This sermon is part of the sermon series "The Gospel in Genesis". See series.
In the 1960s Jim "Wrong Way" Marshall was a member of the "Purple People Eaters," the fearsome defensive unit of the Minnesota Vikings football team. In a game played on October 25, 1964, Marshall scooped up a fumble and started racing toward the end zone for a touchdown. Unfortunately, it was toward the other team's goal line. He ran for 66 yards and then jubilantly tossed the football into the stands. Marshall had no idea he had just scored a safety, meaning two points for the other team. In fact, his run was the longest safety in the history of pro football!
Generally speaking, memory is a good thing. It's bad to forget. Of course, this applies to more important things than a football game. For instance, advanced cases of alcoholism sometimes lead to Korsakov's syndrome, a profound and permanent loss of memory due to neuron destruction. Huge blocks of a person's memory are wiped out. Oliver Sacks, a neuroscientist, quotes one of his patients as saying, "You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all … ?Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing."
"Life without memory is not life at all." Remember that quote as we explore this story from the Book of Genesis.
We are not orphans, because our Father remembers.
From a literary viewpoint, Genesis 6?-9 forms an inverted, V-shaped story. Everything in the story flows into or flows out of the point of the V. The tip of the inverted V?the emotional, spiritual, and literary center of this story?—is found in Genesis 8:1: "But God remembered Noah? …"
Notice the text doesn't say, "God forgot about Noah." This is the way of atheism or agnosticism, two worldviews that view God as irrelevant, absent, or uninterested. Nor does the text say, "Noah remembered God." That would be the way of religion, a system of life that puts all the pressure on us to stay close to God. Either of these two options forces us to live as spiritual orphans whose actions, beliefs, feelings, and attitudes convey a deep lack of trust or unawareness of God's fatherly love and care. As spiritual orphans, we won't live with radical, heartfelt, and peaceful trust that God is our heavenly Father who cares for us. It sounds too simplistic, too unsophisticated, or too good to be true. We feel much more comfortable lowering our expectations, playing it safe with God's love and the daring call to follow Jesus.
But that's not the Good News we have in this story. "God remembered Noah." And what does it mean that God remembered? We can understand the power of God's remembering with a quick survey of its use in the Bible:
Genesis 9:16: "Whenever 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."
Genesis 30:22: "Then God remembered Rachel; he listened to her and opened her womb."
The next book of the Bible tells the story of God's people groaning in their slavery and then says that God "heard their groaning and remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So God looked on them and was concerned about them." (Exodus 2:24?-25)
The phrase "God remembers" occurs 73 times in the Bible. Every time God remembers, it means God will act for someone according to his covenant promises. When he remembers, God will surprise, stun, overwhelm, and lavish unexpected and undeserved goodness and grace on his people. For example, as soon as God remembered Noah, the Floodwaters started to subside. As soon as God remembered the rainbow, he blessed the earth. As soon as God remembered Rachel, she became pregnant. As soon as God remembered his people in slavery, he started their journey of redemption. When God remembers, it's not just mental activity; it's redemptive activity.
God acts in goodness according to his covenant.
God acts in goodness according to his covenant. What does "covenant" mean? A covenant means I'm committed to you through thick and thin. It's based on a promise to care for you, be there for you, and not forsake you. Marriage is the best human model for a covenant with God.
In the Bible God comes to a specific group of people (the Jews) and says: I want to be your God, and I want you to be my people?—forever. I will love you and provide for you, and I ask that you would respond with love and obedience.
Israel didn't represent the best, prettiest, strongest, or coolest people on the face of the earth. As a matter of fact, they were tiny, insignificant, awkward, and stubborn. But God approached them anyway and said: Do we have a covenant? Do we have a marriage?
They responded: Yes! Praise the Lord!
Over time, though, they "slept around" with other gods. Eventually, they turned to God and said: Get lost and leave us alone!
You get the picture. Our end of the covenant was very fickle, but God's end of the covenant remained steadfast and faithful. It was like a flame that kept burning.
The first time the word covenant is mentioned in the Bible is Genesis 6:18. God tells Noah, "But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark?—you and your sons and your wife and your sons' wives with you."
Notice a few things about covenants:
(1) A covenant is God's doing, not ours. God initiates the covenant with us because, quite frankly, we're not a bit interested in establishing a covenant with God! In fact, we're actively fleeing a covenant with God.
(2) A covenant is always two-sided. God does want something from us. By bringing us into a covenant with him, God wants to pour goodness out of us into the world. Due to his covenant with Noah, Noah becomes a blessing to his family and to all of creation. Note the detail in Genesis 8:9: "He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark." It's a touching detail about our calling as God's covenant people: we were made to bless the earth.
(3) A covenant is all about love. The Flood came as an act of cleansing. Genesis 6:5 said, "The LORD God 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." We were all a mess, so God had to cleanse the earth. The Flood came, the cleansing waters flowed, God performed the act of judgment, and what was the final result? God said, "Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood."
The Flood didn't improve us. That's the way punishment works: it's necessary, it wakes us up, it prevents evil from getting worse, but it doesn't change our heart. Some of you have experienced all kinds of punishment, pressure, and guilt while you were growing up, but it didn't change you. It didn't work by itself, because real life change comes through something deeper. It's called love. Love changes us. That's what the covenant is all about. God keeps saying, "I love you. I want you. I'm here for you." We keep running away, saying, "No, it can't possibly be that easy. It doesn't work that way in my world, God. You just don't understand, God." And God replies, "No, really?—I want a covenant with you! I want to love you forever."
A Christian can't understand the covenant without Jesus and the Cross. His death was not only an example; it was also a substitution. Christ died for us, in our place, because of our debt. He died to set us free. Before he died, he gave his disciples bread and wine and he said: This is the bread, this is the cup of the New Covenant.
Because of the New Covenant, we have been grafted into the story and the love of the covenant-making God?—a God who says, "I will love you forever."
This can sound very abstract so let me give you a picture of covenant love in action. On Valentine's Day, 1948, Robertson McQuilkin proposed to his sweetheart Muriel, and they married in August that same year. For the next three decades, they raised six children and served God together. The first sign their lives were about to change appeared in 1978. Muriel loved to tell stories, but one day she started repeating a story she had just finished a few minutes earlier. In 1981 doctors urged Robertson to consider the possibility of Alzheimer's disease. From that point on Robertson watched helplessly as his fun, creative, loving wife slowly faded away. By 1990 Robertson knew he needed to make a decision about his career. The school needed him 100 percent, and Muriel needed him 100 percent. Robertson chose to resign.
"People think it must be so difficult," he said, "but … even on the emotional side, I didn't look back with any regrets at all. I enjoyed the new life."
On Valentine's Day, 1995, Muriel suddenly woke up from her mental fog, smiled, and spoke for the first time in months. She said, "Love? … love? … love." Those were the last words Muriel ever said aloud.
Muriel died on September 19, 2003. In a letter to friends, Robertson wrote, "For 55 years Muriel was flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone. So it's like a ripping of my flesh and deeper?—my very bones. But there is also profound gratitude. For ten years I've delighted in recalling happy memories. I still do. No regrets. I'm grateful."
That, my friends, is a picture of God's covenant love for us. He loves us not as a chore but because it brings him delight.
There's one more thing for us to see in Genesis 9. Notice verse 12: "This is the sign of the covenant I am making between you and me."
We are sign-making creatures. For instance, I have a sign of my love for my wife?it's called a wedding ring. We need signs of love and friendship, signs of the covenant. So God gives us signs. The sign he gave Noah was very specific?—a rainbow. But who is the sign for? It's not a memory aid for us?—it's a sign for God: "Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the covenant." Does that mean God has Korsakov's syndrome or Alzheimer's? No! God's memory is just fine. To be honest, I don't know what it means. I just know God said it and that he likes it that way. God likes painting rainbows in the sky and then lavishing us with love.
This isn't the last time this happens in the Bible. In the Book of Exodus, in a story called the Passover, God was setting his people free from years of slavery. God remembered and he acted. He told his people to sprinkle blood on the doorposts so he would pass over that house. The blood was a sign for them, but it was also a sign for God. When God saw the sign, he remembered the covenant, remembered his "I'll love you forever," and then acted in mercy and deliverance to save his people.
Let me apply this to the Lord's Supper. I've always thought the bread and the wine are special reminders for us?—like a wedding ring or a piece of string around our finger. But what if the bread and wine are for God? What if God, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is here right now? What if, just like the rainbow and the blood on the door, the bread and the wine are for God and not just us?—that every time God sees the bread and wine he remembers:
The New Covenant in Jesus
Jesus' death for our sins
The power of the Holy Spirit that is available to you
How much he loves you
The original calling and destiny he has for your life (something so rich, grand, and noble that it would take your breath away)
No matter how forgetful or unfaithful you have been, the bread and the wine work. We don't make them work; God does. God remembers and acts according to his covenant promises. It means God remembers me because he remembers me in Jesus. That's the Gospel. It means I'm no longer a spiritual orphan. And I remember I have a side to this covenant as well. It's called faith. By faith, I must say "yes" to God's covenant promises. By faith, I turn from my self-sufficiency and grab on to God's promises in Jesus. By faith, I open my heart to the New Covenant of Jesus.
So allow the God of covenant and everlasting love to love you. Let him remember you. Let him remember his covenant and act on your behalf.
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.