Text of a talk for the Diocese of Leeds ‘Creation Salvation’ course on the subject of adapting our church buildings to a changing climate, 16 June 2020.
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’
Noah’s ark and the rainbow after the flood is probably one of the best known of all Bible stories, and not just because it lends itself to children’s songs and activities. This tale of disaster and recovery comes to us from the mists of time, long before Abraham. So it’s not specifically a Christian story, or even a Jewish one, it’s a legend of unknown origin that found a place in the Hebrew scriptures because it speaks to us of eternal truths about God and his creation and our response to it.
Yet it is a Christian story in that Noah is in some ways a saviour figure, a prefiguring of the Messiah. What can we learn from this legend of a good man who saved not only his family, but the world, from the wrath of God, and received a new covenant by which we should live?
Firstly, Noah understood nature and read the signs of the times. The story begins by telling us that “God saw that the earth was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth”. It’s not clear precisely how things were corrupted, but Noah was a righteous man and understood that corrupted they were. The Bible calls him a ‘man of the soil’ – a farmer. He understood ideas of sustainability and biodiversity – even if his language had no words for those concepts. He understood by a prophecy that God was going to destroy all living things that he had created and he didn’t want that to happen.
Secondly, he responded by taking practical action. He could have just resigned himself to his fate, but for the sake of his descendants and for all the animals around him, he decided to do something about it. Noah, let it be said, was not a boat builder by trade, he was a farmer as we have already seen. But he was also a man of faith. When he understood the solution was to build a large ship, he and his sons set about doing just that. They would have built wooden houses and barns before, so it was a matter of adapting the building skills they already had to new purposes for the benefit of others.
It cost them, of course – it cost them the price of many trees’ worth of wood and cartloads of pitch, not to mention the value of the food they could have sold. How long was Noah on the ark? The ‘forty days’ is only how long it rained, starting on the 17th of the second month. But they did not leave the ark until the 27th of the second month of the following year. Much of the ark’s lower decks must have been taken up with food and fodder! Peoples around the world whose land gets flooded today as a result of climate change will understand the implications of a year without sowing or reaping. But what is money for anyway, when the very future of life on earth is under threat? This was an investment of time and money in a sustainable future when the climate was at a tipping point – or rather, a tipping-it-down point.
Thirdly, as a farmer he understood the rhythms of life. When Noah’s family emerges from the ark, God promises – to use the words of John Bell’s paraphrase – “while earth remains there’ll be seed-time and harvest, summer sun and winter moon, the dead of night, the bright day”. Part of the rhythm of life for farmers is that of gathering in and sending out. The harvest is gathered into barns, and the food, hay or silage is then distributed throughout the year to people and animals as they have need. The ark fulfilled the same function in a unique way, gathering in pairs of animals against the coming deluge and keeping them safe and fed until they could be sent out to repopulate the earth.
For us in the Church, our buildings have the same function – gathering people in from our community to experience the saving love of God, feeding them on His Word, and sending them out to fulfil God’s mission in the world. As we face a climate and biodiversity crisis no less drastic than that of Noah’s day, may our buildings be made as climate-proof as Noah’s ark, and likewise be the means by which the world can be saved anew through these rhythms of grace.