A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Sunday 21st February 2021 by Revd Sally Hitchiner.
Readings of address: Genesis 9
I wonder what was the most beautiful rainbow you’ve ever seen. Did it stand out because it was particularly bright against the darkness of the sky? Was it particularly full or perhaps a double rainbow? Or perhaps it is because of the circumstances you saw it in. Perhaps you just really needed to see a rainbow at that moment. Whatever your rainbow, I bet remembering it now gives you, even if just for a second, a glimpse into a more beautiful world.
Hold that thought, we’ll come back to it. First, I’d like us to look a little at what makes a memory.
You can tell a story in two ways. Both are true.
There is the story of the headlines. The bare facts that you’d report if you were reporting on an event as a police constable or serious journalist.
But there is also the story of the real experience.
A headlines telling of a story might start with a call from the hospital. The person you love most in the world is close to death and you should come in quickly to say your goodbyes.
But there is also the real experience story. This may be a story of the nurse who sat with you at their bedside long after her shift had ended.
A headlines story might be your boss calls a meeting with you and says that your job, the work you have put your heart and soul into, is now coming to an end. But the story that stands out for you that day is that your, usually distant, teenage daughter jumped up the minute you arrived home, to hug you, knocking the box of your personal things from the office out of your hands.
A headlines story might be a slow depression or sickness that creeps over you until you wake up one morning and there is no light, only darkness around you. But years later, when you reflect on that part of your life, you also tell a story of how in that depression you discovered an honesty about life and an empathy with other people who are at the end of themselves that you didn’t have before.
Sometimes the headlines story… the things that seem important, things that you think define who you are at that point in your life, are not the things that mean most in the long run.
It’s not a silver lining to the clouds but something else. In the middle of all that rain, the water is transformed into something new, something beautiful. And this is a different story to tell.
There are two ways to tell the story in our Old Testament reading. There is the headlines version we might be used to from Sunday School: “The Flood”. God decides to press the “Restore Factory Settings” button and restarts creation. Our hero, the strong and silent Noah stubbornly builds an arc for him and his family. Conveniently, the animals neatly process from all over the world, up the gang plank, two by two.
Neither is the focus of this story the overwhelming destruction and force. It may seem like the most important thing in this story is the flood. What could be more important than something that destroys the world as you know it? The focus of this story is actually something that at the time seems small and fragile, a trick of the light, an afterthought, a epilogue at the end of the drama of the main story.
But it is, in fact, the most important part.
The rainbow. This rainbow is a sign of a covenant that God makes with humanity.
The word “rainbow” in Hebrew is קֶשֶׁת – Queshet – the same as the word “bow” as in bows and arrows – weapons of war. When God says God says “I hang my bow in the sky”, God is saying “I hang all weapons on a hook. Out of reach.” God is retiring from enmity with creation …forever.
That’s quite a statement. It’s easy for us to say “Never again” – we might say it woefully when we’ve eaten too much or when we’ve lost our temper.
But with God we know this is permanent. At some point in history, God put all weaponry out of reach. And a new story began.
Noah has just been through a holocaust of destruction and with his ears still ringing and his heart still pounding he hears God say “I will make a covenant with you, and all people, and the whole of creation. I will be for you. I will not be at war with you. As a sign of this covenant I will show my rainbow” And Noah says “Wow!” …at least that’s what I imagine he said.
What’s the most beautiful rainbow you’ve ever seen? You might have some strong contenders but I bet it wasn’t a patch on the original one. Every time the rain is pouring down. Instead of getting nervous, instead of panicking and thinking “what if it’s happening again?”, he would see a rainbow in the sky, or remember this rainbow today, and tell himself, not a story of destruction alone that he just about survived, but a story of God’s covenant to be with the whole of creation forever.
There’s the story of the flood, there’s the story of the rainbow.
But there is a third story, an even more significant story being told here, a story that gives new light to both our flood and our rainbow.
In this ancient story, a rainbow is God’s bow and arrows placed, hung up, in the sky. Have you ever noticed which way up this bow is? The rainbow bow is not pointed down to shoot arrows down on us. It is pointed upwards into the very heart of heaven.
Noah’s story is just the first read through of a new drama. Noah’s story is a prophesy of something greater. Though they did not know this at the time, a rainbow is light broken into its constituent parts. In the final story The True Light, God broken into each of the parts in this story.
God, in Jesus is the True Noah, the Chosen One, the one human being in relationship with God the Father, who goes through the waters of baptism to a new resurrected life where the world can begin again.
But, in Jesus, God also plays other parts in this story. Jesus takes the role of the ones who are outside the wooden arc. Jesus, is nailed to a wooden cross, outside the city gates, exposed to all the elements and with humanity in destruction and death. In the prophesy of the story of Noah, the bow is pointed upwards from humanity to God. God is not kept safe. Jesus’ story that shows what Noah’s covenant from God looks like in flesh and blood.
The story of God being with humanity in the life, death and resurrection is THE story of eternity and echoes of it ripple backwards through history as well as forwards. Every story is in relation to this story. The story of The Flood, the story of The Rainbow, is no different.
To shoot an arrow at someone you have to have a bit of distance from them. But now there is no distance between humanity and God. God, in Jesus has become the arc that holds humanity in the very centre of God. You can’t shoot an arrow at someone very close to you.
Because of THE big story, humanity is hidden, kept safe, in the heart of the one on the wooden cross. A tiny hole in the heart of Christ on the cross becomes an arc for the whole world.
In the middle ages people wrote about churches as upside down arcs and if you look up in many churches you see the wooden beams that look like the hold of a boat. The real truth is that God’s covenant, made clear in Christ is for all humanity, all creation, not just those in church buildings.
The rain may come, floods may even come but God has promised “I will hold humanity safe in my heart through every storm.”
The story of Noah was written down later on when the Israelite community were being held in slavery, swept away from their place of religion, their way of worshipping God. They were facing destructive forces much bigger than they were. But they looked back to this rainbow and in it found something to think on to change their story, a place to shelter from the storm. They discovered a promise, a covenant that even in the middle of the storm God was with them. A rainbow.
And the same can be true for us. Long, rainy days can seem to go on forever, but in the heart of every storm that comes into your life now, there can be a rainbow, some we see, some we don’t but hold on to the ones you see. On the worst day of your life you may receive a kindness that shone out and gave you a different perspective. Someone treated you with value when the rest of your experience of life was hopeless or cruel. Hold on to that rainbow, remember it. Draw out that experience on the rainy days when you don’t see them so easily.
And whether you have a rainbow today or not, join with God and remember The Big Rainbow Story. Pull out the story of the cross, the weapon that has been turned towards God alone so that we can be carried through the storms of life in Christ our arc and the covenant where God says “I will not leave you. I will be for you. I have put any weapons that could harm you out of my reach.”
There is another story to tell about you and your suffering. A story of God’s faithful, steadfast love. A story of God’s covenant not to leave you in the storm but to hide you safe within the heart of Christ until the storm is over and a new world is created.
George Matheson was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1842. As a boy he began to lose his sight. By the time he started university in Glasgow at 18 he had become totally blind. In a time where there was little understood about disability inclusion, he thought his life would be over. But his sister took on the role to be his eyes, even learning Latin and Greek to help him through his education so he was able to graduate and become a church pastor. However, his anchor in life did not last. She moved to another city to marry and start a family. George had lost his access to the world. On the day of her wedding, on the day he should have felt most alone, he sat and wept. But then a thought came into his head that quickly became the hymn “Oh Love that will not let me go” – written from start to finish in one morning – presumably after reading our Old Testament passage.
The final verse reads,
“Oh joy that seeks me through the pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee,
I trace the rainbow through the rain
And feel the promise is not in vain
That morn shall tearless be”
Like Noah, George thought he was in the middle of a story about a Flood. What he discovered is that the star of his story was actually a rainbow. Maybe we feel like our lives are characterised by a flood. When that is the case, look up, look for the rainbow and remember that there is not just one way to tell this story. Where is this story a retelling of the great story. The Story of the God who made a promise.