No church yesterday, so no sermon rewind today.
Except I have an ideal one from the vault: “After The Storm” from the 2013 series (and book) The Storm Before The Calm.
The message centers on one of the most embarrassing stories in the biblical library: drunk, naked Noah in the days immediately after the storm to end all storms.
After recognizing that that story didn’t quite make it into most illustrated children’s bibles, the message landed with a question: Who has to clean up after you?
Most of us know the biblical story of Noah and the flood. Even if you didn’t learn about in church or Sunday School growing up, you’ve probably heard about it at some point just because it’s a familiar part of our culture. There was even a movie based on the story in 2014, starring Russell Crowe. The basic narrative goes like this: God sees humankind’s evil and violence, and determines to destroy all life with a great flood. But Noah, a righteous man, finds favor with God, and God decides to spare Noah and his family. God instructs Noah to build an ark, or large boat, and bring a male and female of every kind of animal on board along with his wife, his three sons, and their wives. It rains for forty days and forty nights, drowning every living thing on earth, but those on board the ark are saved. When the flood subsides, the survivors exit the ark and repopulate the earth. God makes an agreement with Noah never again to destroy all life with a flood, and makes the rainbow as a sign of this covenant.
The flood story has more details and some interesting sub-themes, but that is the basic narrative we have all learned. But what you may not know is this: the story of Noah and his family doesn’t end there. There’s a short episode that occurs after they exit the ark, which casts Noah and his family in some less-than-ideal light. Our discussion of Scripture’s storm stories will be incomplete without considering this story of what happens after the storm. And it has much to teach us. We find it in Genesis 9:18-27:
18 Noah’s sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth came out of the ark. Now Ham was Canaan’s father. 19 These were Noah’s three sons, and from them the whole earth was populated. 20 Noah, a farmer, made a new start and planted a vineyard. 21 He drank some of the wine, became drunk, and took off his clothes in his tent. 22 Ham, Canaan’s father, saw his father naked and told his two brothers who were outside. 23 Shem and Japheth took a robe, threw it over their shoulders, walked backward, and covered their naked father without looking at him because they turned away. 24 When Noah woke up from his wine, he discovered what his youngest son had done to him. 25 He said,
“Cursed be Canaan:
the lowest servant
he will be for his brothers.”
26 He also said,
“Bless the Lord,
the God of Shem;
Canaan will be his servant.
27 May God give space to Japheth;
he will live in Shem’s tents,
and Canaan will be his servant.”
Well, that part sure didn’t make it into your illustrated children’s Bibles, did it?
In the afterglow of surviving the destruction of the rest of the known world, in the euphoria of making it through the storm to end all storms (the likes of which we’ll never see again!), Noah plants a vineyard. He reaps the harvest, stomps the grapes, ferments the juice, and decides to sample some of his own product. All right, he samples a lot of his own product! And he ends up getting stone cold drunk, passing out naked in his own tent. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see that picture in the children’s Bible I got for my kids.
But Genesis doesn’t omit that part of the story. It narrates Noah’s flaws as well as his righteousness, because the ancestors of our faith were real, imperfect people like you and me. And there are things we can learn from their faults, just as we can learn from their successes. So what does this piece of the story from after the storm tell us? That if you were cooped up on a boat with a bunch of animals for a year, you’d drink too much, too?
No. It tells us that we have the most vulnerability after we’ve had the greatest accomplishment. There is more danger after success than after failure. When you’ve had success upon success and you’re at the top, there’s nowhere to go but down. And when we reach that peak, that is when we are the most vulnerable.
It’s why repeat champions are so rare in sports.
It’s why entertainers are on the top of the charts one week and in rehab the next.
It’s why the pastors on the highest pedestals have the steepest falls.
It’s why some of you treat yourself after that great sale or that great project with just a little too much to drink or a little too much attention from the opposite sex.
It’s a similar trap that Noah falls into, giving in to a careless kind of euphoria. He ends up in a drunken, naked stupor, which hardly befits his identity as head of the only family on earth worth saving from the flood. But Noah’s actions result in more than just personal embarrassment. They open a rift in his family that will last for generations, the effects of which we still feel today. While Noah is passed out, his son Ham “saw his father naked and told his two brothers who were outside” (Genesis 9:22). Noah’s drunken stupor involves the whole family in a scandal, which will quickly take a turn for the worst.
Now, to us, what Ham witnesses is no big deal. Lots of boys have seen their dads in the bathroom at home or the locker room at the gym. It’s awkward and embarrassing, to be sure, but it’s nothing worth losing much sleep over.
But in Noah’s day and in the days of the Scripture writers, for reasons that are not entirely clear to us, it was a big deal. Some experts have suggested that there was more involved in this incident than merely seeing, as if sight were a metaphor for something worse like incest or abuse. Others have said that Noah’s nakedness really means his wife’s nakedness, so that Ham saw her inappropriately, or even witnessed an act of intimacy between his mom and dad. In some of the laws in Leviticus, “uncovering someone’s nakedness” means having sexual relations with them, and there’s a close link between one’s father’s nakedness and his wife’s nakedness. So these conjectures about what exactly Ham did are well founded. But for reasons I mention below, in this case I think that seeing means what it actually says. The offense is in what Ham saw, namely his father’s nakedness. In doing so, he violated his father’s dignity. And to make matters worse, he went out and told his two brothers about it, doubling the disrespect and multiplying the violation.
Maybe you know something of what this is like. Maybe you have been disrespected, or betrayed in some way by the people closest to you. Maybe, like Noah, you thought you could trust certain people, only to find out that your trust was misplaced. Or perhaps you’re on the other side of the situation, playing the role of Ham. You are the one betraying someone else’s trust, disrespecting someone you should honor and love.
One man’s careless elation and another’s disrespectful violation sets in motion a chain of events of inevitable pain and messiness. The flood was terrible, but as it turns out life after the storm is sometimes not much better.
If you read Noah’s story carefully, you will notice some significant parallels between Noah and Adam, the first human (see Genesis 2-3). Both men are the ancestors of all human life, since Adam was the first human and Noah is the progenitor of everyone who survived the fall. Both men experience a fall involving fruit, with Adam eating the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:1-24) and Noah getting drunk from wine. And both men experience shame involving nakedness, as Adam realizes his nakedness (Genesis 3:7) and Noah’s nakedness is on display for his son to see.
These details show us that Genesis is a brilliant work of art. But more than that, they show us something important about human nature. Time may be linear, but human behavior is cyclical. We keep making the same messes over and over and over again. And in the case of both Noah and Adam, their mistakes create a mess for their descendants, who have to deal with the fallout of their actions.
Which brings up Shem and Japheth, Noah’s other two sons. Ham tells them about what he has seen inside Noah’s tent. Look at what they do when they hear about it:
“Shem and Japheth took a robe, threw it over their shoulders, walked backward, and covered their naked father without looking at him because they turned away” (Genesis 9:23).
The scene unfolds in such detail. They place the garment on their shoulders, do the world’s first moonwalk, and in an act of utmost respect, they lay the garment over their naked, drunk, father. By walking backward, they keep their faces turned the other way so that they won’t see Noah in this condition. I mentioned above that I think Ham’s offense was visual—that when it says he “saw” his father, it simply means that he actually saw him and nothing more. That’s because his brothers go to extraordinary lengths to avoid seeing their father and thereby avoid the offense that Ham committed. Shem and Japheth take great care to rectify the situation without making things worse.
It’s important to realize that Shem and Japheth take these first tentative, delicate steps toward making right the situation that Noah’s and Ham’s actions have brought about. Life often works that way, doesn’t it? One or two people make the mess, and it’s up to someone else to start cleaning it up.
Unfortunately, Shem and Japheth are unable to fix things entirely. They avoid seeing their father naked, and they successfully cover him up to prevent further damage to his dignity. But that dignity has already suffered a violation through Ham, who not only saw his father naked but went and told his brothers about it. That offense cannot be undone, and it has consequences. When Noah wakes up—I love that phrasing, “woke up from his wine”—he discovers what has happened to him (9:24). He utters a curse upon Canaan, Ham’s son, as a way of punishing Ham for what he has done:
“‘Cursed be Canaan:
the lowest servant
he will be for his brothers.’
He also said,
‘Bless the Lord,
the God of Shem;
Canaan will be his servant.
May God give space to Japheth;
he will live in Shem’s tents,
and Canaan will be his servant.’”
In the past, these words have erroneously been used to justify the American slave trade and racism, with people applying this curse to Africans and African Americans, saying they are the descendants of Canaan. But nothing could be further from the truth. The curse envisions the ancient Canaanites, the closest enemies of the Israelite people. The Canaanites were a significant threat to the Israelites, and this curse in part explained the Israelites’ ability to conquer them. And pay close attention to the source of the curse; it comes not from God, but from Noah. And Noah is likely hung over when he utters it! So this curse is not some divine decree that places one race of people below another. It’s the utterance of a flawed human being, which has lasting consequences in Israel’s own time period. To read it as a justification for slavery or racism is an absurd, wrongful abuse of the text. It shows that the Bible can be dangerous in the wrong hands.
Now that we have established what Noah’s curse does not mean, we can turn our attention to what it does mean. As I said, it envisions the ancient Canaanite people, who were some of Israel’s closest enemies. It supported the Israelite view that the land of Canaan, which God would promise to give to Abraham and his descendants, was the rightful possession of the Israelite people. It supported the Israelite view that the people who lived there, the Canaanites, were evil and that it was God’s plan for the Israelites to conquer them and enslave them. And this viewpoint, of course, has lent itself to war and conflict in the ancient world that reappears even today between Israel and its neighbors in the Middle East. This incident in the tent after the storm sets in motion an ongoing rivalry between kinsfolk in Genesis and unrelenting strife in that part of the world today. One man’s careless euphoria, and another man’s calculated disrespect, creates a mess than endures for generations. It’s a never-ending debris field. Shem and Japheth started the clean-up, and people are still cleaning it up today.
A lot of people today, in their own families or work places or even churches, are careless in their euphoria but calculating in their violation. Some of us both celebrate God and use people. Simultaneously! With the best of intentions, we are capable of manipulating, persuading, and cajoling folks to help us meet OUR objectives rather than empowering them to conquer THEIRS. We have to reckon with the possibility that this might describe our behavior. This whole book has been about storms, but it’s taken until the end, in a chapter about what happens after the storm, for us to come face to face with the possibility that we might just be the storm instead of the victim. Through our carelessness or our disrespect, we might be making the mess that somebody else will have to clean up. It could be that you’ve been reading all along, thinking about all the storms others are going through, but you’ve failed to recognize that when it comes to your inner circle, you are the storm.
Is it possible that you have been careless in your actions and attitudes? Is it possible that you have violated the trust of others, even those closest to you? Is it possible that others experience you like an E-5 tornado, wreaking havoc, wrecking relationships, causing all kinds of damage and leaving all kinds of mess behind you…mess that other people have to clean up?
Pause for a moment and ask yourself honestly, whether someone else has to put the cloak on their shoulders and walk backwards without looking, to clean up a mess you made. Who has to play Shem and Japheth to your Noah or Ham?
Today, as we look at what happens after the storm, I long for you to take a personal inventory, look in the mirror and ask yourself this question: Who has to clean up after me?
For some, Noah’s experience hits very close to home. Alcohol is the deal for them. That was the case for a man I once heard of, who was walking erratically on a city street at 1:00 a.m. A police officer spotted him and asked where he was going that time of night.
“Officer,” he replied, “I am going to a lecture about alcohol abuse and the effects it has on the human body.”
The officer said, “Really? Who is giving that lecture in the middle of the night?”
“My wife,” the man answered.
We may laugh at jokes like this, but the reality for some is that it is no laughing matter. Maybe that’s the reality you’re living in. Alcohol is a problem and you’ve got the DUIs to prove it. You keep saying, “I’ve got it under control,” but you don’t; it has you under control. Just like Noah, the wine or beer or liquor makes you and your family vulnerable to a mess that someone else will have to deal with later on.
A popular car website lists the legal blood alcohol level for driving in various countries, as well as some of the extraordinary penalties for drunk driving around the world. According to that report, if someone is convicted of a DUI in Malaysia, that person’s spouse has to serve the jail time with him or her.[i] That sounds extreme and unfair, but in a way the same thing happens everywhere. In the U.S. it’s not formally written into the law that a spouse of a drunk driver will suffer, but it is the lived reality nevertheless. Seldom does someone’s excessive drinking damage only that person. Al-Anon is a support program for those who have been affected by someone else’s drinking problem. It helps people clean up the mess in their lives that was created by alcoholic parents, spouses, siblings, and children. I know a lot of people who are in this program. And I know a lot of others who have put someone in it. Who has to clean up after me?
For others, the issue looks more like Ham’s offense than Noah’s drunken stupor.
It’s a sad truth that some people violate the trust and decency of those they should love the most. They leave their mate for someone else…and wonder why their kids don’t just love their new boyfriend or girlfriend. Actually, the kids are just trying to clean up after the mess the adults have made. They just needed to be kids, and all of a sudden they’ve got all these grown-up cleaning responsibilities to take on. Or maybe the offense has little or nothing to do with sex and romance, and everything to do with one’s temper. Someone’s family cleans up the dishes that they break, and it symbolizes for them the way they must clean up their souls and spirits from that person’s latest tantrum. And maybe things would change if they could just stop and ask themselves, Who has to clean up after me?
Of course there will be people who don’t belong in either of these categories, because neither alcohol abuse nor betrayal of others’ trust is much of a problem. But we can make messes in many other ways, which those around us will have to clean up just as well.
We buy impulsively…and our spouse has to clean up the credit.
We gossip recklessly…and our church has to clean up the hurt feelings.
We mistreat the environment…and our children will have to clean up the air and water.
It happens even among pastors in the United Methodist Church, where historically pastors have moved around every few years. Certain pastors are legendary for making messes in churches, and if you happen to be the next pastor, you might as well get out the mop! We all have it within us to create a storm for other people, to leave behind a mess that someone else will have to clean up. It could be as dramatic as a drug addiction or as seemingly innocent as a bit of gossip. Our actions rarely effect only us. And all of us need to stop and ask the hard question of ourselves: Who has to clean up after me?
So many others know all too well how true this is, that our actions can create problems for those closest to us. Why? Because they have been the child, spouse, sibling, coworker, or friend walking backwards with a garment on their shoulders, taking the tentative, awkward steps of fixing what others have caused to go wrong. Some of them have even been doing it so long that it’s become almost second nature; that backwards walk has become a regular habit. That’s why there’s a flip side to the question of Who has to clean up after me. We also owe it to ourselves to ask, Who am I cleaning up after, and should I be doing it?
Whether you are a mess-maker or a mess-cleaner—and chances are you’re a little bit of both—mark my words: the cleanup continues for generations! That’s what Genesis 9 is all about; it sets in motion an intergenerational conflict that’s still in motion even today.
We all know it’s true: things really do run in families. I come from a family full of people who are simultaneously Know-It-Alls and Chronic Avoiders. We know everything about every subject and there’s no difficult conversation we can’t put off until later! Maybe yours is the same. In fact, maybe your family dinners are so full of talk about issues that you never discuss emotions. Dwelling on issues becomes the perfect cover for avoiding emotions! Everyone knows where you stand on presidential politics, but no one knows the wounds you’ve nursed since childhood. And the same story repeats all around the family dinner table. Is that the way it is in your home. Who cleans up after all of you?
Those family patterns are inevitable, but they are not ironclad. With God’s help, they can be broken. Some of my greatest joys in ministry happen when I see people break the harmful cycles in which they were raised.
I’ve seen sons of philanderers stay faithful.
I’ve seen daughters of addicts stay sober.
I’ve seen children of atheists come to faith.
Bad stuff runs in families…until by the grace of God it doesn’t.
I have a glorious hope for the people of Good Shepherd Church and those who read this book. I hope that someday soon, you will be able to ask yourself that question, “Who has to clean up after me?” and you’ll be able to answer, “Now, at last, no one needs to.”