Promise in the Midst
“Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth. This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on earth.” Genesis 9: 14-15
Flooding waters have dominated the news of late: earthen levees overflow and give way and town and city centers are inundated with muddy water; a dam breaks in Wisconsin and a lake drains away; dramatic video shows a vacation home built on the shore breaking in half and floating away down river; communities rally to fill sand bags through the day and night to create a wall against the swelling Mississippi river only to have the temporary retaining wall collapse under the pressure of gallons and gallons of water; farm fields are swallowed up by water and the already record price for corn and soybeans on the futures market rises higher still. The causes of all this flooding are many, but one thing is sure: we human beings, for all our progress and technology, remain vulnerable in the face of the mighty force of nature. It creates a feeling of helplessness. And if we feel that way today, just imagine how the people of ancient times must have felt…
Thousands and thousands of years ago, civilization in the Near East developed along the Tigris and Euphrates River systems. These ancient peoples chose to live by water because it was a source of life. They built their cities along the banks of rivers and on the shores of the seas. Yet even so, they dreaded the dangers of unpredictable water – tidal waves, torrential downpours and floods that had the destructive power to sweep away and drown everything in their path. They dreaded the waters for a deeper reason than that, too. When primitive people looked at the world, they saw water as springs seeping up through the ground; they saw rain as water pouring down through what seemed to them to be holes in the huge bowl set over them in the sky. What were they to think but that the land they lived on was surrounded by endless water? For them, water held a threat that represented the original chaos present at the beginning before God called the earth and life into being.
So you can imagine the profound impact on primitive people to hear stories about a historic flood of epoch proportions. Some archeologists believe that once very long ago, perhaps as early as the Stone Age, there was such a dramatic flood. So dramatic that all the Near East civilizations told stories and myths about the flood. In one of the legends of a great flood, there was an escalating quarrel between two gods in the sky above. It happened one day that somehow in the heat of their battle one or the other of them pulled back the shutters of the dome in the skies and the primeval waters of chaos poured down. The gods themselves became frightened because they didn’t know how to stop it. And earth was destroyed.
In another story of a great flood, the powerful god of all nature rides across the sky in his war chariot. With his powerful bow he shoots arrows from above, and the arrows come down on the earth as lightning. But then one day, this god decides to really let earth have it. Over and over again he pulls back on his bow and lets fly with countless arrows of lightning as his chariot horses thunder across the darkened sky. The waters gush out through all the holes his arrows had punched in the dome. And so, as in the other story, earth is overwhelmed by waters that flood and destroy everything.
According to these myths, the gods were capricious and uncaring. They had the power to unleash the frightening waters of chaos. Their random actions had the terrible effect of bringing destruction upon all living things on earth. Then some genius of a Hebrew storyteller took these ancient legends of a great flood and transformed them. Through the eyes of faith, the story of a great flood in Genesis was no longer seen as a random act by gods who existed above it all, unconnected to the world below. Rather it became an act of purpose by the one God of Israel who was very much involved in the world. In this telling, the flood has a deliberate purpose, and its purpose is moral: to wipe away all the evil that humankind had let loose upon God’s good creation. The flood was no longer a senseless accident, nor was it without reason or meaning, for the God who is the author of this flood is passionately concerned about righteousness. And this God uses natural events to accomplish God’s purpose.
The biblical account of the great flood is, as you just heard, a very unsettling story. A story quite different from the one we tell our children under the heading, “Noah and the Ark.” Children love boats. Children love animals. And at an early age, this story gives them a boat and lots of animals as they sing the cheery little tune,
God told Noah, there’s going to be a floody, floody. Get those animals out of the muddy, muddy. God told Noah to build an arky, arky. Build it out of gopher barky, barky.
But the story in Genesis is neither cute nor benign. It is in fact dark and foreboding. It disturbs and overwhelms like the flood waters it describes.
In the biblical story, almighty God expresses sorrow and regret for ever having made humankind. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” In the beginning, God pronounced creation good, but by the second chapter of Genesis, Adam and Eve sin and are expelled from the Garden of Eden. Then Cain kills Abel. As the story unfolds, the generations that follow are a people who live with jealousy, anger, violence and greed. The storyteller tells us, “The Lord was so sorry he had made humankind on earth” that “it grieved him to his heart.” Deep in grief, God says, “I will blot out all from the earth, the human beings I have created…the people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
For generations among the several cultures of the Near East, the story of a great flood had been told and retold in a variety of ways. The point always seeming to be that life is precarious and chaos an ever-present possibility. A view of the world that resonates still today in chronically troubled places like the Middle East and many countries on the continent of Africa.
The deepest fear we can have is the fear of chaos, of living in a meaningless universe that is completely random. In the Genesis flood story however, there is no randomness. There is God’s purpose at work. But that purpose has questionable consequences. Taken literally, the story clearly implies that even the deepest and most terrible events are in God’s hands.
Some believe in that kind of theology, I know. A few weeks ago, I was watching a CNN report about the destruction caused by a tornado that swept through a part of Arkansas. The on-the-scene reporter was with a woman standing in front of her house that had been reduced to a pile of scattered debris. Across the street, her neighbor’s house stood virtually untouched by the violent wind storm. She told the reporter, “I have to believe there is a lesson in this for me, some reason why…” She was unable to go on because her voice caught in her throat. What kind of lesson might she have been talking about? Other than a harsh, cruel lesson that holds little meaning. I wonder if she believed God had inflicted this terrible disaster upon her. I wonder if she believed that God must have had some purpose in causing such tragedy?
The belief that stands behind such a theology is that God inflicts destruction for some higher reason. And for some, attributing natural destruction to God’s will somehow helps them to reconcile the destruction and loss in the aftermath of a disaster. Much the same kind of theology is underneath the story of the great flood in Genesis. But I cannot subscribe to such a cold, heartless theology of God. I do not believe in a God that causes catastrophic events that bring pain and anguish. I do not believe there is any sort of divine plan behind a tragic automobile accident, or a person’s cancer, or in an earthquake, or in the suffering caused by any natural disaster.
Among Old Testament scholars, Walter Brueggemann occupies that pedestal reserved for the “fairest of the fair.” When Brueggemann comments on a passage of scripture, preachers take note. So it is interesting to read what he has to say about this familiar story. He begins by saying the flood story in Genesis starts out as a conventional divine judgment story. God is unhappy with his creation. Things have not turned out the way God intended. Divine justice demands punishment. And so as in other stories of the great flood, earth is about to be destroyed. But then the story takes an unexpected turn. The way Brueggemann interprets it, “What we have here is the story of a troubled parent, not an angry judge…God makes a decision about the grief and trouble of his own heart, and the decision God makes is to be in covenant with God’s people.” (Interpretation, A Bible Commentary, p.77) This God is not arbitrary or uncaring. This God experiences a change of heart and reconsiders his original plan. God was about to drown a world full of sorrows, only to remember that the cause of the pain in his heart was the very creation he had loved into being.
It is at the end of the Genesis account that the story of the great flood is turned inside out. The flood waters start to recede and a dove returns to Noah with an olive leaf. Then a little later along, as Noah and the rest disembark from the Ark, God’s sets his bow in the clouds. God tells Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature…for all generations.” And with that we begin to see the meaning and promise of this old story as light is refracted through the mist to form the colors and shape of a rainbow.
Do you remember the last time you saw a rainbow? This last Wednesday at the end of Tim Russert’s memorial service, they played a version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” As family and friends left the Kennedy Center on that sunny day, a rainbow appeared for reasons of who can say. Actually it was a double rainbow arching over our nation’s capitol building. One blogger was moved to comment, “Russert’s rainbow. What a wonderful and beautiful gift! While I awoke today as an agnostic, I am not sure what theological view I will have when I go to sleep tonight.”
According to the storyteller of Genesis, the rainbow is a reminder of God’s covenant of love and mercy. But did you happen to notice that the rainbow is not simply to remind human beings of the everlasting covenant, it also is a reminder to God. “When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds,” says God, “I will remember my covenant…” The rainbow is there to remind God to never forget the promise. Never to forget that no matter what, God will not give up on us; never to forget that no matter what, God will forgive us.
Rather than destroy everything, the flood changed something. It did not change us as history has shown. It changed God. And if God changed it can only mean our God is neither immutable nor unchangeable. Like us who are made in the image of God, God too is capable of a change of heart. The images of God portrayed in this Genesis story are striking: of a God who expresses sorrow and regret, of a God who judges but doesn’t want to, of a God who goes beyond justice out of love, of a God who commits to the future of a less than perfect world, of a God who cares deeply about the world and you and me.
The storyteller says that the rainbow was to help God to remember his promise, but we are given some help in remembering God’s abiding love also. The light of the rainbow in the mist is our reminder that we are bound to God and God is bound to us. The water which makes up the mist is the water of our baptism. And the light which produces the rainbow stands for the one who is the light of the world: Jesus Christ. By baptism we are joined to him, and by our baptism we are also joined to his sufferings, so that our sufferings cannot ever be seen as chaotic or as a punishment from God. Love shines through the mist, and we are assured as the Apostle Paul has said, “…that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Neither powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation.” Long, long ago, God set his bow in the sky as a promise. Light shining through the mist of water to produce a gentle reminder. You and I are a baptized people. We have been given this watery sign so that we might never ever forget that even at those times when chaos erupts in our lives, even at times when we may think we deserve God’s harsh punishment – God is merciful. God is steadfast. God is faithful, even when we are not.
Thanks be to God. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.