Sign of the Promise

Rainbows – I think we all somewhat inherently like rainbows.  I still try to take a picture of every one that I see.  

In Genesis, God tells Noah that the rainbow is the sign of His covenant (Genesis 9:8-17).  Now, to put this in context we should back up a little bit and review the events of Genesis.  When God created Adam and Eve, He created them and all creation good.  Everything was perfect.  But, Adam and Eve rebelled against God and brought sin and death into the world.  Even in the midst of this rebellion, though, God promised a savior who would undue this rebellion and cast sin and death out of God’s creation.  And this promise was given to Adam and Eve, who formed the first Church, because they were people gathered by God around this promise.

Then, Adam and Eve had two sons: Cain and Abel.  Cain grew jealous of Abel, though, and killed him.  Cain rebelled and separated himself from the promise; Cain and his descendants were no longer part of the Church, because they lacked faith in God’s promises and continued to rebel against God’s will.  But, this wasn’t the end of the Church or God’s promises, for Adam and Eve had another son, Seth, through whom the promise and the Church would continue through faith.

So, in the first few chapters of Genesis you see the line of Cain and the line of Seth diverging.  Cain’s line is rebellious, while Seth’s line is faithful; it’s the difference between the world and the Church.  But, then, as it says in Genesis 6, “the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive.  And they took as their wives any they chose” (Genesis 6:2).  Some interpret this passage to mean that angels took human women as their wives.  That’s one interpretation.  However, another is that the “sons of God,” the men of the Church of the line of Seth, took the “daughters of men,” the women of the line of Cain – those outside the Church – as their wives, because they were attractive.  So, they took as their wives any they chose, even those women who were outside the Church.

In fact, this happened again much later when Israel went into Canaan, the promised land, after being delivered by God up out of Egypt.  They, as the Church, were warned not to marry the women of the land who were outside the Church, because it would corrupt them.  And the same thing happened again later when they returned to the land from captivity in Babylon.  Likewise, Paul warns about this in 2 Corinthians 6, where he cautions the people of the Church not to be “unequally yoked with unbelievers.”  

So, look at what happened in Genesis.  The line of Seth began to intermarry with the line of Cain; those within God’s Church married those outside God’s Church.  And the result was a corruption of those within the Church as they were drawn away from faith in the Lord.

And after the people of the Church were corrupted, Genesis 6 says:

“The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.  And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.  So the LORD said, I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.  But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD” (Genesis 6:5-8).

Think about what that is saying.  God was sorry that he had ever made people, because of the evil in humanity’s heart.  Sometimes we all have times where we wish we hadn’t been born; well, here’s a time when God wished that we hadn’t either.  And this judgement against humanity’s sin falls not only on humanity, but also on the rest of God’s creation.  Just as Adam and Eve’s original sin in the Garden impacted all of creation, so too does this judgement in Genesis 6 fall on all creation.  Humanity and this earth are intimately tied together, because we are both part of God’s creation.  The earth’s wagon is hitched to humanity’s horse, and God is the driver.  

However, “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.”  If you look in your Bibles, you’ll notice that the word Lord is in all capital letters.  It is the stand-in word for Yahweh, meaning “He Who is” or “He Who causes to be.”  When God appeared to Moses in the burning bush in the wilderness, He told Moses that His name is simply “I am.”  Only God “is;” everything else exists at His pleasure as His creation.  Thus, God is “He who is” and “who causes to be” – Yahweh.

So, in Genesis 6, Yahweh – God – decides to save Noah and his family as well as the animals of the earth.  God will save His creation from the waters of the coming flood through Noah.  Noah is of the line of Seth – he and his family are part of the Church.  In fact, they are the Church: only eight souls on the whole earth remain as the Church of the promise at that time.  The Church had grown from the initial 2 – Adam and Eve – into a great many people, but then the Church compromised, was unfaithful to the Lord, and shrank down to only 8.  

This should be a caution in our own time as we see church membership dwindle in America.  There was a time when America sent missionaries throughout the world to evangelize and spread the Church.  Little did we know that the day would come when these nations would feel compelled to send missionaries back to America to evangelize us, because we have lost our way.  The Church in Africa and Asia has grown and remained faithful to the Lord, while we in America have compromised.  

We see denominations giving up on the Bible, treating it as if it is simply a book of history or ethics or, worse still, simply fables with which we soothe our troubled minds.  We see Christians openly sanctioning sin, calling it “good” and “loving.”  We see humanity so turned in on itself that it no longer looks to God or to the wellbeing of the neighbor.  We see humanity that seeks “only evil continually.”  

No wonder the church in America is shrinking; it’s no different than the rest of the world.  When we can no longer distinguish between Christians and non-Christians and between the Church and the world, because they have become so alike, then should we be surprised that people no longer see a point in the Church and abandon it?  When we lose our first love, Christ, should it be a shock that we lose everything else as well?  

We wonder why our kids are killing each other.  We want to find something to blame, so we blame guns, we blame movies, we blame video games; we blame everything and everyone but the one who actually deserves blame, ourselves.  Because we in America have overwhelmingly neglected the Word of the Lord and discarded it as something that is irrelevant.  Yet, it is the one thing that it is most relevant.  It’s relevant because we are all sinners and are going to die, and only God’s Word addresses this ultimate issue of humanity and gives us hope.  It’s not “guns,” it’s not “movies,” it’s not “video games” who are to blame – it’s us and our sinful, rebellious nature.

And we see the end result of this rebelliousness and sin in Genesis when it grieves God so greatly that he decides to destroy everything.  And yet, because of His Church, he saves His creation.  Noah and his family are the reason we are here today, because they were faithful, they were the true Church.  I already mentioned that humanity’s fate and the fate of the rest of creation are bound together.  And we see this in what happens next in Genesis.  God has Noah build an ark on which to house samples of all the animals on the earth; everything that moves on the earth and that flies is taken into the ark, along with food to feed them all.  The things that live in the waters will be weather the storm.

Now, in our children’s Bibles and stories, the ark is normally pictured as some sort of cutesy, out of proportion boat.  But, in actuality, it was a very large, very stable, barge-like ship with three stories.   And in Genesis 6, God says to Noah, “I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die.  But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you” (Genesis 6:17-18).  Then, God tells Noah to bring the animals on the ark that God will send to him.  God Himself brings the animals to Noah to be saved on the ark, just as He Himself chose Noah and His family to save as an act of His grace and mercy.

So, the covenant that God makes with Noah is not only for Noah, it’s for the animals too.  The ark is the instrument through which God preserves His Church and His creation.  The Church is a blessing to the rest of God’s creation, because it possesses God’s Word and promises.  So, don’t let people try to tell you that Christians don’t care about the environment; that’s simply not true.  God created His people to be His stewards and to tend to His creation.  He calls us into vocation to serve His creation.  And in Genesis 6, His Church preserved creation on the ark.  

So, God has Noah and his family and the animals go onto the ark.  And Genesis 7 says that “the Lord [Yahweh] shut him in.”  He who is – Yahweh – closed up the ark after Noah and everyone had entered it.  It’s similar to how much later, Yahweh is the one who buries Moses in the desert after he dies.  Yahweh – the Lord God – is always with His people, even in the midst of sin and death in the world.

And then it rains for forty days and forty nights until the waters covered the entire earth and killed everything living on it.  Out of all the living creatures and people that had dwelled on the surface of the earth, only those 8 souls on the ark and the animals aboard were saved.  God’s judgement of sin and evil is severe.  And yet, He preserved a people for Himself and through them saved His Creation, because He is also merciful and His steadfast love endures forever.  

The waters covered the earth for 150 days until the water subsided and Noah and his family and the animals were able to come out of the ark onto dry land.  It was like creation was beginning again; the old had been swept away in the waters of the flood and the new had been borne across the waters.  St. Peter, in his first epistle, mentions Noah and the flood and the fact that they were brought safely across the water.  He points out that Baptism corresponds to this, because in Baptism we too are brought out of sin and death and saved for the sake of God’s grace through Christ.

Then, after God delivers Noah and his family, He commissions them in a similar manner as He had once commissioned Adam and Eve.  He tells them to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1).  Then, we arrive at our Old Testament text for today where God establishes His covenant (Genesis 9:8-17).

Now, do you notice who God is establishing His covenant with in Genesis 9?  To whom is God making this promise?  He’s making it to Noah and his sons and their offspring that will come afterwards, meaning us.   But, He’s also making it with “every living creature.”  God’s promise is for all people and for all creation; humanity and the rest of God’s creation are intimately linked.  

And God promises that He will never again destroy the world with the waters of a flood.  And He gives a sign by which we may know that His promise is sure; He sets his bow in the clouds, the rainbow.  We see it after rough storms and remember that God’s promise of restoration and salvation is still with us and all creation.  

We remember that God’s restoration is not just for us, but for all creation as well; just as both Noah and his family as well as the animals were brought through the waters of the flood on the ark into a new world, and just as we are brought through the waters of Baptism into new life in Christ as we await his return to restore all things.  

God says to Noah, “When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I 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.  When 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” (Genesis 9:14-16).

This is a pretty prominent sign that God gives Noah.  We see rainbows quite a bit in the sky after rainstorms.  We see them with sprinklers in our yard or when we mist our gardens.  The rainbow is everywhere.  Oddly enough, though, it isn’t mentioned in the Bible again until the end, in the book of Revelation.  It’s seen in Revelation 10 above the head of the mighty angel that straddles the land and the sea with his feet.  The angel is wrapped in a cloud and surrounded by thunder.  We see God’s judgement on the earth coming with this angel, but we also see God’s grace and mercy, because we see the rainbow.  

And we also see the rainbow in Revelation 4.  The apostle John is taken up into heaven in the vision he receives.  And he stands before the throne of God and he sees a rainbow around the throne, encircling the Lord.  But, the word used for rainbow here and in Revelation 10 is different than the word used in Genesis.  In Genesis, the rainbow is what we think of; a semicircular shape that connects two ends of the horizon.  It’s incomplete.  It’s not a full circle.  It’s the sign of a promise; a promise of restoration that is yet to be fully fulfilled and completed.

This is the sign we encounter in our lives.  We live in the light of a promise of God, but we don’t have the full fulfillment of that promise.  We encounter storms, we endure rough times, we suffer, we die.  We still have the promise, though, but we haven’t yet fully received the fruits of it.

But, in Revelation 4 and 10, the word used for rainbow means that it is a full, complete circle, not like the rainbow mentioned in Genesis.  And the rainbow is now full in Revelation, because all things are now complete.  As the angels and the elders and the four living creations sing praises to the Lord, the rainbow is there, testifying to the completion of God’s promises.  He is no longer veiled by a cloud as He was in the Old Testament, but sits on a throne with a sea of glass before it, because now He has fully revealed Himself to His people through the one who was promised so long ago.  

And then, John sees the one through whom these promises are fulfilled.  In Revelation 5 he sees the “Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” who has conquered and fulfilled all things.  He sees the Lamb who was slain and risen who has come to take his seat at the right hand of the Father and who sends the Holy Spirit out into all the earth.  

John sees Jesus Christ, because Jesus is the one who has died and now lives and who has conquered sin and death and satan.  He sees the Lord Jesus Christ who is the fulfillment of the promise of the rainbow; the one through whom the restoration of all creation comes thanks to his cross and empty tomb.  The rainbow is complete, because Christ has fulfilled the everlasting covenant between God and all flesh that is on the earth.  John in Revelation sees Yahweh in the flesh, but he’s also seen him before.

You see, this is what is going on in the Gospel of Mark for today (Mark 6:45-56).  The disciples are on the boat, having trouble crossing the sea of Galilee because of the wind.  And they think they see a ghost walking out on the water.  They are terrified.  But, Jesus “spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart; it is I.  Do not be afraid.”  The Greek expresses this more directly.  What Jesus says to them is, “Take heart; I am.  Do not be afraid.”  

Jesus is walking on the water; he’s not a ghost, he’s the “I am,” he’s Yahweh in the flesh.  He’s the same God that Adam and Eve worshipped, the same God that Seth worshipped, the same God Noah worshipped and who shut Noah up in the ark, the same God Moses worshipped and who buried him, the same God the Israelites worshipped.  But, now, here he is, in the flesh, fully revealed to us as Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Yahweh – He who is and who causes to be – in flesh and blood walking on the surface of the waters he created.

But, the disciples in the boat were astounded at all this, because they did not understand about the loaves.  Just prior to this, in the reading for last week in fact, Jesus had multiplied the loaves to feed that great crowd of people.  But, the disciples didn’t understand the significance of this.  They thought it was a great miracle, but they didn’t grasp the true significance.  They didn’t realize that they were in the presence of Yahweh.  

The God who created Adam and Eve and all creation, and who spoke to Noah and to all the other prophets, had now arrived on the earth through His Son.  This Yahweh is not only “He who is,” but is also “He who causes to be.”  He caused all things to be in the beginning through His Word and now His Word is here in the flesh in Mark, causing bread to be to care for His people.  And he causes his body and blood to be in the bread and wine he gives us each week at His Supper.

And in Mark’s Gospel, he is walking on water and calming the winds, because he is Lord over all creation and he has come to save and restore his creation.  He can create, he can heal, he can call into existence things that are not, because He is the Lord God Almighty and his steadfast love endures forever.  

And His steadfast love is for you, because He created you and saved you through his death and resurrection.  God’s covenant to Noah was a covenant made to you as well, and it is fulfilled in Jesus Christ – for you – so that you may dwell with Him forever, basking in the light of His glory and the warmth of his everlasting, steadfast love.  

So, after the storms and thunders of this world cease raging, at Christ’s return you will rise from your graves to gaze upon the great, perfect rainbow in the sky and upon the one who loved you so much that he died and rose for you and returned for you in the completion of God’s promises.  Amen.


(Image: Khakhuli triptych, medieval artwork from Georgia. The Plaque representing Christ Seating on the Rainbow; 10th to 12th century; by Anonymous – Parliament of Georgia, Public Domain, )