Covered By The Rainbow

Genesis 9:8-17
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 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.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, 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 that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

Lent1 / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 2-26-12

Children’s Time: If the flood happened today, what would you take on the ark? Stuff. Guitars. Laptop. Backpack. Gear. Life jacket. Paddle. Bicycle. Toys. Can we take all this with us? No. Beyond the essentials of food and clothing, all we really need is a promise. That God will be there. The rainbow reminds us of God’s mercy and grace, even when we don’t deserve it. This Lenten season, let’s listen for God’s word of forgiveness and watch for rainbows that remind us of God’s promise.

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

When was the last time you saw a rainbow? That glorious spectacle of raindrops and sunlight – all the colors in the spectrum are represented here: ROYGBIV (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet). Here is a reminder of a promise. Here in the clouds is a sign of God’s covenant never again to destroy the world through a flood. But destroy it God did! That part is often left out of the illustrated children’s Bibles. You know, that part about wrath and destruction. There was God, feeling sorry for having created the world in the first place, because of the wickedness and violence they committed against one another. A watery grave awaits all living things, except for Noah and his family and the animals he managed to save.

Why is this part of the Noah’s Ark story often glossed over? The part about human sin? You see, sin also got smuggled onto the ark (unlike the unicorns) and is alive and well today. Sin and violence were carefully tucked away somewhere in the heart of Noah and his family. There is a saying attributed to Karl Barth, that “the Old Adam was drowned in the waters of our baptism… but he’s a really good swimmer!”

So, what are we to make of this story? When we see a rainbow it’s a wonder – we marvel at its beauty – oh, can you see it? They’re beautiful! The word used in the Hebrew is the same word for ‘a bow and arrow.’ It’s as if God were placing a protective shield around the earth at that moment of promise. “My bow is in the clouds now. Never again will natural disasters destroy the earth. I’ve got your backs.”

Yes, there are still natural disasters. And, yes, there is still human sin, some of which has contributed to the climate change that brings such disaster. But God’s promise has not changed.

It’s a promise that came to Jesus in his baptism: “You are my son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” It’s a promise that comes in the clouds near the end of every storm through the rainbow in the sky. “Never again,” says God. “Never again will I destroy the earth.” Oh that we could hear such words from the Lord when storms gather, when dread descends upon us, when we are lost at sea or tempted in the wilderness of sin.

When mighty waters overwhelm us there is an ark to keep us afloat – a promise to sustain. We have these sacred stories of destruction and promise. Of the end of the world and of new beginnings. Of temptation and triumph.  Of God not giving up on God’s people.

When I think of not giving up, I’m reminded of a story told by Mark Hanson, bishop of the ELCA.  Recently, he was wearing his clergy collar at an airport terminal when someone shouted across the way, “Which church?”  “Lutheran!” Hanson shouted back.  “Oh, we love Lutherans!” came the reply.  Well, he had to make his way around the baggage claim to get to this woman and ask why?  “Well, I work for FEMA,” she said, “and the first people to show up after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast were the Lutherans – and they’re still there today, after most everyone else packed up and headed out.”

We can be proud of the way we are ‘building an ark’ for those in need among us, through Lutheran Disaster Response and other helping agencies, through your own generous support of the North St. Paul Food Shelf!

Getting back to Mark chapter 1: some scholars have compared these seven verses in today’s lesson to the whole story of the Old Testament, summed up in 3 parts: Jesus’ baptism, temptation and preaching of the good news. Here is the story of the Exodus (of coming through the waters of his baptism – as when Moses parted the Red Sea, bringing the Israelites out of slavery); and here is the wandering in the wilderness for forty years (as Jesus was tempted for 40 days by Satan); and here is the coming to the Promised Land (compared to Jesus’ bringing of the good news – the Gospel of our salvation – to all who had ears to hear).

Okay, so God has promised to be there for us. Great. Why should I care? I don’t have any storms, personally. I’m doing just fine. Who needs God?

Yesterday, I attended a workshop with a few other Holy Cross members where the bishop of our synod, Peter Rogness, spoke. He was quoting some statistics about religious preferences. In a recent poll that was taken, the fastest growing segment of the population appears to be those who put down for their religious preference: NONE. Some 34 million Americans are represented in this category. They see the church as hypocritical, judgmental, and insincere. Their perception is that the church is too focused on rules and not enough on spiritual matters. It’s not that they aren’t spiritual – only disillusioned with religion as they understand it.

This feeling was highlighted in a youtube video that went viral a few weeks ago. There’s a young man saying how much he hates religion but loves Jesus. After 19 million hits this video is touching a nerve with many Americans who feel the same way.

The question that lingers for me is: does the church have an ark in such a world? Is the church (or religion, or tradition) capable of keeping people afloat by the simple promise that God will be there? This is something I wish more people heard about: the unwavering love of God for people who still don’t get it – who hurt each other in sin – who build churches and turn a blind eye to the poor. The God who put a bow in the clouds said his mercy and grace was more powerful than our sin and disobedience.

Yes, there is much about religion that is wrong – but what’s right about the church is more powerful. Together, we become the hands and feet of Christ. Together, we accomplish more than we ever could alone. Together, we live out that hope in Jesus until he comes again in glory.

We may never see the world threatened by another Great Flood – but the threat of human sin is no less ominous. Who is not overwhelmed with stories of tsunamis and hurricanes – of political unrest and of civil war – of dictators killing thousands of this their own people, as in Syria?

The sign of Noah has not changed: I will be your God and my mercy covers you as the bow in the clouds.  In fact, the Hebrew word for “rainbow” is the same word for an archer’s bow – meaning, God’s bow will “cover you,” much like a shepherd’s rod and staff may comfort you.

How on earth can such a message be brought to a world full of such strife and pain as ours? It almost sounds childish. Foolish. And yet, no other power has been so remembered in human history as this: a young man from Nazareth who laid down his life for the sake of the world. A common carpenter who stood up to the Roman Superpower of his day, under the banner of mercy and grace. Jesus’ undeserved death and glorious resurrection opened to us the way of everlasting life.

These coming 40 days of Lent I invite you into the ark, with your sins and all. Together, let’s stand under God’s rainbow and let the world do its best. We are given all that we need in Jesus and in our baptism into God’s family. May this word of promise sustain you in the coming days: “You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.” And may this grace and mercy transform your life – your home – our community – and the world.

Let us pray: O God, you set your bow in the clouds over what was left of a rebellious people. That sin lingers in each of us, even as we come to you for forgiveness and mercy. May your grace sustain us and draw others into the ark of your love until that day we reach the shores of our heavenly home in you. Amen.

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