In our lesson from Genesis this morning we receive the oldest of all God’s covenant promises. It is the covenant of the rainbow, a symbol of the promise that God will never again bring destructive floods to the earth. In my view of scripture, this story and the details of the great flood that precede it are to be understood as primordial history. That is, not as historical fact, but non-the-less as bearers of divine truth.
This and the other stories in the early chapters of Genesis offer a view of natural events and phenomena founded on deep faith in God, who created the world and walks alongside humanity. It is likely that a great flood did occur in that part of the world (other sacred texts of other early civilizations speak of it also) and from that experience the Biblical writers found the truth of God’s growing commitment to humanity.
Theologian Bill Wylie-Kellerman writes this about understanding the significance of the rainbow covenant:
“We need to recall that this story shows the flood as God’s way of setting a limit to violence, and beginning again. The opening chapters of Genesis are simply an escalating history of human violence: with the blood of Abel crying out from earth, a mushrooming of violence is set in motion. So God fights the chaos with the chaos of flood waters rolling in.”(Living the Word, p.56)
But if God wanted to put an end to the chaos of human violence why didn’t God wipe the whole slate clean and start from scratch? Why did God keep 8 people and unnumbered pairs of all the animals alive in the ark? Wasn’t that just inviting chaos to break out again? In his PBS series “Genesis”, Bill Moyers hosted groups of Muslim, Jewish and Christian Scripture Scholars in a series of discussion about the Book of Genesis. In the episode about the flood, Blu Greenberg, a Jewish Scholar said this about her understanding of the flood story:
“I think the story is not about the accountability of human beings. It’s about the transformation of the relationship between God and humanity. In the beginning, God was a perfectionist. In desperation God would rather destroy His creation than accept it as less than perfect. But then probably out of love and a sense of loss, God promises to accept human beings the way they are with all their flaws. And God promises never to destroy them again. So the story of Noah is about God growing into the relationship, maturing in it… And this paves the way for the covenant. That’s what a covenant is – a never-to-be-broken relationship, no matter who falls off the side. (From Bill Moyers Genesis, p.115)
Writing this week in the Christian Century Magazine, Pastor Paul Nuechterlein, of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Portage Michigan takes a slightly different tact than Blu Greenberg, suggesting that the evolution we see in the Noah story is not of God but rather of our perception of God. He writes:
“Is the God at the beginning of the story, who tries to solve the problem of human violence with a violent genocide, truly the same God at the end, who apparently repents of it and promises never to do it again? Or does the revelation of Jesus Christ show us that these are really two different gods? The true God – revealed in Jesus to be nonviolent – is distinguished from the fall gods of our human evolution, false gods typified in flood myths from across the globe. (Christian Century, February 18, p.20)
Whether we think the change in God from the beginning to the end of this story of Noah is an evolution in God, or an evolution in human perception of God, or both, the story ends with the waters receding and “the weapon of god is hung up for all time. The bow is set aside in glorious plain sight and by it all creation is drawn into covenant. “(Living the Word)
And we are witnesses that this covenant is still good and has found flesh and blood expression for us in the person of Jesus Christ. Even as we may witness flood waters rising, tsunamis washing away whole communities or other natural disasters taking a heavy toll on humanity and other parts of creation, we can trust that God is not the cause, but rather the comfort close at hand. Every time we see the spectacular beauty of the rainbow, may this assurance come back to us. And given our acquaintance with the ongoing mushrooming of human violence – among ourselves and against God’s creation – may we cling closely to this covenant, and give thanks for a God who has chosen another way to wash away our sin.
As the writer of our second lesson, from the first letter of Peter, points out, all human sin is swallowed up by the embrace of Christ. This is such an amazing grace, we can hardly believe it. As the litany of Ash Wednesday and the great litany we offered this morning both remind us, on a regular basis we fall into sin and consort with the powers of darkness. Recognizing and admitting that is an important step in the working out of our salvation in Jesus Christ. But we do not stop there. Once we have recognized our sin as individuals and as a human family we must look up and see that God has tossed us a flesh and blood life raft – Christ Jesus. If we can grab hold of him and let him take our sins from us, we become free to live and move in new ways.
And those are central themes of Lent: Recognition of our sin, and a desire and willingness to let those sins go and be taken from us by One who is mightier over them than we are. One who is named by God in the waters of his baptism as the “Beloved”. I believe he is named that not just because God loved him so dearly, but also because at his core he is Love, and operates only out of Love. Therefore he can be trusted completely with any sin we have every committed. But more importantly he can heal us of those entrenched patterns of sin that handicap our lives. He will never condemn us. He wants only to take our sin away so there is room for increased light and life. I am always ready and available to talk to anyone who would like to know more about what resources our tradition offers to help us in this work of repentance and amendment of life. Lent is the season set aside in our church calendar for just this sort of work.
I want to end now with a wonderful story that illustrates the depth of trust God in Christ is worthy of in regard to our repentance. It is the story of a young Roman Catholic nun who reported to her superior that she was having vision in which our Lord was speaking directly to her. To help her discern whether or not these were truly divine visions, the Mother Superior called in an old and wise bishop. The Bishop heard the young nun’s description of her visions and then said to her, “Next time He comes to you, ask Him what my most pervasive sin was before I became a bishop, then come report to me what he says.” Since he had never confessed that sin to any person, but only to the Lord, the bishop was sure this would be a sufficient test of the authenticity of the young nun’s visions. A week or so later the young nun returned to him. The bishop asked her, “And so, what did our Lord say when you asked him what my most pervasive sin was before becoming a bishop?” And the young nun answered him, “He said to tell you, ‘I remember your sin no longer my son.’” Upon hearing that the bishop fell to his knees and with tears rolling down his weathered cheeks he said, “It truly is our Lord and savior who comes to you in your visions!”
This Lent, let us remember our sins only long enough to let the Beloved, with a deluge of grace, wash them away, that we might find amendment of life, and our lives might reflect more of his glory.
In Christ’s name and for his sake. Amen+