The First Days of New Earth (Genesis 8:5-22)

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters

That is how Moses began the book of Genesis: with the earth lying formless and empty, drowned under the crushing weight of the cosmic ocean.

Then Moses went on to describe how, through a highly structured seven day process, God brought the earth up into the light, and turned it into a holy temple, and filled that temple with living things that were designed to worship him. He had provided everything that is needed for proper worship: a holy space, holy animals, and a holy priesthood that he named “Mankind”.

That was Chapter 1 of Genesis. But here, in Chapter 8, we find that the whole process has been almost completely reversed. The holy priesthood from Chapter 1 that had been designed to lead the rest of creation into worship…refused. Instead, they turned to systematically defiling the holy temple of the earth, and defiling their fellow worshipers — human and animal. So God basically destroyed the temple he had built for them by letting the cosmic ocean come pouring back in.

And so as we pick up the threads of Noah’s story, we find that the earth is — once again — lying formless and empty, drowned under the crushing weight of the cosmic ocean. The only worshipers left alive are these few humans and animals floating in a wooden box, a temporary temple.

But as we saw in the closing verses of last week, God has already begun to move to redeem his creation. Just as in the beginning, he has been hovering over the surface of the waters. Just as in the beginning, he sent his Spirit out in the form of a strong wind, and the waters have already begun to recede. The ark has already bumped up against one of the mountains on the edge of the earth — one of the mountains that holds up the sky — and as the water goes down and down it has finally come to rest in the foothills.

And then, we are told, [5] The waters continued to recede until the tenth month, and on the first day of the tenth month the tops of the mountains became visible. [6] After forty days Noah opened a window he had made in the ark [7] and sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. [8] Then he sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. [9] But the dove could find nowhere to perch because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark. [10] He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. [11] When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth. [12] He waited seven more days and sent the dove out again, but this time it did not return to him.

And most of us, when we read this, think, “Oh, okay: the water is going down, and Noah is making sure it’s safe before he leaves the ark.” And that is true, that is what is going on…

But that is not actually what is going on!

See, Moses is actually repeating the creation story. It is not super obvious to us because we don’t read Hebrew, and in Hebrew the parallels are very strong. But even in English, if we pay close attention, we can see that Moses has been using the same distinct words and phrases and elements he used way back in Chapter 1. We’ve got wind moving strongly over the surface of the deep, we’ve got the restoration of the sky to keep out the cosmic ocean, we’ve got the reappearance of dry ground, we’ve got the refilling of the skies with birds, and the return of vegetation.

And of course we have to notice the seven day cycle, repeated several times.

So…what is actually going on?

Moses wants his readers to understand that God is reconsecrating the earth: he is turning the earth back into a holy temple.

And even the details of what goes on with these birds is designed to help us understand that: see, the raven is an unclean animal, it survives by eating dead things. But the dove is a clean animal, a holy animal, often used in sacrifices.

So when Noah sends the raven out and it does not come back, that is evidence that the world outside is still unclean, full of dead things — plenty for the raven to eat but not a good place for people.

Seven days after releasing the raven, Noah sends the dove out for the first time — but it comes right back. So the world is still unclean, unfit for holy animals or holy people.

He waits another seven days, sends the dove out again, and it comes back — but this time it comes back with vegetation: an olive leaf, which is a holy plant, often used in sacrifices. So things are getting better out there! — just not quite good enough.

So Noah waits another seven days, sends the dove out — and it does not come back. And that is the sign Noah has been waiting for: evidence that the consecration process is complete.

The earth is now a fit place for God’s holy people to live.

So [13] by the first day of the first month of Noah’s six hundred and first year, the water had dried up from the earth. Noah then removed the covering from the ark and saw that the surface of the ground was dry. [14] By the twenty-seventh day of the second month the earth was completely dry.

To release the birds, Noah had just opened a very small window in the roof. It was big enough for his arm perhaps, but not big enough for him to stick his head completely out and see the ground for himself. He was being cautious, because he really had no idea what dangers there might be outside.

But once he got confirmation from the dove that the land was clear, he removed the covering from the ark. And this phrase is very interesting, because the word Moses uses for “covering” is a word he only uses to describe the water-proof “covering” over the tabernacle. So here again he is drawing very distinct parallels between the tabernacle of Israel and the ark of Noah. The tabernacle’s cloth structure needs to be protected from rain, so it has this “covering” over it. But the ark will never need to be protected from rain ever again, so Noah gets rid of the covering. He surveys the land and sees that the water is gone — but still, almost two months pass before the mud has dried enough to become solid earth.

And so, exactly 365 days after Noah entered the ark, God said to Noah, [16] “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. [17] Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it.”

[18] So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. [19] All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds—everything that moves on land—came out of the ark, one kind after another.

One year ago, when Noah boarded the ark, he had left a world dominated by the monstrous appetites of the god-kings. The civilization built by the sons of Cain had taken over the entire world. It looked unstoppable!

But here, only one year later, Noah sets foot upon a world washed clean of tyranny, washed clean of violence, washed clean of mankind’s deliberately godless chaos.

And here again Moses uses very clear creation language. He re-uses all these same words and themes from Chapter 1: man and wife, living creatures, birds, animals, creatures that move along the ground, multiply, be fruitful, increase in number. And the point Moses is trying to make is just as clear as his language: just as in the beginning, God is once again filling the restored temple of the earth with living things that are designed to worship him. Once again he has provided everything that is needed for proper worship: a holy space, holy animals, and a high priest named Noah.

So, since Noah is the new high priest of this newly renovated temple called the earth, what do you think he is going to do next?

[20] Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it.

Noah understands what he is called to do: as the new high priest over the earth, it is his job to finish the consecration process that began more than a year ago with the ark.

Do you remember how, during the days leading up to the flood, God took seven days to gather together all the animals and people he wanted in the ark? And we discovered at that time that the seven days meant that God was actually turning the ark into a holy space, a holy temple, where he could ride out the flood along with Noah and his family.

Well, over the course of this last year, the earth has been turned back into a holy space as well. It has been “baptized” — washed clean of mankind’s violence — declared holy and good. But even though it is “good” again, it is still an empty wilderness. The conditions that Moses is describing right here are almost exactly like the conditions he wrote about back in Chapter 2: the earth is “good”, but it is disorganized. And it is the job of the high priest and his family to bring that wilderness into proper order. Adam and Eve were supposed to begin from the holy garden of Eden and multiply and fill the earth with God’s order. Noah and his family are supposed to begin from their holy ark of salvation, and multiply, and fill the earth with God’s order.

One way to think about it is this: Noah’s ark was actually designed by God to act as a sort of seed of holiness for the new world. Like a seed, it contained all the DNA that would be needed to bring new life and order to the soil of the new world. For a year the seed was carried on the currents of chaos, like a cocoanut bobbing in the ocean. Now that it has washed up on shore, God has broken it open, and the DNA is spilling out into the dead soil to bring it back to life and true holiness.

So the earth, as a temple, has been cleaned out and renovated. All the graffiti has been washed off the walls, all the filth has been swept out and the floor has been scrubbed, all the furniture has been replaced, all the wiring fixed — the earth is in “move-in condition”.

But it still needs to be officially dedicated. So that is what Noah does: he builds an altar and performs a sacrifice, and officially dedicates the renovated earth to God. His sacrifice here is really the end of a year-long consecration process which began with the ark being dedicated to God, and ends with the whole earth being dedicated to God.

Noah is a good king, and a good high priest. Unlike the ultra-violent kings of Cain’s civilization, who declared themselves to be God and tried to take over the earth for themselves, Noah officially gives the earth back to God.

And this moment is really the beautiful ending to a story that Moses began way back in Chapter 4: the Story of the Three Brothers — Cain, Abel, and Seth.

The story began with an act of true worship: Abel sacrificing the best of his flocks to God. But we know how it went after that: the older brother Cain murdered Abel in a fit of jealousy, because God had rejected his own false worship. And then, despite God’s mercy upon him, Cain refused to repent. Instead, he doubled down: left God’s presence and started a civilization dedicated to false worship, the worship of the self.

Meanwhile, the youngest brother Seth began a counter-civilization dedicated to true worship. The two civilizations resisted each other for many generations, but eventually Cain’s system of false worship corrupted Seth’s system of true worship, and Seth’s civilization was swallowed up.

And then Cain’s civilization set about conquering the world. They refused to lead the earth into worship of the true God; instead they used earth’s resources to worship themselves. They refused to bring God’s rule into the world; instead they ruled the world through violence and chaos. So in the end God took away the resources they were abusing and gave them exactly what they wanted: chaos.

But now the last faithful descendant of the youngest brother, Seth, is here saying, “Lord, I know you have called us to bring this earth into proper order, but we can’t do it without you! Therefore I’m giving it all back.”

So the Story of the Three Brothers began with true worship, and here it ends with a return to true worship.

And God is very satisfied with this ending. [21] The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.

Basically, God is saying that he is not going to give mankind what they want anymore. The flood was a long, painful, devastating object lesson for mankind, to show us that — if God leaves us to worship ourselves without restraint! — we will eventually destroy everything, including ourselves.

That lesson is now complete. It does not need to be repeated. If we, as a human race, refuse to look back and learn from it, that’s our own failure to learn, not the teacher’s failure to teach.

God is moving on to the next lesson, which is this: he is not going to leave us alone to worship ourselves anymore. Mankind was created to bring God’s order and true worship to the earth, and God has just promised that he will not leave until the job is done.

And to prove that he is not quitting on us, God also makes this promise: [22] “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.”

God is promising to provide an underlying structure of order, a foundation for mankind to build upon. Just like mankind before the flood, mankind after the flood has to make a decision, generation by generation: are we going to use and abuse this structure to bring glory to ourselves, or are we going to see it for the gift that it is, and give glory to the one who created it and sustains it?

So, in summary: the flood is finished. God’s judgement is spent. The temple of the earth has been renovated, restored, officially dedicated and reconsecrated. God’s creation is once again holy and “very good”. But: it is — once again — empty of life and worship. The general structure is in place, but there is still a lot of work to be done, and there will be many chances for mankind to screw up again — and Noah knows it. That is why he just handed it all back to God! And that is why God has just promised that, no matter how bad it gets in the future, he is going to make sure the work is completed properly in the end.

Now, we come to the point we come to every week: the point of asking, “What does it mean? How is this ancient story supposed to change our lives?”

And, as always, one of the best ways to figure that out is to ask the question, “How was this supposed to change the lives of Moses’ people, the ancient people of Israel?”

Well, the ancient people of Israel would have noticed some parallels between Noah’s situation and their own. Just like Noah, they have been saved from a powerful civilization, a civilization dedicated to slavery and tyranny and false worship: the land of Egypt. Just like the monstrous god-kings of Noah’s time, they have seen the god-king of Egypt swallowed up by the floodwaters of God’s judgement. Just like Noah inside the ark, they have passed through an extended time of testing, carried safely through the chaos of the wilderness “inside” the tabernacle.

And now, finally, God has told them it is time for their tabernacle, their “ark” — God’s “seed” of holiness — to be planted in the soil of the promised land. Soon God is going to give them the signal, the waters of the Jordan River will part, and Joshua is going to lead them through. The tabernacle will be carried up onto the shore of a new land where it will be planted, where it will break open and put down roots and begin to grow to fill the land — scattering the twelve tribes of God’s people to the north, the south, the east, the west, bringing the dead soil back to new life and true worship.

And so Moses wants the people to know that their God is with them. Because the years to come are going to be long years. There is a lot of work to do. And there will be many opportunities for the people to screw up! When that happens, Moses wants his people to look back and remember this moment in history. When they fail, Moses does not want them to give up in despair, he wants them to turn back, again, to the underlying structure their covenant-keeping God has provided for them.

Every sunrise is meant to remind them of the morning sacrifice performed every day by the priests; every sunset is meant to remind them of the evening sacrifice — and those sacrifices are meant to remind them that God has provided a system of forgiveness and true worship for his people.

Every seedtime, every harvest, is meant to remind them of the cycle of sacred feasts that happen every year: the Passover, the Feast of First-fruits, the Feast of Pentecost, the Festival of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Tabernacles — and those feasts are meant to remind them that, ultimately, the work of sustaining and renewing the world is God’s work alone.

Noah understood very clearly that bringing true order and worship to the earth is way too big of a job for mankind. So he rededicated the earth to God, saying, “Here, this belongs to you anyway. So do what needs to be done!” And God responded by saying, “I will!”

In the same way, Moses understands that bringing order and true worship into the promised land is too big of a job for the nation of Israel. So he is trying to tell the people, “Hey, remember that the land belongs to God anyway. So keep giving it back to him! Do not get wrapped up in thinking you can do it yourself!”

Well, friends, if you know the history of the Old Testament, you know that the people of Israel failed to take Moses’ advice. They began to think of the land as their land, to be run their way, they began to use the land’s resources to bring glory to themselves. Their history is a long, painful, devastating object lesson for the rest of us, to show us that — even when God lives in the very midst of his people! — we will still turn aside to false worship, to the belief that we can do it ourselves.

Sooo…what is the application for us, then? Should we just give up on this task of bringing true order and worship to the earth, since we are going to fail anyway?

No. That is not the ultimate message Moses is sending God’s people. He did predict that his people would fail to bring the land into true order and worship — but he did not stop there, he told them what to do after they had failed: he told them to turn and return, and remember that renewing the world is God’s work alone!

God alone has the power to shape chaos into order. God alone has the wisdom to rebuild the foundations of reality in such a way that mercy and justice can co-exist without destroying one another. And the structure of nature itself tells us this. Seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night — these things are meant to remind us that ultimately God alone can bring order out of chaos, life out of death.

And so Moses’ advice for us is the same as for ancient Israel: remember that this earth belongs to God anyway. Keep giving it back to him. All of our ambitions, all of our great plans for the future, all the good we think we are going to do with our lives: keep giving those back to the one who made us.

Now, at this point, someone is going to say, “Oh, so…what? Are we just supposed to be completely passive, then? God does the work, so we just do nothing? We just join together in worship here and let the world outside fall apart, trusting that God will do what he needs to do with it?”

Mmmmm…no. Noah did give the ownership of the earth back to God. But God did give the responsibility of caring for it right back to mankind. It is God who sustains and renews the earth; but it is Noah and his family and the animals with him who were commanded to multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it.

We are called to work. We are called to do something — and Moses is going to talk a lot more about that next week.

But, friends, generally speaking, our human problem is not passivity. Our problem is not that we do too little, it’s that we do too much! — and even when we manage to do just enough…we end up doing the wrong thing anyway.

Our problem, as a human race, is not lack of ambition, it is selfish ambition.

If we had been on the ark, we would have pressured Noah to open the cover of the ark as soon as the dove came back with an olive leaf. We would have been saying, “Come on la! Safe a’eady!” But Noah was not concerned about safety, he was concerned about holiness. And then, when Noah finally opened the cover, we would have looked over the side of the ark and pressured Noah to open the door: “Come on la! Got dry ground a’eady!” We would not have waited for two more months! But Noah was not interested in doing things his way: he waited for the Word of God to speak and release him.

Ambition is a problem for us, friends. And that is why Moses spends most of this chapter emphasizing the passive obedience of Noah, before turning to the active obedience of Noah. Noah spent one full year sitting and waiting in a sort of living death. For ten months he was sitting in the dark, which is hard enough. But for the last two months he was sitting in the light, with the cover off, which — in a way — is even harder! Can you imagine going up every day to the top deck and looking over the side, and — yep! — the ground is still dry, just like it was yesterday, why isn’t God giving me permission to leave?

Friends, as God’s people, we are called to be as patient and as passive as Noah, waiting for the Word of the Lord to release him from that living death in the ark. We have all gone through times of testing just like Noah’s, times of suffering or failure. We don’t like pain and discomfort, we would rather escape than endure. And because of this, we are often looking for signs that God has released us so we can justify our own desires to escape. We look over the side of the ark, we see that the flood is gone and the earth is dry, and we decide to jump overboard and get to work. And when our brothers and sisters question our decision, we say things like, “Well, I have a peace in my heart about this.” Then we jump — and suddenly find ourselves in thick mud up to our armpits. And then we have to ask our friends back on the ark for a rope or something so they can pull us back up out of the mess we made for ourselves, and they have to bite their tongues to keep from saying, “We told you to wait on the Lord!”

We are called to be as patient and as passive as Noah.

But when God does open the door, and invites us to leave our situation…then we are called to be as active and aggressive as Noah. And what is the first thing Noah did when he was released? He handed right back over to God the earth that God had just given back to him. Noah took all his ambitions and laid them on the altar. He refused to take; he insisted on giving. But this, too, is really hard for us! We all struggle with feelings of inadequacy, we don’t want to look like losers. And because of this, at the root of most of our ambitions is the desire to look good. All too often, we are like people who are released from the ark — released from whatever time of testing our Father has put us through — we find ourselves in open country with a new lease on life, with all the resources we need to begin again…and then we look around and think, “But if I sacrifice some of these resources and give them back to God…then I’ll have less for myself! And what if my neighbor does not make the same sacrifices I do? Then he will have more resources than I do, and he will look more successful and I’ll look more like a loser…and surely God doesn’t want me to look like a loser!”

That is how it works, isn’t it? That is how it works for me, anyway. That is one of the ways I deceive myself. That is one of the ways I try to sanctify my ambitions, and make it look as if I am serving God when actually I am serving myself…

This is a bit of a puzzle for us, as Christians. Just like Noah, we are called to wait passively upon the Lord for the moment of release. When released, just like Noah we are called to actively give back the life our Father has just released to us. And just like the ancient people of Israel, we are very bad at doing these things.

So what is our solution? Where is our hope? Where is our Good News?

This is our Good News; this is the pattern that saves us:

Noah was passively obedient to God…but his family was blessed along with him! — because Noah’s obedience kept them from getting stuck in the mud outside.

In the same way, Jesus was passively obedient to his Father: he put off the glory of being God’s Son and became an ordinary human being; he submitted to 40 days of testing in the wilderness; he submitted to the darkness of the grave, waiting there until his Father called him to come out. And because of his passive obedience, we — his family — are blessed along with him. Even when we fail in our passive obedience, even when we jump too early and get get stuck in the mud, we still belong to Jesus, and he is always there to pull us back up out of trouble.

So also, Noah was actively obedient to God…but every living thing was blessed along with him! — because Noah’s obedience brought God to make an eternal covenant with every living thing: the promise that he will not leave the earth or forsake it until true order and worship has been completely established.

In the same way, Jesus was actively obedient to his Father: he took the human life his Father gave him and lived it perfectly, and in the end he gave that life back to his Father as a perfect sacrifice. And when his Father opened the door of the tomb and called him to come out — he obeyed. And because of his active obedience, we — his family — rise from the dead along with him. Even when we fail to act, even when we fail to sacrifice our ambitions properly…we still belong to Jesus. Even as Christians, we worry about whether we look good or bad, and this often motivates our actions. But the truth is, brothers and sisters, we don’t need to worry about that! We look good. God looks upon us with the pride of a Father for his little children. That is the status that Jesus bought for us with his sacrifice. That is the only status that matters.

So, very practically: what are we supposed to learn from all this? What are we supposed to do?

Learn this: there are two basic kinds of testing in the Christian life, passive and active.

Sometimes things happen that are completely beyond our control, beyond our responsibility. This passive testing teaches us how to wait, how to persevere, how to trust our Father’s voice more than our own.

But then, at other times, we find that God has given us control and responsibility. This active testing gives us the opportunity to act for our Father’s glory; it gives us the chance to demonstrate our faith in the fact that his opinion alone is the only one that matters.

So, if you are here today and our Father is testing your faith in ways far beyond your control — then I know you’re probably searching the face of God for some sign, some way to understand why he is testing you in this way. If that is you, then do this: continue to search our Father’s face, continue to listen for his voice — but do not trust the voice of your own heart alone, because chances are your own heart is willing to pay any price to escape; and do not trust the voice of your own spirit alone, because our own spirit is pretty good at pretending to be the Holy Spirit. Instead, listen for our Father’s voice in the voices of your brothers and sisters. Trust the living Word of God to guide you as it is spoken by those who have a share in the same Holy Spirit.

Now, if you are here today and our Father is testing your faith by giving you control and responsibility, then do this: offer up your bodies, your lives, as a living sacrifice. Do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought. Do not start thinking that God wants you to seize control of your world. Instead, use what God has given you to serve. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Now, the truth is, most of us are going through both kinds of testing. Parts of our life feel out of control, other parts feel like too much responsibility — and in both cases, our ambition tends to get in the way. We often want to have control of the parts we don’t have control of, and we often do not want responsibility for the parts we do have responsibility for, above all we want to look good and feel good, we want to be successful, and these desires affect how we make our decisions.

Friends, what all this means is that we can make decisions with courage, knowing that we are God’s children. We all fail in various ways, but our Father does not give up on us. He has promised that he will not leave us or forsake us until true order and worship has been completely established on this earth.

So let us submit with courage whenever we face trials of various kinds, because we know that the testing of our faith produces perseverance. And let us act with courage whenever the opportunity comes to offer up our lives as living sacrifices, because we know that our Father is in the business of bringing all things into perfect order.


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