When I pastored a church in suburban Chicago I worked with a couple in the community who faced more hurdles than most. The woman was attractive and in her mid-thirties. She had struggled with addiction and promiscuity in her earlier years. But then she met a somewhat older man who was good to her. He saw past her insecurities to an inner beauty. They married and became very involved in our church for a time, having the fervor of converts to the faith. The woman had never been in a more stable situation in her adult life and she was able to leave the past behind in the protective care of her new husband.
They asked to meet with me to talk about some difficult news. He had been diagnosed with a chronic disease that would make each day much more challenging. They had to face his mortality squarely. He underwent several procedures and the younger wife bore the brunt of caring for him. It was a demanding situation that would tax even the strongest marriage. The wife began to backpedal from his health needs. She relieved her anxiety by reverting back to the addiction that had claimed much of her young adult years. The weakening husband continued to love her even as she distanced herself from him. The final straw was when he discovered that she had sold some of his medicine to make money to support her own habit. He flew into a rage, even punching a hole in the kitchen wall because he was so heartbroken at her betrayal. Frightened by this atypical showing of anger, she fled and took out a restraining order against this otherwise gentle, loving man.
With enforced time apart the couple began to think through their marriage, his illness, and her past. When the restraining order expired, the husband again sought out his wife and she came home. She asked his forgiveness for betraying his trust. He asked that she pardon him for his outburst. The last I knew of them, they were still working on their marriage as their love was tested by his disease. Even in his vulnerable condition, his love for his unstable wife led him to fight for her. He always, always believed in her.
In the story of the rainbow, I notice that God self-imposes a restraining order. Humanity is so wicked that God decides for a Divine Reboot by sending a devastating flood. Only Noah and his family survive. As the water recedes and the beauty of creation resurfaces, God has had some time for introspection. Clearly God’s intention for humanity and the world has not panned out. Rather than enjoying an Edenic setting in which to live their lives, families of the earth sin against one another and God. After the flood God seems to come to terms with the fact that the created order was not always going to follow the blueprint God had in mind. Since the people were not going to change, the broken-hearted Creator did. In this story it is stunning news that God is changed—and changing. Out of this deep sadness, God initiates the first covenant with humanity.
We have begun our Lenten journey. The gritty ashes from Ash Wednesday have long since washed down our drains to infuse the groundwaters far beneath the earth’s hard surface with holiness. In this Lenten passage, we meet a God who repents! Since punishment hasn’t driven men and women to penitence, God changes so that the relationship can be maintained. We could easily skip over this poignant lesson while focusing on the gift of the rainbow. But we need to pause here before we move on. God loves us so much that a divine restraining order is self-imposed! “…never again…” is heard between heavenly sobs as God grieves an ideal for creation that will clearly not be realized. The freedom granted to creation has led and will lead to sin. So God performs a major reboot of heartfelt hopes for humanity. In the ancient world turbulent water was frightening and represented chaos. Fishermen earning a living wage for their families lost their lives when storms blew in suddenly. After the angry flood waters recede, God promises that the chaos of their world will never separate them from the love of their Maker again.
In this scripture passage God refers to the rainbow as a bow. A bow was commonly used by ancient people to kill animals for food and to protect themselves from their enemies. The bow in the sky is unstrung. It cannot be used to harm. I don’t know what tactic you use to remind yourself of some task, but God chooses a rainbow as a sort of string tied around the finger. We set alarms on our phones to ping us into a meeting at the right time. God casts an arc of colors into the sky as a note-to-Self to never again punish humanity for their wickedness. God has the compassion of a mother who sees the good in her boy even as he misbehaves. God’s heart is touched as a father suffers alongside a hurting child. The intimate glimpse of God we are given in this story is that God refuses to give up on Creation even as the Creation refuses to change. Like a wedding ring that signals to the world that someone is married, the rainbow is a tangible reminder to God of a promise made. It is a promise built on an abiding love for us, for children of the living God who struggle to live holy lives.
We see in our world the beauty of different people, places, and animals. Spouses are drawn together because of their complementary talents, not because they are identical in all things. God’s design is for affirmation in our variance. In Lent, we recognize the imbalance between God’s plan and the way we live each day. We choose to be part of Christ’s Church so that we can grow in our faith and more closely approximate God’s plan for creation rather than fighting amongst ourselves. Jane Ferguson writes, “The church can respond to God’s call to be a place where ‘all the colors of the rainbow’ were welcome and equal in God’s sight, in terms of race, age, gender, and sexual orientation. The church can seek constructive dialogue with communities of other faiths or communities on the other side of denominational or doctrinal divides. Previously unimaginable partnerships may be formed, and a reconciliation may blossom. The patience and forgiveness spilling forth from hearts broken open by God’s love may paint the walls of the church, color its people, and emanate from its doors and windows into the world.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2; Barbara Brown Taylor and David L. Bartlett, page 30)
When we see a rainbow, we remember that God invests in us. God is all in, whether we do good deeds each day of the Lenten season or fail miserably in spite of our best intentions. Just as we persevere in relationships in spite of their brokenness, God refuses to give up on us. In this first contract God makes with Noah, do you notice what’s asked of us earthlings? Nothing! Can it be a contract if only one side promises certain goods to be delivered with no expectation of payment from the other party? That’s a losing proposition for a business owner! God promises to refrain from ever acting out of destructive anger again toward a people who are bound to fail repeatedly. We see God punish the Israelites when they act like selfish ninnies right after witnessing a miracle. But the rainbow is God’s memo-to-Self to never again destroy the inhabitants of the earth for acting like, well, for acting like earthlings. God will ride the ups and downs of being in relationship with flawed men and women because they are beloved sons and daughters.
In Lent we meet that self-restraining God in the person of Jesus. We have entered into the most somber season of the Church year because we have turned with Jesus to face Jerusalem, knowing what lies ahead. The self-limiting action of God in Genesis 9 foreshadows a Son who will lay down His perfect life for a broken world. For a very brief time the Son cannot feel the love of His Father as witnessed through His words on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The sky turns pitch black and a storm rolls in as God wails over the sacrifice needed to right humanity once again.
In this story of the rainbow, I take solace in the lesson that change is always possible. We meet a very different God when we read the words of the Psalmist in the 103rd psalm. Far removed from a vengeful destroyer of nature, we read this: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.”
We began our Lenten journey with the imposition of ashes upon our brows: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but praised be the name of the Lord.” It’s a long journey to shift the focus from ourselves to others; from judgmental glances to affirmations of worth. It’s a struggle to leave behind our favorite sins and most unhealthy habits. We fight to live in transparency with our loved ones rather than secrecy. So, as winter gives way during Lent to springtime storms, we remember a God who self-imposed a restraining order with a rainbow serving as a reminder. “Never again…” we cry out as we begin this journey.
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy, have mercy upon us.
Photo credits to Anna Ellerbroek. Thanks!