Saturday, September 17, 2022

“The Rainbow Promise” - September 11, 2022

 Text: Genesis 6:11-22, 8:6-12, 9:8-17

If we were to ask people to name a fun Bible story for children, more than a few would say Noah and the ark.  And if you focus just on part of it, the idea of all these animals together on a big boat, of course it’s fun.  More than a few church nurseries have Noah’s Ark designs with animals all over the place.

If you actually read the Bible, however, it becomes clear that this really isn’t a story for children.  I mean, this is something like one part kid’s story and 4 parts post-apocalyptic nightmare.

I’m not even sure where to start, so maybe a bit of background information on today’s text is in order.  The first eleven chapters of Genesis, that portion of the book that comes prior to the story of Abraham, have a unique quality about them.  They are not so much historical accounts as they are stories told down through the years, down through the ages, stories that convey deep truths about us and about God.  Some of it is downright weird; try reading the first part of Genesis chapter 6 and we can talk about it later.

Another thing to point out is that there is more than one source for what eventually became written down as the Book of Genesis.  You may remember that there is an account of creation in chapter 1, and then in chapter 2 there is another account, and they are not the same.

You can see a bit of this in Noah and the ark.  Our reading today says that two of each animal got on the ark.  But in Genesis 7 it says seven pairs of clean animals and just one pair of unclean animals boarded the ark – never mind that nobody knew anything about clean and unclean yet.  This came from another tradition.  And then was it a raven flying out to see if the waters were receding, or a dove?  Two different sources, two different traditions handed down for generations, and we get both together here.  

Some of the material in the earliest part of Genesis is designed to answer foundational questions that people had – and that we still have.  

“How did the world come to be?”  The story of creation tells us that God created the world and all that is in it.  Why is there sin and evil and violence in the world?  The story of Adam and Eve in the garden tells us that humans choose to disobey God.  We have free choice and we can often make choices that have real consequences.

Why are there so many different languages?  Why do people have trouble understanding each other?  The story of the Tower of Babel gets at that question.

And so, we have to wonder, what question is the story of Noah and the ark trying to answer?  What is this all about?

Our scripture this morning says that God saw that all the earth was corrupt and filled with violence.  Just a few verses before our reading for today, it says that “the Lord was sorry he had made humankind and it grieved him to the heart.”

This is about 10 generations past Adam and Eve, and humanity was not doing so well.  Right off the bat you had Cain killing his brother Abel, and it did not get a whole lot better from there.  God had begun this creation thing with such high hopes.  Do you remember the very first chapter of Genesis?  God creates the heavens and the earth and what does God say?  It is good.  The seas and dry land: it is good.  The trees and plant life and then animal life - and it is all good.  And then human beings, and God said, “It is very good.”

But just five chapters later, God is regretting the whole thing.  It is not all good, it is all corrupt.  It is all evil.  It is all messed up.  And humanity is turning to violence.  God is ready to wipe it all out.  It is like the whole creation experiment had gone south, and God was willing to cut his losses, to just end it right there.

But there was Noah.  Noah alone was righteous.  So God had Noah build a great ark, and Noah and his family and every kind of animal boarded the ark.  The rains came and it rained 40 days and 40 nights.  Save for those on the ark, all living creatures were wiped out.  This is really not a kid’s story.  Months later, the ark came to rest on Mt. Ararat.  The waters subsided over time and eventually a dove returned to the ark with an olive leaf.

It is really a terrible story.  What question is the story of Noah and the ark trying to answer?  At first glance, we might read today’s scripture and think that it explains the question of where rainbows come from.  That is part of it, perhaps, but the question is much deeper than that.  Maybe the question is, given all of the problems in the world, all the evil, why doesn’t God just wipe it all out and start over?

You know, there is something very appealing about making a fresh start.  You start out putting an idea to paper, but it just isn’t going anywhere, so you wad it up and toss it in the trash can and start with a nice clean sheet.  Golfers can’t resist taking a mulligan every now and again.  Or maybe again and again.  

There are all kinds of fresh starts, getting rid of the old and starting over with the new.  Maybe you have embarked on some project, some big idea, but it is obvious it is not working out.  There are those times when we just want to cut our losses and be done with it.

What about God?  Does God ever get so aggravated with humanity – with the sin, the selfishness, the corruption, the hatred, the violence, that God just wants to shake the world like an Etch-A-Sketch and start all over?

That is the feeling we get from our scripture today.  It is as though God had this creation project going, but it wasn’t working out the way God had imagined.  The free will that these creatures had was leading to all kinds of terrible choices.  It got to the point where God wanted to just scrap the whole project and try something different.

God did not quite go that far.  Noah and his family and these animals are a remnant.  But do you know what happened along the way?  The project became less important than the people, the project became less important than the flesh and blood creatures God had created.  

And so God came close to just chucking the whole thing, but our scripture ends with a word of hope.  It ends with a promise.  The world might seem to be going to hell in a handbasket, but God is still there, and God’s purpose is redemption, not destruction.  God makes a covenant with Noah.  The rainbow is a sign from God, a promise that the world will never again be destroyed in a flood.  It is not just a sign from God, it is a reminder to God – the rainbow is to remind God to have mercy on us.

Many ancient civilizations had stories about a great flood.  Archaeologists and anthropologists have made some interesting findings related to a widespread flood.  But the Biblical account is not simply a rehash of what we might find in early Babylonian literature, for example.  What is different is the meaning attached to the flood and what it tells us about the nature of God.  And what it tells us is that God is not in the business of destruction, but God is in the business of redemption.  The rainbow is a sign of God’s grace and love, and a reminder that even through the storms, God is there.

We face all kind of storms in life.  We can face storms of grief, storms of desperation, storms of anxiety, storms of illness, storms of fear.  All of this and more can come at any time.  The rainbow is a promise that in the midst of these storms, God is with us and God is for us.

It is interesting that the covenant is with all of creation, not just humans.  God will not destroy creation, but what about us?  We seem to be giving it our best effort.  After years of drought, Lake Powell and Lake Mead are half of their typical levels, threatening the water supply for millions of people in western states as well as a lot of agriculture that depends on irrigation.  Massive wildfires have become a regular seasonal event.  

While there are places suffering from prolonged drought, we remember the terrible flooding and loss of life in Kentucky.  And Pakistan has been inundated with weeks of monsoon rains leaving a wake of destruction and a million people homeless.  Both the drought and the flooding are brought on and intensified by climate change.  Water can be life-giving, but like in the days of Noah, water can also destroy.

Then you can add terrorism, war, cycles of violence and retribution, racism, bigotry, and rising hatred.  The description of corrupt hearts and evil and violence in Noah’s day doesn’t sound all that different from today.

If God cares for all of creation, and if God seeks the redemption of the world, not its destruction, then maybe we ought to think about getting on God’s side.

Living under the sign of the rainbow means living by God’s grace.  It means knowing that God is for us, not against us, and that even in the midst of the storms of life, God is there.  God’s purpose is not to bring destruction but to seek our welfare.  As flawed as we all may be, there is that rainbow promise.

Well, like I said, this really is a tough story.  God saw that everything and everybody was evil and wanted to destroy it all.  I have a hard time fitting that idea of God with what I read throughout the scriptures.  I have a hard time fitting that with the God I know.  The Biblical writers saw God as changing God’s mind about how to deal with a wayward humanity.  This may also represent a changing human understanding about the nature of God.  

It may be helpful to go back to that very first question: what is this story trying to tell us?  What is the bigger point?  I think it is saying that within the heart of God, there is a struggle.  There is a conflict.  A conflict between God’s justice and God’s mercy.  Human beings are capable of doing awful things.  They can and they will do terrible evil to each other.  We know this, we have seen this.  If we are honest, we have in some way participated in this.  And God is a God of justice.  The evil that humans do is deeply offensive to God.  It can make God just want to start over.

But as strong as God’s justice is, God’s mercy is even greater.  God’s compassion and forgiveness and God’s desire to give a second chance to us is even greater.  God’s love wins out.

Years ago there was a PBS program about the book of Genesis hosted by Bill Moyers.  Anybody remember that?  One of the participants in that conversation was a newspaper editor.  Bill Moyers asked him what would be the headline for an article that would tell the Noah story, and he responded with something like “GOD DESTROYS WORLD.”  But quickly, another panelist, Samuel Proctor, who was the retired pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City (and an American Baptist) offered an alternative.  He said the headline would be: “GOD GIVES HUMANS SECOND CHANCE!”

Daniel Migliore has done a lot of work with inner-city kids in Trenton, New Jersey.  One day in re-telling the Noah story to some children, he asked them where they saw rainbows.  “In the street!” several replied.  Migliore thought they misunderstood the question, but he found that they understood perfectly.  These kids lived in high-rise tenements and there were not a lot of open spaces around.  About the only place they saw rainbows was in street puddles that had become slicked with oil from cars with leaky engines.

There’s something sad about that, but there’s something hopeful as well.  In the midst of daily life, in the midst of the difficulties and hardships around us, there is grace.  These children need to see a rainbow in the greasy puddles of their everyday world.  

Like those children, we need the vision to see God’s rainbow in the messiness of our lives.  In many ways, these are difficult and uncertain days.  But even in times of worry and anxiety, even in times of hardship and loss, God’s rainbow is there.  

In the very early pages of scripture, even knowing what humans are capable of, God makes a commitment to this broken world – this beautiful, wonderful, messed up, corrupt world.  The rest of the Bible is essentially the story of how God will care for this broken creation, leading finally to the incarnation – to God becoming one with us in Jesus to heal the brokenness in our lives and in our world.

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