A sermon based on Genesis 9:8-17
Why do we think about rainbows in Lent? Lent is a season of the church Year where Christians focus on simple living, prayer, and fasting in order to grow closer to God. Historically, in the 40 days before the celebration of Christ’s resurrection, the church offered catechetical instruction to new believers in order to prepare them for their baptism and life as full members of the church. The 40 days was meant to mirror the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism and before his ministry began.
Traditionally it’s a time of repentance – a time of introspection when we try to look more deeply at our way of life, our way of being and to make changes that would draw us back toward a way of living that more closely resembles what God intends for the people – a life of justice, a life of compassion, a life of hope.
So what does the rainbow have to do with any of that?
The rainbow isn’t what we think it is. It’s not just a reminder to us of God’s promise to never again destroy the earth, even though when we see a rainbow in the sky after a thunderstorm, that’s what we remember. We remember a story of naughty people being punished by a parent. And we remember that a few people weren’t as naughty and they got to go on a big boat with some animals. And then God realizes that wasn’t such a good idea and promises never to do it ever ever again.
This is the story that most of us remember when we see the rainbow. It’s that story my husband and I wallpapered on our newborn son’s bedroom wall. Whether we’ve made this into one of the nicer Sunday School stories or we’ve turned it into a legend to help us explain some geological phenomenon that happened eons ago. But it is so much more than that. So very much more.
The rainbow isn’t just a sign for us. In fact, that might actually be its secondary purpose. Remember we hear God say to Noah: “When I see my bow in the sky, I will remember…” It turns out the rainbow is meant to be a reminder to GOD – a sign to help God remember God’s promise.
As we ready the story of the flood, it is pretty clear that God had a plan to bring about serious change in the way human beings lived with each other. And God gets busy doing that. But after the flood it becomes obvious pretty quickly that the behavior which compelled God to act in such a decisive way in the first place – the illogical but pervasive desire in humanity to return to chaos and destruction – had not been eradicated. No sooner than they emerged from the ark, Noah and his family began behaving badly. Apparently, the corrective of divine retribution has not had the effect God hoped it would. It would seem that if God wanted to stay in relationship with this stubborn people – creatures made in God’s very image – then God would have to adjust the divine tactics. God would have to change. So God does just that.
God turns away from vindictive punishment and turns toward forgiveness, patience and steadfast love. When God says: “I will hang my bow in the sky,” that’s a sign of a battle-weary soldier laying down the life of a soldier and the weapons of war – in those days – the bow, and taking up the more difficult life of a reconciler – of a peacemaker – of the keeper of a covenant. When we see the rainbow, we should also remember that God never forgets us, never abandon us – that even in the midst of whatever chaos and rebellion we create, God has made an everlasting commitment to stick with us no matter what.
Finally, this thing of beauty – this reminder of protection by God, of God’s patience and mercy carries with it a challenge and a call to us. Because a covenant cuts both ways. The promise of God to stay with us even when we’re hell-bent for destruction is meant to remind us of our part of the covenant.
Is the rainbow meant to change us? Should it?
In 1980, Liberation theologian José Miguez Bonino called out the church’s participation in the self-aggrandizing power structures of the day. He, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer before him wondered about the possibilities for a different kind of future if the church would simply embrace and live the self-sacrificing commitment God makes with God’s people.
“What is the worth of life in a world of death and violence?” he asked. This was no rhetorical question. He lived on a continent where torture and assassination were the norms. He criticized the culture pervasive in North America and in some communities in Latin America where millions are marginalized, drowning in starvation and death so that those we know to be the 1% could sail freely on the rising economic tide. He lamented the genocide of indigenous people and the poor for the sake of peace and prosperity. Though his work is nearly 35 years old, his description of our striving to be god-like has at the center a way of being that simply perpetuates chaos and destruction for so many.*
This make me wonder too. I wonder what our church would be like if each one of us here decided to embrace the divine image in ourselves – the lived image of God that moves us away from the chaos of retribution and retaliation toward forgiveness and mercy, the vibrantly beautiful image that moves us away from the violence of exclusion and judgment and turns us toward generous welcome and grace.
I wonder what would happen if we embraced the covenant God has with us and became true partners with God – not simply waiting for God to do something – not just crying out – “my God, my God why have you forsaken us”, but stepping out as disciples of Jesus to take up the work of healing, peacemaking and service.
In his inaugural speech in May, 1994, Nelson Mandela urged his people to live into the God’s promise when he said:
We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both Black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their brave hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity—a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world. Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water, and salt for all. Let each know that for each the body, the mind, and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves.
I wonder what would happen if we allowed our hearts to be broken open in grief over our actions in the same way that God lamented destroying everything on the planet. What would our homes, our workplace, our schools, our community be like if we, like God, poured our hearts and souls, our minds and our bodies into the creative partnership we have with God, to bring order to chaos, to bring peace in the midst of violence – to have our hearts filled with love and hope for this chaotic and imperfect world?
Because, this, it seems, is what the rainbow means. It’s a promise and a challenge – may it be so for you and for me.
*NOTE: Bonino, José Miguez “A Covenant of Life: A Meditation on Genesis 9:1–17. The Ecumenical Review: Volume 33, Issue 4, pages 341–345, October 1981.