On the one hand, as dramatic as the story of Noah is, the ending is somewhat anticlimactic. The rainbow appears, and the voice from above pronounces that this is the sign that God won’t destroy the world by a flood again. That is somewhat cold comfort, given the array of other ways that the world could be destroyed. And what makes it worse is that it kinda sounds like God is forgetful, needing a multihued string tied around the divine finger to be a reminder of that thin promise. It is as if drowning is a favorite way of wiping out the creation, and God needs a visible reminder to not fall back on that habit.
No doubt there are thinking members of your congregation who have parsed all of this out for themselves and are ready to move on to something a little more profound, not to mention comforting. The preacher needs to dig a little deeper and help people hear the profound and revolutionary shift that takes place in this text about the nature of God and humanity.
Begin where the Bible begins, in the chaos of the deep. Before creation, when nothing existed, there was water - the chaos of water, the primordial deep, the absence of God and all that is. Then, in the seventh chapter, we’re back in the deep. The waters threaten, and chaos returns. The Creator, dissatisfied with the creation, wipes it all out in a colossal do-over, a rebooting of the entire universe.
Life is an accident, subject to the whims of nature and a disconnected Creator. Life is cheap, meaningless, empty. At least it could be argued, until Genesis 9. In Genesis 9, everything changed. God the Creator became God the Protector. God chose to stand between the creation and chaos, between meaninglessness and a life of community and purpose. God chose and then committed to that choice, to stand with that which was created out of nothing.
“But wait,” you’re thinking, “the promise is to remove only one method of destroying creation off the list of potential catastrophes.” That is hardly the word of security that we’re looking for. But look a little deeper, beyond the words that are used and see the symbolic action underneath. God says, “I have set my bow in the clouds.” We read that as “rainbow” because that is the word we’ve created from this text. But it isn’t a feature of light and color; it is a weapon of war. God says, “I am setting aside my weapon that I used to bring destruction to the people. I am shifting from a warrior God to a protector God.”
As an aside, and it wouldn’t do to put too much weight on this, but the word “bow” in verse 13 has a curious configuration. Some translators aren’t quite sure how to translate it. But the word that is attached to the word bow is a word that in other places is translated as “plowshare.” Is this God performing the act that later the prophet Isaiah calls upon all the nations to perform? Turning weapons of war into farming implements?
This seems more than simply crossing one method of destruction off a very long list. This is a complete reorientation of the relationship between God and God’s people. So the sign carries so much more significance than we might have first thought.
Now we must consider how to become the sign that God is with us, or God is on our side into a world that feels so adversarial these days. How can we move beyond pointing at the signs of God at work in the world—which is a vital and important work for disciples to be about—to being the sign that God is with us?
Certainly, here is the connection for us followers of Christ during this season of Lent. Jesus came as the rainbow personified. He was the sign that God is present and that God is our advocate and not our adversary. Part of the work for us in this season is to assess how well we are doing in following that example and being that sign. The rending of our collective hearts is in the confession that we may have been more of an adversary to the work of God in the world than an advocate. Whether we think individually, as we do and need to from time to time, or corporately, as we don’t very often, we need to examine the condition of our hearts and ask whether we can look at us, look at the church and declare, “This is the sign!”