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"Disembark"

February 28, 2021 Speaker: Pastor Bob Davis

Passage: Genesis 8:1–8:22

Today we look at the far side of the Flood. The worst was over and now all that remained was the waiting to see what came next.

We began looking at Noah and the ark a couple of weeks ago. In Chapter 6, the LORD commanded Noah to build an ark. Noah did all that the LORD commanded. In Chapter 7, the LORD told Noah to get himself, his family, and all the animals on the ark. Noah did all that the LORD commanded. Now, in Chapter 8, Noah was riding in the ark.

You probably noticed that there is not a lot of action in this Chapter. Not much happened. There was a lot of waiting. Yes, the ark grounded on Mount Ararat. Yes, Noah sent out a raven and a dove (three times). Finally, they disembarked and there was the worship time. All in all, that is not a whole lot of action taking place here.

How different this is than the first few chapters of Genesis. We went from the creation of the cosmos, through the ordering of nature, to the fall from grace through sin, then the brokenness within the family through Cain’s murderous jealousy, to the thousands of years of generations in Seth’s line until we got to Noah. We were moving along at a rapid pace and then everything stopped. It came to a grinding halt.

There had to be a reason why the author stopped to dwell here. Yes, it was a big flood; but in comparison with the creation of the whole of the cosmos? From painting with a broad brush, the author suddenly provided a level of detail that is startling. We get specifics about all sorts of things: dates, categories of animals, boat specs. Why? As I mentioned last week, this entire episode could have been summed up by, “There was a flood.” But that was not the way the author chose to go. Thus, we have to ask: What was it the author wanted us to see; what was this revealing about God and God’s purpose?

Remember the two guiding principles for this sermon series: first, we are not going to answer all the questions you have had or heard regarding this event. Instead, we are going to focus on what the author is revealing to us about God. Second, we need to see Genesis as a part of the larger set – the Pentateuch and the Bible as a whole – and need to understand these beginning chapters as a preface for what will come later. The author was not writing some sort of exhaustive natural history of ancient events; rather, the author setting the stage for revealing who God is and what God would be doing.

Here, the author wanted us to see Noah’s relationship with the LORD. In the midst of the chaos and craziness prior to the flood, Noah knew God was in control. In the midst of the chaos leading up to the flood, Noah knew it was God who is in control. In the midst of the flood, Noah knew God was in control.

As God was in control, God is in control, and always will be in control. So, when things are out of our control, we can be comforted and know peace because we know that God is in control.

The Waters Gradually Receded

Today, we read about the waters gradually receding. Five verses the author spent on describing how the waters subsided. When it says “God remembered,” it means that God took action, not that God forgot about Noah and the ark. God took action on Noah’s behalf. God took action on behalf of all the wild animals on the ark. God took action on behalf of all the domestic animals on the ark. God made the wind blow. The fountains of the deep were closed. The windows of heaven were closed. Rain from heaven was restrained. Again, note how slowly things are moving in the narrative right now. Note the abundance of detail.

What was the point? The point was that from a human perspective, God took his sweet time in having the waters recede. It took approximately five months. And, at the end of five months, the big news was that the hull of the ark was deep enough to get stuck on the top of a mountain. The mountain top may not have been visible above the waterline yet, but the waters had gone down far enough for the ark to be grounded. Six weeks later, the tops of the mountains appeared.

Those on the ark had to wait for God to make things right. They couldn’t throw towels on the water outside the ark to sop it all up. They could not pump the water somewhere else. There was no human fix to the flood. They were entirely at the mercy of God’s will to determine when and how the flood would come to an end. They had to wait for God to act. And, it begs the question: if God created the heavens and the earth in six days, why did He take so long to flood it and re-start things? Seriously, if it were like a flash flood or a tsunami, wouldn’t it have had the same effect? Why couldn’t everything have happened all at once? And, while we are at it, why rely on natural phenomena at all – why couldn’t God have simply done what He was going to do all at once?

Without providing an answer to any of those questions, the author was revealing that God acts in God’s time without explaining to us why. That is a consistent theme throughout Scripture and it is a theme we struggle to handle today. Why does God wait so long? Why does God take so long? Why do we have to wait for God to act?

Joseph had to wait 18 years in prison being punished for a crime he did not commit before the LORD provided the circumstances that allowed him to be sprung and positioned as Pharaoh’s right hand man. During those 18 years, Joseph did not know when or if he was ever going to get out.

The people of Israel had to wait generations in slavery and bondage in Egypt before the LORD provided the circumstances that allowed them to be sprung and brought to Sinai to covenant with Him. During those hundreds of years, they did not know when or if God was ever going to answer their prayers.

The Psalmist cries out, How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Psalm 13)

Again, the people of Israel had to wait for generations for a Messiah to come. They may have returned to the land, but they waited and waited before the LORD provided them the promised Messiah. During those hundreds of years, they did not know when or if God was ever going to answer their prayers.

In the midst of a worldwide pandemic, we ask how long, O Lord? We wonder when or if God will answer our prayers.

As we look at the brazenness with which humankind rebels against God’s created order and ignores God’s commands, we cry out, How long, O Lord, how long?

As we see nation rise up against nation, culture against culture, race against race, church denomination against church denomination, and even the increasing fracturing of the family – we cry out, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

Trials and tough circumstances do not dissipate according to our timetables. Chapter 8 and the slowly receding waters is a not-so-subtle reminder that God is God and we are not. We pray, but we cannot force God to bend to our will. We pray, but we cannot manipulate God into making things magically disappear or get all better. Anyone who has ever endured suffering knows how this is true. Not matter how much we want, no matter how much we wish, no matter how sincere our prayers or how much energy we put into trying to convince God to relieve us of the circumstances that are causing us anxiety, pain, or distress; God acts in God’s time.

Part of the reason why the author spent so much time describing the details of these events was to make abundantly clear that things happen according to God’s timetable and God’s plan.

By the way, I know that does not sound like a whole lot of consolation for those of you who are suffering. Yet, what is important to recognize is that the Bible is not written to tell us what we would like to read or hear, it is written to tell us how things are and to reveal who is in control. And, ultimately, knowing the one who is in control is our consolation.

Noah waited to open the window.

In contrast to our way of dealing with things, look at how Noah handled the time on the ark. It took five months for the waters to abate. Then, about two and a half months later, the tops of the mountains appeared. Then, almost a month and a half after that, Noah opened the window.

We do not get any description of what Noah felt or thought or considered. We do not get any description of what Noah’s family felt or thought or considered. All we know is that they waited.

Not only is waiting on God a difficult thing for us to do personally, it is an exponentially more difficult thing for us to wait on God as a community. Because people perceive things differently, the opinions on how to do things differs widely, too.

At the risk of projecting things backwards, can you imagine the pressure Noah was feeling from inside the ark to open things up and to see how they could get back to normal? My appreciation for Noah now is significantly greater than it was even a year ago.

It is important to remember context.  Although Noah had built the ark and gathered all that were aboard, it was God who shut Noah and the rest in the ark. Because God had shut them in the ark, Noah was waiting for God to open up the ark again.

It is not a direct parallel, but it is providential that we are looking at this chapter at this time. The surge of COVID is receding. The numbers are diminishing. Restrictions are easing and a new day seems to be on the horizon. All the evidence seems to suggest that there will be a day soon or in the not-too-distant future when things will be clear for us to re-engage in community and fellowship without restrictions.

That has not happened yet. We are waiting for that to happen.

Several times the author has emphasized how “Noah did all that the LORD commanded.” Yet, that is not what is said at this point in the narrative; here, during the waiting time, there was silence. God was silent. Noah was silent. We do not get a sense that Noah was interested in taking initiative to test the limits of what the LORD wanted or would allow. Instead, Noah had to navigate the timetable for re-opening using his best discernment of what God would want him to do. Could he have opened the window earlier? Perhaps. It is difficult to know. In the absence of a clear command, Noah was left to do the best he could with the information he had available at the time. Noah’s best discernment was that waiting to open the window was the right course of action.

The same is true for us. We are navigating a time-table for re-opening using our best prayerful discernment of what God wants us to do. Could we have opened earlier or faster? Perhaps. It is difficult to know. But in the absence of a clear command, we are doing the best we can with the information we have available to us.

So, the question becomes, how will we know when the time is right? How will we discern? 

Discerning the time to go forth

Spiritual discernment is not always the easiest thing to do. Yet, with Noah, we already get some good practices and observations.

Sending out birds was well-known in the ancient world as a means by which sailors could determine if land were nearby. It would not be a surprise or a particular mystery to the first readers that Noah would have employed birds as a tool for discernment. That said, eyebrows may have been raised at the choice of a raven to go first.

Noah sent out the raven. It provided no information for him. You can probably understand Noah’s thought process; the raven is a bigger and stronger bird than many others. The raven could fly farther and longer and search for land better. However, the Word Biblical Commentary notes,

The raven is not only black but unclean, so it is little surprise that it brought Noah no consolation. The reference to its flying to and fro may simply be … pointing out that it did not die. Since they were unclean, there were only two ravens on the ark, so both had to live if the species was to survive.[1]

The problem was that the raven was a natural answer to a spiritual question. The issue really was not the water, the issue was God’s timing for the conclusion of the judgment.

When we try to make sense of God’s plan using human wisdom, we usually find ourselves frustrated and confused. We hear it all the time with things like, “I cannot believe in a God who would let little children die.” “I cannot believe in a God who allows evil to exist.” “I cannot believe in a God who would…” whatever. When we try use human reason to evaluate how well God is being God – and to determine if we are willing to believe – we end up empty and lost. Friends, God is God whether we believe or not. God is not subject to our testing protocols or required to adhere to our best thinking. God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts; God’s ways are different than our ways. 

In contrast, the dove was not the strongest or biggest bird; in fact, it was among the smaller and least suited for long flights. But the dove was a clean bird. It was a bird representative of spiritual discernment. The dove went out three times.  It went out and returned the first time because the water was still too high. The message there was clear.

It went out the second time and brought back an olive leaf. Returning with an olive leaf was an indication – a sign, a marker, evidence – that things were getting better. There was improvement. What should Noah extrapolate from the improvement that the leaf represented? Noah interpreted it to mean that there was improvement, but more waiting was still required. Improvement did not mean that the time had come; rather, it meant that the right time was coming.

It is not difficult to imagine the relief and the excitement that went throughout all those quarantined on the ark. They had to be ready to get going. They had to be ready to move on to the next thing. They had to be ready to break out and go forth. Yet, Noah’s discernment was that – despite the excitement – they needed to wait.

Finally, a week later, Noah sent the dove out for the third time and it did not return. When it did not come back, everyone knew that the time was near.

Discernment takes time and practice. Discernment is ongoing.

When the dove did not return, it was to Noah an indication that the time on the ark was coming to a close. 

Worship comes first in the new world.

Then came the command from God to disembark. Everybody, out! Everyone and everything got out.

The first activity after leaving the ark was Noah building an altar to the LORD. Here we see the reason why the seven pairs of clean animals were taken aboard, so that there would be burnt offerings on that altar.

Do not miss the significance of this or take it for granted. The author put Noah’s worship in the narrative to emphasize the priority of maintaining the relationship with God. We worship because we need to worship, not because God is needy of our praise. We need to worship because in praising and honoring God we remember that we belong to Him (and not the other way around). We remember that we are dependent upon God (and not the other way around).

In a world that seems to prefer its own wisdom and the chaos that ensues, worship is an essential part of staying in right relationship with God.

Friends, it is not difficult to see how worship will be discouraged, frowned upon, scorned, or prohibited in the future. In fact, God’s response to Noah’s worship included the explanation why things will be difficult for us: even though the offering was a pleasing odor to the LORD and the LORD declared He would not destroy every living creature as He had, the LORD also observed that “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.” Human reason apart from and in conflict with Scripture always is evil.

The gift we have in worship is the opportunity to renew and strengthen our relationship with the one true living God and to be blessed with the fellowship of all the others he has called and drawn together. Our saving hope is in Jesus; we are together because of the salvation God has provided in Jesus. We worship to renew and strengthen our relationship with him; we are blessed to have fellowship with each other in Jesus. As we go out from one another and from worship, as we go out after this pandemic and quarantine, we are going out into a new world that desperately needs the gospel. We can be prepared for that day by:

  • Remembering God is in control;
  • Trusting we live and have our being in God’s time – even in times we experience waiting;
  • Listening for God’s command and doing our best in the times of silence; and,
  • Committing ourselves to worship God because we are His – in season and out of season.

Next week we will be talking about the assurances we have of God’s promises in covenant. For now, spend some time reflecting on how you will go when the flood waters recede and God says, “Everybody, out!”

Amen.

[1] Gordon J. Wenham, The Word Biblical Commentary, Genesis, vol. 1, p. 186.