I had the privilege last Friday night of being back amongst my friends at the Imam Husain Islamic Centre where we met to grieve the death of the father of my dear friend, Sheikh Mansour Leghaei.
And it was good to be back amongst those lovely people, and it was good to a part of the live Skype linkup with Mansour back in Esfahan (in Iran) and it was to once again enjoy the experience of being kissed by an enormous number of bearded men (an experience that [sadly] I just don’t get anywhere else).
And I was reminded very clearly, while I was there, of one particularly endearing thing that one of the members of that community had said to me on a previous visit. It wasn’t Sheikh Mansour who said it to me or any of his family members but one of the elders there – a retired professor from Newcastle University.
This man had been looking after me on one of the previous times that I’d been there and we had been talking very warmly and candidly, when said to me, “You know, before I was a Muslim, I was a Christian!” And I was taken aback and said, “Really?” He said, “Yes, and before I was a Christian, I was a Jew”.
Then I understood, of course, that he didn’t mean that he’d actually been a convert from Christianity, but that rather he was expressing our common spiritual heritage.
And of course I could not share his perspective – that Islam fulfils the Christian hope, just as we believe the New Testament Gospel fulfils all the hopes and dreams of the Old, but I appreciated that this elder in the Islamic community was basically just expressing his closeness to me, and I found that touching.
And I’ve thought of that man and his message to me often because I think the whole world needs to hear what he has to say!
I do sincerely believe that if we could somehow get rid of all the dirty politics, we’d find that the common heritage of the three Abrahamic religions is so great – at least in terms of basic ethics and values – that we really have no ideological basis for enmity, let alone for any ‘clash of civilisations’!
‘Before I was a Muslim I was a Christian, and before I was a Christian I was a Jew’ – it was an impressive thing to say, but it was also a statement that required a response, I felt – a response that I wasn’t able to give at the time, but I’ve thought of one since – a good response – and I got it from the story of Noah!
One thing that always comes to mind for me when I think of Noah and the Flood is an old Peanuts cartoon, featuring Linus and Lucy sitting at home, looking out of the window, and it’s raining!
Lucy says to Linus, “I can’t believe how long it’s been raining for! Perhaps it will just keep raining until everything is flooded and we are all drowned?” Linus replies, “No, in Genesis chapter 9 God tells Noah that He will never again allow a flood to take over the whole earth”. Lucy says, “Wow! Thanks”. Linus pauses and says, “Good theology is a beautiful thing!”
Good theology is a beautiful thing, and it’s the theology of Genesis 9 and the flood story that has interested me, as I think it’s a story with a very important message.
The Noah story is a tale of pain and passion – the pain caused by humanity on the one hand, through their violent and reckless behaviour, and the passion of God, who is grieved by His creation and seems to be ready to throw up his hands!
If you’re familiar with this part of the Bible you know that the Noah story is a component part in a series of similar stories that span the first eleven chapters of Genesis – starting out with the very beginning of creation – where things just seem to go from bad to worse.
First there is Adam and Eve and the incident with the snake. Next thing, there’s a murder in Adam and Eve’s immediate family, and things just seem to degenerate from there until, by the time of Noah, we’re told that “every inclination of the human heart was only evil all the time”. (Genesis 6:5)
And I appreciate that that’s a very black and white way of looking at the world, but if you look at what’s going on in the world today, you could be forgiven, I think, for coming to exactly the same conclusion!
And it makes you angry! I find myself getting angry about things all the time! I’ve been getting angry this week about Syria, though not so much over what’s going on in the country itself, but over the way it’s being reported out here!
I’m convinced we’re being hoodwinked again by our media on this one, and I spent extensive time on Friday evening with a guy who had just returned from Syria, and he said exactly the same thing. He said that he and his friends would watch the foreign media coverage from Syria, where CNN or BBC would tell them what was going on in the area they were living in, and it was clearly entirely inaccurate!
And it makes you angry, and people do crazy things when they’re angry. They take up arms and they strap bombs to themselves and they commit acts of violence.
But God is not exactly depicted as getting angry here, but rather as grieving.
“The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. 6 The LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.” (Genesis 6:5-6)
And perhaps that depiction of God strikes you as sounding ‘all too human’, but perhaps that is the point!
The God we read of in these early chapters of the Bible is not one who sets the whole machine in motion and then steps back and lets it rip. On the contrary, this is a God who engages with his creation from the outset, and engages passionately!
And so this God gets frustrated, exasperated, and ultimately regrets ever having created the human race. And so the flood comes, not so much as an act of angry vengeance on God’s part, but more out of a desire for a fresh start.
Even so, the flood is a violent act, and there’s no getting around that. It’s exactly the sort of incident that leaves people shaking their heads and asking “why would God allow such a thing to happen?” to which we are generally respond by trying to excuse God from blame.
Here though God seems happy to take the blame, and yet the conclusion to the story is rather telling. God makes a covenant with Noah, and with all flesh through Noah, such that God will never allow another act of such universal cataclysmic violence to ever happen again.
And so God hangs up His bow as a sign to all flesh that such violence is never going to come from His hand again. Just as the modern-day farmer might lock away his rifle in the shed, or the master swordsman sheaths his sword, so the warrior-archer hangs up his bow! And this is what God is does – hangs up His bow above the mantle-piece (so to speak) as a sign that He will never be using it again!
And it’s a covenant. It’s a promise. And if you know your Bible at all you know that the concept of ‘covenant’ or ‘testament’ is a very key Biblical concept.
We divide our Bible into covenants (or ‘testaments’) – the Old Testament and the New Testament, which would suggest that there are only two covenants. In fact, Biblically speaking, I think there are five:
- This one
- The covenant with Abraham and his children forever (Genesis 12)
- The covenant with Moses and his people at Mount Sinai
- The covenant with David – that one of his children will always reign as king
- The ‘new covenant’ with Jesus
And in each case what we are dealing with fundamentally is a promise – a commitment on the part of God to His covenant partner.
And you can see that there’s a progressive narrowing of the focus of these covenants. They begin with Noah, with a commitment to all flesh. After that there is a commitment to a particular race of people, then to those members of that race that make it to Mount Sinai, then to one particular family within that group (the line of David) and finally to one particular individual (Jesus).
And my dad used to say that it was like a funnel, with the promises of God becoming increasingly focused – from the children of Abraham to Moses, to the specific line of David, and finally to an individual – Jesus, through whom the Grace of God becomes available again to everybody!
And that’s a good way of looking at it, with the funnel ending with a universal shower of love, and it’s appropriate too because it all begins here with Noah with a universal and unconditional commitment to ‘all flesh’, and it is a commitment of mercy – a promise on the part of God that He will deal gently with His children – with ALL His children, and with animals too!
God has hung up His bow. The days of divine violence are over. No matter how bad things get, God is going to find another way of working things through.
It’s a bit of a strange parallel, but I don’t know if you’ve been following the story of Khader Adnan Muhammad Musa –the Palestinian hunger-striker?
I find that story really fantastic, because Khader Adnan is a leader of Islamic Jihad, which is an organisation committed to armed resistance against the Israeli Occupation of Palestine. Islamic Jihad believes that dialogue and so-called passive resistance are useless. As I understand it, he’s openly encouraged people to strap on bombs and do whatever they have to in order to bring an end to the injustice.
And this guy has been arrested a lot of times, though it seems the Israeli authorities rarely have anything to charge him with. So this time when he was arrested, he insisted that he get a trial or be freed, and when they refused to do either he went on a hunger strike!
And he fasted for 66 days, which I believe is a world record (so long as you don’t count the famous Irish ‘terrorist’, Bobby Sands, who didn’t survive his hunger strike). Anyway, Khader Adnan was successful, and the Israeli authorities have said that they are going to let him go! Islamic Jihad, it seems, have one a victory though, ironically, it has not been through armed resistance but through using a form of protest that Mahatma Ghandi made famous!
Yes, there are better ways of dealing with evil and injustice than the resort to violence, and God Himself, according to this ancient story, has committed Himself to finding other ways of dealing with evil and injustice. God will not punish without mercy. God will be gracious because God has made a commitment – a solemn promise of love – to us and to all flesh!
‘Before I was a Muslim I was a Christian’, he said to me, ‘and before I was a Christian I was a Jew’. And my response is, ‘and before we were men of faith, we were men’ – brothers in the flesh (so to speak) and still, as brothers in the flesh, recipients of the promises of God and beneficiaries of His Grace!
For the Covenants begin here, with Noah, with a commitment from God to be merciful to all flesh.
And yes, we enjoy the Grace of God made ours through Christ, but let’s remember that the promises of God were extended to us first not as Christian people but simply as people – simply as creatures of flesh, for God has made a commitment of love to all creatures of flesh.
Good theology is a beautiful thing, isn’t it? And the story of Noah, while many elements of it may be difficult to come to terms with, is ultimately a beautiful story too, I think, for it affirms the fundamental equality of all flesh before God, and it proclaims the unconditional commitment of God to all flesh.
‘Before I was a Muslim I was a Christian and before I was a Christian I was a Jew’. And before I was a man of faith I was a man, and before being a man (in a sense) I am simply a human being – a creature of flesh. But that is nothing to be ashamed of. For on the contrary, it is creatures of flesh that God is committed to, and He has committed Himself to all of us!
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, February 26, 2012. To hear the audio version of the sermon click here.