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Colorful Covenant

Sermon delivered by David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Mar. 1 2009.

Genesis 9:8-17
 
          Several years ago a list circulated on the Internet in various versions. The list was entitled, Everything I Needed to Know I Learned from Noah and the Ark. Among the items on the list were:
·        Plan ahead. It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark.
·        Stay fit. When you’re 600 years old, someone might ask you to do something really big.
·        Don’t listen to critics—just do what needs to be done.
·        Speed isn’t always an advantage. The cheetahs were on board, but so were the snails.
·        Remember the ark was built by amateurs and the Titanic was built by professionals.
·        Remember that the woodpeckers inside are often a bigger threat than the storm outside. And last but not least:
·        No matter the storm, when you are with God, there’s always a rainbow waiting.
Thank God for that rainbow!
Here are some thoughtful insights, all of which come from children under the
age of ten. 

          One kid says: You can listen to thunder after lightning to tell how close you are to being hit. If you don’t hear it, never mind.

          Another says: “I’m not sure how clouds get formed but the clouds know how to do it and that is the important thing.”

          And a third child says: “Rainbows are just to look at, not to really understand.”

          I would offer that the third child is half-right. Rainbows are not just to look at. Rather, they are colorful reminders of the grace and love of God, and the covenant God has made with all creation.

          The rainbow, of course, takes on divine significance because of its role in the story of Noah and the ark, one of the best-known sagas of all time. We teach our children sunny “G” rated versions of the story full of pictures of smiling animals and beautiful rainbows, and teach them songs that say,
God told Noah to build him an arky-arky
Build it out of gopher barky-barky.

But there is an “R” rated version of the story that rarely gets told. Early on in human history people make bad choices that move them further and further from the will of God until the whole world is a cesspool of sin, save one—Noah. So God determines that the only way to clean up the mess is to drown every man, woman, child, and animal on the face of the earth, save Noah, his family, and two of every animal species. Lest anyone think God takes our sin lightly, just try to wrap your mind around the horrific scene that must have ensued after Hurricane Katrina-like rains fell for 40 days and 40 nights on the face of the earth. 

          But before the muddy floodwaters flow there comes a word from God that Noah and his descendants cling to life like a life preserver. According to Genesis 6:18-19, God says to Noah, I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you, your sons, and your wife and your sons’ wives with you. You are to bring on the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you.

This is the first time the word “covenant” is used in the Bible, and it won’t be the last, because the concept of covenant is critically important in scripture. And as we prepare ourselves in this sermon of Lent for the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is paramount that we remind ourselves of the lengths to which God has gone to save and preserve us for all eternity. 

          You see, the story of Noah is our first clue that our God is a covenant-making, covenant-keeping God. 

          What is a covenant? A covenant is a formal agreement between two parties. Some covenants between God and his people are conditional: God graciously offers to do such and such as long as God’s chosen leader and people do so and so. Other covenants are unconditional: God promises to do such and such without asking his people to do so and so, without any stipulations at all! As we shall see, the covenant struck between God and Noah is unconditional. 

          Baptists typically don’t delve into covenant theology as much as other Christian traditions, which is odd when you consider that in the Old Testament (aka “Old Covenant”) the word “covenant” appears 285 times. And in the Old Testament, God is always “God of the covenant.” 

          God’s covenant with Noah is the first and most basic of all the covenants. It is the foundation for all the covenants that follow—the covenants with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with Moses, King David, and the prophet Jeremiah, and of course, with all the people of Israel. It is the first indication that no matter how badly we mess up, God’s love will never let us go. 

          What are the features of this all-important covenantbetween God and Noah? For starters, it is universal in scope.

          When the floodwaters finally subsided, and all the inhabitants of the ark had disembarked, we’re told in Genesis 9 that God offered Noah and his sons some basic instructions and ground rules about how to restart and repopulate the world. Then God said to Noah and his sons with him, “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth. Again and again in Genesis 9 God makes clear that his covenant is not just with the Israelites, or with the righteous, or even just with human beings, but with every living creature on earth. 

          How do we know this covenant is universal? Because it is embodied by a colorful phenomenon that every sighted creature of God can see—a rainbow. Rainbows aren’t just visible to the righteous—they shine down on all God’s creation, proof positive that God cares for all creation, even those who ignore him, disobey him, or don’t even believe he exists.

          By the way, God’s choice of a rainbow is not coincidental. In the ancient world the rainbow was seen as the bow by which God shot his arrows of lightning to the earth. In those days people saw themselves as extremely vulnerable to flooding rains and bolts of lightning stored in the clouds above. God could drown them with rain or zap them with lightning with a snap of his fingers. Now, the appearance of the rainbow in the sky after rain symbolized that God would never use this meteorological arsenal again to destroy his creation.

          Today, many Christian theologians are reminding us that God’s covenant with Noah wasn’t just with people.  These theologians point out that we are not only charged by God to subdue the earth, but care for it, too. God was making a powerful ecological point when he ordered Noah to include the animals on his ark. God’s love extends to animals and all creation. 

          Years ago Bruce Babbitt, then U.S. Secretary of the Interior, was addressing the question, “Why save endangered (animal) species?” before a large conference. He recalled the words of a group of children who were asked to address the same question.

          One child, Gabriel, wrote, “Because God gave us the animals.”
          Travis and Gina wrote, “Because we love them.”
          A third answered, “Because we’ll all be lonely without them.”
          Another wrote, “Because they’re part of our life. If we didn’t have them, it would not be a complete world. God put them on earth to be enjoyed, not destroyed.”

          “Now in my lifetime,” Babbitt said, “I have heard many, many political, agricultural, scientific, medical, and ecological reasons for saving endangered species. I have in fact hired biologists and ecologists for just that purpose. All their reasons have to do with providing humans with potential cures for disease, or (producing) new strains of drought-resistant crops, or offering humans bio-remediation of oil spills, or thousands of other justifications of why (animal) species are useful to humans. But none of their reasons moved me like the children’s.” 

          Maybe that’s because these kids learned about Noah and the ark in Sunday School. And because they understood what adults often forget—that God made a covenant with all creation, not just human beings.

          We also notice in Genesis 9 that God’s covenant with Noah is everlasting. God says, “I establish my covenant with you; never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

Now to be honest, this part of the covenant has been confusing to some who note that later on the in the Old Testament God does, in fact, take out large populations in Sodom and Gomorrah as punishment for their sin, and had Moses not persuaded God to do otherwise, God would have eliminated all but Moses’ descendants after the Israelites worshipped the Golden Calf. And in the New Testament, we read in 2 Peter 3:11 that the earth will one day be destroyed again, this time by fire.

          Theologians are not all in one accord about how to handle these apparent contradictions. The truth is, through our own nuclear weapons we can destroy ourselves in a massive fireball of destruction. But God will not destroy us again, at least not with water. And God’s ultimate plan is to create a new heaven and new earth, regardless of what we do to ourselves. 

          Indeed, the most astounding part of God’s covenant with Noah is that it is without condition.   Regardless of what we do or don’t do, the God of the universe will honor his promise by restraining his own power and showering us with mercy rather than muddy water. Old Testament scholar Gerhard Von Rad calls this God’s “divine forbearance.” God intentionally limits his own power where creation is concerned. God will not respond with total destruction, no matter what we do. 

          This divine restraint is nothing short of remarkable. This is amazing grace. It does not mean, by the way, that we still won’t suffer the consequences of our actions—we will. But it does mean those consequences won’t obliterate us as they should. As one interpreter puts it, “(God’s covenant with Noah) will be as good as God is. God establishes it in goodness and love and upholds it in eternal faithfulness.”

          In fact, what amazes me most about this passage is its declaration that God uses the colorful rainbow as a pneumonic device for himself. “Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, God says, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”

So the rainbow stands as an important visual in two ways. It is a colorful symbol of the incredible covenant God made with us and all creation, a symbol of God’s mercy and a source of our hope. On the other hand, it is a colorful reminder to God, should he ever be tempted to forget his promises to us, that he is bound to love us and seek to save us no matter what we do.

          Of course, this side of the cross, we see now that Jesus Christ is the human equivalent of the rainbow, the ultimate reminder of God’s love for us and commitment to us.    As great as all the covenants of the Old Testament were, none of them ultimately yielded what God had hoped for from the days of the Garden of Eden—a people who loved him, trusted him with their lives, and followed him in all they did. Instead, God’s people took advantage of God’s grace and rebelled against God’s plan. 

          So God took the ultimate step that surpassed painting a rainbow across the sky—he planted his only son on a cross to die for your sins and mine.   The amazing thing about God’s covenants is not just that they cost him his power—they also cost him his son. And every time we take communion in a Christian church, we remember that Jesus said, This cup is the new covenant of my blood, shed for the forgiveness of your sins (1 Corinthians 11:25). 

          As we begin our journey of Lent in 2009, I would ask you to adopt the following spiritual practice—every time you notice a rainbow in the sky after a spring shower, don’t just remember Noah and the ark. Remember Jesus and his cross. Remember the rainbow that always shines through the rain, the grace that always shines through the cross, and the love that will never, ever let you go.

          The God of the universe has promised to remember his love every time he sees a rainbow. And we should do no less.