The thing about fairy tales…
We all know the story of Cinderella. We have read the storybooks and watched the movies and listened to the musicals.
The prince is holding a ball! He has invited all of the young women in the entire kingdom. And he will choose one of them to marry! And there is a young woman who would really like to go, but her wicked stepmother, and her wicked stepsisters, won’t let her. So she goes to her mother’s grave and wishes really hard, and some magic doves bring her a gown and a pair of shoes. And she goes to the ball.
At the ball, she and the prince talk and dance and fall in love. And when she leaves, she loses her shoe. But the prince vows that he will find her, even if every young woman in the entire kingdom—none of whom have the same size feet—have to try this shoe on.
Eventually, the first of this young woman’s stepsisters tries the shoe on. She can see that it’s not going to fit, so she cuts off her toes. And, as the shoe fills with blood, the prince knows that she’s not the one.
So the second of this young woman’s stepsisters tries the shoe on. She can also see that it’s not going to fit, so she cuts off her heel. And, as the shoe fills with more blood, the prince knows that she’s not the one.
Finally, the young woman tries the shoe on. And as foot squelches perfectly into the shoe, the prince realizes that she it the one who he talked with, and danced with, and fell in love with.
And at the wedding, the young woman takes her revenge, and has the magic doves—which you had forgotten about—pluck the stepsisters’ eyes out.
You see, the thing about fairy tales is that there are a lot of versions of each one. There are dozens of Cinderellas from all over the world: Greece and France, and China and Vietnam, and Arabia.
And the other thing about fairy tales is that the early versions—the versions that were there before we cleaned them up for children—are usually a lot more disturbing than you remember.
Today is the first day of the lectionary year. Every year, right around this time, we start with a reading from Genesis, and, over the course of the next few months, we will work our way through the Old Testament. Some time in Advent, we will move into one of the gospels—this year, that will be Matthew—and, a little after Easter, we will start in on Acts and the epistles.
Finally, on Pentecost, we will hear the story of Pentecost. Then it’s on to the chaos of summer.
And this year, we are starting with the story of the great flood.
There are a lot of stories about great floods. There are stories from Mesopotamia and Greece, from India and China, from Ireland and Scandinavia, from Africa… and Australia… and Polynesia… and the pre-Columbian Americas. Almost everyone has a story about a flood.
God looks at the world and sees that it is corrupt and full of violence. Ever since one of them plucked some fruit from a tree and knew good and evil, humans have been nothing but trouble.
God—and it says this right there in the Bible—is sorry that he created humans in the first place, and he grieves in his heart, and he resolves to blot every person and animal and creeping thing and bird from the face of the earth.
And then God second guesses himself. Noah seems okay. Noah is righteous and blameless and walks with God. So God will spare Noah… Noah and his wife… and his sons and his sons’s wives… God will spare Noah and his wife and his sons and his sons’ wives… and a few of every animal… and a few of every creeping thing… and a few of every bird.
God will spare Noah and his wife and his sons and his sons’ wives, and a few of every animal and creeping thing and bird. And that’s it.
So Noah builds an ark, and gathers his family, and gathers the animals. And the rains fall and the waters swell. And there’s stormy weather… until there isn’t anymore… and God lets the survivors on the ark see the sun once more.
There’s a criticism that gets leveled at our faith: that the stories we tell—especially the stories from the primordial and ancestral ages of Genesis—do not follow the facts… that the stories we tell are just fairy tales… rewritten and refurbished by Iron Age shepherds.
But rewriting and refurbishing is important; especially when you’re dealing with stories that everyone knows. And everyone knew that there had been a flood. And if you know the other stories… if you know how people expect the story to go… then you can see how the people who wrote this version… added a twist.
After Noah and his wife and his sons and his sons’ wives and the animals and the creeping things and the birds get off the ark, God tells them two things:
One of them is not in our reading today, but God says, “I will never again curse the ground because of humans, and I will never again destroy every living creature as I have done.”
The other one is in our reading today, and God says, “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.”
And God takes her bow… and lays it down in the clouds.
And here’s the thing… here’s the thing… here’s the important and most important thing:
This is unilateral. God does not tell Noah that if Noah does these things… or if Noah’s wife and her sons and her sons’ wives refrain from doing these things… or if the animals and creeping things and birds remember to put on sackcloth and ashes…
No. This is not about who we are or what we do. This is about who God is and what God does: over the course of this story, God sees the violence of humanity and imitates the violence of humanity; God resolves to blot out all life on earth and second guesses himself; God destroys almost all life and then God says, “This is not who I am.”
And God lays their weapons down. And God ain’t gonna study war no more.
There is a tension in that last part of course; scripture tells us a lot about a God who brings war. But if we read carefully—if we keep our eyes open—then we keep meeting this God who… doesn’t work that way.
We keep meeting the God who brings the powerful down from their thrones… and redeems the whole world… and overthrows death and sin… without raising an army or lifting a weapon.
The critics have a point. This story is not factual. There was just this fairy tale that everyone knew was true: that the gods had grown angry because humans were too much, and they decided to kill everyone, and we’re only here because someone caught wind of the plot and outsmarted the gods themselves.
But someone—no one knows who—took that story and said, “If that’s true, here’s how our God did things; and it ends with unilateral disarmament and a declaration about who our God is.”
And there is power in that. There is power in rewriting and refurbishing and retelling the stories so that the God who is in them is the God who we know: the God who lays aside glory and comes into the world as one of us… the God who stands before kings and magistrates… the God who goes to the cross and the tomb…
…the God who looks at the rainbow in the clouds… and at his empty hands… and walks even to the gates of hell… and says, “I will meet them with love. After all, it’s the only thing I’ve got.”
And that story is not a fairy tale. That story is a gospel… and that story is true… and that story just might be more true than any other story that has ever been told.