First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
February 19, 2018
“In These Days”
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
8Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9“As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10and 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. 11I 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.”
12God 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: 13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15I 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. 16When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
The two warriors would come together, face to face, perhaps with their troops behind them, most likely in the midst of the dead and dying. They would lay their bow, their weapon of war on the ground and a truce would be established. They were literally laying down their arms and establishing peace where there once was not. A covenant would be established and the conditions of the newly defined relationship would be laid out.
This is the cultural context through which the beloved story of Noah’s ark emerged. In a culture fraught with nation-states battling one another for sovereignty and land, it was not unusual for the surviving leaders to come together, exhausted and bloodied after battle to establish peace through the establishment of a covenant between them, an agreement. As a sign of their willingness to even enter into negotiations, they would lay their bows upon the ground.
And so it is that our ancestors in faith took the beauty of the rainbow and made it into an emblem of peace, of hope, of promise.
The back story of the promise is about God looking upon the wickedness of humanity and erasing creation with a great flood, a reset, a do over, a mulligan, so to speak. Noah and his clan were the chosen ones to partner with God to bring together that which would be needed to get things rolling again. And when it was all over, when those chosen to re-present humanity anew into the world that had been cleansed by the long rain, God and Noah came together as adversaries on the battle field would have done and established a covenant. It was believed that God was, not just like a great warrior but was actually a mighty soldier king and he had just waged war on humanity. His weapon was ultimate chaos in the form of a flood. Humanity as it had been was no more and it was time to re-establish the relationship between Yahweh and humanity.
The conditions of the covenant were laid out by God and were terribly one-sided: God would never do that again. Never again would God destroy the earth with a flood. The promise was made, not just to Noah and his clan but to all of humanity…. Forever. It’s a promise that God made to all flesh…. All flesh. Every girl, woman, boy, and man, transgender and intersex person. Every gay, straight and celibate person. Every atheist, agnostic, Baptist, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist. When God said all flesh it meant people of the Andes and Antartica, Zimbabwe and Zaire. People who drink too much, eat too little, gamble, swear, and speed. People who exercise to excess and couch potatoes. This radical inclusivity of salvation is not just some modern-day, liberal, politically correct overlay of ancient and sacred scripture. It’s a reflection on the earliest understandings of the very nature of God. That at the very heart of things, God’s longing is to be in relationship with the people of God’s own creating. And to make sure everyone knew the depth and height and width and breadth of God’s longing for that relationship, when the rain stopped, God laid down the divine weapon of war in the clouds and said never again. This is just not how I’m going to roll. It’s a sign we’ve come to look for and expect. But what about us? What’s our responsibility in all of this?
We don’t know just what Noah’s response was. Did he lay his bow upon the ground as well? Did he bow down in reverence before God? Did he sign something? Did he hold his hand up and swear an oath? We don’t know. Because the story isn’t about Noah. It’s about God. It’s about God’s wanting to be in relationship with us. So, no matter how bad things get, no matter how terrible things are, no matter how rotten humanity is, no matter how badly we treat one another and creation, God has made this promise, this commitment, this covenant to always be in relationship with us.
And God knows, we don’t make it easy. We put ourselves in the center of our own lives and relinquish God to the edges, into the category of “when there’s time” on my schedule or a place in my life. We see creation as a smorgasbord of resources to drain and manipulate for the profit of some and the destruction of others. We look upon those who are different than we are and label them with derogatory terms, enslave them, dis-empower them, invade their lands and claim to be doing so from some human-manufactured divine right. Children are robbed of life on city streets and in the places that should be sanctuaries of growth and learning. The pre-flood wickedness is nothing compared to the evil humanity has brought upon the earth in these days.
And then the rains come. The earth quakes. The fires roar. Creation weeps and groans and we wonder if this is finally the time. Has God had enough of us? And then the sky clears and the rainbow appears and we are reminded. No. God will never have enough of us?
In these days we would do well to remember that God will never have enough of us. That’s the promise that God made as the divine bow was laid in the clouds. That’s the promise that took flesh and walked upon the earth, along the shores of the water of Galilee. As that water rolled off his head upon his rising in baptism, it wasn’t a bow in the clouds that declared the covenant, it was a voice – my son, the beloved. Time in the wilderness strengthened the covenant. And then, then, this time, humanity put to voice that which had only been implied: the kingdom of God? It has come near in the one that walks by and calls fishermen from their nets. The Kingdom of God? It has come near in the one that stills angry seas and walks upon them. The covenant relationship with God? It’s revealed now, not in a bow laid down in the clouds but a life that gives flesh to the ways of heaven, the ways of love, justice, kindness, mercy, compassion, peace.
In these days of turmoil and division we must look to the one whose name we bear as Christians and offer the ways of heaven that he lays before us and take them into the world to insist upon and enter into the civil dialogue and discourse that is needed to bring an end to the fear and suspicion that drives discord.
In these days of violence and bloodshed we must look to the one who we claim to be the Prince of Peace and live into the prayer we pray, opening ourselves up to live on earth as we understand heaven to be – the fulfillment of the fullness of God’s love and mercy.
In these days when children fear for their lives upon entering the places that are meant to guide them, instruct them, and prepare them to live long, amazing, wonderful lives, we must look to the one who told his disciples to put away their weapons. We must look to Christ and remember that he modeled how children, all children are to be welcomed and embraced without regard to their skin color, physical, mental or emotional ability. It is the children in their hope and trust and innocence and whimsical ways that show us the wonder we should embrace when something of God comes near. Things like snow that sparkles and tadpoles that swim and rainbows that grace the skies.
In these days, our hearts break that there are 14 more children and 3 who dedicated their lives for their growth, whose wisdom and hope will not bless the earth.
In these days of despair and hopelessness, we must hear the words of the ancient story that calls to us to believe in the good news for the one who proclaimed it is the one who is also known as the light that shines in the darkness, a light that will not go out. So we must lean in toward that light. For lying beneath the cold hard heart of hatred and fear, there is a power that can not be kept down. It is the power of divine hope that cries at the reality of these days but sees beyond them into a time when the innocent will never again be slaughtered.
We must lean in toward that light because kindness is large. Love is magnificent. The longing for peace is universal. And justice, well, you know what they say about justice? The arc of the universe is bending towards it. Kindness, love, peace, justice – they are all part of the light of Jesus that shines in the darkness and will not be overcome.
In these days, of longing and hopefulness, every time we experience one more little piece of goodness and grace, we must be reminded that in that moment, the kingdom of God has come near and then we must hang onto it and duplicate it and expand it so that the kingdom of God doesn’t just come near but is present in every moment of every day.
In these days, let us remember always, that the covenant that God established with creation so long ago and displayed in the rainbow in the sky is as important as it was on the day that Noah first heard it. We may not see the rainbow today, but we see the cross, the empty cross of God’s victory over the forces of evil and death. Thanks be to God.