STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH FEBRUARY 22, 2015
Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
One of the everyday miracles that I enjoy are rainbows. Rainbows have long held a fascination for people. I grew up with an Irish grandmother (not on the Italian side) so I was frequently told about the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, placed there by the faerie folk and guarded by quick and cheeky leprechauns. As a child I was more fascinated by the tales of leprechauns and fairies than the pot of gold. Rainbows are often associated with strange parallel universes. We all remember Dorothy’s longing to go “Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high…” Little did she know how strange it would be, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”. Rainbows have also been inspiration for some common wisdom even from the likes of Dolly Parton who said, “The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain”.
According to Scripture the first person to see a rainbow was Noah. Although new and mysterious, it must have been a welcomed sight. Noah, as you know, had put up with a lot of bad weather. He and his family were the sole survivors of a great flood that covered the earth. For 40 days they had seen nothing but storm clouds, rain and gloomy darkness. They floated over a vast expanse of flooded terrain surrounded as far as the eye could see by water in a boat filled with stinky animals and tired, frightened, grouchy people who had lived in close proximity for far too long. There was much rejoicing, I imagine, when the boat hit dry land. Eventually the waters subsided and Noah and his family were able to set the animals free and get off the boat. In gratitude to God they built an altar and made a sacrifice. And when he looked up into the sky, Noah must have been filled with awe at the mystery and beauty of this new ribbon of light in the sky. What a contrast to those angry clouds and the dark, dreadful waters. I wonder if the rainbow helped to dispel Noah’s uncertainties about a future in a world where everything had been destroyed and where he would lack the support and comradery of friends and neighbours. I wonder if it filled him with the hope of a new world through rebirth and cleansing.
The rainbow was more than a pretty light in the sky. It was an expression of a spiritual reality. We read in Genesis that after the flood God established a “covenant” with Noah. We often hear the word “covenant” but perhaps don’t quite understand it, so let’s take a quick look at the concept of a covenant. A covenant is like a promise or a legal contract but infinitely more binding. Covenants are relational; they establish or modify the relationship of two parties creating an intimate bond. Covenants are often between parties which are imbalanced in power and authority. In the Bible covenants are initiated by God and made between God and humanity. When God initiates a covenant the people involved don’t have much of a say in it. They can keep the covenant or rebel against it, but they’re unable to opt out of it or to cancel it. A covenant binds people to God. There are conditions within a covenant; God promises to do certain things and he often requires people to respond in particular ways. Covenants usually have outward expressions which symbolize their spiritual meaning. God’s covenant with Abraham was marked by the sign of circumcision. God’s covenant with Israel came with The Law on 2 tablets of stone. The covenant of baptism is sealed with water and the great covenant of salvation is seen through the elements of bread and wine representing the body and blood of Jesus.
After the flood, God made a covenant with Noah. Noah is instructed to repopulate the earth. For his part, God vows to Noah, his descendants and all living creatures that he will never again destroy the earth by flood waters. God gave Noah a sign of his promise, “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. I have set my bow in the skies” (vs. 12 & 13). The rainbow is the outward expression of God’s covenant with creation to never destroy the earth again in this way. It is a physical sign of a new spiritual reality. This covenant was great news because when God makes a promise, God keeps it! Whenever I see a rainbow, I think of this covenant – it tells me God cares about the world; God desires us to live; God has chosen to be merciful; God keeps his promises and is faithful to his people.
Rainbows are intricate symbols. There’s more to them than meets the eye. Rainbows occur when the “white” light of the sun passes through drops of moisture. The shape of the raindrops cause the rays of light to refract and separate out into a distinct progression of seven colours, from purple to red. Light and water create the rainbow. Is it a co-incident that light and water are two images used to describe Jesus? Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) and“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heartshall flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7: 37 & 38). When we think of it this way, the rainbow becomes a symbol not only of God’s passive promise to not destroy the world by water but also of God’s dynamic act of salvation through Jesus, our light and our living water.
Regardless of what grandmother’s and leprechauns might tell us, rainbows have no end. They are actually circles and circles are endless. These circular rainbows remind us of God’s eternal nature and God’s endless, enduring love. They remind us that God’s promises have no end and that what God says he will do, he does. The reason rainbows look like half circles is that our view of them is cut off by the earth. Spiritually speaking our own earthly nature blocks our view of God. We are limited in our ability to see the whole picture of who God is and how he loves us.
Like a horizon line, we can never reach a rainbow. As we move forward so does the rainbow, so it appears to be the same distance from us no matter where we are. It “moves” with us. Rainbows remind us that God moves ahead of us and beckons to us. Grace proceeds us. It’s not our works that save us it is God’s choice and God’s covenant. God’s grace is beyond our control.
Another quirky fact about rainbows is: you can only see a rainbow if the sun is behind you. There are times in our lives when we can relate to Noah. We feel like we’re isolated on an ark surrounded by gloom and despair with the rain pouring down on us. We can’t see the sunshine and we can’t see Jesus, the son. These are times when we wonder where God is or if God has forgotten us. The rainbow reminds us that even when God’s light is not visible to our spirits, he’s got our back. He is still there, shining through the rain to show us an even greater beauty and love.
Even though the rainbow helps us remember God’s love and constancy and his grace in Jesus Christ, the rainbow wasn’t created so much for our benefit, as for God’s. God told Noah, “Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth” (vs. 14 & 15). This means that regardless of how faithful or faithless we are – how closely we follow after God’s way or not, how good or bad we are – God sees the rainbow and says, “oh yeah, I promised not to destroy my creation even if those created in my image do all the wrong things.” Have you ever seen a double rainbow? They are a little rarer but they do occur. As I said, a single rainbow runs a progression of 7 colours from purple to red but when there is a double rainbow the second one is a mirror image of the first so the colours run from red to purple. Even in this is a sign of a spiritual reality. As God looks at the symbol of the covenant he has established, that symbol reflects back to him his own promise and reminds him to show mercy.
The image of the rainbow is not limited to the ancient times of Noah, and it isn’t a symbol that’s only meaningful to us in the present. It’s a promise that holds eternally. The rainbow is picked up in the last book of the Bible where John has a dream-vision which he shares by painting for us a magnificent scene of heaven. In this vision John was shown the throne of God; this is part of his description, “A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne” (Revelation 4: 3). I love that! John sees a rainbow around the very throne of God. God sees the rainbow at all times, for all time. Through it he remembers and celebrates his covenant with us. God is just that kind of God – a God who makes and keeps his promises and his covenants.
What do you see when you look at a rainbow? A pretty arc of light? A scientific wonder? A chance to meet a leprechaun and get rich? If that’s all you see, you’re missing the most wonderful part of this miraculous gift – the promise of God whose promises never come to an end.