Text: Genesis 9:8-17
Date: Pentecost IX (Proper 12) + 7/29/12
What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you see a rainbow? Judy Garland? Leprechauns and pots of gold? Gay pride parades? Just the scientific wonder of “Roy G. Biv,” the acronym for the rainbow colors of red-orange-yellow, green, blue-indigo and violet? Or do you think of a promise of God? In our day of increasing Biblical illiteracy fewer it would seem think, much less even know, of God’s promise concerning the rainbow in Genesis 9. In fact this scripture has never been included in the lectionary until Lutheran Service Book included it for this Sunday. That means I’ve never preached on this text! Yet even more important than God’s promise and covenant with His creation never again to destroy the earth by water, today’s Gospel proclaims how this same, fearful almighty God who controls the forces of the universe by the command of His Word, “who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8), has come to us as one of us, in human form, not to threaten or judge us but to save us. Today we proclaim that Jesus is this same almighty God of creation come to deliver us from sin, separation and death, to the eternal life of holiness and righteousness as God’s new creation. The short prayer in the Lutheran Study Bible asks, “O God, for Jesus’ sake, grant that every sighting of a rainbow may bring to mind Your promises of grace and mercy” (p. 29).
The first eleven chapters of Genesis paint with broad brush strokes the picture that tells where everything has come from, how we got here, why there is evil and suffering in the world, and God’s promise of salvation. It reads as a short novel listing “the firsts” of creation—the first people, the first sin, the first promise of a Savior from sin, the first murder, the first obituary, the first universal punishment of sin and the graceful new beginning through Noah and the flood, and the first “foreign” languages.
We can imply from the Bible’s description of creation initial changes in the atmospheric conditions of the earth. Because of this we can assume that rainbows never appeared until now after the great flood. As the laws of nature are ordained by God they serve God’s ultimate purposes both of nature and God’s grace.
God said to Noah that the rainbow is the sign of God’s covenant between God and between Noah and between all his offspring after him, “and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth.” The covenant promise is “that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” This, of course, does not mean there will never be local floods or lives and livestock lost because of floods or tsunamis by the seas. But in fact to this day all water has been set apart and blessed by God to be the means not of death and destruction but rather of eternal life and salvation. For in Holy Baptism water is joined to God’s Word to be the means of God’s grace by which He gives the gift of saving faith. Baptismal water brings the spiritual judgment of God where we die and are buried now with Christ “in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4).
So no longer is water the vehicle of God’s final judgment. Rather, we are told of the final judgment by fire, the eternal fire of the punishment of hell and the disposal of the old creation at the creation of the new heavens and earth (Mt 3:11; 5:22; 13:40; 25:41; 1 Cor 3) as the apostle Paul writes in Second Thessalonians, “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess 1:7-8). To “obey the gospel” is to hear and believe in the deliverance and forgiveness of sins that is by faith in Jesus Christ.
We can imagine that God caused a rainbow to appear as He told Noah, “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 cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” So it is good to teach our children that every time they see a rainbow it ought to bring to mind of first importance God’s gracious promise. But notice the strange twist in God’s own description of the rainbow’s function. For He doesn’t speak primarily of our view and what ought to come to our minds but, rather, He says, “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 and every living creature of all flesh…. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant.”
Not that God would ever forget His promise. But the fact that God sees the sign and remembers His promise is to remind us that all of God’s covenant signs are real means or vehicles of His grace, that they have divine power to connect us with God’s grace. So also for the sign of baptism with water and the Word commanded by our Lord for the making of disciples of all nations by this direct connection with our Lord’s death and resurrection, and the sign of the Holy Communion through the bread and wine set apart for the purpose of receiving the forgiveness of sins by this direct connection with our Lord’s own offering of Himself, His body and blood on the cross.
Jesus is the incarnate Son of God, of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. You confess that every Sunday. It is because He is God that He could walk on the sea to His disciples as they struggled against the wind in the fourth watch of that night. St. Mark tells us that when the disciples “saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they all saw him and were terrified.” I should think so. Wouldn’t you be gripped with fear at such a sight? Of course Jesus didn’t do this to scare His disciples but to reveal His true identity and that His miraculous power is for their benefit, safety and rescue. Graceful words accompanied the awesome sight, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
Mark says they were utterly astounded. But the Evangelist’s further explanation astounds us. “For,” he says, “they did not understand about the loaves,” referring back to the feeding of the 5,000. What did His walking on the water have to do with their understanding of the five loaves and two fish with which Jesus fed the people? While they may have marveled at the miraculous feeding, they there saw no more than a miracle worker, magic, some sort of trick. They had not understood that almighty God was acting through and in Jesus. So also here when they were terrified at the sight of Jesus walking on the water. To this day how many skeptics and unbelievers make what they think is quite a hilarious joke out of this claim? “Walk across your swimming pool,” indeed! “But their hearts were hardened.”
So what’s the first thing, from now on, that comes into your mind when you see a rainbow? God’s gracious covenant and promise of mercy. This same Jesus is the Son of God through whom everything was made, who was in the beginning, who laid the foundation of the earth, who determined its measurements, who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb, and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors, and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed” (Job 38:4-11). And yet with all this power he walks to you across your fear and confusion, your weakness and sin and lack of understanding, and says, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
What is more difficult to believe, after all? That Jesus could walk on water? Or that His death on a cross has actually paid the price of your sins and opened the kingdom of heaven to you and all believers?
“Do not be afraid.” That’s what the rainbow proclaims!