…God waited patiently, during the building of the ark… (1 Peter 3:20)
One of my earliest influences in interpreting the story of Noah’s ark was Bill Cosby, whose re-telling of the biblical story I knew by heart, and used to recite at the dinner table. All these years later I find that I still hear his voice in my head as I imagine the conversation between God and Noah.
“It’s the LORD, Noah.”
If you want a shocking exercise in how some other people think about that famous story, you might Google this question, as I did recently: “How long did it take Noah to build the ark?” I was trying to gauge just how patient God had been, as he waited for Noah to build the ark, as is suggested in the section of the First Letter of Peter we read today. I discovered, on the internet, where any faithful soul can post an answer to such a question, that the possibilities range from 2 years to 120 years, with a number of people settling on 98 years. You can find the scriptural and supposedly historical support for these conclusions when you conduct your own Google search.
There is something amusing about the idea of God waiting patiently for Noah to build the ark, drumming his fingers in heaven as the ark is constructed, cubit by cubit. According to Bill Cosby, it was Noah’s patience that more likely tested in this process. But if we think about the great sweep of the whole Bible story, from beginning to end, creation to apocalypse, we can see that God does, indeed, need to be patient, over and over again, as he coaxes or cajoles or coerces his children to follow his lead, do the right thing, fix their faith in him to their hearts.
Was God being patient, I wonder, as the great City of Athens grew to become the center of the civilized world? Was God patient as the temples for the twelve principal gods of ancient Greece were built in glorious architecture and with careful skill? Was God patient as an altar was erected somewhere in Athens that was dedicated to “an unknown God”? The idea behind such an altar is deeply practical: a hedge against the possibility that some deity, as yet unrevealed to the wise men of Athens, nevertheless required attention or appeasement. So, to be on the safe side, an altar was dedicated to the unknown god, where sacrifice could be offered to no one in particular. Was God being patient with the men of Athens as he indulged the practicality of their ancient and doomed religion? Perhaps he knew it was only a matter of time.
It was clever of Saint Paul, who, despite being a convert to faith in Jesus, had believed for his whole life that there is only one God, to see an opening for discussion with the Greeks in the idea that there is an unknown God. For the identity of the true and living God was clearly unknown to the men and women of Athens. And maybe God’s patience with them was running out. Maybe Paul knew this. Maybe the thing Paul knew better than anyone else was the intensity of God’s desire to be known: God’s impatient yearning to be welcomed into the hearts of the creatures he fashioned with his hand, and made in his own image and likeness.
Much of the biblical record can be read as an account of God’s efforts to be known by his people: sometimes with acts of kindness, at other times in acts of apparent cruelty, sometimes in wandering or pilgrimage, sometimes in the sermons of the prophets, sometimes in miracles, sometimes in parables, sometimes with armies, and sometimes in the bosom of home, sometimes with fire, sometimes with water, sometimes with old men, sometimes with boys, sometimes with women, and sometimes with widows, sometimes in broad daylight, sometimes in darkness, sometimes in thunderous noise, sometimes in silence, sometimes in laws, sometimes with kings, sometimes with beggars, sometimes in poetry, sometimes in healing, sometimes in visions; and once in bloodshed on a cross, and in an empty tomb, and at a table with a loaf of bread.
Was God being patient or impatient when he sent his Son into the world to bring a message of love and mercy and hope to those who would believe? Was it a sign of God’s patience that he replaced the complicated system of the law with a simple commandment: that his disciples should love one another as Christ loved them? Or was it impatience with the tedium of monitoring all 613 dicta of his more ancient law? Whether it was patience or impatience, what is clear is that God wants to be known in places where he is unknown, among people to whom his name is unfamiliar, and within hearts where he has as yet been unwelcomed.
If this is true – that even today God wishes to be known in places where he remains as yet unknown - it is ironic that in our own time God seems more elusive than ever, harder to pin down, difficult to identify by his work in the world, unconvincing to the skeptical, conflicted in the way his power is at work.
We live an a world that hedges no bets with God, and that has torn down altars to the God who thought he had made himself known, rather than erect altars to an unknown God. And I find myself wondering: is God being patient with us, or are we being patient with God?
Long gone are the days of altars to the unknown God. Today, many feel as though we live in a world with a God unknown – which is really only steps away from living in a world without God. To many ears those stories of God’s kindnesses and cruelties, his wandering people, his prophets, his miracles, armies, widows, boys, and old men, his kings and beggars, the light and darkness, the fire and water, that cross, that bloodshed, that empty tomb… all add up to nothing: no sign of God. Just a God unknown.
And to those of us who believe – or at least who want to believe, (for some, I know, can only make that claim) – it often feels as though we must be very patient with God, who allows himself to be so easily unknown. Jesus knew that his disciples would begin to feel this way eventually, which is why he promised them, “I will not leave you orphaned,” which is another way of saying, “I will not be a God unknown.” And because he knew that we could never be patient enough, when Jesus returned to his Father’s side, God sent the gift of his Spirit into the world to be with us in our impatience.
Do you remember the question that lurked in the middle of Bill Cosby’s version of Noah’s ark? It was the hint Noah gave to his neighbor when the neighbor wanted to know why Noah was building and ark. And it was God’s rejoinder to Noah when Noah became impatient with his long building project: “How long can you tread water?”
The question and its implications, remind us that God and his people have always had to be patient with one another, since none of us can tread water long enough, and since God, though sorely tested, has never really wanted to do away with us – his most magnificent and most difficult creation.
There is much to try the patience, these days, of both God and of all of us, much to make us wonder at the stubborn slowness of the other in doing what we expect of each other. And throughout this time of enforced patience, God has asked of us only one thing: that we follow Jesus’ only commandment, to love one another as he loved us. This is a call to service and sacrifice, just as Jesus served his disciples, and gave his life up for them. It is just one commandment that can be followed a thousand ways, but never by only treading water, and sometimes by simply being patient with the only true and living God, and with one another, his children. Because even in the simple decision to just be patient, we may discover that God is not unknown in this world, with whom he has been very, very patient.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
29 May 2011
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia