[The following is the original manuscript of the sermon preached on 02-28-10.]
When I was a child, I was afraid of swimming in the deep end of the pool. Correction: mostly I was afraid of drowning in the deep end! As an adult I finally learned the breast-stroke, but to this day I still can’t swim freestyle. Never figured out how to breathe and swim at the same time. But when I was young, the idea of swimming in the part of the pool where I could not touch bottom kind of scared me. Imagine how I felt when I applied to Georgia Tech in the late-’80s. A friend of mine, whose older brother went to Tech, said, “Oh… You’ll have to take drown-proofing. If you don’t pass drown-proofing, you can’t graduate.” “What’s drown-proofing?” I asked. “Well… Let’s put it this way: for the final exam, they tie your arms and legs together and throw you in the deep end of the pool. If you don’t drown, you pass!” Suddenly, the prospect of going to Georgia Tech, which seemed hard enough already, now seemed like a death wish. I was reasonably certain I would not survive drown-proofing. “Don’t worry,” my friend said, “If you drown, they’ll award you your degree after you die. Your parents will get the diploma.” “Gee, thanks!”
My father was aware of my fear of the water. When I was six or seven he wanted to take me out in the deep end of the pool. I protested loudly. I probably cried. He said something I’ll never forget, although I didn’t quite know what he meant at the time. He said, “Brent, if I were going to let you drown now, you would have been dead a long time ago.” If I were going to let you drown now, you would have been dead a long time ago. Strangely comforting words… He wanted me to know that if he didn’t love and care about me and want me to be safe, I wouldn’t have lived as long as I have. In other words, “I’ve taken care of you this long, and you can trust that I will continue to take care of you.” My father’s love was an unconditional guarantee.
In today’s scripture, God makes his first covenant with human beings in the Bible. A covenant is like a contract. A covenant is the most important way to understand our relationship with God. We may remember that God made a covenant with Abraham to make his descendants as numerous as the stars and to be a blessing to the world. God made a covenant with Moses when he gave the Ten Commandments. God makes a covenant with us Christians through baptism. Usually, a covenant requires both parties to do something, to live up to their end of the agreement. When the Jews were defeated by Babylon and sent into exile, the prophets saw this as punishment because God’s people failed to live up to their side of the covenant.
Today’s scripture takes place after the great flood, after almost all of God’s Creation is destroyed. God’s covenant with Noah is that “never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” Some Christians who seem much more eager for God to destroy this world than me say that this covenant just means that while God won’t destroy the world by water, God may by some other means. But that’s not a good interpretation. At the end of Chapter 8, God tells Noah, “Nor will I ever again destroy every living creature.” The principle is that God isn’t going to destroy the world by any means.
The most important point of this covenant is that God loves this Creation. Everything in it, including you and me. And notice something else. This love is unconditional. It’s an unconditional, no-strings-attached guarantee. What does God ask of Noah or his descendants, which means the rest of humanity, in return for God’s promise of unconditional love? Nothing! Which is a good thing, because Noah’s life comes to a disappointing end, as he falls victim to alcoholism, and his family is a complete mess! But God loves them, sin and all.
There’s good news in this… I have known good Christian people who struggle to believe that God loves them—I mean really loves them deep down. And in the deep, dark recesses of their hearts they think, “God can’t really love me. Not now. I’ve messed up too many times. Surely I’ve worn out God’s patience. Surely God can’t forgive me.” And if that describes any of you, let me tell you, God is not like us. We like to think of God sometimes in human terms, as if God says to himself, “Well, I could forgive you for everything you did up until last Thursday, but that was before I knew what you were going to do on Friday—that was just one sin too many!” No! God isn’t like that! When God made you his child through faith and baptism, when God loved you, accepted you, forgave you, and made you a part of his family, he did so already knowing everything you were going to do in life, sin and all. And when his Son Jesus was on the cross, and he said, “It is finished,” that means that your sins were paid for in advance.
Think about this: If you’ve ever experienced the grace, love, mercy, and acceptance of God—if you’ve ever felt loved by God—you’ve experienced that and felt that way even though God knew full well everything you were going to do in life. In other words, if God ever loved you, he did so knowing full well the sins you would commit. We haven’t done anything since then that God didn’t know we were going to do.
“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!”
But my point is with God there’s always a second chance—and a two-thousand-and-second chance. God has not given up on you or me.
Today’s scripture means God gives the world a second chance; it means God hasn’t given up on us. And God gives us a sign of God’s enduring love: the rainbow. This is what Bible scholars call an etiological story: on one level, it explains why something is the way it is. We can imagine an ancient Hebrew child sitting around a campfire asking, “Grandpa, why are there rainbows?” And the grandfather would tell this story. Of course we know that a rainbow is caused by the refraction of light through water droplets in the atmosphere, but as always the Bible is challenging us to think more deeply and symbolically. When God told Noah, “I am setting my bow in the clouds,” Noah would have understood that a “bow” was a weapon—like a bow and arrow—an instrument of death and destruction. Now, think of the shape of the rainbow. If we think of it as a weapon in what direction is it pointing? The bow is pointing away from the earth, away from Creation, away from us sinful human beings. Isn’t that interesting? It’s as if God were disarming himself. God is laying down his arms. God is agreeing never to resort to violence against us. In other words, God is not against us. God loves us.
It’s good to remember this when a televangelist like Pat Robertson says that God is punishing Haiti for their sins by sending an earthquake. Or God is punishing New Orleans for their sins by sending a hurricane to the Gulf Coast. Are you kidding me? If that were the case, why would God stop there? If God destroys any group of people because of their sin, God would have destroyed that televangelist and me a long time ago. We are all equally sinners in need of God’s grace. Going back to my father’s words to me, as he took me in the deep end, if God didn’t love and care for us now, we would have been dead a long time ago. We wouldn’t exist at all!
If we have life and breath and a heartbeat right now, that means God loves us! If we have life and breath and a heartbeat right now, that means that it isn’t too late to do what that Prodigal Son did and turn around and find a loving, forgiving Father waiting for us, ready to receive us back. If we have life and breath and a heartbeat right now, that means it isn’t too late for us to experience the grace, love, and mercy of our heavenly Father.
So when we see a rainbow, let’s be reminded of God’s love for us; let’s be reminded that there’s still time to turn around; let’s be reminded that there’s still time to repent.
But notice that twice in today’s scripture it says that God will see the rainbow and remember his covenant. I don’t know about you, but I’m not worried about God forgetting his promise. We humans are the ones who have a hard time remembering our promises. The Bible is using very human language to describe an eternal truth: God’s memory is greater than our forgetfulness. God remembers that we bear the image of God, even though we forget and tarnish that image through sin. God remembers to sustain our lives with his grace even though we forget that we owe our continued existence to God. God remembers to love us even as we too often forget to return that love.
That’s why the season of Lent has come just in time. Lent is a time for us to remember. Fasting during this season has always been an important discipline that Christians voluntarily take up. We often describe this fasting as “giving up something.” I grew up Baptist, and we didn’t observe Lent, and I would have friends and classmates who talked about giving up chocolate, giving up dessert, giving up video games for Lent. And I would think, “Man, I would give up broccoli for Lent! I would give up homework. But that misses the point. The point is that when we start to miss that thing we give up, we remember, “I’m a child of God. God loves me. I don’t have to trust in these created things; I can trust in my Creator to provide for all my needs.” We may also do something to help us remember this love…
The point is, if we choose to fast or give up something during this season or do some other spiritual discipline, we do so mostly to remember that God loves us, and God has expressed this love in the most profound way imaginable: by coming to the world through Jesus Christ, taking upon himself all the weakness, frailty, and sickness of being fully human; experiencing all that is good and all that is bad about our human condition; loving us so much that God is willing to suffer death on our behalf.
Will you remember God’s love for you this season? What changes do you need to make in your life to experience God’s love more fully? Will you trust that the Holy Spirit will enable you to make those changes?
What will you do to share this love with others? When I grew up, there was a song that said, “You’re the only Jesus that some will ever see.” Does that thought inspire us or scare us? We’re not Jesus, obviously, but we can pray that God would change us more and more into the image of his Son, that we could represent Jesus wherever we go, whatever we’re doing. How will we represent Jesus at work, in our communities, in our neighborhoods, in our families? There are people in our lives right now that we need to show Jesus to.
May God make us faithful to that task.