Easter 4 2020 ~ Noah in Lockdown
There could not be a better text for today, the fortieth day of our lock down, than the story of Noah’s Ark. It resonates deeply with our current predicament.
Despite the suffering we hear about constantly, the dying and grieving, the predictions and prognostications, we can be grateful too. Fear and worry, loneliness and isolation have dominated a month that has, understandably and not wrongly been quite lugubrious. But there is room and rightness for gratitude. So many of us are healthy. We have each other. We are not starving, nor at war. The weather is pleasant nor deadly. We have not caught the virus. We have stayed at home, advised by science and ruled by common sense, both gifts in themselves for which we can also give thanks to God. It has been sensible and wise advice, offered by those who know and who care. We have leaders who seek and take advice, and this distinguishes us from some other countries.
Noah was given some advice by God, which involved locking his family on board a ship with a menagerie of animals. The old joke is that some of them didn’t exactly get on! Lambs and wolves, presumably, sheep and lions. Noah was not only Captain of the ship and chief wine steward, he was also the good shepherd. Advised by God that something terrible was coming, a terror from the sky which would drown all those who did not pay attention or take precautions (which in his case was everyone else!), Noah was told to isolate his family and pull up the gangplank. He obeyed and took the advice and it saved his gang. For forty days and nights they bobbed around aimlessly, not knowing the when or where of their release. But they did know that ‘if’ was not the issue. They would be released, in due course. Locked down at sea, they couldn’t even go for a walk on the water.
Our lockdown began on March 24th. That was forty days and nights ago. The word ‘coincidence’ doesn’t seem adequate!
But notice that it didn’t all suddenly end on the fortieth day. Noah’s easing out of maritime lockdown was gradual as the waters receded. The flood actually lasted 150 days. That’s five months. After forty days it stopped raining. The worst was over. But then the waters had to recede and that took more than three times as long. Noah and his gang, floating on their planks of wood needed not only faith and hope, but patience. Birds were sent out, only to return empty-beaked, until eventually one did not return. It was not until the seventh month that the ark ‘landed’ on Mount Ararat, and if you read the story carefully, we are told that the duration of the Noah family lockdown, their isolation in the Ark was around eleven months. Then, when it was all over, there was a big celebration of thanksgiving and there were sacrifices and feasting (which involved eating some of the animals, of course).
I’ve often said that the church, which has a nave, is like an ark in which we navigate the waters of faith, hope and love. Or rather that we have faith, hope and love on board, amidst the swirling waters of fear, doubt and despair. Nave and ‘navy’ have the same root, and if you look upwards in a church, the roof beams are often reminiscent of an upturned boat. We have sailed in that ship for many a year, and will do so again, even if it is the case that I, as one of the crew with you, will be setting sail in a new ark on the River Medway!
If we were in our own church ark today, celebrating communion, sharing the peace, reading scriptures and saying prayers aloud, and indeed hearing and seeing this sermon, we would also be singing hymns. About a third of our worship involves singing, and we miss that for sure. In Germany, acts of worship are returning, but the congregations are not allowed to sing. Such a shame! For hymns are a rich treasure house of thoroughly human spirituality. Had we been in church today, we would have sung, as our communion hymn, Francis Stansfield’s ‘Sweet Sacrament Divine’. It’s very popular, although Ralph Vaughan Williams consigned it to the ‘Chamber of Horrors’ when he was editing the original English Hymnal of 1906. He felt that the popular tune (DIVINE MYSTERIES, also by Stansfield), was too syrupy to be included. Yet it was so popular that it had to be included! Well, I don’t know about you, but I like it. And today, as we reflect on the church as our Sunday ark, and our homes as our current arks against the storms of the virus, preserving us in safety, these words of the third verse resonate strongly:
Sweet Sacrament of rest,
ark from the ocean's roar,
within thy shelter blest
soon may we reach the shore;
save us, for still the tempest raves,
save, lest we sink beneath the waves:
sweet Sacrament of rest.
We find Noah and his ark in the Old Testament, the Jewish Bible, and we also find similar stories of a great flood in other Mesopotamian and Sumerian religious legends of similar and earlier periods. As Christians we value and relish the story of Noah, not only as moral prehistory, but as prescient of what God will do in Jesus Christ. So allied to Noah’s ancient obedience in lockdown today, we encounter St John’s account of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for his flock. It is an archetypically pastoral image (from which we get the word ‘pastor’ in the first place), and the very oldest depictions of Jesus in art show him, not on the Cross, but rather carrying a lamb ion his shoulders, bearing them home.
When we read of Christ as the Good Shepherd we often overlook what now seems to us clearer at this current time of lockdown, which is that Jesus the Good Shepherd lies down at the entrance of the sheepfold when the sheep are inside it to protect them; to stop them being attacked by the wolves out in the field. He ‘lays down’ himself - as first century Palestinian shepherds did - at the entrance of the fenced box. He is thus the barrier, the protector, and, of course, the gate. For when he deems it safe he can stand up and the sheep can come and go in the light of a new day. But at night, they are gated in for their own good.
We are gated for our own good at this time too. And like those proverbial sheep, it is Christ who guards us, guides us and lays down his life for our protection and salvation.
So, as we pass forty days of lockdown, with at least 110 to go in some form or another, and the prospect of it taking even eleven months or more, we give thanks for the protection, wisdom, advice and care we receive and benefit from, in so many quarters. Naturally we weep with those who weep and pray for the sick and dying, and for the protection of all. But we do so in the light of the illuminating stories from the past which remind us that God is in control, and Christ is our Good Shepherd, who brings us home, on earth and in heaven.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 03/05/2020