If you or I had been brought up in an abusive household, there would have been no point in saying sorry when we did something wrong. Why? Because we would just have got shouted at, or worse, once again! No love = no forgiveness. That’s why Jesus in today’s Gospel (Mark 1:12-15) first proclaims the good news, that God loves us, and then asks us to repent. The other two readings carry the same message. Peter reminds us that “Christ died for sins… to lead us to God” (1 Peter 3:18-22) and refers back to our 1st Reading about Noah (Genesis 9:8-15) where we are told to think how much God loves us every time we see a rainbow in the sky.
But those of you who know the story of Noah and his Ark may well be thinking that the problem with using this story is that it also presents God as an angry god, using the Flood to kill everyone except Noah and his family. Others of you may be thinking that you really don’t see the point of listening to stories like this at all, because they are simply not true ; there never was a Flood that covered the whole world, and so it gives the impression that Christianity is based on a load of fairy stories, rather than on the truth.
Let’s start with this problem about fairy stories then. The first thing to say is that the stories from the Old Testament are important for us simply because they teach us more about Jesus. These were the stories he was brought up on. They are his background and his heritage, learnt sitting on his mother’s knee. He didn’t know Jack and the Beanstalk and certainly not Harry Potter! But secondly, Jesus did not then use these stories uncritically. He recognises that his prehistoric ancestors were involved in a process of discovering the truth about God. So he often disagrees with certain things in their stories, or their teaching, whilst pointing to the good things that they did realise (like the rainbow message of God’s love).
We need to think back then to these people from prehistoric times who produced these stories, if we are to understand them. The evidence is that these prehistoric ancestors of Jesus brought their stories from the area we now call Iraq. Now there, there is evidence of ancient and catastrophic floods. Of course they didn’t cover what WE know as the whole world, but they did cover what they knew as the world, and they did lead to thousands dying and only a few surviving. Remember there were no rescue helicopters!!
So the Noah story comes from a group of people who survived, and then, over the centuries that followed, told the story of this miraculous escape over and over again. Nobody could write or read, of course, and nobody bothered about what actually happened. All that mattered was telling a good story round the fire which taught the children certain truths. What truths were they?
Well here goes! To survive you need to think ahead, even if other people laugh at you – hence Noah builds a house that can float! You need to look after your family and your animals – hence the size of the boat – although of course it didn’t actually contain elephants and kangaroos!! Death may come to any of us at any time – hence the Flood. There is hope for the future – hence the Rainbow.
Our faith extends some of those truths further. First, we say that actually all of us humans deserve death. Look at what we do to one another and to our world. In one sense it is true that the power of life (God) despairs of a creature like us that causes so much death and suffering! Second, we say that life now, and eternal life beyond death, is therefore a gift from God, not an automatic right. So Jesus proclaims this as the Good News, and calls on us to turn to God, to be aware and sad about our failings, and full of thankfulness that, although death is what we deserve, our sorrow opens to us life, the full glory of God’s love – what Jesus calls “The kingdom of God”.
So, for us Christians, water – the Flood – becomes the great symbol of death and of life. The water of our Baptism is the way we pass from eternal death to eternal life. We should think of that every time we take Holy Water. – Through the water of death Jesus draws me to eternal life – Thanks be to Him! We should think of it too every time we see a rainbow. Rain and sunshine, the right amount of each, is a gift from God – Thanks be to Him! So the story of Noah may not be factually true, but it contains many truths, and that is what we need to listen and respond to.