Rev. Teri Peterson
The Rainbow Road
Genesis 6.5-6, 8-9, 13-22, 9.8-15
7 September 2014, NL1-1, Harvest 1-1
The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that 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. But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.
These are the descendants of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. And God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks. For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.’ Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.
(…and it rained…when the rain had ended and the waters subsided, Noah, his family, and the animals went out of the ark onto dry land. …)
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, 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.’ God said, ‘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 the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.
It feels a little bit like we should paint a rainbow in the basement, doesn’t it? Maybe a little reminder of God’s promise not to flood the earth with water again?
Of course, the promise doesn’t say much about basements. And the actual story itself bears little resemblance to the cute nursery decorations or children’s songs. The reality is that just a few chapters after looking around and declaring everything to be very good, God is heartbroken. After investing so much, giving so much…earth’s people were on a path not only of self-destruction, but of violence that was destroying creation as well. God had to do something.
And so, in the face of overwhelming disappointment, God decided to counter violence with violence. The divine retribution is complete devastation—nothing will be left…except Noah, the 7 members of his family, and two of each living animal. That’s it—everything else will be utterly wiped out, drowned, washed away in the flood of God’s grief and anger.
Somehow that’s never part of the playset.
In ancient Israel, water was a symbol of chaos. Think of the very beginning of the story—in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. That word, formless void, is “tohu va bohu”—chaos. The creation story is about God making order out of chaos. And yet here we are, just ten generations later, with God deciding to go back to the beginning and start over.
Well, almost start over.
Noah and his family, and the animals, and food, will all carry over, like seeds saved for next season. And through them, God promises to do a new thing.
After the rain stops and the waters begin to subside, after the ark comes to rest on the top of a mountain, Noah begins sending out scouts—first a raven, then a dove. When the dove comes back with an olive branch, a sprouting twig of hope from below the tree line, a sign of spring, of new life, then Noah knows it’s nearly time to go. And then, just as all these animals come out of the ark, family by family, God speaks.
It seems that God is a pretty fast learner—much faster than we are. God looks around at the fresh new world, shiny and clean, and sees more clearly than ever before that this tactic won’t work. Now that the rain is gone, God sees that the creation will always contain the seeds that can grow into violence just as easily as they can grow into compassion. The question about those seeds is what kind of water they get, and the flood waters of violence will not stamp out violence. God sees clearly now that redemptive violence is a lie—fighting violence with violence will always fail. As Ghandi put it: an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.
And so God hangs up the bow—a weapon, a vehicle for violence—facing away from the earth. God chooses a different path, a path based on covenant and creation and love. This covenant to never again use violence against the world is made not just with Noah and his family, but with all the creatures of the earth too. In this dawn of the new creation, this springtime of the covenant, God promises to look forward with hope, and asks us to do the same.
The word covenant is used hundreds of times in the Bible, and this is the first. This is the seed that grows into the kingdom—a promise to take a different road, a rainbow road. This promise does not have any conditions, no requirements or prerequisites, no quid pro quo expectations. It does come with a commission, though, a calling: to walk this rainbow road with God, rather than the road of destruction and violence we tried before.
It wasn’t long until it became clear that human nature hadn’t changed much inside the ark. But through the promise, and through the remembering of the promise, God had changed the strategy. No more fighting fire with fire. God decided to work in the world in more personal ways. God’s covenant starts out being with Noah, and then with Noah and his descendants, and then with the whole of creation that comes out of the ark. God speaks to people, and through people; to creation and through creation. Rather than becoming more distant to avoid heartbreak and grief, God becomes more involved, even to the point of taking on flesh and joining us in this fragile human life. This is the promise that God offers in the rainbow: not just “I will not destroy” but also “I will come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.”
You know what’s interesting about rainbows? It’s never clear where they begin and end. Most of them seem to be an open circle, embracing the earth with no regard for who is in or out. Kind of like the ark, really, and kind of like the church. The fast and slow, ugly and beautiful, smart and silly are all in the ark together, all in the church together, and all embraced by the rainbow together. Some in the ark are silent, others roar incessantly. Some eat more than their share. Some make room and others push and shove. Some are desirable by the world’s standards, and others are decidedly undesirable. And yet God put them all together…put us all together…in this body, this seed of new creation, this rainbow path toward the kingdom. We don’t know really where the path began, and we don’t get to see exactly where it ends, but we do know that it doesn’t leave anybody out, even when we’d prefer it did.
I have to admit that when I first saw that this was the story for Kick-Off Sunday, I was a little irked with the people who created the Narrative Lectionary. It seems so strange to begin with a story of destruction. But as I’ve worked with it, and with the Harvest 1 team, over the past several weeks, I’ve come to see some wisdom here. This story is one where God turns a page and kicks off something new—puts the past in the past, even while carrying forward what is good. And in the process, God covers the whole earth with the promise, offering a new way to walk into the future. Isn’t that kind of what kick-off Sunday is about? Starting a new chapter in our life together, bringing what is good and leaving behind the rest, walking the rainbow road of God’s promise together.
May it be so.