Rainbow Promises

Text: Genesis 6:9-22; 7:24; 8:14-19

When he was still teaching high school, my Dad would periodically crack jokes or one-liners as a test to see the comprehension and alertness level of his class. It hadn’t started out that way, but he found that the students that laughed often did better in English because they could make those connections that were useful in studying literature, and aided comprehension. One that Dad would often tell would be during those rather rainy days in spring, where the usual bright and sunny days we had come to expect in southern Alberta gave way to a dreary deluge of water. By the third or fourth day, Dad would look glumly out the window, and then turn to his class and say, “I’m not sure if this is a bad sign, but I just saw a bunch of animals walking in pairs up the street.” He could tell who in his class were at least familiar with church life by who laughed.

The story of Noah’s Ark is probably one of the best known and best loved stories from the Bible. It has provided great material for artists, songwriters and comedians, and certainly for me is one of the earliest stories from the Bible that I can personally remember.

There is a good reason why this story has such resonance with the lighter side of things, and makes such prime material for comedians. There is something naturally funny about a family shoved on a smelly boat with countless paired up animals.

It goes without saying that here at St. Matthew’s, we identify strongly with this story. The stained glass mural is far and away our largest art piece in this building, and not only that, if you look up in the Narthex area just outside the sanctuary, there are four paintings that depict it in a different way.

I think we lose something when we lose the smile, put on a dour expression, and start looking for the evidence for the flood. The stories of Noah were originally told to children around campfires from ancient tradition, the story that we have in the Bible today was written down drawing from at least two different sources. They are intended to be fun, to teach us something about God, and a bit about ourselves.

The story of Noah comes merely six chapters into the Old Testament… all that’s happened so far is the stories arising out of Eden. Towards the beginning of the story we are told that something has gone seriously wrong with creation, and in anguish God decides to take a rather drastic step. It is not out of vengeance, anger, or spite, but with a real sense of regret.

If you’ve ever worked on a computer, particularly some older models, you may have had a this experience: In working away on a project, things are going reasonably well, everything’s in place, but suddenly something starts to go wrong. One of the application gets some kind of error… a memory leak… a program just freezes up. We realize that since the software is no longer working, some of our work, maybe even a lot of it, is going to be lost. In frustration we begin to consider our options. I think for many, the one of the first options that we consider when using computers is the trusty baseball bat. It probably might have us feel better in the short term, but really, is probably not such a good idea. The anger and frustration that we feel is borne not out of vengeance and spite, but out of a sense of loss for something not having worked out the way we wanted to. “No!!! I’ve just spent the last number of hours working on that!!” We genuinely grieve for what has been lost, but realize that we can’t continue without taking a rather drastic step.

The only real solution is to use the “reset” button, and then try and salvage things after the computer restarts. If we’re lucky, we can backup some of the information before we take that fateful step. A lot of work will still be lost, but at least we have a lot more to work with had than we used that baseball bat to destroy the computer. No matter how satisfying that would have been. That sense of frustration and anguish for work lost might help us understand where God was at when he began to work with his backup plan: Noah.

The story of Noah’s Ark is familiar; at God’s request, Noah and his family build a large ship and take on animals to give them refuge from the pending flood. Once they take refuge in the Ark, we are told that it rains for forty days and forty nights and the great and dark waters of the deep are unleashed to swallow up the dry land. For a brief moment, we find ourselves back in the primordial waters of creation… God takes us back to the beginning, to start again, this time, with a small beacon of hope bobbing up and down on the sea… from this creation is saved and God has a new beginning. God’s word to all those in the Ark was the same word at creation: “be fruitful and multiply…”

In essence, the story of Noah’s Ark is the third creation story that we find in the Bible. It’s pointing to something new, a new hope, and a new relationship that God chooses to take with creation. God makes a new promise, now that the slate is wiped clean, and things are new again. God makes a promise to Noah, and all those who come off the Ark, “I will never do this again… I will never destroy the earth… The sign for this will be my bow, which I will hang in the clouds. As often as you see it, remember the promise that I make to you and all your descendants.” Never again will God “reset” creation. Although really, the word that God uses here is covenant… which is far stronger than a simple promise.

The story of Noah foreshadows something far more significant, far more powerful than I think any of us realize. When God promises to never again destroy the earth, the word is a binding “covenant.” A word that we hear again with Abraham and Sarah, Moses, the prophets… and eventually in the Christian understanding: Christ. Here begins the thread that will link the biggest theme that runs throughout the whole Bible: the promise of God: “I am your God, and you will be my people…I will be with you, always.” The whole reason that God says “never again will I destroy the earth” is that God is there to show the way… even in those times when we go astray, when we fail, God is still there calling to us and walking beside us. “I will be with you always.”

Around the ancient campfires, these stories of Noah’s Ark were told to children. They wanted to remind their young of God’s ongoing promise… and to share that sense of joy and hope. As a tangible reminder they would point to the rainbow, God’s bow, hung in the clouds. Whenever they would see it, they would have the reminder of Noah’s story, and of God’s promise. For us, it can be a reminder of where things began, and how God’s promise has come to us down through the ages, and continues to be with us today, and gives a hope for what is to come.