Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (also Feast of St. James)

Readings: Genesis 9:8-17 | Ephesians 3:14-21 | Mark 6:45-56

Text: Genesis 9:8-17

When people hear about the Flood, people in our culture might picture a boat with animals sticking out windows, and several people aboard.  Other cultures record the same event: The Chinese have the story of the family of Fuhi, who lived during the time when the whole land was flooded to the tops of the mountains, and how only his family survived and whose three sons repopulated the earth.  The Babylonian stories recorded by Gilgamesh include a man named Untapishtim, who was instructed to build a large ship and instructed to take a male and female of each type of animal.  The Aztecs record the story of Tapi, a pious man, who was told to take his wife and a pair of each animal. The people laughed at him, but when the waters came, they climbed the mountains but could not escape. After the water had dried, Tapi released a dove which did not return.

The account of the Flood is universal, recorded by ancient people from all over the earth.  In the same way, what happened afterward is universally known: God set the bow in the clouds.  Rainbows are known the world over, a beautiful meteorological phenomenon which display the whole spectrum of visible light.  Even though this wasn’t articulated until the 13th and 17th centuries by Roger Bacon and Isaac Newton, the rainbow is something all people can see and appreciate.

But God tells us more about the rainbow than we can learn from observation:

12 And 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: 13 I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 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.

The rainbow is more than a natural phenomenon; it’s God’s sign.  His signs are those things where He joins something physical to His promise.  In this case, the rainbow in the sky is tied to a covenant He makes with every creature of the earth, and especially with every human being who descended from the three families that came out of the Ark.  Even if you don’t know a lick about God, or make it your mission to destroy all things spiritual in the name of reason, you can still see the rainbow in the sky.

But today we will focus on what God says about the rainbow, and the covenant which He makes which every creature, even with every single human being.  Just as the rainbow is universally familiar, God speaks to every single creature: Never again will the Flood happen to destroy the earth.  And why would God need to say that?  Because the Flood happened because, “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12 And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth.” (Gen. 6:11-12)  This is far from what God created the earth and human beings on it for.  Corruption from man’s wicked heart, violence in destroying the beauty of this world and the lives of people precious in God’s sight.  It would be unjust for this to go unanswered.  How could God remain silent?  So, He sent the Flood, and only righteous Noah and his family heeded the warning.  Noah, his wife, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and their wives—eight souls, were the only ones who saved their lives on the ark [1 Pet. 3:20].

And after this great act of judgment, God left the rainbow as a reminder.  It’s a twofold reminder, actually.  First, He says, “When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh.”  When the eyes of men see the bow in the clouds, God will remember the covenant He made that day after Noah and his family left the ark: Never again will He destroy all flesh with water, even though, “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen 8:21).

The other side of the reminder is for God: “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.”  When God sees the bow in the clouds, after every time it rains, He remembers this covenant with the earth.  It’s a covenant that assures the all people of the earth that rain will not lead to complete destruction, even though it once did.  It’s a reminder to God to be gracious to a sinful and corrupt earth.

What this teaches us is that a rainbow is far more than a simple, accidental interaction between sunlight and water droplets.  It is actually a personal promise which God makes between Himself and every living creature on earth.  It has personal meaning for every person, because it is God’s sign to every generation which follows the Flood until the Day Christ returns.

By the rainbow, God is preaching to every person: I will be gracious to you, even though you are corrupt from your youth, even though your heart is thoroughly filled with evil.  What people use this for is to put the Lord to the test.  Like teenagers who revel in what they can “get away with” without getting punished, people take the patience of God as license to do what they please.  That’s the dullness of the human heart, and the shamelessness from which we all suffer.  But God tells us about His patience in Romans 2: “Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4) 

And it’s not that people don’t recognize how dangerous a worldwide flood can be.  Otherwise, those many cultures wouldn’t have shared the account of destruction from above, and the fact that it was in response to the wickedness on the earth.  Every person can identify the danger of a flood, but the greater peril that the Flood tells us about is the peril of unbelief and the danger of unrepentance—the danger of hardness of heart.  If we think we’re safe because we “believe in God” or Jesus whatever we take Him to be, we’re gravely mistaken. St. James, whom the Church commemorates today, reminds us: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19)  No, a person actually needs to listen to what the One, True God says.  Our sinful flesh wants God to be there, but be silent.  We’d rather have a God who doesn’t speak, because then He cannot call us out for the evil of our hearts and actions.

But the God of heaven does speak, and He calls every single person not just to acknowledge He exists, but to repent of the evil of our hearts, our words, and our deeds.  This is the true peril, not of death by water, but eternal death in the fires of hell. 

What God means by His covenant, signified by the rainbow, is that He desires to all to repent and believe in the culmination of His riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience—His Son Jesus Christ who came as the universal Savior.  God makes no distinction between people, and just like the rainbow, His gracious work goes out for all people, speaking to them while they live and calling them back to fellowship with Him.  When He sees His bow in the clouds, He remembers not only the covenant He made with every person, but the covenant He made in the blood of His Son, and this is the new covenant which He has makes with you.

In Holy Baptism, He also delivers you through the waters: 18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” (1 Peter 3:18-22)

His patience and kindness do remain until the Last Day, so that what He wants for all people would come about: that all who hear His voice and fear His judgment also believe that on account of Jesus Christ, He has put away your sin.  This is what His covenant with the earth is meant to lead all people of the earth to: To see His patience as a call to the waters of Baptism.  There, the water is judgment for our sin, putting it to death, and salvation for the Christian.

This is God’s meaning for the rainbow, which supersedes any meaning man can apply to it.  If man should say the rainbow is merely a random process that just happened to come out of chaos, God has taught us better to see Him actually active in His creation and speaking to every person.  If man should use the rainbow as a political and ethical symbol, what God does with it is better: He desires the salvation of all people, regardless of the way their sinful heart bears fruit.  He is patient and kind toward people, no matter how much evil they delight in, because it’s His desire and His power to work to call them away from destruction and to eternal life through His Son.  When you see the rainbow, remember the God who made the rainbow and gave it meaning for Himself, for you, and for every person.  Never write someone else off as a lost cause, because God hasn’t.  Let His Word be on your lips, so that the wicked person sees that there actually is a God in heaven who judges.  And when God works terror in their conscience, be ready to share the mercy God in Christ.  But even if that shouldn’t come immediately, pray for divine patience with them, just as God is patient toward them.  Remember this, when we see the world continuing on its evil course, that despite it, God is still speaking to them[1] with His unchanging Word.  He will continue speaking until the very Last Day, when it’s not the door of the Ark that will be shut, but the door of heaven.  Until then, we pray for God to deliver us from the works of our flesh, the deceit of the devil, and the wickedness in the world.  He truly will.  Amen.

[1] Another irony is that the United Church of Christ, a very progressive nominal Christian group, has the slogan “God is still speaking” which undermines the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture.  But even more true is that God is still speaking, with His authoritative and unchanging Word to call sinners to repentance and faith in His Son.

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