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September 28, 2008

Our Family Tree:  Noah

Genesis 6:5-17; 7-8


            This week, we continue our series entitled Our Family Tree.  Today, we will consider the life of Noah.  We find that four chapters of the Bible pertain to Noah, but we will focus on Genesis 6 through Genesis 8.  I will save a bit of the Scripture concerning him for our worship time together next Sunday.  Hear now the Word of God.


The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart were only evil, all the time.  The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.  So the Lord said, “I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth – men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and the birds of the air – for I am grieved that I have made them.”


            We see early in these passages, something that many of us do not understand until we ourselves have been through a difficult circumstance.  It is hard for us to understand that God suffers.  Look at Verse 6:  “The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.”  Think about the pain of God, the suffering that the Great Creator of the universe must endure.  I must admit that I gave little attention to this aspect of God until Clare and I experienced pain in our lives. 

While I was in seminary, we very much wanted to have children.  When Clare had a miscarriage, I sort of chalked that up to the idea that anybody can have a miscarriage.  When she had a second miscarriage, life seemed so unfair to me.  Very angry, I went out in the woods and shook my fist at God, yelling, “I don’t understand this!  I don’t understand how people around the world can have children like rats, but we cannot have a child.”  God did not strike me down, but He certainly could have.  I saw no flash of light.  I heard no audible voice, but I certainly got the message.  A kind of interior voice came to me and asked, “Kirk, how do you ever expect to be a parent until you learn to hurt?”

            It was then that I realized that God, as the parent of all of us, suffers pain.  His pain comes from our sin, our disobedience, our rebellion.  This behavior grieves the heart of God, causes God pain.  In His hurt, God looked for relief.  When I ask the question, “How do you spell relief?” you probably think of a commercial for an antacid.  The Hebrew word for relief is Noah.  In the person of Noah, God found relief.

            Verse 8 says, “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.”  Some translations say that Noah “found grace.”  The passage continues by telling us that Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time.  He walked with God.  Out of the entire world, God finds one man, one person, who is righteous.  God is always looking for people like this, for people whom He considers to be righteous, different from the world around them in every age and in every circumstance.  I suppose we could say, to borrow a phrase from the United States Marine Corps, God is looking for a “few good people.”  He finds one here in Noah.

            What it means to be favored in the eyes of God, what it means to be found righteous, is rather alarming.  God expects Noah to take on a task that seems practically impossible.  In Verse 13:  God says to Noah,


“I am going to put an end to all the people of the earth, for the earth is filled with violence because of them.  I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.  So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out.  This is how you are to build it:  The ark is to be 450 feet long (That is the length of a football field and half again.  It is one and a half times the length of a football field.) 75 feet wide and 45 feet high.  Make a roof for it and finish the ark to within 18 inches of the top.  Put a door in the side of the ark, and make lower, middle and upper decks.  I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it.” 


Building this ship was no small task.  I have tried to consider just how huge this vessel was.  It is the size of the Queen Mary.  I asked my brother Bob to help me calculate how much material it would take to build such a vessel.  Bob put his computer to work, and he said that the ark would have 1.4 million cubic feet of cargo space, the equivalent of 522 railroad box cars.  It could accommodate 125,000 animals.  Interestingly, fewer than 18,000 species of land animals are alive today.  Most are smaller than sheep.  This ark had an enormous capacity, certainly enough to accommodate the cargo God instructed Noah to load.  Bob said that the supplies needed just to build the decking for the ark would require twenty-seven eighteen-wheel flatbed trailers.  Delivering all the other materials would require eighteen additional boxcars.  No wonder Noah spent 120 years building the ark, according to the Scriptures. 

Gene Ellis actually sent me an e-mail about some fellow trying to build an ark to this scale.  It was overwhelmingly hard work that took several years.  Building such a craft by one righteous man was an enormous assignment, virtually impossible.  Once the ark was built, God instructed Noah to gather the animals.  Look at Chapter 6, Verse 19:  “You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you.” 

I was talking with Paula Joye who was visiting with her mother last night at the hospital.  She said that somebody had asked if the fish went on the ark.  As far as I can tell by reading these Scriptures, God instructs Noah to bring land animals, all those that creep and crawl on the face of the earth and birds.  If I can use a pun, the fish are left to fend for themselves.  Sharks, whales, and fish of all kinds – everything that lives in the ocean – was allowed to swim alongside, I suppose.  Noah was not required to build an aquarium and bring those aquatic animals on board the ark.  Still, think of the task. 

Once Noah finishes building this boat, he gathers these animals, making sure he has a male and a female of each sort.  It is hard enough to determine the gender of a cat.  Think about trying to decide whether a king cobra is male or female.  What an impossible mission Noah has!  He not only has to gather these animals, but he also has to discern male and female of every species, get them on board, and arrange for them to live together in close quarters.  This difficult undertaking is what you get for finding favor in the eyes of the Lord. 

Taking the animals aboard is made a bit more complicated.  Look at Chapter 7, Verse 2:  “Take with you seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal…”  Do you remember the little Noah’s ark sets you had as a child?  The set came with two giraffes, two elephants, and two of all other animals.  You see here that God had the expectation that Noah was to take fourteen of the animals that were considered clean.  That means that Noah takes seven bulls and seven cows, seven billy goats and seven nanny goats, seven rams and seven ewes.  Why were fourteen of each of those gathered?  Those are the sacrificial animals.  In the Hebrew way of thinking, Noah would need more of those animals that would be offered as a sacrifice, more than just a pair. 

Chapter 7, Verse 11 gives us Noah’s age:  “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life…”  How do you live to be 600 years old?  Dr. Earl Watts, a cardiologist at Bowman Gray in Winston-Salem, and I were leading a seminar for medical students on stress. He presented the physiology dimension of stress, and I discussed its spiritual and emotional dimensions. 

One of the students raised a hand and asked, “Dr. Watts, are you telling me that if I don’t smoke, don’t drink, and don’t carouse around, I am going to live longer?” 

Dr. Watts thought for a minute and answered, “Well, it’s going to seem longer.”

I do not know how you compute 600 years, but that seems like a long time to me.

Chapter 7:11-12:  “On the seventeenth day of the second month – on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heaven were opened.  And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.” 

Suppose somebody asked you, “How many fire ants do you have in your yard?”  You might respond, “We have thousands.”  That does not mean that you have been out and counted every fire ant.  Suppose somebody asks you, “Just how much is $700,000,000,000?”  It probably does not mean that you are talking about exactly $700,000,000,000.  You are just talking about a lot of money.  In the Hebrew language, you talk about “a lot” by using the number forty.  It rained forty days.  Forty days and nights is the Hebrew way of saying that it rained a long, long time.  The children of Israel wandered in the wilderness forty years.  It is a way of saying they wandered a long time.  It does not mean exactly forty, though it could mean that. 

The waters rose and rose, exceeding twenty feet above the highest mountain, Scripture says.  One time when I was telling this story during a children’s sermon, I got to this part and said, “The water came up twenty feet above the highest mountains.”

A little boy named Oliver waved his hand and asked, “Did Noah and his family have oxygen masks?” 

I said, “Oliver, I don’t think so.” 

He persisted, “They would have to have oxygen masks, Dr. Kirk.” 


He said, “Well, Mount Everest is the tallest mountain, and you have to wear an oxygen mask on top of it.  Twenty feet higher than that, you would really need to have an oxygen mask!” 

I just did not argue with him.  I said, “Good thinking, Oliver!”  I did not try to go into barometric pressure and all of that stuff.  I just left it alone.  It is one of the hazards of doing children’s sermons. 

One February, years ago, it seemed to rain just about every day.  Business at the lumberyard really slows down when it is raining.  Nothing was happening there that day.  My grandfather was reading the newspaper and smoking a cigar, while my dad stared out the window, watching it rain. 

Dad asked, “Do you reckon it will ever quit raining?” 

Without looking up, my grandfather replied, “It always has.”

That is right.  It always has.  It finally quit raining. 

Chapter 8, Verse 2:  “Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain stopped falling from the sky.”  I can just imagine Noah going out on the deck, looking at all that water, and feeling like the sailor in the Ryme of the Ancient Mariner, “Water, water everywhere.”   I imagine Noah thinking, “What in the world have I gotten myself into?”  He knew for sure that nothing was ever going to be the same and that he was responsible for taking care of what remained on earth.  I imagine that at 601 years of age, he felt overwhelmed. 

The Bible says that Noah released a raven that flew over the face of the earth until it finally found a place to perch.  The raven did not return, so Noah released a dove.  After seven days, it returned because it could find no place to perch.  He waited seven days and released another dove.  It returned to the ark with a small olive leaf in its beak.  That bit of green served as a sprig of hope.  Sometimes when life is really hard, as it was here for Noah, we do not have to have a lot of hope.  We just need some indication of hope, just a sprig.  God gave Noah hope for the future. 

The Bible says that after the rain ended, another 150 days passed before the water completely subsided.  The ark came to rest on Mount Ararat.  Noah, his family, and all the creatures were able to disembark.  God made a promise, as recorded in Verse 22 of Chapter 8:  “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, will never cease.” 

Have you ever wondered why the Bible would devote so much attention to the story of Noah and the flood?  One reason is because it is important to note that God takes sin very seriously.  Sin breaks God’s heart, as this Scripture says.  When God’s people sin, He feels pain, hurt.  Some would say that the purpose of the flood was to purge sin from earth.  If that was the flood’s sole purpose, it was certainly very short-lived.  In some ways, we could say the flood was a failure.  Sin returns immediately with Noah and his sons.  It is still a part of the earth that God created. 

The second way to understand this story of the flood is to see that God can do anything He wants to do.  This story is somewhat like a golfer taking a mulligan, “Let me see if I can do it again and do it better this time.”  It is like children playing in the backyard.  One makes a mistake in a game and calls out, “Do over!”  God basically does the same here.  “Let me start over!  Let me see if I can do this better, make things better than they were.”  In some ways, this is a re-creation story about how God is going to reform the earth.  It reminds me of the story of Jeremiah going down to the potter’s house.  He sees a man sitting at a potter’s wheel, making a clay vessel.  Realizing the vessel is flawed, the potter destroys it and starts over.  God is beginning again.  God can do whatever He wants to do.

Tomorrow at sundown begins the Jewish observance called Rosh Hashanah.  The words Rosh Hashanah literally mean, “the head of the year.”  This is the Jewish New Year.  In preparation for Rosh Hashanah and the days that follow, the portion of the Torah that is read in the synagogue is the story of Noah.  The Jewish people consider Rosh Hashanah the birthday of the world, as it were, a new beginning.  Rosh Hashanah, is the first of a ten-day period of repentance called the “Days of Awe.”  The last of those ten days is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  This observance is actually a festival, celebrating a new beginning and a time of repentance from sin.  It signifies that the new beginning requires repentance. 

A third meaning is very important.  Harvey Cox, a Christian theologian married to a Jewish woman, has written a book called Common Prayers.  Cox explains each of the Jewish holidays, their Jewish meaning and their Christian understanding.  He writes about how couples in an inter-faith marriage celebrate together these Jewish holidays.  Cox says that one of the problems in churches and synagogues is that we have created the idea of a user-friendly God.  We have come to view God as a loving and kind buddy or grandfather.  We have come to feel that we really do not have to worry so much about His justice, His righteousness, that side of God that is inscrutable beyond our understanding.  The story of the flood reminds us that God takes sin seriously and that God is just.  He is a righteous God.  Certainly the celebration of the Jewish High Holy Days recognizes both.  God is just, and He is also merciful.  God is righteous, and He is also a God of grace.

Fourth, every civilization has its own flood story.  Every single one of us has a flood story.  We all go through deep water as a nation.  We go through deep water personally.  The Bible, again and again, repeats the fact that deep water creates chaos.  The people of Israel are ushered through the Red Sea.  They are escorted across the Jordan River.  Isaiah says that God will take us through deep waters.  Sometimes we name our deep water Katrina or Ike or Hugo.  Sometimes our deep water has nothing to do with water at all.  It has to do with cancer and other diseases.  It has to do with grief and divorce.  Psalm 69 focuses on this very topic. 

A story came out of the experience of Hurricane Hugo.  The surge from that hurricane hit McClellanville hardest, bringing with it surge waters that came up twenty feet.  An old man who lived near McClellanville was stranded on the metal roof of his farmhouse out in the pinewoods.  Somebody asked about the old man, and a few days later Red Cross workers decided to check on him.  They used a motorized johnboat to steer down the water-covered road through these pine trees to his house. 

The Red Cross volunteers saw the old man perched on top of his of house, and they tried to get his attention.  One shouted, “We are from the Red Cross!”  The man could not understand what they were saying because he was hard of hearing.  They moved closer and shouted again, “We’re from the Red Cross!” 

He shouted back, “It’s been pretty hard out here this year!  I don’t hardly see how I can give anything this time.”

What do we need when we are caught in the storm?  What do we need when we are caught in the deluge?  We might need someone to rescue us, but like the old man, most of us know that we have some responsibility for ourselves.  It is not just all about who is going to rescue us.  What happens when a boat fills up with water?  You get a bucket and start pouring out the water, bailing it out of the boat.  That is where the term bailout originated. 

Times are hard.  Our politicians are talking about a bailout of $700,000,000,000.  Do you know how much $700,000,000,000 is?  That amount is beyond comprehension.  According to TIME magazine, $700,000,000,000 is enough money to give every person in the United States $2,300.  $700,000,000,000 is enough money to give every household in the United States $6,200.  $700,000,000,000 is enough money to pay the annual income taxes for every taxpayer in the United States who makes $500,000 or less a year.  $700,000,000,000 is enough money to fund the Defense Department, the Treasury Department, the Education Department, the State Department, the Veterans Affairs Department, the Interior Department, and NASA next year.  $700,000,000,000 will buy gasoline for every car in the United States for sixteen months at current prices.  $700,000,000,000 is enough money to purchase every National Football League team, every Major League baseball team, and every National Basketball Association team, as well as build a new stadium or arena for every team, and pay every member of every team a little less than $200,000,000 for one year.  $700,000,000,000 is enough money to create the seventeenth largest economy in the world.  $700,000,000,000 would eradicate world hunger.  $700,000,000,000 would pay 7% of our National Debt.  A bailout?  Do you think that either candidate for president can rescue us?  Who is going to rescue us? 

I want to you to look straight up at the ceiling of this sanctuary and notice how it is constructed.  When the great cathedrals of Europe were built, they called in shipbuilders.  They designed those cathedrals so that the ceiling looked like the hull of an upside down boat.  The exposed rafters corresponded to the beams of a ship.  They called the sanctuary the nave, a Latin word for navy.  The church, like a ship, was supposed to be a place of safety, a place of refuge, a place of security. 

In many ways, the church is like Noah’s ark.  I know the stench can be bad on the inside.  Can you imagine the task Noah and his wife had in the bottom of that boat, trying to keep the stalls clean?  Life in the church is not always the most pleasant, but this is the way to withstand the deluge.  Nationally and personally, we are scared.  We are scared about terror.  We are scared about war.  We are scared about economic collapse.  Psalm 27:1 says, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”  We are going to elect a president, but no matter whom we elect, God is sovereign.  God is our refuge.  He is the one who can save us.  God is the same.  It does not matter what gasoline prices do.  God does not change.  He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  He is our refuge, and He has promised, “I will never leave you, and I will never forsake you.” 

The story about Noah’s ark focuses on a member of our family tree.  The lesson we must learn is that in a world that sometimes forgets, often forgets, that the only source to give us safe passage through deep water is God.  He has never failed us yet.  God makes a way where there seems to be no way.  “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble” (Psalm 46:1).  God is just, and He is also merciful.  God is righteous.  He is a God of grace.  The lesson of this story is that God is the One in whom we put our faith and trust.  The story of Noah’s ark is not just a children’s tale; it is a story for every person.


 © Kirk H. Neely
September 2008


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