Have you ever seen a Noah’s Ark onesie? Or maybe a Noah’s Ark themed baby blanket or bib? It’s a common thing, Noah’s Ark baby toys… One of them our kids really actually like is a Noah’s Ark bathtub toy. Ironic isn’t it? They’re lovely toys; but isn’t it a little strange to give kids commemorative gifts of what is decidedly the most cataclysmic natural disaster in recorded history?
You know, there probably was a flood… historically. Not because the Bible Museum or the Aliens Guy from the History Channel says so. There probably was a real flood because in so many ancient cultures, particularly in the Ancient Near East, culture after culture has their own version of the same myth: a story of a cataclysmic flood.
The Hebrew Bible version goes like this: God created a good world and filled it with life that was fruitful and it multiplied. There’s only one problem the life that was created in the world had been corrupted and so it wasn’t just life that multiplied but corrupted life. And the main marker of this corruption was violence.
Corruption and Violence. That’s God’s major concern in Genesis 6-8. It says God determined to put an end to all corrupt flesh on the earth, for the earth was filled with violence. This was the judgment of the Lord.
And so, God planed to flood the earth, to effectively powerwash creation in a global flood that no one would survive… except… except this one family, the family of one righteous man: Noah.
Noah and his family and two of every living creature would be the seed of righteousness that God would use to plant a new creation. So God tells Noah to build an ark, which he does. A big one! And then, just as God said, the floods came. For 40 days and 40 nights it rained. Everything and everyone else was washed away, everything except what was on the ark.
By the way, all of these elements are present in other ancient flood narratives. If you read them you’ll see. There’s a flood, ordered by the gods, even an ark built by one righteous, chosen man. The Hebrew version in Genesis 6 is remarkably similar to every other version until the end of the story.
In Genesis, after the rains stopped, Noah opens a window in the side of the ark and out of it he sends birds to see what they can find. Eventually one of them comes back, a dove. And the dove descends upon the arc carrying something in its beak: a leaf from an olive tree. The dove found a tree which means the dove has found solid ground. The flood was over. He sends the dove out one more time, but it never returns.
At the end of the flood, in the wake of all this destruction and death, it’s almost as if God has a change of heart. So, God makes a covenant, saying “I will never ever do that again.” In fact, the sign of the rainbow we know so well, the Hebrew there just refers to a bow as in a bow and arrow.
At the end of all that death and destruction in the flood, God’s bow is hung in the sky, permanently. God puts away the divine weapon of death, vowing never to do that again. There are plenty of versions of this story. But Genesis is the only version that ends like that.
Now to today’s Gospel lesson, the Baptism of our Lord. See if you notice some similar elements.
As the story goes, John was in the wilderness, in the Jordan River, occupying the story of Israel. There he was, standing in rushing water, preaching the coming judgment of the Lord. “Repent,” he said, “become righteous now! Before it’s too late!” God Almighty is coming, the Day of the Lord is upon us. And, to John’s eye, no one is ready!
There is not one righteous person. No one like Noah. No one was righteous, least of all the corrupt religious leaders! So John called out to them, “Repent! Repent you brood of vipers, for the kingdom of heaven is near!”
“Repent!” said John. “Receive this baptism for the forgiveness of your sin. Become righteous to withstand the wrath to come.”
It’s true, God had hung up the bow and vowed never to destroy the whole world, at least not with a flood. The Judgment that was coming, said John, was not a flood. No. The Judgment that was coming was the Messiah, the Judge, sent to judge between righteous and unrighteous not by water. This time it would be with fire.
Just then, here comes Jesus of Nazareth. John recognizes him immediately. This is the Messiah the Righteous One. Jesus comes close, and even wades into the water of the Jordan. He’s… He’s presenting himself for baptism. But why? He’s the Righteous one. He’s the judge, what’s the purpose of forgiving one who needs no forgiveness? “I can’t baptize you,” John says. “What for? You should be baptizing me!”
Then Jesus says, “It is proper for you to do so to fulfill all righteousness.” And so John put him under the water and he was baptized in the River Jordan. He was submerged, baptized into waters of human history, the story of our life with God. He entered not just John’s baptism but the water of his people’s story: the Jordan River, the Red Sea, even the waters of the Flood.
And after being ritually drowned in those waters, he arose.
As he emerged from the flood in the sky there was a voice, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And then there was this dove, imagine that, a dove that came and alighted on him.
See? All the elements are there. All the elements of the Flood story are there in Jesus’ Baptism: Unrighteous people, one righteous man, the waters of a flood, the Word of God and the flight of a dove. There’s just one big element that isn’t there. A really big one. Something’s missing. What is it? An ark! There’s no ark… Or isn’t there?
In all four gospels, Jesus’ baptism signals the beginning of his early ministry. In Matthew we see that John the Baptist was actually right. The kingdom of heaven was at hand. It was Jesus! Jesus was the Kingdom and its righteous Judge. Jesus’ ministry in Matthew is one of righteous judgment, filled with harsh words in the midst of his miracles. Words of judgment especially against corruption and violence.
It is Matthew’s Jesus who says,
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword… to cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth…. Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Matthew’s Jesus gives us that parable we like to read half of about the sheep and the goats. Where because the sheep have done good to the least of these, they are welcomed into the kingdom of God; but we often skip the other half, the goats part. Long story short: “Sheep go to heaven. Goats go to hell.”
As Jesus’ story unfolds, things are shaping up for a doomsday of epic proportions until Jesus the Righteous Judge stops referring as often to the destruction of the unrighteousness. Toward the end of the story, more and more, he refers instead to the destruction of the Temple, more specifically, says Matthew, he points to the destruction of the Temple that is his own body.
Ultimately, Genesis and John are both right. Judgment does come according to the will of God, through the actions of the Righteous Judge, the Messiah. But in the end, God in Christ turns the judgment on himself. It is the judge who is judged in our place, handed over to the authorities and sentenced to death, becoming the victim of the corruption and violence he came to destroy.
Because of the method of execution chosen for him, crucifixion, the likelihood is that he died by suffocation. He effectively drowned under the weight of his own body. The One baptized into human history drowned in the flood of our sin. In the end it’s not a rainbow hung in the sky that is the final sign of God’s promise but God’s son, a righteous man, hung on a cross. And there he died and was buried.
He remained submerged in death for three days.
The Book of First Peter actually tells us what he’s up to in those three days. It says that in death Christ dove beyond the grave, deeper and deeper into the depths of Hell and Death, to Sheol, to seek out and find the lost, specifically, “those who were disobedient in the days of Noah and lost in the Flood.” Once he found them, do you know what he did? He preached to them. He proclaimed to them the good news of their salvation, and then he carried them home as on the third day, he emerges again in his glorious Resurrection.
Now… now we can see the ark. It’s him! The dove alighted on him at his baptism because he’s not just a righteous man. He’s not just a new Noah. He’s a new ark. He’s the way through the flood of our sin and death. He’s our ark!
That’s where that dove came from that landed on him at his baptism. Remember? Noah sent out a dove that never returned, until today, at the Baptism of our Lord. As he came up out of the water, the heavens opened up and the light shone forth and the Spirit descended like a dove, having found not just dry land but a sure foundation, the ark of all humanity, the help and salvation of all who are baptized into him.
Did you hear that last part? That’s the church’s language about what happens in our baptism. It goes back to this understanding of Christ as the New Ark. We are baptized into Christ, into his body, we embark the ark of Christ which bears us on to salvation.
The church has taken this idea of Jesus as the new Noah’s ark so far as to see it in the moment of his death. You’ll remember that just as after the flood, the window of the arc was opened. In the same way, on the cross, just after his death, Christ’s body is pierced… opened… and out flowed blood and water.
In this opening, the church sees a window opened in Christ’s body. And in the mixture of water and blood flowing from the body of Christ, the Church sees a new flood of Grace: the wine of communion in his blood, and the waters of our baptism, flowing out from the side of Christ, our new Ark. The church says that just as the window of the ark was opened to find the promise of dry land, so the ark of Christ’s body was opened and the world was flooded not with judgment but with grace.
Isn’t that cool?!
But wait, there’s more. To catch this last Epiphany, we have to take a brief detour to church architecture. Have you ever looked at the ceiling of churches? It’s somewhat true of our church, but it’s truer of cathedrals and especially true of medium-sized churches built with wood more than with stone or drywall. Often, in church architecture, the ceiling of the sanctuary is designed with wood beams and slats arranged to intentionally resemble the hull of a great ship. Have you ever noticed that?
Any guesses why? If Christ is the New Ark, and we as the church are the Body of Christ, that means we, the church, are, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the ark for the world today. We, the church, are the ship which bears lost souls to salvation, into which all are welcome, and out of which flows a flood of Grace. In fact, in the church’s two main sacraments, baptism and communion, flow the grace of salvation as well as the gift of the Spirit which descended upon Christ the Ark like a dove.
You can even say that we, baptized Christians, filled with the Holy Spirit, we are the ones sent out from the ark like doves, migrating back and forth between the ark and the world carrying in our beaks, and reflecting in our lives the good news of salvation to a world drowning under the weight of sin and grief. We are God’s doves called to believe in and become signs of this good news that God has permanently hung up the bow, saved us from sin, and won the victory even over Hell and Death.
So my friends, beloved of God, repent and believe this good news. Remember Christ your Ark. If you’ve never been baptized, hear the good news: the Ark is always accepting new members. And for those who have been baptized, remember your baptism into Christ our Ark, and his power over Sin and Death. Remember your baptism and be thankful.