Taming the Beast
He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. —Mark 1:13
You should see the parade of children from A Joyful Noise preschool as they file past Dudley, who sits enthroned in the hallway, just waiting for the adoring pats and pets of children. I am not sure who delights in this procession more —the kids, Dudley or Bill. For those of you who don’t know, Dudley is the beloved golden retriever who arrived with the Evertsberg’s and whose popularity is unrivaled.
In our children’s bedrooms, we will paper their walls with dogs and cats, elephants and hippos, parakeets and owls, animals of all types, shapes and colors. The onesies and sweatshirts they wear are adorned with frogs or bunnies or turtles. We fill their stories with images of puppies and kittens. I know from walking the dog, little eyes light-up at the sight of animals.
With this puppy-lovey ethos, it is no surprise the story of Noah and the Ark is one of the most popular and beloved Bible stories we teach our children. It is a story of God’s love for creation, regardless of how fierce and wild or domesticated and tame; God cared for these animals through Noah when the flood arrived.
As we tell and retell the Noah story, it becomes Disneyesque, a safe place from the terrors and possibilities of the world. Although told as a children’s story, it merely mirrors what we want to tell ourselves. We want to go to that safe place, an escape from chaos, and have a chance to begin again.
When we domesticate Noah and the Ark into a children’s story for ourselves, we risk taming a tale of destruction and revenge by none other than God. Yet, after reading the entire story and studying the texts, one can only wonder why we would teach our children of such genocide.
Noah and the Ark is a foundational text of human insecurity and power, an insecurity we need to name that arises from our personal, destructive natures and the chaos we create with others from their self-absorbed natures. Noah may have been God’s agent in saving the world, but he too was flawed.
We read this story during Lent to consider who we are and how God has revealed God’s self for us. In these forty-days, we need to hold a mirror to ourselves and ponder how we are using the power given to us by God and how powerful we imagine God is today.
The antithesis of a tame children’s stories is the movie, Noah, released last year, produced by Darren Aronofksy and staring Russell Crowe. Bill Evertsberg loaned me his still-shrink wrapped copy so I could do my homework. For those who have not seen it, I would characterize it as a cross between Transformers and Game of Thrones with a bit of Les Mis thrown in since Russell Crowe is still trying to convince us he can sing. One can also sense some influence from the Creation Museum from Petersberg, KY. I’ll admit, I am a tough movie critic, but no tougher than the professional critics and religious scholars who pummeled it.
However wildly it deviates from the original story, I will commend, the movie never loses sight of the cause for the flood contained in our Judaeo-Christian history —human disobedience and inhumanity towards others. With more honesty than our children’s stories, it does not white wash the causes for God’s anger nor attempt to tame God’s power. In the movie, God remains the omnipotent creator, possessing the power to punish everything, is recognized as the sole sustainer of life and our only refuge.
The movies ends, and I will not spoil it, by revealing God’s power to redeem, through love that is recognized to be just as fierce as the power God unleashed that destroyed. Despite how badly we behave in the future, God chooses to harness God’s power to punish, but this does not tame God’s inherent power to love. If anything, it fuels this power to create anew.
Now knowing that scrolls and ink were precious commodities in the ancient Near East, such that each word in our ancient texts matters. When a word is repeated over and over, take notice. In our short reading this morning, we heard “covenant” seven times. Here is the basic message:
“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'” (Gen 9:12).
This covenant is a sacred agreement. It is one-way, not demanding anything from humankind, includes all creation, regardless of species or tribe, and is forever. Setting down the bow of destruction, God surrendered, forever, the divine power to destroy, binding God’s own self to humanity, indeed the world, in a new and different way. God, by choice, seems to become vulnerable.
Theologian David Lose writes: “This act of self-limitation and investment introduces a new and distinct facet into the character of God as portrayed in scripture. Along with power, justice, patience and love, the ancient Hebrews also perceive that God is inherently self-giving, willing to enter into a relationship that puts limits on even God’s prerogatives.”
Some scholars will argue the text claims God changed God’s mind. I don’t buy it. I propose an alternate reading. We could imagine what the text says about God is really what we know about ourselves and reveals a lesson for us all to know —the power to destroy and dominate pales as compared to the power to continually recreate in relationships.
The covenant God makes with Noah reveals God will exercise God’s power to recreate creation through us —not against us. Consider the additional covenants God promises later in scripture. There is the covenant with Abraham to bless him and enable him to be a blessing. God’s covenant with Moses on Mt Sinai is to lead us into right relationship with God and one another. And, we receive a new covenant offered to us through Jesus to recreate our life after death.
God chooses the covenant as the faithful expression of relationship, repeated over time in history and in our lives as the means of our salvation. This power of God is channeled through us, to reveal the image of God in which we are made, and to bring us into relationship with God and one another. Covenant is the means not just of salvation, but is the cornerstone of God’s creative power.
Our fledgling Faith and Leadership series, begun last year with Harry Kraemer, continues with another gathering on Friday, March 13 at 7 a.m. when Sally Blount will be our guest. Dr. Blount is the dean of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, serves on several boards and is widely recognized for her creative leadership. She is also devoted to her Christian faith.
Sally has been a strong advocate of the Emerging Leader series, within our Faith and Leadership series, which we have held in the loop for young professionals for the past program year. When offered the opportunity, she speaks candidly of the challenges of wrestling with what your ego wants to do, lured by the rewards of public opinion, versus responding to who God calls you to be.
In the multiple times I’ve heard her, she reminds us to recognize that market economies, particularly trading markets, are designed for efficient execution. One can make great profits or fail, miserably, very fast. The markets do not discriminate between the good or bad guys, or the wise or stupid, nor are the markets designed to be wise, kind or fair. At the most basic level, businesses are driven to achieve profits —that is the measure of success and survivability. They too are not conceived to be wise, kind or fair. To go beyond the basic requires courage and commitment to values that are not consistently rewarded in the daily or quarterly reports.
Sally speaks of the challenge to tame the grisly competitive spirits that can compel you to abandon ethics and values and justice. Although markets are not wise, kind or fair, we are called to make marketplaces that are wise, kind and fair. We are called to be wise, kind and fair.
Mark relates the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert with such brevity, “He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” It is one sentence compared with Matthew and Luke’s gospels that color the wilderness experience with images of Satan taunting a starving Jesus with food, challenging him to prove himself in ways that satisfy his ego, and offering him the splendors of the earth.
Mark is not so verbose; yet, Mark paints a scene of struggle: very likely the wild animals represent the same forces battling with Jesus, pushing him to the end of human endurance. Would he choose the ways of the world or remain committed to God? It is clear that Jesus is not on a pensive evening walk in the desert; he is being tested, intensely.
The temptations that Jesus met in the wilderness are also our temptations. It is usually when hard decisions of survival need to be made that we can encounter those parts of our lives where we are weakest and our fear of being vulnerable drives us to give into the beasts or worse yet, become a beast. We know all too well, in our heart lies the best of God and the potential for the worst of humankind.
Ben Campbell Johnson, retired from Columbia Seminary, is known to have taught, “God has profound respect for human freedom. God will not make us do anything or force God’s self upon our lives.” We have freedom to choose to live for our self, to dominate and destroy the other. Or, we could choose to feed the power we have to live in ways that honor God’s love for us, to be a power for good, a fierce competitor, advocating for justice and fairness.
In the forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter, we are to walk the road of self-examination called Lent.
During Lent we are to remember, God has the power to make everyone act with justice, generosity and kindness or reclaim the power to destroy all of what was wrong with humankind. But, God does not coerce any of this. God leaves it up to us.
During Lent we are to remember, the person of God known in Jesus, chose to take on human flesh, walk into the face of tyranny, and accept the worst humankind could inflict. On Maundy Thursday, we are to taste the bitterness of his betrayal and to feel the guilt of those who convicted him.
During Lent we are to prepare for the day, God revealed an empty tomb and the fierce power for us to know, the evils of the world or the evils within will not win. Human life and God’s love will not end in death.
During Lent we are called to reflect on how closely we have embraced and believe in the power of God to recreate us. We are to remember the repeated covenants God has offered through rainbows and the bread and cup, and decide if we can respond with faith and gratitude.
As we close, the ways we attempt to tame the story of God’s power reminded me of this famous passage from Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk. She writes about the way we have allowed ourselves to water down the story we tell of God and the story we tell ourselves of what we can do and be and create:
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?…It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
Let children revel in the delights of animal stories and God’s love. But, as we are mature and need to embrace the power God possesses to grant us life, to sustain us in our dark hours, and the power, beyond this world to roll back a grave’s stone.
Landy, Francis. “Noah’s Ark and Mrs. Monkey,” Biblical Interpretation. (2007): 353.
 Lose, David. “Genesis 9:8-17 Homelitical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, ed David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, 30. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008 .
 Paul Nuechterlein. “Making Violence False.” The Christian Century. Vol 132, No. 4. Feb 18, 2015: 30.
 Annie Dillard. Teaching a Stone to Talk. New York: Harper Collins, 2009.