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 The Rainbow Covenant

Sermon - 2/26/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Genesis 9:8-17

The choir song was a great lead-in to today's text, because that told the first part of the story, of Noah and the ark and the flood. And now we come to the conclusion of that story, after the ark came to rest and Noah and family and animals and everything are released. And then we read, in chapter 9, verses 8 through 17:

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you,10and 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. 11I 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.’ 12God 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: 13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15I 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. 16When 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.’ 17God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’

Well, this this story is one, I think, of two stories that people will probably associate with a rainbow. So I'm curious, just do a little test, what is the other story we associate with the rainbow? Yes! The second story is that legend of St. Patrick's Day, of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

It got me to thinking -- how do you combine these two stories? How do you combine the great Biblical stories with folklore? Like we would ever do that, you know, say for instance, take the stories of the birth of Jesus and combine them with stories of a jolly old elf from the North Pole who distributes presents. Oh yeah, we did that :)

So, at any rate, I was we contemplating such deep thoughts this week, reflecting on this text in preparation for this morning, when I went up to my sister's place to deliver her Christmas present. Now, it's not that I was late :). But rather, she wanted for Christmas a new back-splash above her countertop. And she knew that I've done tile work, and so she got that would make a good Christmas present. So I gave her a back-splash, and went up on Friday, my Dad met me there, to replace the existing tile and put in new tile. You know, to finish her Christmas gift.

And while I was there -- she lives up on the little North folk of the Santiam River, way off the beaten path in the mountains -- I noticed that she has one of Mom's watercolors. My mom, in the last few years of her life, really got into watercolors and painting. She always had an artistic streak, and I have three of her paintings in my office, if you've never seen them, stop in sometime.

This particular one:

Turns out is of a rainbow. A double rainbow, and in fact this is the scene out my sister's front window, of the little North fork of the Santiam. So it was inspired by a rainbow that appeared there one day.

Well, seeing that painting reminded me once again of how fortunate I've always felt, and how I wish that every child had a mother like my own. A mother that you never doubt that love, that fierce love for you. There are times when maybe we took it for granted, but we never doubted.

So what's that have to do with this story, about a flood and the rainbow? Well, probably nothing, but I just like Mom's picture :) Because it reminded me of her love, that warm feeling, that glow you sometimes get when you feel that kind of love. So that's just a freebie. They used to teach you that a sermon was 3 points and a poem. Now it's 3 points and an image. So here's my image.

Now the 3 points: this covenant, the Rainbow Covenant (I'm calling it), is the first of four major covenants we find in the Hebrew scriptures. The others are the covenant with Abraham, the covenant with Moses, and the covenant with David. Add to that the covenant from Jeremiah 31, the new covenant placed upon our hearts, and you've got a nice sermon series for Lent. And then cap it off on Palm Sunday with the Christ Covenant, so that's where I'm going here. So this is the first in that series.

As we will see, covenants are central not just to our tradition and the stories of our faith, but they are essential elements of our faith. Covenants are binding agreements between two parties. They're the basis of modern law. Remember the covenant with Moses, the central part of that covenant is what? The 10 Commandments, right?

One of the more familiar covenants in the Hebrew scriptures is actually a covenant between jus two parties, very personal, often used in wedding ceremonies. The covenant between Ruth and Naomi, and remember Ruth says to her mother-in-law: "Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people; your God my God".

So covenants define the terms of a relationship. And sometimes we refer to Christians and Jews as "people of the covenant". That is to say, that our faith is not so much based on doctrine (a set of beliefs) as it is based in a relationship. So that's the 'big idea' of this sermon series, if you will -- that our faith is not just about or only about our beliefs.

Think of it this way: do you determine who is in your family by what they believe, by who they vote for, by what kind of music they like, who they marry, or their favorite sports team? Well, maybe their favorite sports team :)

Family, you see, is determined by relationship, whether genetic, legal, or whatever basis. And so too our faith is all about our relationships. Our relationship to God, our relationship to Jesus, our relationship to the family of faith. Our relationship to all of humanity. Indeed, as we see in this text, our relationship to all of creation.

So, exploring covenants is essential to exploring our faith. And the Biblical story is that story of how God's people understand their relationship with God, revealed in these covenants.

So let's take a closer look, then, at this Rainbow Covenant. Now, everyone knows this story, right? Creation, humanity, has not turned out so well, it's too wicked, God decides to wipe them all out and start over again. He recruits Noah to build this ark. Now, Bill Cosby has a wonderful routine about Noah and the flood. According to Cosby, Noah is the one who came up with the idea of 40 days and 40 nights. You know the story -- Noah's working in the workshop ("voomba, voomba, voomba"). Ding. "Noah". "Who is that?". "It's the Lord, Noah". "Riiiiiiiight" :). Some of you have probably heard that before, not sure if he still does it, but it's a great routine.

God tells Noah that he's going to destroy the world. Noah asks 'how are you going to do it?', and God says He's going to let it rain for 4,000 days. Noah says "I have a better idea, let it rain for 40 days and 40 nights, and wait until the sewers back up" :) And God says "Riiiiight" :)

So here's the challenge: what do we do with a story that's been lampooned in comedy, or relegated to the children's section of our Bibles, is rarely taken seriously (because we can't take it literally)? Now, I know some people do, and try to. But here's what I do with it (so now, the 3 points):

First, I don't dismiss it as a fable, as a children's story, as something ancient people just made up to explain rainbows.

I start with the premise that our ancestors were just as intelligent, just as sincere, just as reasonable as any of us. Now sure, they didn't have all the science, they didn't have all the knowledge that we have about the origins of the universe, but never confuse knowledge with intelligence or science with wisdom. General Omar Bradley, the General who led our troops in Northern Africa and Europe in World War II was a great populist, known for his witticisms. And he famously said: "We live in a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount".

You see, just because we know more than the ancients doesn't mean we're any smarter or any wiser. So, sure, the story of Noah's Ark requires some creative imagination to believe -- just what did those carnivores eat for the 375 days they were on the ark (not just the 40 days, that was just the rain)? 375 days, locked up with all that fresh meat on the hoof, bellyaching about not enough hay. I'm sure the Lions had a solution for Noah about those Gazelles who were complaining :)

It's only when we get away from silly debates about the factuality of the story and we focus instead on the meaning of the story that we begin to understand the truth of the story.

Second, I want to ask: what does this story teach us, not about events of history, but about the character of God and the character of humanity?

Now, here's a very interesting thing that's often missed in our creative retelling of the story in all those wonderful children's books and comedy routines. The whole reason for the flood is what? The wickedness of humanity, the sin, right? And so God decides to start all over, we're going to start fresh with a righteous family. Well, I want to ask God: so how did that work out for you, God? Have you seen any of the Presidential debates? You know, immediately after this story, what happens? Noah plants a vineyard, gets drunk, and he goes to sleep in his tent, and he's naked (I don't know why he's naked, they don't tell us that, but there he is, naked), and his son Ham sees him, and instead of doing the right, respectful thing, what does he do? He goes out and tells his brother: "Hey, Dad's asleep naked, in the tent".

You have to understand that in ancient societies, honor and shame are incredibly important, so much based on that. This is a very shameful thing to do. So, Noah, for the very first time speaks in the story at this point (doesn't speak anywhere in the story until now), and when he speaks, he pronounces a curse on his son Ham, that all of his descendents (the Canaanites) will become slaves of the descendents of the other son.

You get the point, see, that sin and wickedness is still there. Nothing has changed.

But wait a second, God -- why did we go through all of that? You just wiped out all of humanity, almost, most of the living creatures. I mean, is this not genocide here? Where are you going with this, God?

Well, read the rest of the story. Indeed, something has changed. And that is found in Chapter 8, verse 21, where we read: "God says in his heart, I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth. Nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done".

Huh. The change in the story is in God's heart. Turns out this is the whole point of the story. It's not that we human beings have wised up -- 'Oh, I get it now God, we're going to be good, never again are we going to mess up', right? No, we human beings are the same. The point is, human character is what it is. God is the one who changes. This is a children's story? This is deep theological reflection on the nature of God. It's about God's character, about God's love, about God's forgiveness.

We thought it was a story about how God acted to redeem humanity from our wicked ways, when in fact it's actually a story about how the suffering caused by our wicked ways changed God. Huh.

Grace that extends not just to humanity, but for all of creation. And if God's concern is for the whole earth, how can ours be any less?

Third point: what, then, does this teach us about our relationship with God? Now, I can only speak for myself, but what I get out of this story is that it's not about me, you see. Or it's not about just me. It's about all of us. It's about all of creation.

For God so loved the world, God sent a rainbow to remind us. You see, rainbows don't care if you're male or female, Republican or Democrat, gay or straight, Christian or Muslim, rich or poor, Duck or Beaver. Even if you're human or animal, rainbows just are. They are one of those wonderful gifts of creation that don't do anything -- at least not in a material sense. They're just there, as occasional reminders for all of us, the good, the bad, and the ugly. A reminder that whether we've been naughty or nice, whether we've had a good day or a bad day, that God still loves us. God still loves the earth.

You see, at the end of that rainbow, it's not a pot of gold that I see. I looked at that picture, and I realized that it was there, at the end of the rainbow on that point, where we spread Mom's ashes into the still waters of the little North Fork of the Santiam.

It's not a pot of gold I see. It's a pot of love. Of Mom's fierce love for her children. Of God's fierce love for us, for all of creation.


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