Sermon for Sunday, February 21, 2021 || Lent 1B || Genesis 9:8-17
There’s nothing quite like a rainbow to make us stop what we’re doing and look up at the sky. A few years ago, a rainbow appeared off to the east of St. Mark’s, and from my perspective, it caught the cross of the church directly in the path of its spectrum of colors. The first thing I did was take about a hundred pictures. But then I remembered that day on our honeymoon – right around ten years ago today – when Leah and I left our cameras in the room, went out on our safari, and just took in God’s glorious creation with our own eyes. So I put my camera down and gazed at the rainbow hovering over the steeple of the church. And I thanked God for the sign of the rainbow, an ancient symbol of God’s identity as a keeper of promises.
This morning, on the First Sunday of Lent, we read the piece of the book of Genesis in which God sets the rainbow in the sky following the great flood. Noah and his family and all the animals finally emerge from the ark, ready to repopulate the earth. And the first thing God does after Noah sets up an altar is to promise never again to destroy the earth with a flood. The sign God uses to seal this covenant is the rainbow in the sky, which appears as the sun shines through the end of rain.
The part of the book of Genesis before we meet Abraham and Sarah is often called the primordial history. This section includes the two creation stories, the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve and the serpent, Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, Noah’s ark, and a bunch of people who lived hundreds upon hundreds of years. There is a mythical quality to these early chapters of Genesis that ends when Abraham’s story begins. We move from primordial myth to epic family drama when Abram and Sarai decide to set out into the desert following this wild idea that God is everywhere.
Now, please don’t misunderstand me when I talk about myth. I am not disparaging the Bible by using that word. The early chapters of the Bible never ask us to take them as literally, factually historical. The modern idea of accurate historicity was far from the minds of the oral storytellers passing these important stories down through the generations. The content of the stories is much more vital than factual accuracy. If we got distracted by looking for fact in the primordial stories, we would very quickly run into the problem of wondering where Adam and Eve’s son Seth found his wife. Again, the mythical world of the early chapters of Genesis are concerned with communicating not fact, but truth – as all good storytellers are.
One scholar put it this way: a myth never was, but always is. In other words, the story never happened, but is always happening. The world around us is orderly and beautiful and full of wonders. That’s the creation story. People fall to temptation, blame each other, and move away from a right relationship with God. That’s the garden of Eden. People grow jealous of the perceived success of others, and jealousy can lead to horrible outcomes. That’s Cain and Abel. You get the idea.
In today’s reading from Genesis, we stand with Noah’s family and look up at the rainbow in the sky. And God activates our mythic imagination, linking the rainbow with the promises of God. Whenever you see this sign, God says, remember that I am with you and I am a keeper of promises.
As our building closure due to the coronavirus pandemic nears a year, I needed to read this wonderful passage from Genesis today. A year ago, we had begun hearing about this dangerous new virus over in China, but it was easy to dismiss because other viruses had come and gone without much disruption of daily life. In the first few weeks of the pandemic emerging here in the United States, we adapted our worship practices: first we stopped shaking hands at the Peace, then we began sharing communion without the wine. And then everything stopped. In the week between the second and third Sundays of Lent last year, the whole world changed.
I remember distinctly, forty days into the closure, remarking that we had been in quarantine mode as long as the great flood had rained on the earth in the Genesis story. What I did not appreciate at the time was how much longer Noah and his family and the animals were stuck inside the ark after the rains stopped. It’s a little tricky to parse the timeline in the story of Noah’s ark because there are actually two versions of the story mashed together. But the basic timeline goes like this. The rains start falling on the 17th day of the second month of Noah’s 600th year. Then there are forty days of rain. Then there are 150 more days when the flood waters are really high. Then Noah sends out a bunch of birds over the course of a few weeks. Then the waters start to subside. Then Noah opens the door of the ark on the first day of the next year and finds the waters have abated. But Noah STILL DOESN’T LEAVE THE ARK YET. It is not until the 27th day of the second month of Noah’s 601st year that the ground is fully dry and the ark’s population disembarks.
Do you see where I’m going with this? We think of the flood story being all about the forty days and forty nights of rain. But Noah and his family were in the ark for over a year (a year a ten days according to the scripture). I’d be willing to bet we are all identifying with Noah and his family right about now. The initial disaster galvanized our society into action. But then after the first forty days or so, society was done with the pandemic and ready to move on. But the pandemic wasn’t done with us. The floodwaters were still high.
Now we are hopefully in the period where the floodwaters are abating, the period after Noah opened the ark’s door but before he and his family walked out on dry land. Strangely enough, the timing is about the same in Noah’s story and our story. And so we wait for that rainbow to appear in the sky to remind us that we are still with God, the keeper of promises.
The thing about rainbows is they happen when it’s still rainy. Without the moisture in the air, the light has nothing to refract through to create the spectrum of colors. Rainbows appear as storms are ending but before they are fully spent. That’s why the rainbow is such a potent image of God’s promises. Rainbows remind us, before the storm ends, that God is present with us and, indeed, has been present throughout the downpour. That’s the promise God makes over and over again throughout the stories of the Bible: a promise to be with God’s people, walking before them, before us, all our days.
As we enter anew this season of Lent, our second one during these interminable days of pandemic – when we are hopefully beating it back but haven’t beaten it yet – I invite you to look out for God’s sustaining presence in your life. That presence might not appear as a rainbow in the sky, but it will be just as timely and just as beautiful.