Today's Old Testament reading brought to my mind memories of toilet training the boys, believe it or not. Richard and David in particular. While they'd sit on the stool assigned to do their business, they would sing to fill the time. David sang “Oh My Darling Clementine.” Richard sang “Rainbow Connection.” True, the song sung by Kermit the Frog does not have a direct connection to the rainbow from Noah's Ark story, but the words do suggest that there is more to that bow in the sky than what we see. “Why are there so many songs about rainbows And what's on the other side? Rainbows are visions, but only illusions, And rainbows have nothing to hide. Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection, The lovers, the dreamers, and me.”
For us who know the story of Noah and the ark, there is a rainbow connection but what I connect this morning is that bow in the sky and the covenants that God has made with human beings. Covenant is a term that may need clarification.
We discussed its meaning in Confirmation a few weeks ago and I'm not happy with the description I gave. We talked about the covenant of marriage, a sacred covenant according to the traditions of the church. In its most general meaning, covenant is simply a sacred agreement. But this definition I found is a better representation of the covenanst represented in our readings today: “legal agreements, cementing a relationship of mutual obligation, usually between a greater power and a lesser power. For example, a conquering kingdom might covenant not to destroy a losing kingdom, as long as the losers promised to fight against the conqueror’s enemies and to support the conqueror with troops and supplies. The obligations are indeed reciprocal, but the power dynamics are not often equal.” Certainly this imbalance holds true whenever God is one of the parties of a biblical covenant, even if the other legal characteristics of covenant are absent (as in the covenants with Noah and Abraham).
There are thee Old Testament covenants I want to look at this morning. First is the Abrahamic Covenant I just mentioned. The Lord made this covenant, ““I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” All promise and no law.
Next is the Mosaic Covenant. As simply as I can state it, here is what God said, from Exodus 19: 5, “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.” This covenant called for strict obedience. And this is the covenant generally referred to as the Law, the Old Covenant.
Now let's look at today's readings. In each of our passages, the term covenant is used 7 times. Covenant seems to be a major focus here. And so in the account of the flood, we have our third Old Testament covenant. And it is sealed by the rainbow. God 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; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.” Notice if you will, the sign is not given as a reminder to us as much as to God. If we read it closely, God says it is so “I will remember my covenant.” And again, “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant.”
Another interesting aspect of this covenant is that it is not with Noah alone or even Israel, but with every living creature. And for all future generations. It is for us. God will not destroy the world by a flood in judgment again until there comes the new heaven and the new earth.
Now I want to turn to the New Testament. As I mentioned, covenant is central to this passage as well. But the writer of Hebrews is comparing two covenants, the Mosaic covenant of the Law with what he calls the new covenant. Jesus is called the mediator of this new covenant. A mediator is often the person negotiating a contract or covenant but in this case Jesus both enacts and seals the covenant. When we celebrate the Lord's Supper, you may have noted the words of Jesus quoted in the words of institution, “For this is the blood that seals the new covenant. It will be poured out for many for the... forgiveness of sins.” This then was the institution of the new covenant sealed when Jesus died on the cross but made manifest when he rose again from the dead. And this new covenant is one of grace and not of works, marked by believing and receiving instead of earning and deserving.
Here the Hebrews passage then quotes from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, (Jer. 31: 31-34). Even as Jeremiah was a prophet of the Old Covenant, he saw both the need and the promise of a new covenant coming. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.” Again, Jeremiah was talking about the old covenant of the Law being replaced by a new covenant. We know that time and again the people failed to live up to their part of the old covenant. It is revealed here that God had a plan for a new covenant, one not based on obedience but on relationship. “I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” This is a covenant of intimate relationship with God; God invites us. The imbalance of power remains the same, and obedience remains a responsibility for us but it does not hold the central place of the covenant any more. There is still law and consequences, but its requirements and penalties have all been met by Jesus. The Old Covenant failed because human beings were unable to keep the law perfectly. But this new covenant transforms us through the power of Jesus Christ. It is an inner transformation rather than obedience to an external law. And grace and forgiveness can be ours. God says, “For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” And this offer is for all. Consider our verse of the month, God so loved the world, so loved us, that when we believe in Jesus we shall have eternal life. That's our reward in the covenant and our responsibility is faith in the grace offered to us. God's love opens the opportunity for relationship which leads to reciprocal love and this relationship is for eternity.
The story of Noah and the flood ended with the covenant sealed with a rainbow. But it wasn't an ending that led to us living happily ever after. God had destroyed the world and left just a remnant in the family of Noah. But this did not lead to the end of corruption, wickedness, violence or sin. The inclination of the human heart is to sin, that's just a sad fact. Pastor Phyllis Kersten wrote, “First, God is "sorry" about creating humanity--because people's hearts and thoughts and imagination were inclined to evil "continually." And so--not out of anger, but out of "grief," we're told--God sends flood waters to "blot" out the flawed creation from the face of the earth, together with all the animals and birds and creepy, crawly things God made.” God grieved over the sin of humans but God's flood did not change the heart of the people. God's grief, God's love--displayed in the person of Jesus--does change hearts. We recognize God's heart for humanity in Genesis. And God's grief and God's love sent Jesus to seal our salvation in his blood on the cross. But not just his blood shed, but his resurrection victory defeated sin and death and opens for us all the eternal life God wills for us.
The rainbow was a sign of God's promise. But think about how rainbows come to be. They don't appear without the rain. And sometimes we need the storms of life to grow in relationship with God. Rainbows often come as the result of storms... but when the storm is over and the sun comes out, we walk in the light. Jesus is the light of the world. And God is faithful to the covenants made with us. God so loves us that Jesus came and the grace offered and accepted in faith leads to eternal life. Thanks be to God for the great faithfulness that is displayed every day, is displayed in God's word, is displayed in our fellowship and is displayed in a rainbow after the storm. God is faithful and God loves you. Praise be to God. Amen.
Hymn: Great is Thy Faithfulness