Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Genesis 9:1-17
by Daniel Harrell

“Light” is the first sentence God speaks in Scripture, and as with everything the Lord says, it happens. “Let there be light” was just another way of God saying “let there be me.” “God is light” declares the apostle John, “and in him there is no darkness at all.” With light God tamed the darkness present at creation; present in the churning chaos of deep water, deep water feared by the ancients as the mythic abode of evil. God separated the darkness from light, the water from dry land and called it all good in Genesis 1. But not five chapters later, things aren’t so good anymore as deep water returns, this time in condemnation of a creation gone bad. Only Noah, his family and an ark-full of animals survive a deluge of divine judgment. 

Recalling the familiar account of Noah and the Flood, as we did last year in a survey of water in the Bible, I wondered out loud why Noah’s Ark themes are so popular for nurseries and childhood bedrooms. These parents clearly do not love their children. Or they’ve never read the story. Genesis 6 ominously announces how “The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, ‘I will blot out from the earth… every living thing that I have made from the face of the ground.’” 

Even if we treat this disturbing story as an allegorical moral epic rather that as an actual historical event, as for instance St. Augustine did, Noah’s ark still haunts us as a story depicting God as the kind of God who would do this sort of thing. Not that the wickedness of humankind isn’t great on the earth, mind you. I read the news this morning. I’ve seen the cruelty we humans can inflict on each other. I’ve done some of it myself. God sees it all. If Noah’s age was anything like our own, it’s not unreasonable to imagine God doing what he did. Who at the depth of such sorrow and grief wouldn’t want to rid themselves of that sorrow and start over? What kind of God would God be if he stood by and did nothing?

We’re told that Noah gets saved because he was righteous, a blameless man in his generation—though given his generation this may not be saying much. We also read that “he walked with God,” meaning he kept faith in the Lord. And yet to look at Noah’s life is to find scant evidence of any exceptional goodness. Jewish tradition actually regards Noah as the sort of leader from whom one should learn how not to act. Noah heard God’s decree of the coming flood, yet neither argued with the Lord nor warned his fellow citizens. That he found favor with God anyway signals to us that any righteousness we possess always comes by grace. That God saves even Noah proves that mercy and justice are not mutually exclusive. Despite the torrential rain of holy reckoning, a ray of hope shines.

Here in Genesis 9, light shines in a rainbow of color. Technically speaking, we should say light diffracts as a rainbow. Upon its interaction with water, white light separates into its various wavelengths, the visible part appearing to our eyes in the familiar spectrum running from red to violet. Biblically speaking, the light of God’s mercy intersects with the waters of his justice to display a rainbow of redemptive beauty.

Specifically, the Lord labels the rainbow a sign of a new covenant he makes with the earth. We Congregationalists know all about covenants. We make them whenever we baptize or welcome new members. A covenant is a spoken contract of duty, a pledge of loyalty, a vow between faithful parties—most often in Scripture between the Lord and his people. Over and over God promises to bless them in exchange for their trust and obedience. And as with contracts we make among ourselves, Biblical covenants require signatures. We sign baptismal certificates and a new members’ book. In the Bible, God’s covenant with Abraham was signed with circumcision. The covenant with Moses was signed with Sabbath-keeping. And the covenant with Jesus is signed with water. Here the signature is a rainbow, the interesting thing being that unlike getting circumcised, keeping Sabbath or getting baptized, people don’t do rainbows. Only God can do the signing. It’s a gift instead of an agreement, another signal that any righteousness we possess always comes by grace.

Unlike other Biblical covenants, God makes this one with every living thing. It’s not limited to his chosen people. And it includes animals too. As for the rainbow, it’s not a sign to remind us that the Lord is a God of mercy. It’s a reminder to God to be merciful. “When I bring clouds over the earth and see the rainbow, I will remember my covenant and not let the floodwaters destroy all flesh.” But even with a fresh start, humanity can’t make it to the end of the chapter. Sin and wickedness do not abate. The storm clouds of the Lord gather again. Only the rainbow restrains him. By it the God remembers his core character as the Lord of Light. He is “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression.”

Because the Hebrew word for rainbow is the same as the word for bow and arrow, numerous interpreters have suggested that the rainbow represents God hanging up his weaponry. He hangs up his bow so as not to take out his wrath on the world anymore. But I think that’s reading a bit too much into the text. God doesn’t hang up his weaponry because he doesn’t hang up his justice. The Scriptures that declare the Lord to be “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression,” go on in the same sentence to declare that He “will by no means excuse the guilty.” “Whatever has been done in the dark will be seen in the light,” Jesus warned. Evil will get its paycheck, it just won’t be wet. When last a rainbow shines in the Bible, it’s wrapped around an avenging angel of the Lord in Revelation 10. His face blazes like the sun, his legs burn as pillars of fire, his voice booms like thunder as he grimly surveys the world’s unrepentant evil—the demonic, the idolatrous, the murderers, adulterers and thieves. The angel then raises his right hand and swears by the One who made heaven and earth. Like a lion, he portentously roars, “There will be no more delay!” 

This is another reason you should not decorate your children’s bedroom walls with rainbows.

Speaking of vengeance, I should probably say something about all the blood in this morning’s passage. The Bible mentions blood frequently throughout because blood represents life. In the Garden of Eden, Adam was a vegetarian. Noah, in his role as Second Chance Adam gets to eat meat. Things have changed since Genesis 1. Animals no longer approach humans to be named, but run from humans in dread of becoming dinner. The Lord allows poultry and beef, but not without draining the blood out first. It’s a requirement found nowhere else in the ancient world. Blood is life, and to drain it returns it to the Giver of Life in thankful recognition that one partakes of creation only by divine permission. These days, we just say grace. But saying grace traces back to Noah. (You can read about it in my Leviticus book still on sale!)

As for draining human blood, that was expressly forbidden--except for our blood drive this week. Unlike the animals, people reflect the light of God. We are made in his image and thus are commanded to be life-makers instead of life-takers. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” the Lord commands twice here to Noah, just as he commanded Adam and Eve. We tend to limit this command to sex and reproduction, which in the case of Adam and Noah makes some sense. The earth in their days was a sparsely populated place. Humans may be a disobedient lot by and large, but “be fruitful and multiply” is actually one command we’ve obeyed pretty well, as you can see by this world-o-meter population clock. The earth’s population currently numbers seven billion plus souls; and we’re being fruitful and multiplying by the minute. These days the concern is less about eating meat than about whether there will be enough food to go around.

On the other hand, once you go a little further into the Old Testament, and further still into the New, you find “being fruitful” is not about sex and reproduction anymore. With Israel, and especially with Jesus, being fruitful becomes all about being faithful and filling the earth with the light of Christ. I know it sounds like I’m mixing metaphors here, but I do so on dependable authority. “I made you to go and bear fruit in the world,” Jesus tells his disciples, “fruit that will last.” Fruit that Jesus defines as love. “You are the light of the world,” he says, also alluding to love. “So let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works [your good fruit] and give glory to your Father in heaven. 

Here we tend to limit being fruitful to good works of kindness and generosity we do unto others, especially to people in need in ways that inconvenience us. We gladly give time and money to charitable organizations and churches (hint, hint), and we give the gospel too, sharing our faith and forgiving our debtors as God has forgiven us. To bear good fruit is to be a good Christian.

Yet bearing good fruit is not limited to good deeds, any more than being fruitful is limited to bearing children. Jews and Christians have long understood “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” as “the Cultural Mandate.” It has served as a basis for all manner of cultural activity: economic engagement, scientific inquiry, literary exploration, artistic creativity, environmental stewardship and more. Biblically speaking, to do good works is to do good work. To “fill the earth” is to make the most of the world God has made. It is our participation in the creative and redemptive work of God. To fill the earth is to make goods and services rather than just making money. (Goodness and service are very Biblical.) To be fruitful is to enable the earth and its inhabitants to flourish and shine, which gives glory to our Father in heaven.

Goodness and service will influence our social entrepreneurship project, Innove, which you will more about before it launches October 1. And goodness and service informs already the work many of you do already. Recently a few of us took a field trip to Red Wing to visit Red Wing Shoes where one of our members, Dave Murphy, serves as president. Red Wing Shoes specializes in exceptional work boots made for hard work, but has notably forayed into recreational and fashion footwear too. Dave toured us around the historic company offices and store, each corner designed to reflect enduring aspects of their handcrafted shoes, from the boot leather used as wallpaper to the signature triple stitching on the bathroom tiles. Over lunch Dave explained how his faith effects his leadership, from the local people he employees, to the excellence in the shoes they make, to the way the company gives back to the community, to the manner in which he negotiates with the unions. I was especially impressed by the way these values made their way to the factory floor. Each pair of shoes takes 250 touches, a vast assembly line of presumably menial labor, except that Red Wing shoemakers take deep satisfaction in their work.

Like goodness and service, “heart and soul” are very Biblical, they’re the means whereby we’re commanded to love the Lord. Thus they should be the means whereby we do good work. The apostle Paul said as much, when he wrote to indentured servants, no less, whose dismal labor had to be denigrating. Paul wrote, “Whatever your task, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for your master” (Colossians 3:22-24). When we do even our tedious work "as for the Lord," it has an integrity apart from anything else it might accomplish because all work done well honors God. When we do our work as for the Lord, we will want to do it with all the skill and excellence we can muster. When we do our work as for the Lord, our work can’t become an idol for which we would ever sacrifice family or health or friendship or ethics. 

When we do our work as for the Lord, there is implied a certain humility and modesty that prioritizes substance over style, depth over breadth, the long-haul over the short-run, solid quality over fancy packaging. Even if our tasks have no ‘ultimate significance,’ if done as for the Lord they do have eternal significance. To be sure, sin still pervades work as it has since Adam and Noah. As University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter (whose thoughts inspired my own) observes, the current pressures of market capitalism transform the nature of work in ways that can be profoundly dehumanizing. But this does not negate the dignity that comes from tasks well done or good deeds performed for neighbor and stranger alike. Our work may not be redeeming in and of itself at times, but done for the Lord, it nevertheless provides a foretaste of new creation and of God’s beautiful kingdom to come. When we do our work is for the Lord, we bear fruit that lasts. We bring light to the world and glory is given to our Father in heaven.

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