St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Bart Smith
The First Sunday of Lent (February 18, 208)
Genesis 9:8-17 – “Hanging Up Bows”
God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “I am now setting up my covenant with you, with your descendants, and with every living being with you—with the birds, with the large animals, and with all the animals of the earth, leaving the ark with you. I will set up my covenant with you so that never again will all life be cut off by floodwaters. There will never again be a flood to destroy the earth.”
God said, “This is the symbol of the covenant that I am drawing up between me and you and every living thing with you, on behalf of every future generation. I have placed my bow in the clouds; it will be the symbol of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember the covenant between me and you and every living being among all the creatures. Floodwaters will never again destroy all creatures. The bow will be in the clouds, and upon seeing it I will remember the enduring covenant between God and every living being of all the earth’s creatures.”
Some time ago the journalist Bill Moyers hosted a PBS special in which he discussed the stories in Genesis with a panel of thinkers. He asked one of them:
“Barney, you’re the newspaperman among us. If you were doing this story for the front page of the Wall Street Journal tomorrow, what would the headline be?
[Barney said,] “‘God Destroys the World.’ And the subhead would probably say: ‘One Family Survives with Many Animals.”
This story lends itself to humor, I think, because we’re a little confused or even nervous about how it portrays God. Think about it… Despite how cute we’ve rendered this story with drawings on nurseries walls, mobiles above cribs, and such, how God is portrayed is quite disturbing. The $25 word is anthropomorphic: God looks and acts a little too much like humans.
Thankfully, God evolves over the course of the Hebrew Bible. But stick with the story for just a few moments. Put yourself in God’s shoes.
God is FED UP here. God is positively LIVID! Why?
Well, because of the violence in that time. It says this in Genesis just a few chapters before:
The Sovereign One saw that humanity had become thoroughly evil on the earth and that every idea their minds thought up was always completely evil. The Sovereign One regretted making human beings on the earth, and God was heartbroken. So the Sovereign One said, “I will wipe off of the land the human race that I’ve created: from human beings to livestock to the crawling things to the birds in the skies, because I regret I ever made them… In God’s sight, the earth had become corrupt and was filled with violence. God saw that the earth was corrupt, because all creatures behaved corruptly on the earth.
Incensed at human depravity, specifically at our pervasive violence, God wipes the slate clean.
Can you blame her?
Flood the place and start over. Be done with it. We have here a God who is by no means indifferent to the harm humans inflict upon themselves and the rest of creation that she obliterates it– save for one righteous person, his family, and a few creatures. Can you blame God, given the extent of the violence, to want to be finished with the whole project?
Can you blame God… stay with me here… for wanting to be done with us given the violence in our time?
That’s what’s striking to me as I read this old, familiar story this week: the violence in it all. As disturbingly as the story portrays God, I find myself sympathizing with the Deity. Just get it over with!
But what I’ve noticed this time is that God repents of God’s own violence.
The rainbow, pretty to us now, was for many ancients seen as heaven’s weapon. Lightning bolts were the arrows and the bow was… well, the bow. An “active” bow, so to speak, would have been hung in the sky like a U shape, ready to be drawn, shooting those arrows of lightning at the inhabitants of earth.
But this bow is reversed. This bow is hung in an upside-down U, indicating that God has declared a ceasefire. Forever.
It’s almost as if there’s a profound tension here within God’s own heart between a desire to mete out justice and proclaim mercy. And what does God choose? Mercy.
Another person in that Bill Moyers’ PBS special conversation, a preacher, said this: “My headline would not have been ‘God Destroys the World’ but ‘God Gives Humans A Second Chance.”
God does give humanity and the earth a second chance by striking a covenant.
What is a covenant? A covenant is an agreement, a pact, a common thing in the ancient Asian and African cultures. There were different types of covenants, usually between greater and lesser powers, between rulers such as emperors and their vassal kings. Covenants were based on loyalty; another way of saying that would be “faithfulness.”
God makes covenants frequently in the Bible, with the likes of characters like Abraham, Moses, and David, and here with Noah and the rest of the created order. And God always proves faithful to these covenants. God strikes a covenant here and promises to never again flood the earth. God promises to stay in relationship with humanity (that is still prone to violence and all sorts of evil, by the way) but the point is that God’s keeps God’s end of the bargain. God is still faithful, still present with us, still being our God, still refusing to give up on us, despite our violent ways.
And what’s our end of the covenant? To be God’s people.
To, like Noah, be vessels of peace in a world gone mad. To eschew the violence that breaks God’s heart. And the thing is: we have second chances, third chances, fourth chances to do this. That’s the meaning of the rainbow, then and now.
This violence that plagues us, as it did in the time of Noah… I have to be honest with you all. I’m so weary of trying to find something meaningful to say after every one of these incidences of gun violence in this country. Given that I was in high school during Columbine and that school shootings have been the norm in my educational career and life since then, I’m tempted to despair. And since I’ve been a pastor for only six years, mass shootings like these have been the norm of my ministry. The massacre at Newtown, Connecticut, happened my first fall as a pastor. And I am tired, so tired, of having to stand up in the pulpit and address crises such as this. When will it stop? When will our leaders, who are complicit in tragedies like this, make meaningful policy change to protect us all, especially our children?
And I tire of saying in each of these sermons, essentially, “Let’s focus on what is within our control…” And that is frustrating. But it’s also true. We have to focus on what is and isn’t within our control in the midst of crises like this. No, we cannot fix this huge problem by ourselves but yes, we can do some things. We can storm the state houses and the halls of Congress. We can dial their phone lines until they hang up on us. We can advocate. We can hit the streets!
But we also, in our daily lives, have to be the ones who hang up our own bows.
Whether it’s in our families, in our cars, in our schools, or some other sphere of life, we have to rededicate ourselves to being God’s people of peace– people who, like Noah, opt out of the violent ways of the world and vow to “walk with God,” living differently.
So let’s be those people. Let’s hang up our bows. Let’s do that for the sake of the mercy of God and the whole creation that God so loves.
May it be so…
Featured image: Rainbow Over the Pyramid, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.