"The Story We Needed"#87-05
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on September 29, 2019
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Genesis 5-9
"We called him Old Yeller. The name had sort of a double meaning. One part meant that his short hair was a dingy yellow, a color we called yeller in those days. The other part meant that when he opened his head, the sound he let out came closer to being a yell than a bark. I remember like yesterday how he strayed in out of nowhere to our log cabin on Birdsong Creek. He made me so mad at first that I wanted to kill him, then later, when I had to kill him, it was like having to shoot some of my own folks. That's how much I'd come to think of that big yeller dog."
Those are the opening lines from Fred Gibson's classic 1956 children's novel, Old Yeller, and I share it with you because I needed a story. I need a story that can tell of love and grief. I need a story that can say what it feels like to walk with a heavy heart and do what's got to be done. I need a story. See, that's because I have a story. It's not a fictional story. It's a true story. It's an account from the Bible, from the book of Genesis. And even if you're not much of a church person or a Bible person, you've probably heard of this story. It's the account of Noah, and the flood, and the ark.
And you probably know the basic plot line, but you may not know, or you may not remember the grief and the pain. And so I thought we needed another story to help us have ears to hear this one, and that's when I thought of Old Yeller, and you probably know that story, too. And if you know it, I don't think you have forgotten the pain and the grief in that story. I know I haven't. I can barely talk about it without choking up.
So you remember Old Yeller. He was bitten by a rabid wolf as he was defending the family, and it looks like he's going to survive the wound, but Mama knows. Mama knows what's got to be done. She knows that this disease has poisoned him, and that he may be man's best friend now, but this sickness in his blood, it's going to change him into a vicious creature, into a dangerous villain that's just as bad as the wolf. And Mama explains all this to her son, and he realizes it and he says, "It came clear to me then that Mama was right. We couldn't take the risk. But it was going to kill something inside me to do it, but I knew then that I had to shoot my big yeller dog, and once I knew I had it to do, I don't think I really felt anything. I was just numb all over like a dead man walking. I reloaded my gun and called Old Yeller back from the house."
I share this with you because I need you to feel this pain of God, this pain that is throbbing throughout the account of the flood in the book of Genesis. You might have forgotten it. You might have overlooked it. You might have never known anything about it, but it's there, and you need to hear it. And so listen, listen to these excerpts from the book of Genesis 5-9.
"In the day God created Adam, He made him in the likeness of God. Male and female, He created them, and He blessed them, and He called their name Adam." (That is, he called them humankind.) Now, Adam became the father of Seth, and Adam lived 930 years, and then he died.
"Eight generations later, in the family line of Seth, the son of Adam, there was born another son. His father called him Noah. Noah, which means comfort. His father had said, 'This one will bring us comfort from our labor and from the pain in our hands from the ground the Lord has cursed.' Now, the Lord saw how great was the evil of humankind, and how every intention of the thoughts of their heart was only evil all the time, and it grieved the Lord that He had made humankind on the earth, and it brought pain into His heart. And the Lord said, 'I will wipe away from the face of the ground humankind, whom I have created. Even the birds and the beasts, and the creeping things, because I am grieved that I have made them.' But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord. Now, Noah, he was a righteous man in his generation, a man of integrity. And Noah walked with God, and Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
"Now the earth, it was corrupt in the sight of God, it was ruined. And the earth was filled with violence, and God saw the earth, and look, it was ruined, because all flesh had ruined their way on the earth. And so God said to Noah, 'I will bring an end to all flesh on the earth because the earth is filled with violence because of them. Look, I will bring them all to ruin with the earth, and you, you make for yourself an ark of cypress wood. Make rooms inside the ark and cover it inside and out with pitch. Build it to these dimensions: 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, 45 feet high. And look, I Myself will bring a flood of waters upon the earth, and I will bring to ruin all flesh under heaven in which is the breath of life. Everything on the earth will die. But with you, I will establish My covenant promise. You, your sons, your wife, and the wives of your sons, you are to go into the ark, and with you, you are to bring along two of every creature, male and female, to keep them alive with you, and you are also to bring along every kind of food that is for eating, and you are to store it away as food for you and for them.' And Noah did all this. Noah did everything God commanded him.
"Now, in the 600th year of Noah's life, on the 17th day of the second month, all the fountains of the deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened, and the rains began to fall for 40 days and 40 nights. And on that day, on that very day, Noah and his family went into the ark. They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there is the breath of life, and the Lord shut him in. For 40 days the flood kept coming on the earth, and the waters increased and lifted up the ark above the earth, and the waters covered the mountains to a depth of 20 feet. Everything that moves on the earth died: the birds and the beasts, the animals, and the things that swarm on the earth, and all humankind. The only one left was Noah and those who were with him in the ark.
"The floods remained on the earth for 150 days, but the Lord remembered Noah and the beasts and the animals that were with him in the ark, and the Lord caused the wind, spirit, to pass over the earth, and the waters receded. The fountains of the deep were closed in the windows of the heavens were closed, and the rains from the heavens were restrained, and little by little, over several months, the waters receded from the earth. And the Lord said to Noah, 'Come out of the ark.'
"So Noah came out with his family and with everything that moves on the earth. The birds and the beasts and the creeping things, they all came out by families from the ark. And Noah, he built an altar to the Lord, and he offered up burnt offerings to the Lord, and the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, and He said, the Lord said in His heart, 'I will not curse the ground again on account of humankind because the intention of the thoughts of their heart is evil from childhood, and neither will I cut off all flesh as I have done. Still, all the days of the earth, sea time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, these shall not cease.'
"Then the Lord said to Noah, 'Look, I now establish My covenant promise with you and with your sons and with your seed after you. Never again will the waters become a flood to cut off all flesh. Never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth, and this will be the sign of My covenant promise with you and every living creature that is with you for all generations. I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and this will be the sign of the covenant promise between Me and the earth. Whenever the rainbow is seen in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant that I make with every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.'"
That's the Word of the Lord, from Genesis.
The Bible is a strange and wonderful book. You might have this picture of God in your mind, but I guarantee you that the Bible will mess with it. You might think that God is accepting, look-the-other-way, permissive love. That's not the God of the Bible. You might think that God is a cold and heartless judge. That's not the God of the Bible. You might think that God, because He's all- powerful and all-knowing, doesn't really know what it's like to feel pain and grief and loss, but that's not the God of the Bible. You heard it in the account of Noah, and it may be something of what you felt for Old Yeller.
See, the creation that God has made—the creation that God loves, the creation that God seven times over declared was good—it's sick and it's not going to get better, at least not in the natural order of things. And so God, with a heart full of pain, He does what's got to be done. Old Yeller says a lot about how we understand the flood, but it doesn't say everything. In the first place, we're not talking about a dog, right? I love my dogs as much as the next guy, but you cannot compare a mercy killing of a dog to what God did in the flood, because we're talking about human beings here. We're talking about men and women and children, all made in the image of God, all infinitely loved by God. It's not the same as euthanizing a dog.
The book of Genesis has made it clear to us that human beings, that we are more valuable in the sight of God, and more guilty. See, in the story of Old Yeller, the dog bears no guilt. He's the hero. He's the victim. He's innocent. But that's not how it goes in Genesis. Adam and Eve were in some ways poisoned by the lies of the serpent, but they're not innocent. They and their kind, humankind, they're not merely victims. They're villains. We are the villains of this story. So we need a different story, right? Old Yeller's not going to do it. So I need a story, you need a story that can do justice to this part. This truth that death has come to Adam and Eve, death came to everyone who was washed away in the flood. Death is coming for you, and death is coming for me—not because you're an innocent victim; death is coming because you're a villain, I'm a villain, and God's doing what's got to be done. So we need a story that can do justice to that part.
And that is when I thought of the pain in the heart of Professor Dumbledore. In a way, he helped create the villain, and it grieved him, and now he has to destroy him. Okay, if you grew up listening to Old Yeller, you might not be familiar with JK Rowling's Harry Potter series. The arch villain in this book is a dark wizard who goes by the name of ... Oh, wait a minute. We're not supposed to say his name, right? That's how it works in the book, that people are so afraid of him, he's incited so much fear. He has perpetrated so much violence that they won't even say his name. He is "he who must not be named."
But Professor Dumbledore is different. He calls him Tom, because that's his name. He's not a nameless demon to Dumbledore. He's Tom. He's the kid that Dumbledore taught when he was in school. And more than that, he's the kid that Dumbledore visited in the orphanage and brought him into school, and cared for him and loved him. And Professor Dumbledore helped make Tom who he would become, but Tom ruined his soul. Tom filled the world with violence, and now with a heavy heart, Dumbledore has to destroy him. Maybe that's the story that we need.
No, it's not enough. See, even in that story, the hero and the villain are separate. The hero fights the villain, and the villain is beyond redemption, but that's not how it is with the account of the flood. The flood cuts a deep channel that runs through the whole biblical narrative. It's the story in which the hero, God, becomes one with the villains to redeem them. You heard it in God's covenant promise after the flood. God knows that all flesh is still corrupt. Noah and his sons, and the humanity that they represent, they're still bent on evil, and still God makes His promise to this flesh. God wants to dwell among that poisoned flesh. God wants His Spirit to give life to that creation forever. So we need a story that can do justice to that. We need a ship that can sail that channel. We need a story where the hero becomes one with the villain to destroy the villains so he can redeem the villain. Where on earth will we find a story like that?
In one of the accounts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, we hear Jesus say, "You've heard it said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven." Love enemies? Love and pray for the villain? Why? Because, says Jesus, that's how God, His Father, loves. God shows His love in this. While we were yet enemies, while we were yet sinners, while we were still villains, God did what had to be done, and it was going to kill something inside of Him to do it. Jesus, the Son of God, became one of us to die our death, to destroy us as enemies, and redeem us as sons, His daughters. So you and I, we've ruined ourselves. Let's be honest. There's no changing that not in the natural order of things, so God had to finish the job, because He doesn't want us to remain forever as His enemies, so He became one of us and Jesus swallowed up the flood that is death and judgment. Jesus alone has passed through this flood, and in Him is life, and on the other side, a new creation.
You and I, we corrupted ourselves beyond repair. And yet even in your most villainous moment, Jesus loves you with an everlasting love. So turn to Him, go to Him, be baptized into the ark that is His body, and that's where you'll find it. That's where I find it. It's the story we needed.
Will you pray with me? Almighty God, in Your strict judgment, You condemned the unbelieving world through the flood. Yet in Your mercy, You preserved believing Noah and his family, eight in all. We pray that you would see all the baptized in Your mercy, and bless us with true faith by the Holy Spirit, that through this saving flood all sin in us, which has been inherited from Adam, and which we ourselves have committed since, would be drowned and die. Keep us safe in the ark of the Christian church, separated from all who remain as Your enemies, serving You at all times in hope so that with all who trust in Your promise, we would land in the new creation through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
Reflections for September 29, 2019
Title: The Story We Needed
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. Our new podcast "Speaking of Jesus" captures unscripted conversation based on the same text as today's message. Here's Dr. Michael Zeigler to tell us more.
Mike Zeigler: Thanks, Mark. Joining me in the studio today is Mrs. Jessica Bordeleau. Jessica is a freelance author, a speaker, and media producer. She has a master's degree in theology from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, and has served within the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod in a variety of ways. She's also the cohost with me on a new program that we mentioned last week, a conversation-based podcast that's called "Speaking of Jesus." So, Jessica, welcome to the studio.
Jessica Bordeleau: Thanks. I'm glad to be here.
Mike Zeigler: All right. Jessica, you've served in a variety of roles within our church body. What has brought you the most joy in that?
Jessica Bordeleau: I love being there when people recognize God working in their lives and coming to a deeper understanding of His love for them, what He's done for them in Jesus. So just getting to be there when that happens. And I've gotten to see that as a Bible study leader, as a program director/mentor to young adults who are doing children's ministry at Lutheran camps, as a confirmation teacher, as the coordinator of Lutheran Youth Fellowship, which is a teen leadership ministry of the LCMS where we equip teens to be servant leaders. And you see that a-ha moment in their eyes when they've come to a greater understanding of something about their faith, and they're motivated to love others because of it. Anytime I can be a part of a conversation or a shared activity that leads people to a deeper understanding of who we are in Christ, that is where it's at for me, brings me a lot of joy.
Mike Zeigler: I'd say that's the aim of what this new conversation-based podcast is that I mentioned, "Speaking of Jesus." So, how did you get interested in that?
Jessica Bordeleau: Well, you told me about it.
Mike Zeigler: I did.
Jessica Bordeleau: You had the idea to start a podcast that would give space for conversation, a dialog about faith. And I was like, "Yes, that's what I love to do." And I have a background in media production and learning tools that enable people to relate to God's Word. I was totally onboard, and I'm very thankful and excited to be a part of it.
Mike Zeigler: If someone wanted to listen to this podcast, "Speaking of Jesus," what should they expect?
Jessica Bordeleau: They should expect to hear actual conversations. Real people are actually talking around a round table, and it's unscripted. Sometimes it goes in surprising ways, and we find out insights that we weren't expecting, because it's really "live." But it's a facilitated discussion about Scripture. And then you and I look at that conversation from a big picture perspective, and then we share what we learned from it. It's really thought provoking, and it's just fun.
Mike Zeigler: I've really enjoyed it because it's given me, as a Speaker of The Lutheran Hour, a small congregation, so to speak, to interact with as I speak. The people participating in this conversation have sat and listened to The Lutheran Hour message as it's recorded, and then we sit down and we're not really talking about the sermon so much, but we're talking about what the sermon was about and the text of the sermon. So that's been enjoyable for me, to see how people react to the Scriptures in different ways and bring so many new insights to the topic for me as a preacher. So, Jessica, where could people find this podcast?
Jessica Bordeleau: Well, you can just go to the website, jesuspodcast.org, or really anywhere that you normally listen to podcasts. You can just search "Speaking of Jesus," and it will come up, and you can find it that way, too. Otherwise, just go to the website, jesuspodcast.org.
Mike Zeigler: If you don't want to deal with a new website, there are links to thelutheranhour.org website, and lhm.org. There's many ways that you can find it. Put it in Google and search. But you're right, jesuspodcast.org is the official website. And if you wanted to share this with friends—share this with somebody who maybe doesn't want to listen to a sermon, but they'll listen to a conversation—it might be a great way to bring Jesus into the conversation with them, and so you could go to jesuspodcast.org, share that, e-mail your friends, call them up, and have a conversation.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Lord God, to Thee We Give All Praise" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)