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Photo by Pisit Heng on Unsplash

Of all the people in the Bible, Noah’s wife has always had my greatest sympathy. Good wives—and I speak from experience because I am one—make space in their lives for the existential disquiet of their husbands. 

Many people in the Bible are asked to do strange things, things that pitch that person into anxiety and grief. There are a variety of ways that God troubles his creatures. Sometimes he will move circumstances along too quickly, so that there is not a comfortable amount of time to consider all the possible responses you might have. Other times he arranges for an unreasonable amount of time to go by between the command that he gives and the outcome that he promises. In both cases, the people setting about the work of obedience know they look foolish or even ridiculous.

I feel like Noah wins the prize in this regard. He builds the ark for something like a hundred, maybe a hundred and twenty years. Which means day after day after day his wife has to serve him breakfast, lunch, and dinner with an enormous question mark hanging over both their heads. Why is your husband—why are you, Noah, building such a large boat? What is wrong with you? There is no water here.

The New Testament tells us that Noah, a herald of righteousness, preached to the people who wandered by all those six hundred years, warning them about the destruction to come. The boat, by the time he finally completes it, is massive. There are many and ample rooms for anyone who wants to come. Anyone who listened to Noah and thought, ‘Goodness, I don’t want to perish. I will stay here so that when it’s time to get in, I won’t forget,’ would have had a ready welcome.

Think, just for a minute, what is required of Noah and his wife and his sons and their wives. They have to endure a species of alienation not for one year, or three years, but a whole century. For a hundred years, they have to hold tight to what God said—the specifics of boat building, as well as the reason for this strange act, a piece of information so essential it might be said to be the only thing worth knowing. Unless you repent and call out for mercy to the True and Living God, Noah preached, you will be swept away in a flood. Why didn’t God give the message directly to all the nations all around? 

To all Noah’s wife’s neighbors, making fun of Noah for doing something so strange? Who are you going to believe? The direction of God to one man to build a boat? Or your plain sight that there is no water anywhere?

A similar dilemma confronts the people of Israel, many hundreds of years later, as they perch uncomfortably at the precipice of destruction, contemplating a great body of water while the army of the Egyptians bears furiously down upon them. God has made them a stench in the nostrils of Pharoah. They wanted to be free from the yoke of slavery, but instead, they have run headlong towards what most certainly must be their own deaths. Human wisdom fights, tooth and claw, against the commands and plans of God, because so often what God commands is catastrophically unsafe, conflictual, apparently insane, obviously untrue. You want me to do what? Cross that body of water? How? Why have you brought me here to die? What is wrong with you? the host of Israel rails at God.

What is it about crowds of people? A large crowd sometimes provides an opportunity for something unpleasant. So we find Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego alone, standing in a sea of people. They are not complaining, though we might say they have good reason to. Faced with the prospect of bowing down before  Nebuchadnezzar’s obscene idol, a lake of fire notwithstanding, they remain on their feet. I wonder, how many people bowed down to the instrumental frenzy outside? Was it everyone? Did some people quietly stay home? Surely someone had to cook the dinner for all those idol worshippers and get the children off to school. But everyone else had to be there, grinning, the fear of the flames before their eyes, as they bobbed up and down. Only the three stood, stubbornly, silently resisting the great evil going on before them. 

They are turned in and brought before the King who demands to know what’s wrong with them. Like Noah, they have the opportunity to say a remarkable thing. You can throw us in the furnace, of course, they say, but “be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” Nebuchadnezzar’s expression changes, so intensely hot is his fury. He commands his servants to hurl the three into the furnace.

What of that small band of hangers-on who followed Jesus to Jerusalem? He spoke, you might remember, as one who “had authority.” The sermons, the parables, the conflictual moments of interrogation all stood him apart from the usual spiritual fare of that ancient time. Every person had had to grapple with who he was, but no one, not even the twelve, really understood him or could make sense of his words. Always there was a large question mark hanging over every day that they traveled from one place to another, listening and watching. Surely some mighty act—mightier even than all the healings, the raising of the dead, the calming of the storm, the multiplication of the bread—was about to be revealed. This would be the cataclysm finally undoing the misery of injustice, the crushing shame of being ruled over by a spiritually vacuous foreign power. Jesus would conquer their enemies and smooth away their most essential anxieties. Hadn’t he said to come to him if any were weary and heavy laden? Weren’t they not supposed to worry about tomorrow?

With all the stories of God’s salvation for Israel in every generation crowding into your memory, surely this would have been the hour for God to do something—something he promised to do—to reveal his glory and power, to carry the ones he called to safety and rest.

Instead, he is crucified. He dies. All his beleaguered band of friends are hidden in dark corners, full to the brim of defeat, of disappointment, of the shame of having expected something that was never going to happen. You followed a man who should have been king, but he died in the worst possible way, reviled, the fury of the wrath of a thousand generations blazing from the crowd that cried for his death. You thought you were going to come out of this week with a set of new clothes and a party, and here you are, wondering what happened. What is wrong with you, that you should have been so wrong? What is wrong with him, that he couldn’t even save himself?

But the night can’t last. Eventually, the sun will make its regular turn, and so, while you are hiding, the women who hadn’t run away, who are now exhausted to the bone with grief and horror, unable to sleep, get up in the dark and gather their burial spices, venturing forth as the sky begins to lighten. If ever there was a more narrow way to walk, to climb the hill to contemplate the tomb where all your hopes and expectations had been laid to rest.

It is the sinking heart of each, the resignation, the feeling of uselessness—Noah having to climb into his boat in a parched and waterless land, not full of friends and a community of people, but with a lot of unpleasant smelling, baying animals. The people of Israel turning their heads between the sea and the army, bitterly afraid. Shadrack Meshach and Abednego unable to breathe, so tightly are they tied up in their clothes to be thrown into the furnace.

But buried in the depths of the scriptures, like a seed ready to sprout, is a strange kind of promise.

‘When you pass through the waters,’ said the Lord, ‘I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.’

And so King Nebuchadnezzar leans forward as the flames lash. “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” he cries. His servants nod respectfully. 

“Then why is there a fourth? And with an appearance like a son of the gods?”

And so Moses stretches out his staff and the waters separate into two heaps, and the ground is dry, and there’s just a moment to step out and rush through before anyone has time to think or feel anything.

And so Noah and his wife and his sons and their wives stare out of their tiny window and watch the rain fall and fall and fall, and the springs burst forth, and suddenly the boat lifts and they discover, after all, that the Word they heard was not only true, but near, so close as to be in their very hearts and mouths.

And so as the women make their way to the tomb, there is a great earthquake, and the stone is rolled away, and the guards collapse in fear, and the women come not to their shame, not to the death of their hopes, not to a life of alienation and fear, not to be consumed by grief, but to a wide-open place, a good and pleasant place, a tomb emptied of that body lying still, divorced from its spirit. Hadn’t they heard those strange words, Jesus giving his spirit to the Father—not being killed, but willing himself to die? Taking the sin, the hardness of the crowd, the fury of idolatry into himself and destroying it by his own might. What could then hold him in that tomb? 

How could he be there when sin had been thus destroyed? The spirit and body could not be held asunder. He rose again, just as he said. 

In shock—for who really expects things to turn out ok in the end?—the women turn to obey the angel’s sweet instruction, “to tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead.” And there is Jesus, alive, in his body. ‘Hey,’ he says, ‘Hi.’

What would you do in such a circumstance? When all the awful things you expected suddenly didn’t happen? When your devotion to a person has caused you so much heartache and grief, who had been certain to disappoint you, who had sent you into the flood, into the fire, into the tomb itself, 

you looked to all the world so unbearably foolish. But then he turned out, at the most crucial moment, to be alive. He came to you, in person, as the waters rose and the flames licked. What can you do but be astonished? But also comforted. Healed. Rejoiced. At the very least completely relieved.

A lot of the world’s passing crowds might think that walking into a church–have you noticed, how so many lovely churches have ceilings shaped like boats?– would be the death of them. They stare at the Ark, the Church, those who believe in a hidden God who speaks in such strange ways and then fear to come in. Or they mock, or deride, or just aren’t interested. Entering in and sitting down in a hard pew does not seem like the obvious way. Sometimes at the 8 o’clock service, there  as many people as in the original ark. Sometimes in zoom morning prayer, there number no more than in the fiery furnace, before the Lord Jesus joined that strange communion in the inferno. Are we fools to be bowing and singing and scraping and listening to these ancient stories? And all for the moment when, what? Just to walk forward one by one to eat a plain bite of bread and take a tiny sip of wine?

Not at all, for the Lord is risen, he is risen indeed, just as he said. He is alive in his body. His Spirit is here with us this moment. How can you know? 

What can you see? Isn’t the cup a font of blessing? The salvation of the world poured out in his blood? Is not the dish of bread the Lord’s body? Eating it joins us not only to him, but to each other, to every other person who ever clung to Jesus in all places and all times. In not a single trouble you endure are you alone. He gave his own body be your food. His praises on your lips and in your heart are for your healing, and, most glorious of all, the astonishing word that He is Risen Is for you to take to every person out there.

Alleluia, He is Risen!

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