First Sunday in Lent
26 February 2012
St. John United Church of Christ
St. Clair, MO
God’s Rainbow Promise
Based on Genesis 9: 8-17
By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell
Covenant is one of the most important ideas of the United Church of Christ. Because each congregation is autonomous, or has freedom to makes its own decisions, as do UCC institutions, associations, conferences, and our national Church House, covenant is the relationship between churches and institutions and associations and conferences and the Church House that we freely enter into. We also believe in the UCC that pastors and churches covenant together, church members covenant to be in relationship with one another, and most importantly God makes a covenant with us. A recent UCC document proclaimed that:
Covenant embodies and honors the United Church of Christ’s conviction that all members and all settings of the Church are called by God into a relationship with God, and therefore with one another, which depends upon God’s grace…Covenant assumes the autonomy of each partner to commit one’s self to the relationship and the journey. Covenant requires that each be responsible to the others and for the self. It assumes that all partners regard themselves and one another in their wholeness and integrity as bestowed upon them by God.
The idea of covenant is biblically grounded, found in the Old Testament 326 times. The English word covenant is from the Hebrew berith, which means “to fetter” or to bind. Covenant language is much less prevalent in the New Testament, found primarily in St. Paul’s writings. Jane Fisler Hoffman in her book on covenant commented, “The tight focus of the New Testament uses of covenant makes one thing very clear: the new covenant is all about Jesus and the gift of life through his life.”
But this morning’s story of Noah is the first time God makes a covenant with God’s people. Our passage this morning is just the tail end of the story of Noah. Most people inside and outside of the Church are familiar with the bare basics of the story – God asks Noah to build an ark, and Noah and his family load up the ark with a pair of every kind of animal, the flood comes for 40 days and nights destroying all left behind, and its left to Noah’s family and the animals to repopulate the earth. This story is one of the first stories most of us learned in Sunday School. It’s no wonder that we do – it’s an engaging story to have kids to think about all those animals on one big ship. Of course we don’t tell children how awful it would have been to live with all that mooing, barking, meowing, and roaring for 40 days with no escape. We save our children from the reason behind the ark, and often fail to realize as adults as well – that is because God is so discouraged with humanity that we read in Genesis 6: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and the every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out form the earth the human beings I have created- people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I made them.’ But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.” Noah, by the way, we are told, is 600 years old when God tells him to build the ark. We hear God say to Noah this convicting statement, “I have determined to make an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them.” When God called Noah, he was sorry that he made humans because of our violence.
So God brings the flood, which destroys everything not on the ark. After 40 days, the flood stopped and the earth began to dry. Noah and his family and all the animals leave the ark and God says “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind.” God sees what he has done and decides to never do it again. God who can do as God chooses, decides to limit what he will or will not do, for the sake of God’s creation. All of this leads up to our actual passage, to where after all this God says to Noah and his sons, “I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and 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. I 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.” According to Terence Fretheim, professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, “This God expresses sorrow and regret; judges, but does not want to judge; goes beyond justice and decides to save some, including animals; commits to the future of a less than perfect world; is open to change in view of experience with the world and doing things in new ways; and promises never to do this again.” Human beings’ behavior hasn’t changed, but somehow God is changed by this experience. We don’t often think about God changing, yet in this instance, God’s approach does. God sees that countering violence with destruction is not the way that God wants to proceed. Instead, God claims a covenant not only with people, but “every living thing.” Imagine that – God’s love and care extends to all creation – even “ the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth.” We are just one among them, and each one of us is told that God will never cut us off. There are no restrictions and stipulations on this covenant. God doesn’t say “I won’t cut you off if you behave the way I want…” The covenant, the relationship of God to us as God’s children is unconditional. It is the most purely unconditional love we will ever experience. God says, “Never again shall all flesh be cut off.”
God lays out this covenant before Noah and his sons, and then God declares, “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: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and all the earth…When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh on earth.” God uses the rainbow as a reminder not to us, but to God to remember the covenant that God has made. Of course it also reminds us of our relationship with God. The rainbow can signify for us God’s promise to always be in relationship with us always. When scripture says that God set his bow in the clouds, God puts away the bow as a weapon, and sets the rainbow of a symbol of this new relationship, this covenant that shall not be broken.
Dr. Terence Fretheim says, “For God to decide to endure a wicked world, while continuing to open up the divine heart to that world, means that God’s grief is ongoing. God thus determines to take suffering into God’s own heart and bear it there for the sake of the future of the world.” God, we must honestly say, is grieved by us – in having “left undone those things which we ought to have done and we have done those things which we ought not to have done” God is grieved in much the same way our own parents were grieved, when we in the words of a hymn, “wandered off to find where demons dwell.” A wise mother recently told me that she had to learn to rise above her children’s acting out and throwing fits and disregard of their parents, and to not lash out in return, but to show unconditional love and realize that such acting out was not because her children didn’t love her. God our eternal parent seems to also come to this place in declaring this covenant, in determining that never again will God cause a flood to destroy what God had created. Just as our parents birthed us with the hope of our doing good in the world, God has the same hope for us – and stays in relationship with us regardless of our action or inaction. In essence, God loves us, and wants us to be able to love ourselves and all of creation.
The covenant that God made with Noah and all of creation reminds us of the covenant we observe in Lent and throughout our Christian life together, the new covenant in Jesus Christ. As in the flood and following covenant, God seeks an end to our violence. In the cross of Christ, our Creator takes the violence of humans gone astray, violence of a state execution of Jesus, intended to end his message of love to the marginalized – God takes that act of ultimate violence and destruction – and God destroys its power. God transforms an act of hate into one of love. God transforms death into life. God raises Christ to new life, and God raises us to new life. In Christ Jesus, who vulnerably died on the cross for our behalf, death and destruction lose their power. This is God’s ultimate act of covenant and being in relationship with us, to show us that violence has no place – that we each are so valued that God takes on human form to show us yet a better way – a way of life, a way of hope, a way of resurrection, the way of God’s rainbow promise to each and every one of us, to all of creation.
+To God be the Glory. Amen.