This sermon is part of the sermon series "The Gospel in Genesis". See series.
On the first day teaching his class for 250 college freshmen, R. C. Sproul carefully explained the assignment of three term papers. Each paper was due on the last day of September, October, and November. Sproul clearly stated there would be no extensions (except for medical reasons). At the end of September, 225 students dutifully turned in their papers, while 25 remorseful students quaked in fear. "We're so sorry," they said. "We didn't make the proper adjustments from high school to college, but we promise to do better next time." He bowed to their pleas for mercy, gave them an extension, but warned them not to be late next month.
The end of October rolled around, and 200 students turned in their papers, while 50 students showed up empty-handed. "Oh, please," they begged, "it was homecoming weekend, and we ran out of time." Sproul relented once more but warned them, "This is it. No excuses next time. You will get an F."
The end of November came, and only 100 students turned in their papers. The rest casually told Sproul, "Don't worry about it, Doc. We'll get it in soon."
"Sorry," Sproul replied. "It's too late now. You get an F."
The students howled in protest, "That's not fair!"
"Okay," Sproul replied once more, "you want justice, do you? Here's what's just: you'll get an F for all three papers that were late. That was the rule, right?"
"The students had quickly taken my mercy for granted," Sproul later reflected. "They assumed it. When justice suddenly fell, they were unprepared for it. It came as a shock, and they were outraged."
Humanity takes a downward spiral.
In the same way, we often take God's mercy for granted. When judgment finally appears, we're shocked and outraged. That's exactly what happens in Genesis 6. Up to this point in the story, men and women who were made in the image and likeness of God—made to reflect God's incredible glory and goodness—have blatantly turned away from God. They ignore God's commandments, rebel against his good heart for them, resent God's leadership in their lives, trample on his plan for relationships, and then start hating and murdering one another. All throughout this story, we find examples of God's mercy and patience. God promises judgment, but the judgment always seems to be delayed or softened with mercy.
In Genesis 6, God's judgment finally hits with full force.
The LORD saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. (Genesis 6:5-6)
"The Lord saw." The last time we heard that phrase was back in Genesis 1:31: "God saw all that he made and it was very good." We have moved from "God saw that it was very good" to "God saw how great man's wickedness had become." This wickedness not only controls our actions; it also controls our thoughts and our imaginations.
Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways.
In Genesis 1, we read that animals and humans should fill the earth. Now the earth was filled with violence. These verses could literally read: "Gone to ruin was the earth … indeed it was gone to ruin … all flesh had ruined its way." It's the same Hebrew word used for a spoiled pot in the potter's hands in Jeremiah 18:4. It can't be fixed, so the potter must begin with a new lump of clay. In other words, when God sent the flood, he was merely judging something that was already ruined.
This story has a dim view of the human heart. As one Bible scholar has written: "The question is not whether people are … 'nice,' but whether in the deep places of life, human persons and the human community are capable of saving themselves. Can we transcend calculated self-interest which inevitably leads to death?" The answer in this story is that we cannot—at least if we're left entirely to ourselves. It's important to keep in mind that the Bible clearly teaches we are all part of this mess
But how was everyone responding to this moral deterioration in our text? Genesis 6:1-2 shows us that most people in those days were responding like most of us—with outright apathy and indifference:
When men began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose.
Most people have taken these verses as an introduction to the Flood story, but there's a more straightforward explanation. These verses are more appropriately tied to the end of Genesis 5 than to the beginning of chapter 6. Genesis 5 begins like this:
This is the written account of Adam's line. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them "man."
So who are the "sons of God" and the "daughters of men" in Genesis 6? They're people who are "doing life" just like us: getting married, having kids, and raising a family. But the storm is brewing, and they're all entirely oblivious to it. Jesus put it this way:
As it was in the days of Noah so will it be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. (Matthew 24:37-39)
They were just like us—stuck in the everyday nature of life, knee-deep in trivialities, without any vision for something great, wonderful, and beautiful. Yet I'd argue we have it much worse because our lives are cluttered with distractions and trivialities. We, as a culture, are amusing ourselves to death. We, as the people who have professed Jesus as Savior and Lord, have also allowed our lives to become awash in the trivial—trivial conversations, trivial fights, trivial agendas, trivial reading, trivial praying, and trivial views of God. I've been massively guilty of it. I don't want to live a trivial life anymore. Life was meant to be a grand adventure with God—knowing God, pursuing God, living passionately for God and with God, caught up with God's mission for the world. It should seize us, compel us, and burn within us so trivial stuff still exists, but it gets a lower level of importance on our agendas.
This passage says the human race had taken a turn for the worse. In Genesis 4, we saw a downward trend toward violence, brutality, and arrogance, but apparently no one seemed to care. No one stopped to remember the glory of the Garden of Eden. No one had a hunger or a thirst for the beauty and harmony that used to exist. Everyone was accommodating to ugliness, disharmony, violence, brutality, human arrogance, and hatred—everyone except God, that is!
God weeps for us.
Genesis 6:7 tells us how God responds: "I will blot out man whom I have created on the face of the earth." The Hebrew word for "blot out" means "to erase by washing." It's a total cleansing act. Imagine you wake up tomorrow morning, and someone has spray-pained vulgar graffiti all over the side of your house. Initially, you're sad and outraged. Later in the day, you'll probably rent a power washer and start to wash it off. That's the way God feels about his creation, except there's one crucial difference in this scene from Genesis. It isn't just surface graffiti; it's a dangerous mold that's crept into the wood, sheetrock, flooring, and even the furniture and clothing. You're forced to tear the house down and start over from scratch.
God will judge our sin, violence, and indifference because God is not indifferent. God is passionately pro-creation. God is pro-life in the broadest definition of that word. God's heart is for us. God doesn't like our destruction of his good creation and his good plan for our lives. Most of us like hearing about God's love and grace, but what kind of God never fights against the world's wrongs? What kind of God would watch evil triumph over good, winking at human violence, brutality, arrogance, and apathy, throwing up his hands and chuckling, "Oh well, whatever?" The Bible has many examples of God's mercy, but mercy is never an automatic. God's judgment is as real as God's mercy.
This is exactly what some of you have come to expect from religion, churches, or the Christian faith. We screw up and God judges us. Some of you might be thinking, This is exactly why I don't come to church; I'll get creamed with judgment! You're partially right: God's judgment in this passage is real and unmistakable. But in the midst of God's judgment, there are two very surprising twists in this story. First, notice Genesis 6:6: "His heart was filled with pain." Humanity's behavior and the needed judgment were like arrows that pierced God's heart with grief. The Hebrew word for grief is an intense word. This word was used in the following situations:
When a group of brothers discover their sister had just been raped (Genesis 34:7).
When King David was told his oldest son, Absalom, had just been murdered (2 Samuel 19:3).
When a wife has been abandoned by her husband (Isaiah 54:6).
That same word is used to describe the heart of God. God looks at the broken and fragmented creation he must now blot out, and he grieves as if his sister has just been raped or his son has been murdered or his wife has just deserted him.
In the Bible, our God feels. When God appears in human flesh—in the person of Jesus—he demonstrates the vulnerable heart of God. There are two occasions in the gospel accounts of Jesus when he cries on behalf of other people. On one occasion, Jesus is standing at the gravesite of a good friend, Lazarus. John writes that, "Jesus wept." Why did he weep? Doesn't he believe in the resurrection? Doesn't Jesus know that he will be victorious over death? Of course! But he also knows about life in a fallen and fractured world. He knows life and death will always hurt, so he stands by his friend's grave and he cries.
On the other occasion, Jesus rode into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey, surveying the great city that had rejected his coming. His heart breaks as he says, "If you, even you, had known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes." (Luke 19:42) And Jesus wept again—big, convulsive sobs of grief (as the Greek word indicates).
Recently, I told a mentor of mine a story from 8th grade. A so-called friend of mine, Bob, invited me to sit at his lunch table. Bob was the leader of a group of very cool kids, and more than anything in the world, I wanted to be in that group of friends. When Bob invited me to sit with them, my heart leapt and my skin tingled. Then, as I sat right next to Bob, I watched in quiet horror as he proceeded to destroy my school lunch in front of all the other cool kids. They all laughed as I sulked away from the table in utter humiliation.
As I told the story, I chuckled under my breath and told my mentor, "Isn't that a silly story of teenage anguish? I mean, it all happened nearly 20 years ago."
My mentor said nothing. For a long time, he stared into my eyes and then gazed out the window. Shy and embarrassed, I looked at the ground. When I looked at him again, he was crying. "I'm so sorry that happened to you," he said. "No one should be treated that way."
I was stunned. No one had ever said anything like that to me. It moved me because behind my tough, cavalier appearance, that event still brought back pain.
Has anyone ever wept with you and for you? Has anyone looked into the broken things of your life and experienced grief? It's easy to avoid a God who is always angry and disappointed with you. But what do you do with a God who weeps, a God who stands beside your graveyards, a God who surveys your life and your tears? That's the God you find in the Bible!
God provides a way out of the mess
That's the first surprise in the text: we can't avoid God's judgment, but in the midst of judgment, we find a God with tears streaming down his face. Secondly, in the midst of judgment and cleansing, we find God making a way out of the mess. Genesis 6:8: "But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD."
In the midst of judgment and cleansing, there is grace. Do you know what grace is? Grace is receiving what you don't deserve as a free, gracious, lavish, and over-the-top gift. That's grace—and that's what Noah found. The order here is very important: God's initiative of grace comes before Noah's righteousness. God finds Noah before Noah finds God. In the midst of this mess and darkness and violence and self-destruction, God reaches out his hand, reaching down to Noah.
Noah is not a powerful and famous person; he's just an ordinary guy. But God chooses him anyway. That's the way God's grace always works.
Every time there is judgment in the Bible, God provides a way out. Going back to our house illustration, it's almost as if God says: Look, this has been condemned. It's coming down soon. The mold, rot, and mildew are too deep and destructive. The house must be judged and condemned. But you don't have to stay in the house. Let me show you a way of escape so you can go free.
The Bible is, at least in part, a story that shows us how seriously God takes our sin. But the Bible is also a grand, joyful story about how God has provided for us a way out. All throughout the Bible, we see hints and clues about a grand story of how the good God of creation can be both the world's Judge and the world's Savior. This big, grand story leads right to the cross of Jesus.
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.