Frederick Buechner Sermon Illustration: Noah

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick  Buechner  reading on the same topic.

Next Sunday, we will celebrate the First Sunday in Lent. Here is this week’s reading from the book of Genesis:

Genesis 9:8-17

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, "As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth." God said, "This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth." God said to Noah, "This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth."

The following excerpt was originally published in Beyond Words:

THE WATERS HAD ALL DRAINED off and the ground was dry again when God hung a rainbow in the sky to remind him he'd promised "that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood" (Genesis 9:11). The way he explained it to Noah, "I will look upon it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature that is upon the earth" (9:13).

In one way, then, it gave Noah a nice warm feeling to see the rainbow up there, but in another way it gave him an uneasy twinge. If God needed the rainbow as a reminder, he thought, that could mean that, if someday God didn't happen to look in the right direction or had something else on his mind, he might forget his promise and the heavy drops would start pattering down on the roof a second time.

Noah could never forget the first time—how little by little the waters had risen, first just spreading in over the kitchen linoleum and trickling down the cellar stairs, but eventually floating newspapers and family photographs off tables and peeling wallpaper off walls until people were driven to the rooftops, where they sat wrapped in blankets with their transistor radios on their laps looking up for a break in the clouds and reassuring each other that this must be the clearing shower at last. He remembered the animals he'd had to leave behind—the old sow with her flaxen lashes squealing on top of a hen house as the ripples lapped at her trotters, the elephants awash up to their hips, a marmalade cat with one ragged ear clinging to a TV aerial as a pair of parakeets in a wicker cage floated by over what had once been the elementary school gym.

He also remembered the endless days in the ark—the miserable food, the seasickness, the smells. When the downpour finally stopped, he sent birds out to see if they could find any dry land anywhere, and he remembered watching them flyaway until they were no bigger than flyspecks on a windowpane, remembered the feeling in his stomach when they finally flew back having found no place to roost.

He remembered especially one of the doves and how, when he saw it returning, he had reached out over the rail, and it had landed on the calluses of his upturned palm. With his eyes closed and tears on his cheeks, he had touched his lips to its feathers, and as he felt the panic of its bird's heart, it had seemed to him that the whole world was just as fragile and as doomed.

But then, after weeks, another dove came back with a sprig of olive in its beak, and the tops of the mountains began to reappear out of the watery waste, and now at last the great, glittering rainbow arched above him, and the great promise echoed in his ears. "Never again;" God had said, and Noah clung on to those words like a raft in a high sea.

With the rainbow tied around his little finger to jog his memory, surely God would never forget what he'd said. No matter what new meanness people might think up, surely the terrible thing would never happen again. As an expert in hoping against hope, the old sailor told himself that the worst was over and that as sure as God made little green apples, a new, green world would blossom up out of the sodden wreckage of the old.

He then planted the first vineyard and invented wine. The way he figured it, wine would help him forget the dark past and, if all went well, would be like the champagne at a wedding that you toast the future with. And if all did not go well, if doubts and fears began to gather like rain clouds in his heart, then wine would help him ride out the storm within as before he'd ridden out the forty days and forty nights.

In the meantime, he would keep his eye on the rainbow and his hand near the corkscrew and try to be fruitful and multiply just the way God had told him and his seven-time great-grandfather Adam before him.