Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights BaptistChurch in Little Rock, A.R., on Mar. 1, 2009.
Genesis 9: 8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22
According to the dictionary, a rainbow is the refraction of the prismatic colors of light as they are reflected off drops of rain. But how can anyone, who has ever witnessed a real, true, honest-to-goodness rainbow, call it anything besides a miracle? You just can’t help but have your spirits lifted by such a sight, no matter how dreary your day, up to that point, may have been.
The last rainbow I saw was on December 27. Did you see it? I looked out our front door and there it was cast against the eastern sky… as full and beautiful as any rainbow I’ve ever seen. It is not a sight to be kept to one’s self, so I called to Janet and we stood on our front porch and marveled at its beauty. I called Tim to tell him. It was his birthday, and I told him he was going to have a really good year because of the rainbow that was hanging in the sky on his special day.
I grabbed my camera and took some pictures. But like the Grand Canyon, a picture just can’t do it justice. You see, a rainbow isn’t just refracted light against drops of rain. It’s a promise, a blessing, the sign of the covenant that God has made with his people. You can give me all the scientific explanations of a rainbow you want, but I will remain steadfastly unconvinced. A rainbow is a miracle. A rainbow is a promise. A rainbow is the sign of the covenant God has made with his people.
Not that such a covenant came easily. Just as a rainbow does not come about without darkness and rain, the promise God made to Noah and all those who followed him emerged from “the mud and the death-dealing waters of the flood.”1 In effect, with the flood, God uncreated the world, the beautiful, wonderful, good world he had made.
It must have been an awful thing, the flood.
We glamorize it, especially with the children. Just look at the cute little pictures. Even the toys get into the act, with the animals inside the ark, the giraffes with their heads sticking up above the top. But in reality, it must have been an awful thing, the flood.
Last week, Janet and I ran down to Lacombe, Louisiana for the final part of our Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. Driving down what essentially are narrow, tree-and-brush-lined rural lanes, and seeing the houses, some still being rebuilt, I thought back to my first trip more than three years ago. I saw firsthand what water can do when it comes in such destructive force. The smell, the sights, the sense that there can be little worse than being overcome by inundating water.
Water is indeed a very effective way of un-creating the world.
We’re happy for Noah and his family. We really are. And the animals that were fortunate enough to be included in his ark. But what about those who were not so blessed? Oh, we can say it was a long time ago, and they were evil in the sight of the Lord, that they deserved what they got. But they were people, like you and me. And what about the animals that weren’t taken in the boat… what did they do to deserve such a fate?
We don’t have the answer to that question, but we do know this: God vowed never to do it again. Maybe God couldn’t stand the sight and the smell of the flood either, the total destruction of people and animals and things. “I establish my covenant with you,” God says to Noah and to all of Noah’s children, “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” (9:11).
And so, the rainbow became the symbol of such a promise. It was also a reminder, not so much to Noah and all those who followed him, but to God himself. “When… the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant…” (vv. 14-15).
It was not the first promise God ever made to his people, and it was not the last. Think about the promise God gave to Abraham, and to Jacob, and Joseph, Moses, David, the prophets. And did you hear what was written in the New Testament epistle of 1 Peter? “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” Now that’s a covenant.
You see, a promise can be made by one person, but it takes a minimum of two to complete a covenant. Covenants are sometimes sealed with a kiss or a handshake, something as legal as a contract perhaps. And the last time I looked, it takes at least two people to do something like that. In other words, it doesn’t just happen. A covenant is entered into with great seriousness and deliberation.
As most of you noticed, I’m sure, I finally got a haircut this week, so I’m no longer doing my Billy Graham imitation. Jerry Hood, my barber, as I left the shop, handed me a CD and asked me to listen to it. It was a local radio program, done in an interview style, that featured a couple from Rose Bud, Arkansas. For the uninformed, Rose Bud, population of about 400, is up near Heber Springs.
The couple who were interviewed are John and Donna Bishop. In1995 John developed such a serious case of meningitis he lapsed into a coma. When he awoke, he had total and complete amnesia. He did not remember who he was, who his wife and family were. He remembered absolutely nothing.
Unlike the amnesia you see portrayed on television or in the movies, when memory is re-established just before the final commercial or before the credits roll, John’s memory has never come back to him. He still, to this day, does not remember anything prior to the time he woke up. He had forgotten how to walk and talk, how to swallow and eat. He obviously could not read or write. So the last thirteen plus years have been spent re-learning how to do all these things. He was like a forty-something newborn baby.
For the first two years of his rehabilitation, Donna cleaned John up, fed him, clothed him, and kept him going. Friends and acquaintances suggested she place him in a home that was equipped to do such things, so she wouldn’t have to bear the burden. But she refused.
It hasn’t been easy, to say the least. They had no medical insurance. At one point John asked Donna if they were poor. “No,” she told him, “just broke.” John still suffers seizures and migraines, and on a scale of one-to-ten his pain level hovers consistently around a seven. Eight months prior to this program, recorded a couple of years ago, after a particularly fierce migraine, he lost his ability to see. Through it all, John and Donna have remained committed to each other and to their faith.
They were asked, if they could go back to the way life had been before his illness, would they do it. They said no, that they had learned so much of God’s grace through this experience that they would never want it to be the way it was before. John, who is a preacher, listened to a tape of a sermon he preached before he became ill. He threw it away. Too much anger in it, he said, too much judgment. Now, when he shares his testimony, he speaks of God’s mercy and grace, and talks of God’s love. “I like the new John better than the old one,” he says.
A few years ago John and Donna remade their marriage vows before the minister who had officiated their wedding… a wedding John cannot remember. They did it because they wanted to covenant to each other again that they would remain together for better, for worse, for richer, for poor, in sickness and in health.
The season of Lent is a time of re-doing our vows with God. Perhaps, as at no other time of the year, it is now that we are given permission to be honest about ourselves, about the nature of our sin, the kind of people we would be without God’s merciful grace upon us. It is only because God has graciously not given up on us, at least not since the days of the flood, that we are allowed to be honest about who we are.
That is why this covenant God has made with us, fully revealed in Christ and remembered at God’s table, is so important. If we will take it to heart, if we will shake God’s hand on it, a rainbow will appear in the sky of our hearts and we will know that we are forgiven. And from that covenant, first promised so long ago, we will find the grace that keeps us going.
Grace us, O Lord, with your forgiving presence. And in this season of repentance, help us to find it in our hearts to look for the sign of the covenant. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.