so we will need laws and constraints which reflect that belief.

But there is also the threat from God himself. How shall the earth ever be filled with his glory through the offspring of the woman if his wrath overflows again in a flood against sin? It can’t? And so to protect men against this threat, God makes a covenant with Noah and his sons in v11, "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." In other words God says, ‘I give you protection from the animals, I give you protection from man, and in my own covenant promise I give you protection from myself. I will uphold rather than destroy the natural world processes on which you depend for life. As long as the world lasts, I will withhold universal judgment and preserve the order of creation.’

And to underscore this solemn promise God gives a visible universal sign- the rainbow-v 12, ‘And God said, "This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: 13I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, 15I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. 16Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth." 17So God said to Noah, "This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth." The word for rainbow here is simply ‘bow’ and elsewhere is used to describe the bow of a warrior. So by choosing the rainbow hanging in the sky, it’s as if God is saying, ‘Look I have hung up my bow, my weapon. It won’t be used against you anymore.’ And notice this is a covenant, an agreement, made not just with Noah, not just with mankind, but the whole of creation- animals and plants, mountains and valleys. In other words God passionately cares about everything.

But like the proverbial New Year’s resolution it is not long before things turn from sweet to sour for we come up against man’s old problem- vv 18-28. Look at verse 20: ‘Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard. 21When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent.’ Here we see an ironic re-working of the story with which Genesis began. Just as Adam fell by eating the fruit of the tree, Noah, the new Adam, falls by drinking of the fruit of the vine. Adam discovers the treachery of the serpent; Noah discovers the treachery of the grape. Both are humiliated by the exposure of their nakedness and both end up with the harmony of a world spoilt and dislocated by a curse-v22, ‘ Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father's nakedness and told his two brothers outside. 23But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father's nakedness. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father's nakedness. 24When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, 25he said, "Cursed be Canaan!”’ But in Noah’s case God takes no direct action at all. Adam ate of the tree God planted, Noah of the vine he planted. Adam’s nakedness was discovered by God, Noah’s by his own children. Adam’s judgement is pronounced by God, Noah pronounces his own curse. So here we do not have a second fall, but the old fall rearing its ugly head yet again. The flood has not washed away man’s sin, the virus is still active and at work; the spoiling of relationships is still going on- Noah is so drunk he cannot commune with God, and at least one of his sons is so indiscrete he can no longer commune with his father. God has promised not to curse the world again, and he doesn’t need to, for left to himself fallen man will curse it for him. And that is exactly what we see working itself out in our world today. 90 years ago the war to end all wars ended- that belief would now seem laughable if it were not so tragic. No, whatever hope we are to have must come from outside of man, not from within.

And in the grand sweep of Scripture we discover where that hope comes from. As we saw a few weeks ago it was God who placed Noah within an ark and sealed it, an ‘ark’ being a box, a container which holds something precious, like the ‘ark’ of the covenant held the ten commandments. But this container held God’s man. At the right time, when the waters of judgement receded God commanded Noah to come out of the ark to inherit his new world, his ‘kingdom’ if you will. But then in the fullness of time came God’s new man, his new Adam, someone else, a seed of the woman who like Adam was known as ‘the Son of God.’ He endured the flood of God’s judgement upon a sinful world in our place, being lifted up from the earth not by a wooden box, but a wooden cross. And then his torn and bloodied body was taken down and placed in an ark, a borrowed grave and was sealed. Three days later, God removed the stone to reveal that the box was in fact empty, and into a changed world his man stepped out, conquering death, defeating the serpent, forgiving sin and so opening up the new possibility of a restored relationship with God for any who would come to him. This was what God had in mind all the time- in fact from eternity the Bible tells us, God willed for his Son to be that ruler of his world, to rule in love. The virus of sin can now be checked, stony, polluted hearts can now be exchanged for soft hearts, open and attentive to God’s word, wanting to obey it, and cleansed hearts too with consciences which have been silenced- for we can now say, ‘There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ Is that true of you? It can be as we pray.

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