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The First Sunday after the Epiphany
January 12, 2014
The Psalm: Psalm 29
Sermon: "On Building an Ark"
The Very Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
Ascribe to the LORD, you gods, *
ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his Name; *
worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness.
The voice of the LORD is upon the waters;
the God of glory thunders; *
the LORD is upon the mighty waters.
The voice of the LORD is a powerful voice; *
the voice of the LORD is a voice of splendor.
The voice of the LORD breaks the cedar trees; *
the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon;
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, *
and Mount Hermon like a young wild ox.
The voice of the LORD splits the flames of fire;
the voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; *
the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the LORD makes the oak trees writhe *
and strips the forests bare.
And in the temple of the LORD *
all are crying, "Glory!"
The LORD sits enthroned above the flood; *
the LORD sits enthroned as King for evermore.
The LORD shall give strength to his people; *
the LORD shall give his people the blessing of peace.
On Building an Ark
The new year has begun, and conditions look good for a flood. A flood of arks that is; as in Noah’s Ark. Arks are bobbing up around the world at a surprising rate. In the Netherlands, you can now visit "Ark van Noach." This is a full-sized ark model that actually floats. Built by a construction company owner named Johan Huibers, it cost $1.3 million and weighs 3,000 tons.
In Hong Kong, another full-sized replica of Noah's ark exists at "Noah's Ark Park and Resort." It stands alongside a solar telescope, a set of gardens and evangelistic displays. Closer to home, in Frostburg, Maryland, you can see "God's Ark of Safety." It was started by Church of the Brethren pastor Richard Greene in 1974. He had a series of visions that inspired him to build Noah's ark next to Interstate 64. He's been working on it ever since.
In Williamstown, Kentucky, plans are being laid for "Ark Encounter." A group called "Answers in Genesis" wants to build a $73 million theme park with a full-scale ark and a zoo. In addition, a two-thirds-sized replica of the ark stands in Florenceville, New Brunswick, ... Noah's Ark Park includes plans for a full-sized ark in Broomfield, Colorado, ... the government of Yerevan, Armenia, wants to host an ark theme park within view of Mount Ararat, where the Bible records that Noah’s Ark landed, ... and the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio includes a $5 million ark complete with animatronic animals. (Presumably, that takes care of the mess…) And, if that is not enough, 2014 is slated to include the release of the major motion picture Noah, starring Russell Crowe. This is clearly shaping up to be the year of the Ark, no doubt about it.
Perhaps we are drawn to arks because we naturally fear the destructive power of a flood. Given all the rain and flood warnings this year, it’s no wonder. A look at the Psalms, including this morning’s would agree with us. Psalm 29 speaks of "mighty waters" that can drench, drown and destroy us (v. 3). Other psalms include talk of "deep waters" where "the flood sweeps over" (Psalm 69:2), waters that "roar and foam" (Psalm 46:3), and a desperate appeal to God for help, because "the waters have come up to my neck" and "I sink in deep mire" (Psalm 69:1-2). Of course, all these water references in the Psalms are intended as metaphors for the struggles of human life.
That speaks to a real truth about life. Sometimes life overwhelms us, with personal and professional problems that can feel like a flood of mighty waters. We feel overpowered by difficulties rushing toward us, whether they be emotional, financial, relational or vocational. We find ourselves gasping for breath, with the waters coming up to our necks and our feet in deep mire. Flailing around in the flood, we desperately need an ark.
Now, none of the aforementioned arks are of any help to us here. What we need, rather, is an ark that is spiritual, not physical: a shelter from the flood, a refuge from the "mighty waters," a vessel to carry us across the waves to a place of safety and salvation; in short, an ark for our souls.
But how do we build such an ark? Our Psalm and Gospel lessons this morning can help us here. They point us to the three essential elements we need for the construction of such an ark.
And this is our first essential element: prayer. The construction of such an ark begins with prayer to God who has power over the flood. "The voice of the Lord is over the waters," says Psalm 29; "the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters. ... The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!" (vv. 3, 10-11).
Psalm 29 is telling us that the Word of God is more powerful than the waters, and that God has authority over the floods that swirl around us. What are we to pray for when caught in the tide? Well, we can certainly pray for deliverance. Sometimes that is the direction that God will take us; out of the flood. But most often it isn’t total deliverance that we most need. Most often what we need is answered when God gives us the strength to face our flood, and peace in the midst of the chaos of the storm.
A rabbi friend of mine once put it this way. “If someone prays for patience, do you think God just gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If he prayed for courage, does God give him courage, or does he give him opportunities to be courageous? If someone prayed for the family to be closer, do you think God zaps them with warm fuzzy feelings, or does he give them opportunities to love each other?”
We pray to God who has power over the flood. God will answer our prayers for strength and peace, because God does not want us to be overwhelmed by the waters. When we seek God in prayer, we are given the strength and the peace we need to face and pass through the flood. So prayer is the first essential element for building our spiritual ark.
The second essential element is this: our church. The construction of a spiritual ark also requires us to build, and be part of, a community of support and accountability. For millennia now, the church has been understood to be an ark in this very sense. Consider that in liturgical churches such as ours, our church buildings have nautical terminology attached to them. For example, the section in which most of us sit is called "the nave." Nave comes from the Latin navis, meaning ship. If you look up at the ceiling here, you might be reminded of an upside-down ship's hull. Our ceiling is built like the hull of a ship. That’s on purpose. It reminds us that there is a storm raging out there, with "wild winds and terrible waves." But our church is built to carry us safely on.
Reflecting on this, theologian Frederick Buechner, has written this thought. “At its best, the church provides "shelter from the blast, a sense of somehow heading in the right direction in spite of everything, a ship to keep afloat, and, like a beacon in the dark, the hope of finding safe harbor at last."
The construction of an ark for our souls, though it starts with each one of our personal prayers, can never be a totally individual pursuit. It requires the participation of everyone in the church, this group of people who share "the hope of finding safe harbor at last." The church provides each of us with a community of support and accountability, a place where we can be encouraged to do the right thing and be gently pulled back when we go off course. The Church is not a perfect place, but it heads in the right direction in spite of everything, because Jesus is at the helm. Our church is the second essential element in building our ark.
And that leads us to the third and most essential element of all for building our ark: Jesus. Jesus must be its pilot, the pilot at the helm. The presence of Jesus is the most important element in the building of a spiritual ark. As we are beginning this New Year together, we have come to the Sunday known as The Baptism of the Lord. Today, from our Gospel lesson, we are reminded of the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan, and how "just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him" (Matthew 3:16).
Jesus came up from the water -- up from the mighty waters that threaten to drench, drown and destroy. He emerged from the water to receive the spirit of God, descending like a dove. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. He is the one who now sits "enthroned over the flood” as our Psalm would say it. (Psalm 29:10). Remember all those wonderful Gospel stories of Jesus on the waters? These are true metaphors for how he can pilot our lives. He saved his disciples from a storm on the sea, leaving them to wonder, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" (Mark 4:41). He showed his power over the chaos by walking on the water. Then rescued Peter when he was about to sink beneath the waves (Matthew 14:22-33). He does the same for you and me today, as he gives us strength to face stormy trials, and peace to preserve us in the chaos. He walks the seas beside us through storm and flood.
There is an old Gospel tune that calls to Jesus with these words:
“Jesus, Saviour, pilot me over life’s tempestuous sea;
Unknown waves before me roll, hiding rock and treacherous shoal;
Chart and compass come from Thee: Jesus, Saviour, pilot me.”
Jesus, our pilot at the helm, is the third and most essential element in building our ark. In a world that threatens to drown us in its floods and chaos, this ark will bring us through.
This morning we enter the waters together. The waters of baptism are before us, calling us to enter them again and renew those baptismal vows we have taken: vows to go with our pilot wherever he leads us, vows to support each other whatever the floods may come, vows to be his strengthening, loving, healing presence to a drowning world. Deep calls to deep. Let us now answer the call, and renew our Baptismal vows together.