The Art of Listening
with Rev. Alex Lang
June 4, 2023
For the last sermon series of Alex’s tenure at First Pres, he will be choosing from some of his best sermons over the last decade. The first sermon in the new series Encore will begin with Genesis and the famous story of Noah and the Ark.
6 The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. 7 So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.
Noah and the Flood
9 This is the account of Noah and his family.
Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God. 10 Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth.
11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. 12 God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. 13 So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. 14 So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out. 15 This is how you are to build it: The ark is to be three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high.16 Make a roof for it, leaving below the roof an opening one cubit high all around Put a door in the side of the ark and make lower, middle and upper decks. 17 I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish. 18 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. 19 You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you.
Read the Full Text
Today we are going to discuss one of the most familiar stories in the scriptures – the story of Noah and the Ark. This story is familiar because we teach it to children. And it’s perfect for them, right? Noah gets all the animals together, places them on the Ark, the floods come and they all have a wonderful time together. Sure, we often leave out the reason why Noah is building the ark in the first place, but that’s okay. They can learn about all that bad stuff later.
I agree with this logic to the extent that you don’t want to expose children to bad things before the appropriate age, but the problem is most people don’t go back and read the story word for word. I’m sure that for many of you, this is first time you have ever really studied this text in any kind of meaningful way. And unfortunately, because most people are only exposed to the children’s version of this story, it creates false associations in people’s minds. Let me explain to you what I mean by that.
If you learn the story of Noah and the Ark as a child, you don’t question the logic behind. It makes sense to a child that you could build a boat and place all the animals in the world on it. As a child, you don’t understand how many species of animals there are in the world. My son has a book that tells him about all kinds of different animals, but that’s only a fraction of the number that actually exist. So if you’ve grown up hearing this story and you learn in high school that the diversity of life on the planet is so vast that 30 boats could not contain them all, then you come to the logical conclusion that the story of Noah and the Ark is a fairy tale.
If Noah and the Ark is a fairy tale, then what does that say about the rest of the Bible? How can I trust anything that’s in the Bible, if one of the most foundational stories that we teach our children is obviously untrue? What does that say about Abraham? What does that say about Moses? What does that say about Jesus? How can I trust that any of it is real? So this one story creates an association in people’s minds that the Bible is full of fairy tales.
Now there’s nothing wrong with fairy tales, I just don’t want to waste my time on Sunday morning hearing about them and I don’t want to teach my children things that aren’t true. This is why the church is losing so much ground in our culture. By teaching the Bible word for word and never providing any real explanation, the church has created a cultural divide.
Our culture associates the Christian faith with insanity because, from their point of view, you have to be insane to believe the stories in the Bible are true. So if anyone ever questions us about the validity of the Bible, we either say nothing or we say something like this, “I don’t know. I guess it’s true. I know there’s millions of species on the planet. Don’t ask me how they all could have fit on one boat. We just got to take this one on faith.”
No, we don’t actually. We don’t have to take it on faith. And that’s why most people view the church as being irrelevant. Rather than believe in something that seems crazy, they’re going to stay home. And I don’t blame them at all. Why waste your time on something that seemingly has no basis in reality, no relevance to your life and makes all your friends think you’re crazy because they think you believe the earth is 6,000 years old. Looking at it from an outsider’s perspective, I can understand why most people would say, “It’s not worth it.”
But you’re here, so you obviously feel there’s something worthwhile about coming to church. And I’m pretty sure the majority of you aren’t crazy (don’t try to prove me wrong on that one, though). So my goal this morning is to help you feel more confident about why the Bible is relevant so that when you have conversations with your friends, who come from the perspective that the Bible isn’t relevant, they might consider changing their minds. To start, let me tell you a little bit about the history of Noah and the Ark because if you understand where this story originated, then you’ll also understand why it’s relevant to your life.
First of all, the story of the flood is not unique to the Bible. This story is found in a variety of other creation myths. For instance, one such myth from Sumeria and Babylon is the Epic of Atrahasis. The story goes that humans were molded out of clay by the goddess Mami. When humans become too noisy for the gods, Enlil, the god of earth and air, decides to destroy humanity with a flood. Atrahasis, the hero of this story, is warned by the god Enki to build a boat, fill it with his possessions and a stable of animals and birds.
Another version of this story is found in the epic of Gilgamesh. In Gilgamesh, the character Utnapishtim is warned by the god Ea that the gods plan to flood the world because humans were too numerous and noisy. Ea instructs Utnapishtim to build a boat, the dimensions of which are very similar to the dimensions of the boat specified in Genesis. When a myth like this shows up in so many different cultures, it tells us that this story is probably rooted in an actual event. The question is, “What could that event have been and how do we determine fact from fiction?”
Well, I think the first place to start is with the context of the people of the time. I think something that we often take for granted is how detailed an understanding of the world we actually have. We’ve all grown up seeing globes of the earth in our classrooms. We watch the evening news and see satellite images of the earth from space. We’ve even seen pictures of our planet from the moon, so we’re working with a lot more information than they were.
At the time that this myth originated, most people never travelled more than 15 miles from their home during their entire lifetime. So the world, from their point of view, was extremely limited. Therefore, when the scripture says that God flooded the entire world, what this means is God flooded the area of the world with which they were familiar, which wasn’t a whole lot by our standards. So this myth originated from a flood that affected an isolated area of the area somewhere in Middle East.
The second thing we know is that this was no ordinary flood. Recently we had major flooding in California from rains that devastated huge areas of Southern California. That was a pretty huge flood. But what we’re talking about in terms of the Bible is something much larger than a flood caused by rains or a river overflowing its banks.
This is a flood that killed tens of thousands of people at once. This event wouldn’t have made it into all these creation myths if it hadn’t been massively destructive in terms of human life. That’s why all of these creation myths interpret this event through the lens of God being upset with humans. The only way the ancients could rationalize the destruction of so much life is if they were being punished by God for being evil.
Therefore, we can assume that the scale of this kind of flood is something that is on par with tsunamis or other earthquake related disasters. There is a major tectonic fault line that runs through the Mediterranean ocean, but the Mediterranean is too small to produce a tsunami of the scale we often see in Japan or Indonesia. For that you need a body of water like the Pacific Ocean. So if it’s not rains, rivers or tsunamis, your only option left is to look at the bodies of water in the surrounding area and ask, “Have they always been there?”
Biblical archeologists attempted to place dates on the various flood stories that appear in creation myths throughout the Middle East. As they did so, they found a fascinating pattern: the older the story, the closer it gets geographically to the Black Sea. In other words, the earliest versions of this story originate from an area on the edge of the Black Sea. This led scholars to speculate that perhaps the Black Sea is not as old as they may have formerly believed.
And so the theory goes something like this: around 5600 B.C., the Black Sea was a low lying valley surrounding a massive fresh water lake. A large number of people had inhabited this valley because it was good for agriculture. At some point, the Mediterranean began to erode away at the land that separated these two areas. On a map, this connection is called the bosphorus strait and is located right next to modern Istanbul. The people who were closest to this erosion point could see what was about to happen because, more than likely, water started to pour into the valley slowly, over a period of time.
It’s not hard to imagine that somebody with enough foresight to comprehend what was about to happen, built a boat, placed his family and livestock in that boat and then used the boat to float to sea level when the land mass gave way to the pressure of the Mediterranean. His family and livestock remained safe while everyone else in the valley was killed in a deluge of water. Furthermore, it’s not hard to imagine that, from the perspective of the survivors who told this story, the entire world was flooded.
To verify this, archaeologists have sent research vessels to the bottom of the Black Sea. If you imagine a flood of that scale, it should literally snap the trees in the valley like toothpicks leaving only the stumps. On these dives they found exactly that. Underneath the sediment, there were rows of petrified tree stumps that looked like they had been ripped in half. Samples from these stumps dated to around the period of time when scholars estimate that the story of the flood began to spread.
So now you know how it happened and the only question left is, “How is this relevant to my life?” Well, it’s relevant in a number of different ways, but perhaps one of the most profound ways this is relevant is what this story reveals about the world in which we live. I think people often see the universe from two very distinct and polarized perspectives: either the universe is an accident and our lives are the result of random particles coming and going as they please or there is there is some master worker, like God, at a chessboard making every decision about what happens in our lives. Most people don’t realize this, but both perspectives are essentially saying the same thing: we are pawns. Whether it’s random particles or God, we have no control over our lives.
But the story of Noah and the Ark speaks against this kind of deterministic thinking that we have no control. Knowing the real story behind Noah and the Ark, we are confronted with two different realities. The first reality is that there are physical forces in the world that have consequences. What I mean by this in terms of Noah and the Ark is that, given enough time, water erodes away at the land. The flood was a natural consequence of the erosion that formed the bosphorus strait. That wasn’t God, that’s just the physics of water.
The second reality is that we have the ability to respond to these physical forces. Noah, or whoever he was, saw what was coming and built a boat so his family and livestock would be safe. Now in my previous sermon on suffering, I told you very clearly that I believe that God does not want us to suffer. What this means in terms of the flood is that I don’t think God wanted all those people to die. But again, God has created a world where nature acts according to certain laws. So rather than suspend those laws, I believe God acts through them to place signs in our lives. In fact, I believe that God is speaking to us through the natural world all the time.
In the case of Noah and the Ark, God was speaking to Noah through the water at the erosion point and Noah paid attention. Yes, he was lucky enough to be there to see it happening, but unlike everyone else around him, he listened to what God was saying, “You better build a boat because otherwise you won’t survive.” He didn’t need to hear it in words. He could see it right in front of him, like a stop sign. It was clear as day, but he was the only one who saw it.
How often do we go through our lives oblivious to the signs that God places in front us? God is speaking to us all the time, the problem is we are often too distracted to listen. There’s an art to listening. In the same way that you cannot absorb information in a classroom without really paying attention, you cannot absorb what God is trying to tell you unless you are looking for it. God uses a lot of different methods to get our attention. Sometimes it’s water; sometimes it’s the scriptures; sometimes it’s a prayer; sometimes it’s a comment; sometimes it’s a memory; but when it comes down to it, however God is communicating, it’s your choice whether or not you listen.
I want to end this morning by saying that I am standing here before you as your pastor because a group of people, your pastor nominating committee, started listening to God. They had no idea where God was taking them, but they tried to understand what God was saying to them through the world. I don’t think any of them would have envisioned me in this position and I can tell you, neither did I. I never thought in a million years I would be at church as wonderful as this. But we both listened and we both could see the flood was coming. So we built our boat and here we are today. May you believe that God is speaking to you through the world and may you listen for the waters in your life that will lead you to dry land. Amen