Every year one of the possible preaching themes for Lent offered by the lectionary is the theme of covenant, and that is the theme I have chosen to focus on during this Lenten season. My overall title for the series from now through Easter is “Living in the Light of God’s Covenant Love,” and today’s specific focus is “The Covenant of the Rainbow.” We will also be looking at the covenant with Abraham, the Mosaic Covenant, the New Covenant anticipated in Jeremiah and realized in Jesus, and the Covenant Unbound with the empty tomb.
The theme of God’s covenant with people runs through Scripture and emphasizes both the relationship that God desires to have with the humans he has created and the promises God makes to them, promises to protect and preserve and provide for them.
The time of the great flood is the first time the word covenant appears, and it signals a change and a new beginning. The context of the flood is that God has watched in horror as the creation he has lovingly shaped and given life to has totally unraveled in violence and destructive behavior. God made the decision to wipe almost all of it out and start over, but he made the fateful decision to start over with people who already existed rather than trying a reboot by creating new ones. So he chooses Noah and his family to preserve and be the beginning of the new order after the flood destroys all other life on the planet.
When the flood is over and the ark has been emptied and Noah has made an offering to God, God immediately makes a promise. “Never again,” God declares. The promise has nothing to do with any indication of a new, improved version of human beings peopling the earth. Quite the opposite. God confesses the understanding that the imagination of people’s hearts is evil from childhood on. Nevertheless, God promises to “never again curse the earth because of its people,” and he promises to never again “destroy every living creature as I have done.” The promise, declared beautifully in the hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” concludes, “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”
If you are like me, this all requires a little bit of out of the box thinking compared to our usual way of thinking about God. Not just about one thing, but several. First, that God would decide to pretty much indiscriminately wipe everyone off the face of the earth except one family. Second, that he would have second thoughts about having done it when it was all over. Third, feeling the need to make a promise about it and even more, put a sign in the sky to remind himself not to do it again.
Did God realize that he had stooped to the level of violence and destruction that he so abhorred in the humans he had created? Did he feel shame at the enormity of the destruction? Or did he just come to the realization that if he wanted any people on the earth he was going to have to live with a flawed product, and resigned himself to that? We don’t get any of the psychology or inner workings of God’s thought process in making this “never again” promise, we just get the promise, and I guess that should be enough for us.
God pronounces a blessing upon Noah and his sons, and establishes the covenant with these words. “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you. I establish my covenant with you, that 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. This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will look upon it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth. This is the sign of the covenant.”
The covenant of never again. I promise that I will never again do that. The promise is made all the stronger when the first story told after this is about Noah getting drunk and having some embarrassing thing happen with his sons that causes Noah to pronounce judgments upon them. There is not even an illusion that the human race has been improved in any way because of starting over with the flood. God’s promises are not because of changed human hearts and behaviors, but because of a change in God’s heart.
We have this benign image of the rainbow as a beautiful, astonishing event after a storm. All the commentaries I have read suggest that in the anthropology of the day, lightning bolts were understood to have been sent from God’s war bow. It was a weapon, which God had used against humanity in a powerful way. Now, in the sign in the sky, the bow is turned in the other direction, pointing away from humanity. It is no longer a weapon, it is a sign of peace and promise.
Most scholars agree that these ancient stories were collected and compiled in their current form during the Babylonian exile. You can imagine the power this story would have had in that context. The chaos of the flood was a similar experience to exile, being washed away from home and wondering whether there was a future or not, wondering whether God’s intention was to destroy or redeem. The rainbow was a sign of hope for the exiles that God was not finished with them, that there was a future, that God had not abandoned them.
There are plenty of things that happen in the world that could make us wonder about God’s intentions. Rivers flood, tsunamis happen, volcanoes erupt, tornadoes and hurricanes strike, fires rage. Wars erupt, terrorists strike, economies collapse. Personal experiences like divorce or other family alienation, loss of a job, a health crisis, and grief can feel like we are drowning in flood waters. It is clear that the world is a treacherous place. It is clear that the hearts of human beings are bent toward evil from youth. It would hardly be surprising if God gave up on the lot of us and said, “That’s it. I give up. I’m done with them.”
But as people of the Book, we cling to this story, this memory that once, long ago, God said “Never again.” In spite of our inability or unwillingness to be the kind of people he wanted to have on earth, he promised that he was with us for the long haul. It is not clear and obvious to us every day, but once in a while, at the end of a storm, there is a miracle – a rainbow, which points us toward the God who has bound himself to us in covenant love and set this sign in the sky to remind both us and him of that relationship which knows no bounds.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
February 22, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church