Today’s scripture includes these theologically challenging words from Genesis 6:6: “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” To be sorry for something usually implies that something happened that you didn’t expect or anticipate. Does this mean that God didn’t know in advance the kind of trouble that the human beings he created would cause? Doesn’t God know everything? And what does it mean that humanity’s sin “grieved” God’s heart? Our human actions have the power to affect God in such a profound way?
As I discuss in this sermon, however, God’s sorrow and grief each reflect God’s profound love for us sinful humans—a love that motivated God to send his Son as a new and better Ark, not to save a handful of people but everyone who turns to him in faith.
Sermon Text: Genesis 6:5-22; 7:24; 8:14-19
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
At the risk of not being hip and relevant for a moment, I want to talk briefly about something that people under 40 will fail to appreciate: When I was a kid, there were these people who would make housecalls when something very precious in your home was sick. I’m not talking about doctors—as far as I knew, doctors only made housecalls on black-and-white TV shows. No, I’m talking about those frequent visitors in our home known as television repairmen. Remember the TV repairman? I suppose there are still a few out there, but not like in the old days. In the old days, this guy… It was always a guy… And often when he bent over to fix the TV, he was not wearing a belt, and you would often see more than you wanted to see, if you know what I mean! Anyway, he would come to your house maybe a couple times a year—to work on this large, heavy, expensive piece of furniture known as a console television. Our console TV was always made by Zenith, an American company that has long since bitten the dust.
The TV repairman would come to your house to fix problems related to things like vertical or horizontal hold. Remember those knobs? Or maybe problems related to picture quality—like, suddenly, when your picture had a sickly greenish tint. Come to think of it, there was also a “Tint” knob, wasn’t there? The worst problem of all, however, was when—heaven forbid—you turned the TV on and there was no picture at all. Just sound. When that happened, that was serious. That meant that the guy would have to go out to his van. It was not good when he went to his van! You hoped—you just hoped—that he would have some magic part in there that would allow him to fix the problem. Otherwise, the TV would have to go in the shop for a few days. And you didn’t want it to go in the shop because it was Tuesday night and Happy Days was on. And it’s not like you had two or three other TVs lying around that you could watch.
Well, things have changed, haven’t they? First, I assume that if a TV breaks today, it’s too complicated for a repairman to fix. But more importantly, it would make better financial sense to simply throw the thing out and get a new one. Electronic things are much more disposable today. When they break, we throw them away and get something new. Or, if you’re like me, you don’t throw them away or recycle them; you just move them to some dusty corner of the office or attic or garage. Until we did some cleaning recently, we could have renamed a room in our house the “Island of Misfit Electronic Toys.” And, of course, to go along with all the misfit electronic toys, we have boxes and drawerfuls of misfit cables and adapters. And I’m like, “I think that was a cable for that Palm Pilot I had in 1995. Don’t you dare throw it away! I might need it.”
You get my point: When things break, we don’t fix them; we throw them out and start over.
That being the case, we should all be able to relate to God’s problem in today’s scripture. His Creation is broken—and especially his image-bearing creatures known as human beings. They’re broken because of sin. Listen to God’s diagnosis in chapter 6, verse 5: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” That sounds really bad—much worse than going to the van to find a replacement part. The whole thing is messed up completely.
And then verse 6 says something remarkable: “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” Or, as the King James says, “it repented the Lord that he had made man upon the earth.” Now, if you’re into theology like me, you’ll recognize the potential problem that this verse creates for us. First, to be sorry about something—to experience regret, to “repent” of something—usually means that you’re surprised because something has happened that you didn’t anticipate. Right? Is God surprised at how badly human beings have behaved? Has their violence and sinfulness caught God off-guard? Did God not know exactly what was going to happen when he made the world in the first place? Doesn’t God know everything?
To make matters worse, how is it that humanity has grieved the heart of God? There’s a classic Christian doctrine known as God’s impassibility, which means that God’s creatures are unable to change God or move God or affect God. And yet it seems clear here that human actions have affected God… deeply. They have grieved the very heart of God.
John Wesley deals with the problem in his commentary on this verse the way most theologians deal with it. He says that these expressions about God repenting or being sorry or having his heart grieved are “expressions after the manner of men”—in other words, these are just a very human way of describing God—sure, that’s the way God appears to us humans, but of course God isn’t really like that. And in the past, I’ve said as much myself. Well, one contemporary Old Testament scholar whom I respect knocks John Wesley and me upside the head when he writes the following: “Does the Bible simply speak of God having surprises and regretting things only because that is how it looks to us?… This seems to involve deciding what must be true of God on the basis of what we think must be true, rather than on the basis of what the Bible says. If the Bible does not mean it when it says God regrets things, why should we assume it means it when it says other humanlike things about God, such as that God loves us?”
To quote my kids, “Ew, burn!” That’s a good point!
Don’t get me wrong. I do believe that God knows everything that’s going to happen in the future. There’s plenty of scripture to support that. But maybe, as one commenter on my blog said, God can be compared to a playwright or filmmaker who also plays a role in the play or movie—think of the way Hitchcock always made a cameo appearance in his own movies. Sure, God can know in advance how the movie’s going to end, but since he is also an actor in the movie, he allows himself to feel and respond to the other characters and the events that are happening. God is able to stand above time while at the same time placing himself right in the thick of it.
Besides, I would say that God loves us and his Creation too much to not feel these powerful emotions. How can God be like a loving Father and not feel deeply grieved in his heart for his children? I wouldn’t know this from experience, of course, but I would imagine that there is no kind of grief like the grief that children cause their parents! Can I get an Amen? That’s the nature of love, isn’t it? And what greater love is there but between a parent and child? Love is risky and painful and costly. Remember the old song by the Everly Brothers, which, in the ’70s, was a also a hit for the band Nazareth: “Love hurts, love scars/ Love wounds and marks/ Any heart not tough/ Or strong enough/ To take a lot of pain, take a lot of pain/ Love is like a cloud/ Holds a lot of rain/ Love hurts, love hurts.” Truer words were never spoken. The profound truth of this scripture is that somehow love hurts God, too. If it doesn’t hurt, it ain’t love.
Last weekend, I had the pleasure of chaperoning the youth beach retreat. We chaperones were split up into different cabins, each of us responsible for getting five kids to bed at lights-out time. Naturally, Jay put me in charge of the most difficult group of little monsters: sixth-grade boys! On my first night there, I walk into my cabin, and these boys are acting like a bunch of hyperactive monkeys, climbing on furniture, jumping on the bed, jumping on the couch, throwing things around the cabin, being silly, laughing and screaming. And doing it all very loudly. It’s not like I could tie them up or lock them in a cage, you know? How am I going to get any sleep?
So I told myself, “Brent, be cool! Don’t let them see you react. They can smell fear.” So I decided that as long as no one was getting hurt and the retreat property wasn’t being destroyed, I would just be cool and ignore their crazy-monkey behavior. I mean, at one point, they’re barricading the bathroom door with chairs and couches and tables, trying to “lock” someone inside—never mind that the door opened from the inside! Not real bright! But I took a deep breath and very calmly said, “You know you’re going to have to put all that stuff back before lights go out?” And I made sure they did. I gave them a ten-minute warning. “Lights out in ten minutes. Get ready for bed. Brush your teeth. Do whatever.” You might be disappointed to learn that sixth grade boys don’t brush their teeth before bed. Whatever… I knew that if I could just get them to lie down, close their eyes, and stop talking for a moment, they would go fast asleep. And they did.
The point is, I was trying to be cool and detached and distant—as if I were an animal wrangler and they were zoo animals. But you know what happened over the course of the weekend? I started caring about them. One boy in the cabin, for instance, was red as a lobster from a sunburn. He’s sick in bed. He can barely move without hurting. And a part of me wanted to say, “Dude… That’s what you get for not wearing sunscreen like you were told to.” I wanted to say that, but I couldn’t because my heart went out to this little monster. I felt sorry for him! And then one kid, who had been the most hyperactive of all, starts crying because some beach toy of his was accidentally broken by another kid. And a part of me wanted to say, “Dude… That’s what you get for acting like a crazy monkey on caffeine.” I wanted to say that, but I couldn’t because my heart went out to this little monster. I felt sorry for him. The point is, by the end of the weekend, against my better judgment, I’m feeling something for these kids. I’m feeling love for them, compassion for them. They may be crazy monkeys, but they’re my crazy monkeys.
I’m no longer cool and detached and distant: their lives now affect my life. What they do affects me, emotionally. That’s the way love is. If that’s the way love is for us humans, who can only love imperfectly at best, don’t you think it’s that way for God, who loves with perfect love, whose very nature is love?
Next, the Bible describes God wanting to wipe out all these human beings—because that’s exactly what they deserved; it’s exactly what they had coming to them. We don’t like this part of the story, of course. It’s not fair, we say. But when we say that, we’re forgetting that God gave these human beings their lives to begin with—as a gift. They weren’t entitled to them. Life wasn’t theirs to live as they pleased. Life was theirs to live as it pleases God. And from the very beginning, they did nothing but resist God, refuse God, rebel against God.
And yet… Please notice that just as God resolves to destroy all of humanity in verse 7, verse 8 says something remarkable: “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” The word for “finding favor” is exactly equivalent to the word we use in the New Testament for grace. Make no mistake: if it’s grace, then that means it’s not something that Noah earned. Now, to be sure, the Bible says that Noah is righteous, but his righteousness is relative to the rest of the population—and we see after the flood how badly flawed and sinful this man Noah is. My point is, Noah doesn’t earn God’s grace because grace isn’t something you can earn.
Did you hear that? Noah doesn’t earn God’s grace because grace isn’t something you can earn. God chose Noah, not because Noah had it all together spiritually, but because God is gracious. Do you understand the difference? You might have this voice in the back of your head that’s telling you, “God doesn’t love you anymore. How could he? You’re such a big sinner! Why haven’t you gotten your act together yet? Here you are, still struggling to be a good Christian after all this time… How could God still love you? You’re such a big disappointment to him. Maybe he forgave you at one time, but how could he forgive you now? Your spiritual income statement should be in the black by now. You should be paying God back by now.” Listen: If you hear that voice, that’s the voice of the devil, O.K.? God’s love and grace aren’t conditional, based on your good behavior. God’s love and grace just are… a free gift, offered without condition or price.
The question is, “Will you receive this gift of grace?” See, the good news is that just as the hard wood of the ark was the means by which Noah and his family were saved, so the hard wood of the cross of Jesus Christ is the means by which, not just a few people, but the whole world can be saved. There’s a profoundly good prayer from the Church of England that reads: “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace.”
Come within the reach of God’s saving embrace today. The door of the ark of Jesus Christ is standing wide open for you to walk in. God loves us too much to leave us out in the rain.
In fact, God loves us so much it hurts.
 John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone, Part One (Louisville: WJK, 2010), 96.