Sermon for February 18, 2018: I do set my bow in the cloud (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

I don’t know how many of you saw this, but after the last big rain we had, there was an enormous rainbow over the Bay Area. I saw it from my driveway, then intermittently throughout my drive to work, and finally, from the Grace Meditation garden, majestically spread out over the hills of Martinez. What was fascinating was that it was different in every location I saw it, but equally beautiful in each – and I felt tremendously grateful for the opportunity to witness this powerful sign of God’s presence in the world.


In today’s Hebrew Scripture, we heard about the very first rainbow, which is the less famous portion of the Noah and the Ark narrative – the “postscript” that also happens to be the most important part of the story. Most people know the saga of Noah’s Ark. God gets angry with humanity and decides to destroy the world, leaving only Noah’s family to escape the great flood, along with two of each lifeform on the planet. The charm of God’s specific building instructions and the way the animals go aboard two by two often eclipses the starkest reality of the tale: millions of people die in it - and God feels bad about it.


We know this because afterward, God says he will never, ever do it again. The covenant of the rainbow “is the divine response to a theological…paradox: [God has taken on an] unstoppable purpose to create a peaceful cosmos [but this has] collided with God’s immovable compassion for destructive, recalcitrant humanity.”[1] God made a perfect world and wants to see that world restored, but God also created human beings and, despite the fact that it is these creatures who have corrupted that world, God cannot bear to destroy them, even though it is clear that she can do so. The story of Noah’s Ark tells us two things: one is that God is complex and powerful beyond our understanding. The second is that, regardless of that power, God is deeply and lovingly involved with each of us, and willing to make sacrifices that we may be saved.


God’s willingness to curb his might on our behalf is demonstrated by the unusual nature of the rainbow covenant. A covenant is, by definition, an agreement between two parties – but the covenant of the rainbow “requires nothing whatsoever of creation.”[2] It is a one-sided deal. In it, God “accept[s] self-imposed and unilateral boundaries…God places a restraining order against God’s self to defuse brutal retaliation upon unrestrained, violent creation and sets a sign in the sky to see and remember the vow. This covenant also reveals…the intractable sinfulness and undeserved blessedness of humanity, and all creation’s total dependence upon God’s active compassion.”[3] “God repents, turns from vindication to forgiveness, patience, and steadfast love for creation and for humanity, despite the knowledge that the human heart may (will?) never change.”[4] “The God revealed here is adaptable, touched to the heart by creation, and willing to accept hurt to keep hope alive. Often, Christian redemption is associated with mutable humanity fitting itself to an immutable God. The God of this covenant is unchanging only in refusing to give up on creation.”[5]


Most of us struggle with the idea of a God that is both omnipotent and tender, focusing either on God’s power and authority or forgiveness and mercy. Our scriptures are full of examples of both attributes of God, and, depending on which aspect of God we are drawn to, we make seek out passages in which one or the other is demonstrated. This is fruitless - because God is not one or the other, but undivided, both our judge and redeemer. The story of Noah’s Ark tells us that God will judge the nations for our sinfulness, but also assures us that God always gives us reason to hope. It can be viewed as an early milestone on the path that God walks on our behalf throughout human history. “The self-limitation and willingness to sacrifice divine freedom that [God displays in] this passage … reach their climax in the passion of Jesus Christ,”[6] because it is through Jesus that we most fully experience God’s presence among us. Through Jesus, we recognize God is with us in suffering – even and especially the suffering we bring upon ourselves, the suffering of our sin. Through Jesus, we realize that God is not simply a rigid, judgmental power or an undefined and indiscriminate deity. God is an authority both beyond our reckoning and as recognizable as our own hearts. God can destroy and God can save: just as God used water for destruction in the Noah story, God uses water for salvation through Holy Baptism. “The power of God is so awesome that God transforms the flood water into the means of salvation.”[7] Baptism, then, is our ark – and, unlike Noah’s, it is a boat that everyone can get on. It is for the righteous and unrighteous, for the imprisoned and the free, for those who have waited long and for those who will yet come to believe.


Baptism is also the way in which Jesus first chose to reveal the power and authority he derives from God. John the Baptist’s “appearance in the wilderness was an apocalyptic sign of God’s coming, bringing both judgment and hope”[8] and Jesus’s acceptance of John’s baptism cemented its authority and reminded the people of God’s earlier promise that he would not destroy, but redeem them. “As in so many other transformative religious experiences, [Jesus’s baptism shows God as]… at once gentle and dovelike, yet acting with awesome, disruptive effect – descending without warning from a heaven ‘torn apart,’ reorienting one’s self and the world, and setting one on a new and revolutionary spiritual path.”[9] It is a decisive demonstration of God’s mighty power and God’s unstoppable mercy, of God’s consistent presence among us, and of how far God will go to save us from ourselves- even so far as to allow his son to triumph over earthly temptation in order to rewrite the human story, “recasting the destiny of all God’s people.”[10]


It is a lot to wrap our heads around, which is why the church provides us with a season in which we are asked to study and to pray, a time to learn to accept and be grateful for the mind-boggling complexity of God, and to remember that God is with us in all things. “The psalmist sought to learn of God’s ways, not in a time of comfort, but in the midst of difficulties,”[11] and we can do the same. Whenever we feel powerless in the face of tremendous loss, whenever we cannot make sense of the pain and sin in our world, whenever we feel hatred, anger, and fear rising like bile in our throats, we must remember God’s presence among us and ask for God’s help – and if we forget, we need only to seek his bow in the clouds. Amen.


[1]William Loyd Allen, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 28.

[2]Ibid.

[3][3]William Loyd Allen, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 28.

[4]Jane Anne Ferguson (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 28.

[5][5]William Loyd Allen, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 30.

[6]David J. Lose, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 31.