Lent 1: A Bow in the Clouds

Preaching text: Genesis 9:8-17

When I was a little girl, I would read the story of Noah’s Ark in my children’s Bible without any sense of perturbation. I liked the pictures of the animals going into the ark two by two. We had a wooden model of the ark that could be taken apart and put back together, and I loved experimenting with how many ways it was possible to fit all the creatures into the ark (pro tip: elephants first). I never worried about the absent animals, and the thousands of humans who didn’t fit. 

But I also read Grimm’s fairy tales with fatalistic acceptance. I believed that there were quite possibly monsters in my closet, and perhaps under my bed as well. I did not step on cracks, just in case. You never knew.

As a child, it didn’t bother me that the God of my Bible could be as terrible as the monsters of my imagination.

As an adult, it’s a different story.

The promise

“I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is 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.” 

Genesis 9:9-11

A promise for Noah and all creatures:

Imagine what it must have been like to be Noah at this moment in Genesis, setting foot on dry ground for the first time in months. Perhaps his foot sank into still-soaked mud, a squelchy reminder of the horror he’d witnessed: the destruction of the earth. Imagine what he’d seen floating in the waters during those horrible, interminable weeks of rain, followed by months of no sight of land.

I imagine relief would have been mingled with terror. Noah was being given a fresh start, but with what? His family. An ark full of animals. And a God who had just destroyed absolutely everything else.

Well, shit, he might have thought.

What does having this promise from God change for Noah? Well, for starters, it assures the denizens of the Ark who have the gargantuan task of repopulating the planet that it’s worth it. Those who have survived deep trauma can attest that one of the most difficult things about survival can be believing that survival is worthwhile. By means of a promise, God offers hope that reconstruction is a meaningful task.

It’s also worth noting that God doesn’t just offer this promise to Noah and his family. God offers it to all the critters. Creation itself is included in God’s covenant. This could offer a homiletic opportunity to preach about humanity being part of God’s much broader intention to save all creation.

A promise for God:

Now imagine what it might have been like to be God, watching Noah step out of the Ark. Perhaps God was watching eagerly, rather like I do when I let my dog out after a fresh snow, looking to see the creature’s sheer joy of finding himself where he’s been longing with all his heart to be.

But if there is joy, it is tinged with terror. If Noah feels delight, it is fraught, and will always be fraught, now, with the experience of seeing everything he’d thought was a sure thing—the sun in the sky, the ground under his feet, the mercy of God—erased by an unrelenting rain of terrible justice. Watching Noah’s emergence from the Ark, God would have seen that fear.

Well, shit, God might have thought.

Perhaps this accounts for an unusual detail about this covenant: God offers it without expecting anything from Noah. That’s a stark difference from the contractual way that covenants are often framed in the Bible. Usually God expects something from humankind in return—righteousness or faithfulness or lawfulness. But here, God promises without asking for anything in return, and the text is clear: this promise is primarily for God. The bow is hung up to remind God—not humankind—of God’s own promise not to destroy.

I didn’t understand until well into adulthood this was supposed to be an archer’s bow. But I was very excited when I finally got that connection. Think about it, y’all: our modern day rainbow equivalent would be a great big gun safe in the sky.

I checked, and sadly, there is not a country song written about this image. (Yet.)

The practical connection between an archer’s bow and a flood somewhat escapes me. (Maybe God is meant to have opened the floodgates of the heavens by means of well-aimed cosmic arrows?) But the general thrust is quite clear: this warrior God is retiring Their weapon. God-caused violence is permanently laid aside as an option for dealing with human evil.

A promise for us:

At its barest minimum, the promise of this first Sunday of Lent modifies the promise we received on Ash Wednesday: YOU’RE GOING TO DIE (but not in a world-wide flood!).

But I think there’s another direction to this promise, and here’s where it begins:

God regretted.

This is a big deal to me because one of the other lessons I imbibed growing up, alongside a genocidal God who killed an entire planet with a flood, was that God never made mistakes.

I think this is problematic. If you can read that last sentence aloud and disagree with me, well, just know that I’m never sleeping with an unlocked door around you.

It’s true that a God who regrets goes against an image of God who is perfect and never makes mistakes. But if you can let that tension stand for a moment, compare these two passages:

Genesis 6:
“The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”

Genesis 8:
[God says to Godself,] “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.”

First point: that thing God is doing in Genesis 6, where God is sorry for making humankind…that’s regret.

Second, much more important point: God’s opinion of humanity doesn’t change between Genesis 6 and 8. The problem that God set out to solve by flooding the earth has not been solved. The flood didn’t change the inclination of the human heart. The heart that changed was God’s own.

This recasts the sacred story from a God who is waiting impatiently for humanity to finally get its shit together to a God who is in a genuine relationship with us. In relationships, people grow and change. And in the best kind of relationships, they make the choice, over and over again, not to leave. Not to start over. But to stay, and work, and grow, and change, and always, always try.

This covenant is not simply a promise that the world will never again die by drowning. This covenant is a promise that God is in this relationship, and will not ever walk away…even when it means that God has to place limits on God’s own behavior.

In the Christian tradition, God’s choice to limit Godself finds its fullest expression when God becomes human in Jesus Christ, entering bodily into our experience, determined to see things from our perspective.

We’ll hear the story of Jesus’ baptism in the gospel today. The story comes full circle as Jesus is submerged in the Jordan, drowning in order to save. In his baptism, Jesus foreshadows the promise of Noah, new-struck with each of us: when we go into those waters, we too die, only to rise into new life. Water’s destructive power is tamed, like a bow hung in the sky, and instead of finding annihilation under the surface, we encounter new life, offered by a God who simply won’t stop trying.

Published by Barn Geese

Honk if you love Jesus.

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