Obedience Without Instructions

Posted: October 21, 2013 by Todd in Sermons
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I preached this sermon on Sunday, October 20, 2013 as part of our church’s “BUILD: An Extreme Makeover” series at Grace United Methodist Church.  The scripture is Genesis 7:1-5.  Here’s the audio:


Stories capture what happened in the past in a compressed format.  Because stories are compressed, they leave certain details out.  There’s some obviously interesting details that get left out of our Scripture today.  I hate to disagree with the editors of the Holy Bible, but, I for one would have enjoyed reading this deleted scene.  Noah has just completed a very detailed and rigorous ark building project.  Noah rigorously prepared for the opportunity God was sending his way, against the grain of a culture out of tune with the divine rhythm.  We marvel at the grandiosity and construction achievement of Noah’s ark.  Difficult as this was, I think the task in this deleted scene of the story was actually the harder of the two.  God told Noah, gather seven pairs of all the clean animals and one pair of all the unclean animals.  We’ve all heard or seen this story told to children and envisioned animals just marching in line up into the ark.  But these were not circus trained animals.  Lines of obedient animals self-organizing for embarkment is not part of the Biblical story.  Noah had to go and get the animals.  Many of our youth and kids have had to do a similar sort of project for school – much smaller in scale – collect various kinds of insects – identify and mount them and bring them into school.  I’m told that our students are typically given about a month or so to do this.  Noah was given seven days.  And, unlike our kids, he had to capture live animals.  If chasing down, capturing, and caring for each of these animals seems like a daunting task for a week – it is really more complicated than that.  Not only did Noah have to obtain the animals, he also had to determine their gender, keep up with the accounting of which ones they had and which they didn’t.  Then come the birds.  You’ve got to get seven pairs of each kind of bird.  That would be interesting to watch.  I don’t really know from personal experience per se, but I understand that determining the gender of a bird can be a very difficult thing to do.  I’d venture to say that this week was the most productive week of work in the history of humankind.

And Noah did all that the Lord had commanded him.


Noah is one of the first biblical characters that come to mind when we think of obedience in the Bible.  Last week, Pastor Bryan talked about how humankind was so evil that God was sorry that God had created them.  Against this backdrop, Noah was found to be righteous before God.  He alone was obedient.  He went on to become an eagle scout in obedience as he followed a carefully laid out plan down to the cubit assembling the ark God commanded him to build.  It isn’t hard to see the parallels between God’s command to build and ark and the work that we’re doing this weekend to build a house on Sand Mountain.  At a fundamental and foundational level, we have been obedient to God’s call to the best of our understanding, just as Noah was.

Last week’s passage focused on Noah’s building.  Noah following instructions.  Noah reading and executing the contents of an Ark Building for Dummies book.  And it ended with this verse, “Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.”  To emphasize Noah’s obedience to these commands, the author sums up this chapter with this phrase.  But there is another phase in Noah’s obedience that we read about in this morning’s scripture.  It is this second phase of obedience that I want us to pay careful attention to this morning.  Noah goes into the ark and he fills the ark with a human family and virtually every living thing on earth.  It was a different sort of obedience.  As our deleted scene from the Bible might suggest – it was actually a harder task.  Noah’s obedience progresses from merely following instructions to figuring out how to do what God wants without any detailed instructions.  In making the ark, Noah was given a recipe.  With this morning’s task, Noah is simply told what to do – get the animals on the boat.  There was no Animal Gathering for Dummies book.

Leadership experts make a distinction between two different types of challenges . Technical challenges and adaptive challenges.  Technical challenges already have a known solution.  There is a roadmap which one can follow to get there – you can boil it down and put it in a book for dummies.  Adaptive challenges have no such manual because there is no one-size-fits-all or even known solution.  A way must be discovered and created through trial and error.  It is messy and difficult and you might not want to include the details in your story when you’re done.  But these adaptive challenges – the calls to obedience without a roadmap are just as important.

(For more see: http://www.amazon.com/Leadership-Line-Staying-Through-ebook/dp/B000SEGP5W/)

Building an ark from the blueprints is a technical challenge.

Cramming animals of all types onto a boat is an adaptive challenge.

Building a house from the blueprints is a technical challenge.

Walking with and figuring out how to best support a single mom provide for herself and her kids in very difficult circumstances is an adaptive challenge.

Last week’s scripture reading was much longer than this week’s reading – there aren’t so many detailed instruction for this week’s command.  Gathering this many animals – and let’s get real – especially the birds is an adaptive challenge.  It is going to be a messy, iterative, trial-and-error sort of thing.

Obedience to technical commands requires hard work.  Obedience to adaptive commands requires a different sort of obedience altogether.

Youth Kickball

If there is one thing I miss more than anything from leading the youth group, it has to be beating them in games.  Now, I don’t want to brag, but I have sort of had the reputation of being able to beat the youth in contests of all types.  Some have even accused me of using all my time at the church during the week to practice.  I will not dignify these ugly allegations with a response.

You may remember a few weeks ago, our youth challenged the rest of the church to a game of kickball and so I was more than happy to be part of the challenging team.  Now, I’m always looking for ways to build up our young people – to find the good in them and really bring that out.  But on this night, it was a challenge.  The youth lost 17 to 8.  If you doubled their score, they still would have lost.  So, finding a few praiseworthy things about their performance, you know, is difficult.  On one play, a youth did a good job of centering himself under the kickball kicked high into the air to catch it.  He didn’t catch it, but he did a good job in really getting up under the ball.  I also was impressed with the way they held on to their unbridled optimism until the very end of the game.   When most reasonable people would have given up hope, in the final inning of the game, down by 9 runs, they were chanting “no mercy.”  Mercy is typically something someone who is way ahead in the game shows to someone who is way behind.  Not our youth – they are such “glass is half-full” kind of people that they felt like they were in a position to show mercy to us.  They weren’t going to show mercy, but they were in a position to – they had us right where they wanted us – according to their rose-colored glasses.  So those are at least a couple of praise worthy things about their performance.

The Lord said to Noah, “I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation.”  There wasn’t much worth praising in the performance of humanity when God looked down from the heavenly perch and evaluated creation.  But I think God is a little bit like an optimistic coach of the Bad News Bears or the Grace Youth Kickball Team – looking for something, / anything worth praising.  It may not be much.  In Noah, God found something worth redeeming.  The rhythm of this story follows the basic rhythm of most divine-human interactions in scripture and indeed of the whole of the Biblical witness:

(1) God has a beautiful vision for creation.

(2) That creation shows itself to be immature or fallen in some way.

(3) Then God acts to remake a portion of creation from a faithful remnant – some small foundation of something worth redeeming.

God never completely starts over from scratch.  This rhythm reveals the truth that we are simultaneously made in God’s image and bent towards evil; sinner and saint.

The contents of the ark represents the goodness God intends for this world.  The faithful remnant.  The ark was, as the great Methodist hymn writer Fanny Crosby says, “a foretaste of glory divine.”  In everything that is chosen by God, God has found something that, however brightly or dimly, reflects the way heaven should look like.

Sometimes, when we look around us – we get to thinking that the world is going to hell-in-a-handbasket.  Many see the social fabric of our country and the western world as one that is decaying rapidly.  Some see the state of our youth group’s ability to play kickball as being hopelessly abysmal.  Perhaps Noah thought the same thing before he was chosen to give birth to a vessel that would literally contain all of God’s hopes and dreams for the world.  Perhaps the prophets of old thought the same thing when Israel was occupied or exiled by surrounding nations.  Or when they witnessed Israel’s faithlessness and stubbornness.  Perhaps even Jesus himself got a little discouraged when he said, “how much longer must I be with this faithless and perverse generation.”  The world, it seems, is going to hell-in-a-handbasket.


Picture source: http://rambambashi.wordpress.com/2010/04/27/noahs-ark/


Picture source: http://www.houzz.com/photos/266065/Farmer-s-Basket-traditional-baskets-

But God can do a lot with something like a handbasket.  In fact, I think they are kind of God’s specialty.  The ark even looks like a handbasket of sorts.  Really, it is just a giant, waterproof handbasket.    In the flood story it also seemed the social environment was hopelessly evil, God brings salvation through a basket of sorts – an ark that contained God’s hopes for the world.  The seed of re-creation.  In rabbinic literature, we learn that the purpose of the birds were for gathering and transporting seeds.  In the ark – we have all living things represented – humans, animals, and through the birds – plants.  God was disappointed with creation, but wanted to redeem it.  This is not a genocidal story as some simplistic interpretations try to characterize this text.  It is a salvation story.

Echoing the flood story, the story of baby Moses, a chosen one, a new beginning of sorts is placed into a basket because the Egyptian pharaoh has threatened to kill all male newborns. Salvation from slavery and oppression for Israelites in Egypt came through this little handbasket-ark that floated down the Nile.

We don’t know exactly what it looked like – but Jesus was born into a vessel – carefully wrapped in cloth and laid in a manger – much like Moses was.  And both under the threat of infanticide.  The ark contains the chosen.  It contains the goodness that God has seen in the world – however radiant or dim.  It is the seed from which God begins a new chapter of creative growth.

The temptation is to read this story and see it as another chapter of a holy God rightly dividing the righteous and the wicked, separating them eternally.  God making an ark and including some things and not other things is not God giving up on an evil world.  It is God acting for the sake of the world – for all things – choosing a point of health, holiness, some new cornerstone upon which to lay a new foundation.  The point is not punishment of the wicked, but re-creation from that which God has found some glimmer of truth, beauty, and goodness.

There is a paradox embedded in this story that takes us beyond the simple moralizing of divine retribution for the wicked and reward for the righteous.  On one hand, God destroys “every living thing that I have made.”  But on the other hand – the seed of all creation – every living thing is crammed into the ark.  All things are chosen.  All things are part of the faithful remnant.  All things are found to have some value from which to build the world.  And yet all things have been a disappointment to the creator.

In the ark, in the handbasket, in the faithful remnant – the rhythm of God’s activity from Genesis through Revelation and beyond is revealed.







It is God’s constant beckoning to be born again.

THIS call to obedience is an adaptive challenge.

There is a directionality to it.  But there is no road map.

It can happen in many different ways.

But we settle for ark building, the meeting of technical challenges as our primary mode of obedience, because we’re afraid to enter into the dark night of the soul, the 40 days and nights of rain necessary for a new creation to emerge.  We settle for ark building as the ultimate form of obedience, because we don’t know how things are going to go when we no longer have our Ark Building for Dummies book.  Ark building only prepares us for a deeper, more difficult magnitude of obedience.  It is the difference between God instructions being written on a page versus being written on our hearts.

The world does not need our condemnation – more holy rollers saying what’s right and wrong, declaring that the world or some portion thereof is going to hell-in-a-handbasket.  It needs adaptively obedient Christians to build arks for the sake of the world.  Adaptively obedient Christians to cram as many things that are good and holy into it and to weather the storm under God’s guidance to be part of the cycle of rebirth – creation, death, and resurrection.  This is the very fingerprint of the Holy Spirit.  The world needs Christians who can see the holy in all that surrounds us.

From time to time, my sister and I would say ugly things to one another growing up.  And for the record, she usually started it.  After a time out, my mom would make us say three nice things about one.  Sometimes the anger would persist and we would find the smallest things possible to complement one another with.  I would tell my sister things like, “I like your earlobes.”  Through our anemic compliments, we could still let one another feel our displeasure.  Sometimes finding that which is worthy of putting in the ark feels like that.  These anemic complements said a lot more about me – about the poverty of my spirit in that moment than it did about my sister.  Our inability to see the redeemable, the inherent goodness in the midst of a flawed world might just be the heart of what needs to be blotted out from the face of the earth.  Not having the eyes to see, as Jesus often says, keeps us from inviting others into the transformative rhythm of the Spirit’s activity in the world.  Not having eyes to see makes us bouncers at the doors of the ark, rather than gatherers of that which God wants to save.

Obedience isn’t merely hammering nails and wood together.  It is about cramming as much sacredness, whatever its current state, into the ark.  That requires eyes to see.  It requires being the sort of person who begins to see as God sees and finds the goodness in the midst of a broken world and the creativity to find a way to get it into the ark.  Obedience calls us to find a way to love what is.  This is the opportunity that Pastor Bryan spoke of last week – the opportunity that we’ve been preparing for.  Our housebuild is both our best faith effort at living out this story as a covenant community ourselves and also another way to tell the same story of the divine rhythm in our own day that each of us can live out in our own contexts.  For two years we’ve prepared.  Prepared for an opportunity at such a time as this.  And now we’re finding ways to be obedient – to seize that opportunity and put something worth redeeming – a young woman and her two beautiful daughters into an ark that will literally be a new creation, a new foundation altering their lives forever.  Perhaps this story might alter our lives forever as well – though we may not permanently live inside this house – this ark – may it live inside of us – preparing us for an opportunity to be obedient in ways that must come from our heart.


Picture source: http://rambambashi.wordpress.com/2010/04/27/noahs-ark/










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