Sermons That Work

Who Hasn’t Been Impressed…, Lent 1 (B) – 2006

March 05, 2006

Who hasn’t been impressed by the beauty of a rainbow? Rainbows have the quality of wonder: yes, there is a scientific explanation for how light is refracted in a certain way, but really they seem more like magic. After a rain, a colorful bow appears in the sky, a pure gift, a delight to the eyes and heart, beauty and hope after the rain.

In our first lesson today we hear how our forebearers in faith, the ancient Hebrews, saw in the rainbow a sign of God’s covenant with Noah, and through Noah, with all humanity. Our lesson comes from the end of the story of the great flood. It’s a story of God’s willingness to lose in love. It may not seem like a story about losing. After all, it ends with God’s promise that God will never again destroy the earth in such a way. But what if we imagine looking at the story from God’s point of view?

Reading the creation story in Genesis Chapter One, you’ll notice at the end of each day God looks at everything he has made and says, “It is good.” Over and over again, God looks at what he has made in the world and says, “It is good.” When we come to the sixth day, God creates humans, and on this day God says, “It is very good.” God looks at humans and sees the crowning achievement of creation: us. And God says, “This is very good.”

But before too long, things start to go wrong. God has given humans a great gift: the gift of freedom. God has made humankind in God’s image. That is, according to The Book of Common Prayer, God has made us free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, to live in harmony with creation and with God. But too often humans choose the other possibilities granted in their freedom: to hate, to destroy, to be thoughtless, to break their relationship with creation and with God.

When we come to Noah and the ark, God, who had seen humanity as the very best act of creation, is heartbroken. The divine heart is so broken, so disappointed, so upset, that God decides there is no way out of all the pain and destruction humans are causing except to wipe the slate clean and start all over.

In the story of the flood, God is the big loser. God’s beloved humanity, God’s precious children, God’s best day of creation had all gone terribly wrong. So God chose Noah, who alone of all the people on the earth had not forgotten about God, to build an ark, and to be protected from the waters, so there would be a way to start over again. The rain started, and it is as if the tears of our broken-hearted God flowed down from heaven, tears of sadness, tears of disappointment and anger flowed from the very heart of God and filled the earth.

When the waters subsided, Noah, his family, and the animals came out of the ark onto dry ground, and God said some important words. God was not lulled into thinking that this experience changed humans, that somehow we wouldn’t sin anymore, or that we would always use our freedom to choose rightly. No, God said, “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 destroy every living creature as I have done” (Genesis 8:21).

This is the meaning of original sin: everyone of us, if left to our own devices, will do wrong. No human ever avoids the inclination to sin, even from the time we are small children. But God decided he won’t let that fact lead to our destruction. And so, when we come to today’s reading, we see God hang his bow in the sky. Here, think “bow” as in “bow and arrow,” but now not as a weapon of anger, not an archer’s bow taut and pointing down on people to destroy them, but hung up in the sky, unstrung, disarmed, and colorful. God hangs the bow in the clouds as a reminder of God’s promise, to remind God never again to destroy the earth.

This promise God makes to Noah is called a covenant. A covenant is a solemn agreement made between two parties. People have been making covenants for a very long time, thousands and thousands of years. Party A agrees to do something for Party B if some conditions are met. Covenants usually come with strings attached. “If you pay me tribute, I will protect you.” “If you keep this law, things will go well for you.” Usually the agreement made between them is sealed with some sign. Here the sign is the rainbow. But what is amazing is that God’s covenant with Noah has no conditions. It’s a covenant without any “if” clauses, such as, “if you love me,” or “if you obey me,” or “if you worship me,” or “if you are kind to others, then I will be good to you.”

No, the covenant God makes with Noah is an unconditional covenant, a covenant of love in which God promises to remember us even if we forget God. And the covenant God makes with Noah is really made with all humanity and all creation. God will never destroy all humankind, despite all we do to turn our backs on God, to choose hate instead of love, to destroy rather than create, to act thoughtlessly instead of using reason, to break our relationships with others instead of living in harmony. Despite our wrongdoing, God will remember his promise to us. God is willing to be heartbroken for us before he will break his covenant with us.

It’s not that God has been willing to tolerate our sin, but rather than send another flood, he sent his own beloved child, Jesus Christ, to deal with our sin. Rather than kill, God sent Jesus, who was willing to die. Rather than punish, God is willing to forgive. God added to the sign of the rainbow the sign of the cross. And in the sign of the cross, we see God’s willingness to love us unconditionally, to be broken-hearted for us. In the sign of the cross we see a sign of victory through the death of Jesus that means that someday all tears will be dried — the floods of tears cried because of the evil humans do to one another will be dried and gone. The deluge of tears we cry because of our injustice, prejudice, and indifference will be wiped away. In the place of destructive waters of a flood, there will be only the water of life, and in the place of the tears, a rainbow.

In our Epistle lesson today we hear that the waters of the flood prefigure the waters of baptism. In the waters of baptism, we are joined to Jesus Christ, to his death and resurrection, in order that we might know new life now. In the waters of baptism, we are marked as Christ’s own forever.

For many Christians, our Lenten journey now underway will end at the baptismal font, where we will once again renew our baptismal promises, where water may be sprinkled on us as a reminder of God’s love, not God’s wrath, and where Jesus’ triumph over the power of sin and death will be celebrated. As we journey through Lent, may we be people who look for the signs of God’s love and actions in the world, signs like the rainbow and the cross, and celebrate that God keeps his promises. May we be people who carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world, accepting and sharing God’s love and forgiveness for us and for all humanity. The covenant made with Noah has never been overturned. God still promises to be gracious to all people, including people who have known loss, people who have caused loss, and people whose loss seems meaningless. God still promises to love all humanity and all creation. As followers of Christ, may we be people who also reflect God’s love and graciousness to all humanity, to people of every creed and color and class, and to all creation.

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Christopher Sikkema