My wife’s mother worked for many years as the director of a Christian preschool called Noah’s Ark. It turns out naming a preschool “Noah’s Ark” is fairly common. I am sure in the ranking of names for preschools, Christian preschools that is, Noah’s Ark must be on the top of the list. It makes sense. The whole theme is laid out for you, the colorful images of the quaint little boat packed with animals and the giraffe’s head sticking out of the top as the sky is filled with a beautiful rainbow. You could name the different classes after different animals and, of course, the overall theme of being cared for, protected, loved by God through the storms of life would be an easy refrain to be the focus of the whole endeavor. It would be a cute and happy place to send your kids, to drop off the little ones as they do finger painting and learn a little bit about Jesus. Noah’s Ark is a safe place, a joyful place, a place which will create happy memories.
Yet, this would seem to be a sort of fantasy that has absolutely nothing to do with the real story of Noah’s Ark. Do you remember that narrative? It is troubling, to say the least, and not exactly what you would want to pattern a preschool after, not unless you wanted to terrify and permanently scar the children. It is not an exceptionally long story in the Book of Genesis, but it is a powerful one, one of judgment against sin, one in which God looks down at mankind and says He is sorry He made them. His intention is to blot out all life from the earth, to wipe it all away and start over. Noah alone finds favor in the eyes of the Lord, and so it is Noah and his family, eight persons in total, who will be spared through the building of the ark. The image of this event, though, this great cataclysmic flood of the earth, is not one of happy animals and a smiling Noah. Imagine being in that big boat. Imagine hearing the screams of the people mixed with the cries of the animals as the waters relentlessly swallow up all the dry land. It seems more like a nightmare than some happy story to tell the preschoolers.
And there the ark floated on the surface of the earth for 150 days. 150 days of wondering if you would even make it out of the boat. 150 days of fear and uncertainty. 150 days of testing and trial without relent. We all remember the part when Noah sends out the dove and it comes back with an olive branch, some tangible proof that life has begun again, that the waters really are receding from the face of the earth. But the dove was not the first bird he sent out. No, first he sends out a raven. We are told that raven flies back and forth until the waters are dried up. It does not return to the ark. It does not bring any good news to Noah. Luther in his lectures on Genesis wonders at what the raven was doing out there. He suggests it is probably feeding, feasting on the vast number of corpses bloated and decaying along the rocky outcroppings.
What? Is this not the Mother’s Day sermon you were expecting? Look, I know people are looking forward to going to brunch or doing something nice for mom, but first we need to address absolute condemnation and destruction, which is the setting of Noah’s Ark. Trust me, it has a lot to do with Mother’s Day. I mean, Mother’s Day is not a simple or easy day. We may have our own traditions and expectations about it, but the real feelings swirling around when it comes to the bearing and raising of children are never really addressed. Mothers are not simple things. You cannot just buy some flowers and take them out to eat and that is the totality of their joy and happiness. There is pain, hardship, and suffering which comes with being a mom. There are disappointments and defeated expectations regarding their own abilities. This world is broken and a good sign of it is the complex reality that is motherhood.
So, we hear about God’s judgement, his condemnation of this sinful age. Sin is not just an unfortunate byproduct of being human, it is not just some mistakes we make that we would happily take back if we could. No, sin destroys. Sin alienates. Sin incurs the wrath of the Creator of the heavens and the earth. There is no innocent or harmless sin. Sin brought a catastrophic flood on the earth, and we are tempted to think this is as bad as it could get, an ark of terror clinging to life in the midst of a sea of death. But no, sin would not be abated. Sin would not stop even amid such death. Sin must be judged in its totality. All sin must be wiped out. Therefore, God sends not a flood, not another catastrophe, but He sends His only begotten Son. He sends a son who will atone for sin, all sin. He sends a son who will leave no remainder but will die for it all; holy body and blood given and shed for the sins of the world. That would be the way out. That would be the promise of life in the midst of a sea of death.
We read from the Apostle Peter, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.” Christ’s suffering and death brings you to God. He brings you into the great wedding banquet. His death is now your death. His victory is now your victory. And there is no remainder, no little bit He has not atoned for, not a part of your life He has left up to your own devices. Peter goes on and says, “He went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah.” He, being Jesus, went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, the disobedient ones in the days of Noah. What is this about? Well, this is where we get a glimpse into the totality of our Lord’s victory.
We confess in the Creed, I believe Jesus Christ “was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into Hell. The third day He rose again from the dead.” Why does Jesus descend into Hell? Why was this so crucial to the teaching of the faith that the Church’s oldest Creed makes sure we confess it? This is part of our Lord’s glorification. It is the greatness, the completeness of His victory over sin, death, and the devil. He goes down to Hell, goes to the gates of the ancient prison house and proclaims His victory. He stands in the enemy’s territory and waves the banner of triumph. There is no place in Heaven or on Earth or beneath the earth, no place in all the created order which is outside of the work of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is why you do not need to fear those who persecute the righteous, no need to tremble before the powers of this age, for your Lord has already won the fight. Victory is yours!
Peter speaks about the days of Noah, about God’s patience before the flood waters came. Then he talks about the Ark, an ark “in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.” And then he says something truly delightful. He says, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Baptism corresponds to that ark floating through a sea of death and judgment. Baptism connects us to our Lord’s death and resurrection. Baptism is our deliverance through water. It has been customary for many years that baptismal fonts in churches were made with eight sides. In fact, for a time, whole churches were constructed in the shape of an octagon, a heightened remembrance of this text, of this promise, of the eight delivered through the water, of the promise of the new day, an eighth day, a day of resurrection and salvation.
So, back to Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day reminds us that the most basic, most primal relationship we have is not untouched by sin. There is sadness, regret, and heartache associated with motherhood, on all sides, that we cannot just pass over. Rather, today we are reminded of a second birth, a new birth of water and the Spirit, which gives hope and promise to all our other relationships. It roots you this day in the victory of Christ Jesus and there is no place to hide from His work. Whether you are happy or sad this day, whether you are full of joy or regret, you remain firmly in the forgiveness of Christ. This age stands judged. This world with its hurts and pain will pass away. But you… you will enter into eternal life, into Paradise itself, and you will enter through the water.