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Sermon Briefs: Genesis 9:8-17

In an unnamed homily, Rachel Reeder intertwines the Markan gospel lesson of Jesus' baptism and the Genesis story of the rainbow to set a tone for the whole Lenten season.1 She asserts that we are witnesses to God's covenant with Noah and through Noah to all living creatures, and we are witnesses of Jesus' baptism. Both objects of our witness are claims to God's salvation for humanity. As witnesses to salvation, we are called especially during Lent to travel a journey led by God who guides the humble to justice.
As part of that Lenten journey, Reeder reminds us that we enter into the imago dei. She calls for us to live in the image of God beyond what we learned as children. As examples, children give up candy during Lent; adults give up alcohol; children save dimes for poor children; adults make donations by check. In what might be called "beyond adulthood" faith, Reeder urges that "grown-up hearts yield their complacency and toleration of poverty; let common sense refuse to sell any weapons, no matter how conventional, that maim and destroy any part of us; and let our sensibilities harden against the enjoyment of scandal, political, religious or personal, that keeps evil in the public eye." (p. 233) Such a faith witnesses to the covenant God made which promised that never again will the earth be destroyed.2
Whereas the above sermon viewed the rainbow as a witness to salvation, the sermon The Bow in the Cloud focused on the universal grace signified by the rainbow.3 The preacher of this sermon believed that the purpose of God's promise and the associated rainbow symbol was to re-inspire faith in the stability of nature, and to give confidence that things would continue as they are, in spite of the deluge which was experienced.
Four points are made about the grace promised by the rainbow. One, God uses visible and material things for spiritual purposes. By itself a rainbow is nothing more than the disposition of light through rain drops. Yet, God appropriated it as a witness and memorial of God's love. The rainbow then is a means of communication between God and humanity.
Two, the rainbow suggests grace after judgment. Just as the sun bursts forth and paints the gorgeous lines of a bright rainbow as a token of its triumph over the floods, so "grace overpowers and brings beauty and goodness out of judgment."4 The over-arching power of grace is manifested by the great expanse of the rainbow over the sky. It is a claim to universal grace.
Three, the bow in the cloud is a sign of the stability of God's covenant, the changeless character of the gracious purpose which embraces humanity. The rainbow is a sign of the everlasting covenant. God's grace will never be withdrawn. The Redeemer will continue to work until the purpose of grace is completed.
Four, the rainbow symbolizes the divine element of brightness in the darkest and saddest of human histories. The preacher's words offer a lovely image: "The light of God's love and grace shining upon and through the rainfall of our sorrows throws a bow upon the cloud."5 In each life there is much pain, loneliness and woe. The rainbow is a reminder that after the rain comes the sunshine; that God's promise is even for the darkest hour; and, that the constancy of divine grace and love is far beyond the inconstancy of the earth.
In the late 60s C.S. Calian, then a theology professor at Dubuque Theological Seminary, preached The Rainbow and the Gospel."6 It might also have been titled "The Three P's of the Rainbow," for he approaches the relationship between the rainbow and the gospel from three vantage points.
First, Calian claims that the rainbow points to the prism of life. Using Webster's definition of a rainbow as a refraction of the sun's rays, Calian contrasts viewing life through the wide spectrum of experiences with viewing life through a lens which reduces the spectrum to a single color. He suggests a variety of ways in which we are tempted to reduce the grayness of life into blacks and whites: categorizing reality into good versus bad, fairness versus cheating, profit versus loss, heroes versus cowards; labeling persons and innovations as "yippies, John Birchers, Dr. Spock, Ralph Abernathy, or the American Legion"; or being committed to a single view, which ultimately becomes prejudice. The good news of the multiple colors of the rainbow saves us from single-color responses to friends and foes alike.
The rainbow points to the presence of power. In the calm that follows the storm, the rainbow directs our focus beyond the tragedy of the flood waters to the presence of divine power that will not forsake us, nor let us go. It is the Creator, not the creation, which has the final say. Like a sudden flash after a storm, God's power cuts through the darkness with a precision that upholds us.
With the assurance of divine power being present, the rainbow gives us confidence to go on in the midst of life's storms.
Twenty Megatons, preached by Donald Miller7 in the early 1980s, is a reminder of how our world has changed in the past decade. As I write today, the analysis on the TV news regards the U.S. bombing of an Iraqi intelligence center. Our concerns and fears now revolve around world terrorism. Yet, when Miller preached to his congregation in California, the Cold War was still being waged and the threat of nuclear annihilation was real.
Miller's' sermon begins with information about the atomic bomb, specifically that the Soviet Union had 17,000 megatons of bomb-power aimed at us, and the United States had 3,500 megatons aimed at them. In other words, the U.S could create 280,000 Hiroshimas and the Soviet Union could create 1,360,000. The scandal is that although the Genesis passage assures us that God promised never again to destroy the world, now humanity has the capability to destroy the earth and all her inhabitants many times over. Miller asks who will save us from our enemies? Who will save our enemies from us? He recognizes that this is merely an expansion of what Cain discovered when he raised that rock over Abel's head: That lust of dominion could make him master of the field, and that mastery makes murder possible.
Miller moves quickly to claiming that God can save us even from ourselves. God will preserve what God elects to preserve. Miller preaches, "we must be born again, or we shall not survive the coming of Christ's kingdom beyond the last holocaust."8 From there he moves to a resurrection affirmation: "I do know for certain that my Redeemer lives, that he shall stand at the last day of earth's history, immune to the flash; and though this body be destroyed, incinerated beyond recognition, I shall see God."9
This last sermon is a reminder for preachers to exegete both the scripture and the congregation. Our parishioners have fears which are real and perceived. Miller's sermon gave assurance to a frightened congregation that by the power of the resurrection God's promise for life will be upheld; God's promise sealed in the rainbow will not be broken.
Becky Balestri
1. Rachel Reeder, "First Sunday in Lent," in Homilies for the Christian People: Cycle B, ed. Gail Ramshaw (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), pp. 231-234. 3. Ibid., p. 233. 4."The Bow in the Cloud," The Preacher's Monthly: Studies for the Pulpit, V, (Feb 1883), pp. 115-117. 5. Ibid., p. 116. 6. Ibid., p. 117. 7. C.S. Calian, "The Rainbow and the Gospel," Pulpit Digest, 49, No. 365 (May 1969), pp. 43-46. 8. Donald S. Miller, "Twenty Megatons," Pulpit Digest, 62, No. 456 (July-August 1982), pp. 39-41. 9. Ibid, p. 41. 10. Ibid.