Below is my sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, February 18. I focus entirely on the text from Genesis about God’s covenant with Noah. If you want to read the whole Noah story, it’s found in Genesis 6-9. This sermon focuses on the beginning of chapter 9.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The story of Noah’s Ark is probably one of the better known stories from the Bible. Even those who don’t regularly come to church tend to know this story. We often think of it as a children’s story—maybe that’s because of all the animals. It makes for cute toys and books for little kids.
When you think about it, though, Noah’s Ark is anything but a children’s story. It begins as a story of God’s wrath and anger. There is sin and wickedness, there is widespread death and destruction. It’s not really what we tend to look for in bedtime stories.
The story of Noah’s Ark happens really early in the Bible. God has created the world to be good, for humans to live in peace with one another, but things have gone wrong. Because of humankind’s tendency to put ourselves first, the idyllic world that God made is no longer. The beginning of the Noah story tells us that when God saw the wickedness of humankind, God was sorry that God had even made humankind, and it grieved God’s heart.
So the Lord God makes a decision to destroy from the face of the earth all living things, humans and animals and birds, but God finds in Noah a righteous man. And God decides to save Noah and his family, and two of every kind of animal through the ark, where they will live for forty days, while a flood covers the face of the earth.
What we read today happens after the flood, after all of this death, after forty days on the ark. Noah and his family and all the animals have disembarked, and God makes these promises to Noah. “Never again,” God promises, “shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
In a sense, God is limiting God’s self. God is putting restrictions on God’s power and on God’s justice. The God revealed in this story is adaptable. God is touched to the heart by creation, but is willing to accept hurt to keep hope alive. If God wants to stay in relationship with humankind—with the creatures made in the image of God—then it turns out God must change.
God repents, turns from vindication to forgiveness, patience, and steadfast love for creation and for humanity, despite knowing that the hearts of humans may never change. These creatures made in God’s image may always resist God. And yet God lays down God’s weapons against humankind.
God makes a covenant, not just with Noah and his descendants, but with every living creature, with all flesh, to never destroy the world again. Each Sunday in Lent, our reading from the Hebrew Bible will be about a covenant, about the terms of the relationship between God and God’s people. It is a time to delve into God’s promises to us and who we are called to be as God’s people.
In the covenant with Noah, it is completely one-sided. It is all on God. Noah never even speaks, but God promises. God limits God’s self. God binds God’s sense of justice to God’s mercy and love. God binds God’s self to the world in a new and different way. God is subject to the hope and disappointment, joy and grief that come with all relationships.
And the sign of these promises is the rainbow. Set in the sky to remind God of God’s promises. I always find that interesting. When we tell the Noah story, we often say the rainbow is there to remind us of God’s promises. But God puts down the bow in the sky so that God will remember, and never again be moved by anger to destroy the earth.
I once read a poem, written by a mother of a four-year-old. She and her son had been out walking one day, and they saw a rainbow in the sky. “Can we bring that home, and put it in our house,” he asked? And she wrote this poem, called, “A Rainbow in My House.” She took her son’s question literally, imagining what it would be like to have a rainbow in their house, on their walls, emanating from the windows and doors, coming up out of the chimney. The whole house was transformed, and it could not contain the glory of the rainbow and its colors.
I searched and searched for that poem, and I could not find it, so unfortunately you’ll have to make do with my memory. But, imagine with me what it would be like if we had a rainbow in our homes, in our church. If we were constantly filled with the light and color and vibrancy of God’s love and promises. Who would we be? What kind of community would we be if we were shaped by the rainbow?
One where all are welcome, certainly. In this covenant with Noah, God makes no distinction between Noah’s family and the rest of humanity. This is my covenant with all flesh, says God. But all would not just be welcome, but valued, appreciated for the gifts, the perspectives, and the backgrounds that they bring.
To be shaped by God’s rainbow promise would mean that we would not be a people of vengeance and retribution, of violence and power, but instead a people of mercy and love and forgiveness. We live in a world, we participate in systems that are the complete opposite of those values. We see it played out when we value guns over children’s lives, when we value our own comfort over someone else’s basic needs, when we value the well-being of ourselves and our family over the well-being of all people and all creation.
I have to think, that if God grieved for humanity in the time of Noah, God grieves today. Because the heart of God is troubled when we are troubled. And God hopes so much more for the earth than it seems we are able to live up to.
But ultimately, the rainbow is God’s promise. The rainbow is there for God to remember, even more so than us. For God to remember us with love and forgiveness in the midst of life’s chaos with all its pain and suffering. And God does. God has not forsaken the promise made to Noah and to all humankind. Despite our limitations, God continues to be faithful, loving, and merciful to a world so desperately in need of those things.
This Lent, let’s live as if we have a rainbow in our house, and we cannot contain its colors and its brightness. Let’s live trusting God’s love for us, and for all people. May the light of God’s love and God’s promise shine forth in our lives, bringing with it mercy, forgiveness, and hope for the world. Amen.