It is possible that we have not yet grasped the significance of this important narrative:
Chapter One is in the beginning when the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep. And God speaks, and by the end, there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
In Chapter Two there’s another beginning. And God makes Adam out of the dust, and breathes life into him. And God puts Adam in a garden, and takes a rib from him to make Eve. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.
A serpent appears in Chapter Three, who wreaks havoc by appealing to Adam and Eve in a most rational but deadly way. And by the end of that day, such as it was, God drove them out, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.
In Chapter Four, Cain murders Abel, his brother, which is more than enough for one chapter, so early in the history of the world. And at that time people began to invoke the name of the Lord.
In Chapter Five, we hear of the descendants of Adam and Eve, all the way to Noah, who is of no interest to us until he was five hundred years old, the father of Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
In Chapter Six, things begin to heat up. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth.... Now, the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God said, ‘I am sorry that I have made them.’” And he went to Noah (who had found favor in the sight of the Lord), with his plan.
Chapter Seven brings the flood, and the ark, and the animals two by two; the forty days of rain, and the waters, swollen on the face of the earth.
In Chapter Eight, Noah opens the window of the ark and sends out the dove. And eventually the dove comes back with an olive leaf in its beak. And Noah, and his family, and all the animals at last get to leave the ark, and populate the now desolate earth. And the first thing that Noah does is build an altar, and make a burnt sacrifice to the Lord. “And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil...; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.’”
And in Chapter Nine, beautiful, gorgeous, marvelous Chapter Nine, God stops giving Noah orders, and instead, God establishes a covenant of trust with Noah “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.”
“God 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: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 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.... When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature.’”
I often think that this story must first have been told by a father (or mother) whose child looked up to the sky after a storm and saw a rainbow, and asked her father where rainbows come from. And I imagine that marvelous father (or mother), whose imagination must have been stoked by the religious stories of his own time, telling the story of Noah by way of explaining where rainbows come from; and what a great reminder rainbows are of God’s love for us. And I could be right about that. But in imaging it this way, I tend to overlook an important detail of the story of Noah and the ark, and the flood and the rainbow. I tend to overlook that although God explains the sign of the covenant to Noah, he never tells Noah that the rainbow is a sign meant for him and his descendants. Quite the contrary, God says that sign of the rainbow is meant for his own divine eyes. “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature...”. I will see it, myself, says God. I will see it, and remember.
God must have known that we would try his patience.
And now I wonder if maybe the story was first told by a father (or mother) to his frightened child, shivering and shaking, held snug by his parent’s arm, just as the rain began to fall in large, heavy drops that pelted the ground, and silenced the birds, and stung as they hit the back of a child’s neck, and sent squirrels running for shelter, and found the dog cowering under the bed, as the sky darkened, and this poor child, to whom so much in the world was still new, saw great puddles form and rivers swell in which any number of things could drown, and heard the furious rainfall and the thunder, and saw the awful flashes of lightning, and wondered if the world, her world, was coming to an end as the thunder crashed.
“Oh no, my child,” her father (or mother) might have told her, “the world will not end because of this storm. And when this rain finally stops coming down, I can prove it to you. For God will put a sign in the clouds. And you must never be afraid of a storm, because God himself will see the sign, and he will remember his covenant of trust. And all will be well.”
I read somewhere recently that Lent is that time of the Christian year when we commemorate the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, tempted by Satan. And because Lent is, indeed, forty days long (if you don’t count Sundays), and because the Gospel reading today does, indeed, call to mind our Lord’s sojourn in the wilderness, I worry that we might for a while labor under the same mistaken idea, that Lent is a commemoration of Jesus’ wilderness temptation. This would be a most unfortunate and superficial conclusion to reach, since it leaves you and me conveniently out of the equation, as mere on-lookers.
Lent’s greater usefulness is not as a time merely to re-tell the long-ago story of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness. The collect for today puts it this way, “Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save….” Yes, the context of Lent is the memory of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, but the substance of the season is our own need for God to come quickly to help us, and save us. And as we recognize our need for God to save us from ourselves, we remember, too, that once God said of us that “the inclination of the human heart is evil....” What a dismal indictment that is.
Most of the time I want to push back against this charge. Most of the time I want to suggest that the God of love would never say such a thing, never think such a thing... and I hope I am right about the way I see this most of the time. Most of the time I want to believe that God could never have thought, let alone said out loud, “I am sorry that I made them,” as Genesis reports that God once said. This is the type of thing abusive parents say to their children, and we must tread very carefully when we allow for the possibility that such a thought could ever cross the mind of God. But there have been times lately when it has seemed plausible to me that God could have thought such a thing, if he looked down, and saw that the wickedness of humankind is great in the earth.
Indeed, this is an awful indictment, and one for which I could supply ample evidence from last week’s papers alone. But the fact remains that God has not stopped finding favor with us, despite our wicked tendencies, and the ease with which we give in to temptation. And we gather here, not to be indicted over and over again on account of our wickedness, but because of God’s unfailing favor, made manifest in the gift of his Son. And we realize that God didn’t call us together to be a church merely so we could remember how bad we are, recalling together the old stories of our un-faithfulness. He called us together to sanctify us and to save us, and so that he would know that he doesn’t mean it, and never did, when he hears us read in church that once he said, “I am sorry that I made them.”
The weather notwithstanding, on Ash Wednesday I must admit that it felt to me as if the rain had began to fall again in large, heavy drops that pelted a school, and silenced the birds, and stung viciously as they hit the children, and sent them ducking for shelter, and found the dog cowering under the bed, as the sky darkened, and puddles of blood formed, and the sound and fury, and the thunder, and the awful flashes of lightning were almost enough to make me wonder, in a way, if the world, our world, was coming to an end, as the casings rattled to the ground, and we had to count to seventeen.
It made me ask, sincerely and urgently, What is wrong with us? Is the inclination of the human heart really so evil? Is our wickedness really so great?
We come shivering and shaking into God’s presence, and we might well have these questions on our minds. We might even wonder if God is sorry that he made us. Which is why we need to remember again about the covenant, and about the sign of the rainbow. And we need to recall what God told Noah, “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature...”. I will see it, myself, says God. I will see it, and remember.
This is not the first time I have found myself praying for a rainbow. And I fear it shall not be the last. And as I have a pretty good idea about the extent of my own weaknesses, and those of the human condition, I am praying that God will come quickly to help us, and that we will find God mighty to save. And that he will keep the rainbows coming, please, keep the rainbows coming!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
18 February 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia