Bible Stories You Didn't Outgrow

II: Noah's Ark

How do we tell this story nowadays? In the Disney version, Donald and Daisy Duck are reunited. Gag me.

Noah's ark is not a cute story about animals. It's a terrifying story about judgment. [Gen. 6:5-8]

Today I want to show you four things about judgment. You can be sure they're true because I made them all start with "S". Judgment is (1) severe; (2) surprising; (3) satisfying; (4) saving.

(1) Judgment is severe.

Once my kids are in bed, my wife and I get wild: We break out the dessert and turn on the TV. We like crime dramas like "Law and Order" and "The Practice." Now anyone who thinks judgment is just bad hasn't wasted enough hours watching these shows. Judgment is the point of these shows. The killer deserves it. The victim's family deserves it. Nothing feels worse than when he gets off. Nothing feels better than when he gets it.

Before I go on, I have to interrupt myself. Some of you have been harassed and abused for so long that it's others who bear most of the guilt in your life. On these shows you identify with the victims or their families. Or else you're just upset by what you see others get away with. You identify with the cops. You want justice: to clear you, convict your enemies, put them away, and make you safe again. Today's talk is for you too.

Others among you may already carry a lot of guilt. You identify with the criminals. I'm not here to add to your guilt, or rub your face in it. But I'm also not here to shrug it off and tell you to get over it. You know even better than I do that getting over it isn't that easy. Today's talk is for you too.

Others may already be turned off by another sermon on judgment. Isn't God mellower nowadays? Many people think so. Muslims teach that if your good deeds outweigh your bad deeds, then God is satisfied and allows you into heaven. Lots of non-Muslim Americans think the same thing. Every once in a while a movie comes out with a character whose good deeds exactly balance the bad ones, and who is stuck in-between until he or she does something to tip the balance: Cary Grant in "Topper," Patrick Swayze in "Ghost" (I think), and so on.

At first this idea seems to make sense. But does it really work? What if our criminal justice system worked like that? I kill someone. But in court I plead, "Sure I killed him. But I have three kids. My wife and I have created three whole human beings." The judge does the math, and lets me go with – a commendation! (And a warning that I'm over my limit if I kill again.)

Or, Westmont College finds out I've been embezzling money from the scholarship fund. I've stolen $10,000. But I show my charitable giving receipts for all the years I've been paying taxes. They exceed the ten grand. Whew! Not only do I keep my job, but because I'm in the black, I get a promotion and permanent tenure!

C'mon. What kind of world would we have if that's how judgment worked? Whom are we trying to fool? Ourselves, that's whom. Life wouldn't be Hollywood, it would be hell on earth.

What makes us think God has even lower standards than we do? Wishful thinking, maybe?

The biblical picture is the opposite. It's also much closer to the real world. The judge isn't interested in all the great things you've done besides the murder. No wonder judgment is severe – not only in the laws we make for ourselves, but especially in God's laws.

(2) Judgment is surprising.

On the cop shows, a moment comes when it's over. The music swells, the accused is cuffed, and his or her rights are read.

Maybe you knew it was coming. Maybe you thought the crime would never be solved. Yet suddenly it happens – and in a flash, you realize that life will never be the same. [Matt. 24:36-44]

Judgment sure surprised me. It came on a night when I was home from school for Christmas vacation. I wasn't guilt-ridden, and I wasn't a victim. I thought I was fine! My folks were in bed, and I was bored. So I looked in the nightstand next to my bed and pulled out – huh! – the New Testament my godparents had given me when I was one year old. I don't remember ever seeing it before. And what I started reading scared the living hell out of me. "Sell all you have." "No one who looks back is fit." "Leave your parents and follow me." "Do this and you shall live."

Now I had been kind of a Boy Scout. I didn't get into a lot of trouble. But I hadn't done a lot of loving God, or loving my neighbors. And, come to think about it, I had managed to be a jerk to my girlfriend, and lied now and then, and been arrogant, and teased a few people in grade school in ways that must have hurt more than I can imagine, and done more that I'd rather not talk about. And in spite of it all, I had been sure that I was hot stuff, that God thought I was good enough. Well, suddenly I was seeing red lights in my rearview mirror. I thought of myself as innocent, but compared to Jesus? Jesus nabbed me. Cuffed me. Boy Scouts are criminals too.

(3) Judgment is satisfying.

Christians often talk as if judgment is something to be avoided. But being caught is a relief. There's a peace on the faces of people who have confessed, or who have blown it on the stand, or been convicted. The running is over. You can face up to what you've done. You can get honest. You can even, for the first time, look beyond the punishment to your rehabilitation.

And how did my girlfriend (now my wife) feel about my getting caught? Good. Relieved. Vindicated.

Judgment day is really satisfying if you're innocent. I was a juror on a civil trial where the plaintiff wanted $700,000. We awarded $10,000. I still remember the look on the defendant's face. He was grateful for judgment, liberated. Noah must have looked like that.

Do you know what the most satisfying judgment is? It's the reversal of an innocent man's conviction. The one who won the most important appeal ever was Jesus of Nazareth. The whole world judged him guilty of blasphemy and sedition, and sentenced him to death. Then God judged Jesus, and acquitted him on appeal. God reversed his sentence and granted him eternal life, and a seat at his right hand. Justice! This is why Good Friday is the least comfortable day in the year, and Easter is the most satisfying. There really is justice in our world. Good finally triumphs over evil. [2 Pet. 2:5, 9]

(4) Judgment is saving.

Christians often talk as if judgment is bad news. But Noah found favor.

Hooray for Noah. But what about me? Well, let me return to that Christmas break in college, when Jesus cuffed me. The rain started falling, first in sprinkles and then in sheets. And I was not in the boat.

The water rose and rose. Up to my chest. Up to my neck. Now would be a good time for the rain to stop! But it didn't. I swam for a whole day, struggling against the flood, fighting the logic of God's judgment. And then I went under. Once. Twice. Three times.

And I stopped breathing. No last minute reprieve. Game over. Justice.

And mercy too. Remember, when I was put away, it brought your safety.

Then a strong arm lifted my lifeless body up and out of the water. And a truly extraordinary thing happened. It was too late for CPR. But it wasn't too late for resurrection. [1 Pet. 3:19-22]

Out of the grave of my past life, God raised me. Not because I got away with it, or earned it, or had always done the right thing. Not because my good deeds outweighed my bad deeds (which they didn't). Only because someone else claimed me.

I'd been befriended by the last one I expected. The very one who was issuing all those impossibly high standards. The one who died victimized but entirely innocent. The one who aced his test, whom God vindicated and rewarded with new life. The one who could have turned around and blitzed everyone who did it to him, and everyone who went along, and everyone who stood by while it happened, and everyone who ran out when it looked like they were next. But instead of acting like Arnold Swarzenegger, he acted like – like himself. He reached out to them – to me – and forgave us. He began setting us right, one by one, little by little, not comforting us with false assurances that nothing was really wrong in the first place, but seeing us all the way through our trial and taking our punishment.

And then he hauled me up into the ark and dried me off. Not into jail, but into the boat! And the water of my judgment became the water of my salvation. Now I was in Noah's family – among a community of people who had found favor. And now that water was keeping us afloat, safe from a world full of evil, hopeful for another chance at life in a new world.

Did you know that some of the first Christians thought of the Church as Noah's Ark? The Church is the place where we can ride out the storm together, and pull others on board to join the family. And at the end of the ride, the one who will meet us and reward our faithfulness (or not) is the same one who rescued us with his own blood. Jesus is our judge. That thought is comforting, and inspiring, and sobering. It makes me want to see that day come soon.

I'm not saying the church is perfect. How could it be when I'm in it? Think of how that ark must have smelled after a while! Churches are full of problems, because churches are where waterlogged sinners regain our strength. Even healthy churches require patience, discipline, grace – and lots of shoveling. But where would you rather be? And what a voyage they take us on!

I've found favor. Judgment has gone from being a nightmare to being a dream. Not because I'm special, but because I'm like everyone else. Like you in the band. Like you old-timers. Like you first-time guests.

If Jesus has cuffed you and you're ready to talk, some ex-cons like myself are here to lead you through the water and into the ark. Why don't you come on up after we're done? We want to show you the rainbow.