A Time to Cleanse

A Time to Cleanse

The Ninth Sunday After Trinity

Genesis 6-9


A Time to Cleanse

As “No Country for Old Men” opens, a welder and Vietnam veteran named Llewelyn Moss is hunting pronghorns in the wilderness that is West Texas.  He comes across a scene of carnage, bodies strewn about like rag dolls . . . except that rag dolls don’t shed blood.

One of the vehicles on the scene contains a sizable stash of heroin and we’re left in no doubt as to what went down.  A drug deal went wrong and everyone died in the shootout – well, almost everyone.

Llewelyn follows a trail of blood and tracks down the one survivor, who by this time is a survivor no more.  Llewelyn relieves the corpse of a satchel holding $2 million in cash, takes it home and hides it under his trailer.

Some of the sinister figures who remain in the shadows hire a professional to recover their loot.  The story then turns on this man’s pursuit of Llewelyn.  His name is Anton Chigurh.  All the while, the local sheriff, Ed Tom Bell, chases both of them.  Bell is an old man, drawing near the end of his career.

Along the trail, Chigurh racks up a body count that would turn Rambo green with envy.  Beyond the undistilled evil that drives him, Chigurh is set apart from the ordinary run of hit men by two distinctives.  His weapon of choice is a captive bolt pistol, intended for killing cattle at the slaughterhouse with a bolt fired into their brains.

His other queer predilection involves a coin.  He often kills just for sport, first offering the victim the chance to call a coin flip.  If he calls it correctly, he lives; if not, he gets a bolt in the brain.

Along the way, various people try to cajole the killer into mercy, begging him to listen to reason.  Relentless, he demands a decision, heads or tails, and each one chooses.  Some live; some die.  You cannot bargain with evil.

In the end, Chigurh hunts down Llewelyn’s wife.  He has killed Llewelyn by this time and he has no reason beyond unbridled malice to harm Carla Jean.  Still, he flips his coin . . . but Carla Jean refuses to make a call.

Unlike so many others, she won’t play his game.  She won’t accept that terror and death are random acts beyond the control of human agents.  The bumper sticker might read: “Coins don’t kill people.  People kill people.”

We don’t see what happens, but as he leaves the room Chigurh checks the soles of his boots, presumably for blood.  Carla Jean’s brave decision not to be drawn into his evil web didn’t save her.

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell can make no sense of it all. The son of the previous sheriff, he is a lawman’s lawman, dedicated to the ideal of maintaining peace and order on his patch.  He can recall a day when the sheriff didn’t bother carrying a gun most of the time, so deep was the citizens’ respect for the law.

The wayward wind has blown those days away with the tumbleweeds.  Evil beyond comprehension stalks those dusty West Texas plains.  Can we confront what we cannot understand?  Even if we can cut off its head, can we ever dig out its roots?  This is no country for old men.

Ed Tom retires, only to discover his wife doesn’t want him underfoot.  He has only his dreams.  In one of them, he and his father are riding through a mountain pass at night.  His father, carrying glowing embers in a horn, rides on ahead and disappears into the darkness.

The son takes solace in the thought that when he passes over his father will be waiting for him, tending a warming fire.  If there is comfort; if there is order; if there is peace, we will find it only in the next life, never in this one.

We come now in Genesis to the story of the great flood.  God has created a world that is “very good” and Adam and Eve have de-created by their sin.  God has re-created, after Cain slew Abel, by giving Eve another son, Seth, to carry on the line of the Seed of the woman who will be the Savior of the world.

But evil has grown wings and taken flight again.  God will tolerate it no more.  He will cleanse His creation by a flood.

We will not be surprised to learn that ancient cultures far beyond Israel told and retold sagas of a great flood.  Their ancestors knew of it as well.

The Bible gives us a compressed account but more than likely thousands of years passed between the time of Adam and Eve and that of the flood.  Mankind had enough time to reproduce, cultivate cultures, develop them, destroy them with their sins and watch them decay.

Noah lived in Mesopotamia, that fertile territory between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where civilization began.  Many cities dotted that broad plain and archaeology tells us it endured many massive floods.

Apart from the Bible, the most celebrated account of one universal flood comes to us in the Gilgamesh Epic.  The hero, Gilgamesh, a great warrior, goes off in search of immortality.  He comes to Ut-napishtim, a being both human and divine, and the only one such in the world.  His name means “he has found life.”

Gilgamesh interviews him and learns that the Mesopotamian god Ea warned him, long, long ago, that the other gods planned to be done with mankind, whom they regarded as a noisy nuisance.  They would send a great flood to annihilate them.

With Ea’s help, he built a huge boat and saved his family as well as animals from every species.  His reward for this heroic effort was immortality.

We have other versions, all from the same region.  They have many elements in common. In each, the gods set loose the flood waters to destroy mankind and find rest and peace, a hero constructs a boat to save a remnant to begin anew and the gods later repent.  They need humans to do their bidding as their slaves.

Some of these narratives bear even more similarities to the Genesis account.  In one, as the waters subside the great god sends a dove and a raven to seek dry land.

These other stories, taken as a whole, show a remarkable resemblance to the Bible’s in several obvious places.  They’re also different in a number of ways, not so much in terms of what happened but in the interpretation of the events.

The Genesis account locates the reason for the flood not in the whimsy of fickle, irritable gods but in mankind’s wickedness.  We’ll return to this matter.

The salvation element is another point of departure.  In the other versions, one god betrays the plan of the divine council and rescues the small group that starts over.  Yahweh, on the other hand, saves Noah and his family, out of His own goodness, Noah’s righteousness and for the purpose of re-establishing the line of the Seed of the woman and carrying out His redemption of the chosen race.

Yahweh has no need of human slaves to fetch His supper and sweep the celestial floors.  His perfect plan included salvation of a corrupted mankind before the world began.

We must not fail to notice one more commonality between the Genesis story and the others. Each one sees the great deluge as a massive historical marker, a time in which one era with its human race ends and a new one begins.

When the ancients looked heavenward and saw rain descending, they concluded that a vast ocean existed way up there and that rain came down when the windows of the sky were opened.

Their creation story told the Israelites that Yahweh had separated those “waters above” from the “waters below.”  The ocean deeps harbored massive and terrible chaos.  Yahweh protected them by holding the waters above in place.

Yahweh tells Job:

“Or who shut in the sea with doors, when it burst forth and issued from the womb; when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band; when I fixed My limit for it, and set bars and doors; when I said, `This far you may come, but no farther, and here your proud waves must stop!’” (Job 38:8-11).

But on the day the flood began, “all the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened” (Genesis 7:11).

Yahweh had unleashed chaos upon His world.  This is more than divine judgment; it is de-creation, God’s inevitable response to mankind’s descent into depravity.  God reverses creation.  Once again, the world is “formless and void.”

And make no mistake, God has done it.  Other peoples feared spontaneous, mysterious eruptions in the great deeps and cataclysmic rainfall to inundate them.  Yahweh tells His own that nature serves Him, who created all that is, who has no rivals in a pantheon, who reigns on high without peer or rival.

But He always rescues a remnant.  Nor is this the only time He will save them from a grave of water.  He plucks baby Moses from his basket in the Nile, uses him to lead Israel through the stacked waters of the Red Sea and releases them into the Promised Land by stopping the flow of the Jordan as they cross.

Tossed by a tumult on the Sea of Galilee that terrifies His fisherman friends, Yahweh the Son will calm the waters.  “Who can this be,” they ask, “that even the winds and the sea obey Him?” (Matthew 8:27).

Who but God can tame so fearsome a force . . . and even transform it into an agent of salvation?  St. Peter likens the rescue of Noah and the seven others from the floodwaters to our baptism into Christ’s resurrection.

When our Lord has completed His work of renewing all things, chaos and terror will be no more.  St. John speaks to us from his revelation:

“Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea” (Revelation 21:1).

Immersion in water can be a horrific thing, but water has other, more benevolent, uses as well.  For one, it cleanses.  When God baptized His creation in the great flood He washed away the filthy residue of sin mankind had left upon it.

Beginning with Noah, He re-created.  And when the waters receded He commanded Noah and his party:

“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.  And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be on every beast of the earth, on every bird of the air, on all that move on the earth, and on all the fish of the sea. They are given into your hand” (Genesis 9:1-2).

Noah received much the same marching orders as Adam had: Fill the creation with worshipers of God and take dominion over it, ruling as God’s sub-regent.

And as He had with Adam, Yahweh makes a covenant with Noah, the Adam of the re-creation, and with all the world.  And He gives mankind a sign of His covenant oath, the rainbow.  Each time we see one we remember our Lord’s covenant with us, and His promise never again to judge His world by a flood.

Now, if you take away nothing else this morning, recall the different interpretations of the universal flood story.  Elsewhere, a celestial council of gods decides in a fit of pique to eradicate the tiresome creatures who cause them so much bother.

A hero emerges through intrigue and saves a remnant to start over, now an agreeable turn of events for the gods who have repented of wiping out their race of slaves.

In the Bible, the one God deliberately destroys what He has made to remove the stain of sin from it.  In His mercy, He saves a righteous soul and his family and uses them to build a new race in a re-created world according to His plan of redemption.

Remember this because your culture tells you it cannot be true.  In a post-Christian America that has no God, good must reside in man.  He’s a fundamentally decent sort who has taken charge of his environment and is making steady progress toward its perfection through his wits and his wisdom.

His primary means of completing this project are education and legislation (although we might now want to include executive orders as well).  Our public schools will get everyone on the same page and our government will enforce order, justice and peace.

One difficulty with this approach is that the Islamic State and some others haven’t received the memo – and they certainly haven’t signed off on it.  They remain convinced – lethally so – that their belief system is superior to that of the West and that their god has called them to establish a worldwide caliphate in his name.

Our nation is paralyzed in the face of this menace because our leaders have bestowed the mantle of human goodness on everyone . . . but, well, on some more than others.  On this view, the injustice and inequality still undeniably present in our nation are the legacy of a disgraced aristocracy of white, male, Protestant capitalists of European descent.

Expanding diversity will enable those “on the right side of history” – the new cognoscenti – to inculcate their values in our children and to manipulate the levers of government in their righteous crusade to level the society into one great, gray mass.

This vision requires a degree of double-think . . .but nothing beyond our capabilities.  Women passionate for the advancement of women celebrate Muslim men committed to the oppression of women – and worse.

Stricter gun control will effect dramatic reduction in crimes of violence and curtail the terrorist threat – no matter that France, which has some of the most stringent gun laws on the planet, has become a target-rich environment for terrorists.

Besides, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

Our nation is paralyzed in the face of this menace because our thinkers refuse to name evil for what it is.  Doing so would require us to acknowledge that our new value system – the old Bible-based one now discredited – is better than others.

Saying so would brand us as anti-diversity and our leaders have determined that, even among savages, diversity is redemptive.  To belong to a class other than WASP males is to deserve the fruits of a new society of justice and equality.

Our nation is paralyzed in the face of this menace – and not this one alone — because, like Chigurh’s victims, our wise ones believe they can bargain with evil.  If they can only win the trust and even affection of those who want to destroy us, those will set aside their plans for body bombs and nuclear bombs and join hands with us.

Our nation is paralyzed in the face of this menace because we can no longer speak of sin.  If there is no God there is no ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, good and bad, true and untrue.  Everyone’s beliefs must carry equal weight.

Who are you to say this is right and that is wrong?

Well I’m no one.  But God is.

“Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.  And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.

“So the LORD said, ‘I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them’” (Genesis 6:5-7).

Beloved, Noah was hammering on that ark for many a year before it began to rise.  We may not doubt that many laughed him to scorn.  It may be so for us as well.  Keep hammerin.’  Amen.

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Posted on: July 24, 2016Ed Fowler