The rainbow, according to Genesis 9, is a sign of God’s saving grace: It means that in spite of the uncomfortable truth that we all deserve to be swept away in a flood of God’s wrath, he offers us a means of rescue. The sign of the rainbow, as I discuss in this sermon, points to the gospel of Jesus Christ and his atoning death.
Sermon Text: Genesis 9:1-17
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
Until recently, the U.S. Military Academy—West Point—had a hard time predicting which of its cadets would be able to endure the first seven weeks of the service academy’s Cadet Basic Training—otherwise known as “Beast Barracks.” They couldn’t predict which ones would call it quits before they finished. SAT scores couldn’t predict it. ACT scores couldn’t predict it. Neither could high school rank, physical fitness, “leadership potential,” or any other measure of aptitude you could name. West Point couldn’t figure out why these otherwise well-qualified cadets, who on paper were some of the best and brightest young people in the nation, were quitting.
At least that was their problem until they started measuring how much “grit” a cadet has.
I confess I’ve rarely heard the word “grit” used outside of an old western starring John Wayne—or the recent remake starring Jeff Bridges—but it has become a buzzword today among psychologists who say that the extent to which someone possesses grit goes a long way toward explaining how successful that person will be in life—whether it’s surviving basic training, or succeeding in school, or doing well in a career.
Grit means persistence—it means you can deal with failure, with adversity, with setbacks. In fact, according to an article in this month’s Atlantic Monthly magazine, what distinguishes high performers from everyone else was “largely how they processed feelings of frustration, disappointment, or even boredom. Whereas others took these as signals to cut their losses and turn to some easier task, high performers did not—as if they had been conditioned to believe that struggle was not a signal for alarm.”
So… Are you a “gritty” person? Do you have grit?
When we read and reflect on today’s scripture, which takes place just after the flood comes and destroys the world—except Noah, his family, and the animals that came aboard the ark—it seems clear that God has grit—by his grace he was unwilling to give up on us sinful human beings. Even though we had given him so many reasons to do so.
After all, back in Genesis chapter 6, we’re told that the Lord saw “how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” And this situation “grieved [God] to his heart.”
Can you imagine God being “grieved to his heart”? On the other hand, how can God be a loving Father and not feel deeply grieved to his heart for his children when he sees them harming themselves and others? That’s the nature of love, isn’t it? And what greater love is there than between a parent and child? Love is risky and painful and costly. Remember the old song by the Everly Brothers, which, in the ’70s, was a also a hit for the band Nazareth: “Love hurts, love scars/ Love wounds and mars/ Any heart not tough/ Or strong enough/ To take a lot of pain, take a lot of pain/ Love is like a cloud/ Holds a lot of rain/ Love hurts, love hurts.” The profound truth of this scripture is that love hurts God, too.
But… God has grit. He’s determined. He’s not going to give up on us. Because in the very next verse, chapter 6, verse 8, we read: “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” The Hebrew words for Noah’s “finding favor” literally mean that Noah found grace—in spite of the fact that he, too, was a sinner.
So there’s a little bit of the gospel right there—even before the flood happens.
But still, you might be thinking… God judges, punishes, and destroys everyone else. Why does God do that? Isn’t this the “angry, vengeful Old Testament God” that skeptics—and not a few Christians—often talk about?
And the answer is, “No.” Although God has righteous anger, and vengeance is God’s to repay, the God who sends the flood to destroy humanity is the God of perfect justice. I agree that it’s frightening.
In a recent blog post, United Methodist megachurch pastor Adam Hamilton wondered aloud whether those verses in the Old Testament that commanded the death penalty for serious sins, truly express what Hamilton calls “the heart and character of God.” The Bible, he believes, got it wrong.
I couldn’t disagree more. I don’t believe the Bible is wrong about anything, so long as we understand it in its context. Besides, all of us humans have already received the death penalty for our sins. We will all die one day, and when we do, the Bible says, it’s ultimately because of our sin. Isn’t this the clear teaching of Genesis 2 and 3, which we looked at last week? Isn’t this what Paul was talking about when he said that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and the “wages of sin is death”? If Hamilton is right, does that mean the bible is wrong about that, too?
The frightening reality is that what happens in the Flood to the rest of humanity is what we all deserve. I agree that it’s Bad News. But this Bad News is the starting point of the gospel. If we don’t start there—with the problem that God in the flesh, Jesus Christ, came into the world to solve—then the gospel makes no sense.
But in spite of our sin, today’s scripture tells us something interesting: The reason God warns Noah and his descendants not to murder anyone is because every human being—sinners though we are—every human being has within themselves the “image of God.” Now, the Bible tells us this back in Genesis chapter 1—that we were made in his image—but that was before the Fall, before sin corrupted us, before sin was so bad that God sent this cataclysmic flood as judgment for our sin.
You mean, after all that sin and evil, we still bear God’s image? And the answer is yes.
Think about what it means to be an image of something. Our American flag is an image of our country. And we rightly get angry when we see someone mishandling it—tearing it, burning it, desecrating it. Why? It’s not because the cloth and the colors from which it’s made are especially valuable; it’s because of what they represent. They represent our country—our values, all the people who fought and died for it, all the people who sacrificed to make us who we are as Americans.
Merle Haggard died last month. And one of many of his songs that resonates with me was written during the Vietnam War. And in it, he sings, “You’re runnin’ down my country, hoss/ You’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.” I haven’t been in a fight since I was in sixth grade, but I know that feeling he describes. I love my country. And I would get angry if someone were intentionally attacking the image of our country that is the flag.
So what does it mean, then, that every single human being is an image that represents something far greater than our country—the very One who made our country in the first place, who gave us our country, who gave us this world… who gave us our lives? The idea that people are getting mistreated and abused and harmed and even killed ought to make us at least as angry! If you mistreat an image of God it’s as if you’re mistreating God himself!
Think about that! Think about your enemies, or people you don’t get along with. How can you dare mistreat them, or belittle them, or gossip about them, or put them down—out of respect for the God who stamped his image onto them? No matter who they are or what they’ve done to you.
Or think about that child who goes to bed on an empty stomach in Hampton, Georgia… He or she represents God. Or every 12-year-old girl who gets sold into sex slavery on the streets of Atlanta… She represents God. Or every desperate father rummaging through a garbage dump in the Dominican Republic, just to feed his family… He represents God. These lives are incredibly sacred! Is this sacredness reflected in the service we offer as a church to our world? Is it reflected in the giving of our time, our talent, our money? Is it reflected in our generosity? Is it reflected in the choices we make with all the many gifts that God gives us?
Let’s move on to verse 12 and following:
And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 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.”
This doesn’t mean that rainbows didn’t exist before the Flood. They are a naturally occurring phenomenon, as we know. But after the Flood, God assigns a new meaning to the rainbow: He wants Noah, and everyone who comes after him, to see the rainbow and think of something else: He wants us to think of the salvation that comes through Jesus Christ.
Think about it: When do rainbows happen? They don’t happen on bright, sunny days without a cloud in the sky. They only happen after the clouds and the darkness and the storm rolls through. Which is a fitting symbol for the gospel: Before there can be the bright warm light of God’s mercy and peace, there must first be the dark, threatening clouds and storms of God’s judgment and wrath. If you want to understand the gospel, first look at the dark clouds and think to yourself: “Because of my sin, I deserve judgment, I deserve death, I deserve hell.”
So the sign of the rainbow first tells us this.
The apostle Peter, in 1 Peter 3:20 and 21, makes the same connection between Noah’s Ark and the gospel. What happened to Noah and his family in the Flood, he says, is a symbol of what happens to us Christians in baptism. Just as Noah was saved through the water of the Flood, Peter writes, so we are saved through water of baptism. And before you ask, he doesn’t mean that baptism by itself saves us; he means that saving faith in Christ, which baptism represents, saves us.
Regardless, Bible scholars agree that this is a strange way of describing what happened to Noah: that he was saved “through the water.” Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense if Peter had said that Noah was saved from the water?
Maybe, except… we look at the sign of the rainbow. We see the dark clouds. We remember that the water of the Flood represents God’s judgment for sin. God’s judgment is a fearful thing to us because we know we’re sinners who deserve judgment, condemnation, and hell. We know that God’s judgment isn’t going to acquit us, or declare us “not guilty,” or save us from punishment. On the contrary, God’s judgment is going to find us guilty—and condemn us.
Unless… We really are not guilty of our sin—in which case we would be saved. But that can’t happen, right? Because we know we’re sinners.
Except… Paul tells us something about baptism that helps us understand what Peter means: “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Which means, when we appear before God in final judgment, God isn’t judging us based on our own sin—it’s as if he doesn’t see that anymore, or even remember it; he’s judging us based on the righteousness of his Son Jesus. For those of us who have been “clothed with Christ,” it’s as if, when God looks at us, he sees only the righteousness of his Son Jesus, not our own. And it’s on that basis that we’re saved—even through this “water,” these clouds, and this storm of God’s judgment.
One of my favorite songs is by Keith Green. It’s a song of reassurance called “When I Hear the Praises Start.” He sings it from the perspective of our Lord:
For when I hear the praises start
Oh, I want to rain upon you
Blessings that will fill your heart
I see no stain upon you
Because you are My child and you know Me
To Me you’re only holy
Nothing that you’ve done remains
Only what you do for Me
“I see no stain upon you… To me you’re only holy… Nothing that you’ve done”—meaning, all your sins—“remains/ Only what you do for me.” That’s what we mean when we say that Christ has given us his righteousness to us as a gift.
How does exchange—our unrighteousness for Christ’s righteousness—come about? The sign of the rainbow tells us that as well.
God says, “I have set my bow in the cloud.” When we hear this, we think of rainbows. But to the original hearers of this text, they wouldn’t have thought of that. They would heard “bow” and thought, “Weapon of war.” The Hebrew word for “bow” appears in the Old Testament 76 times, and exactly 75 times it refers to a bow as a weapon.
Now, think of the shape of the rainbow. If we think of it as a weapon, what direction is it pointing in? Away from the earth, away from Creation, away from us sinful human beings. Years ago, I read a Bible scholar who said that the direction of the bow is a sign that God is disarming himself—laying down his arms.
But that’s not what the shape of the rainbow suggests. The bow is still cocked. And what direction is it pointing in? Symbolically speaking, the bow is pointed toward heaven, toward God himself.
Why? Because God himself, in the person of his Son Jesus, willingly and lovingly took our sins upon himself on the cross—he let that arrow of judgment and guilt and wrath be pointed at him instead of us. He took our guilt, took our shame, took our sins upon himself. He suffered the punishment for us. As Colossians says, God canceled the “record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands” and “set it aside, nailing it to the cross.”
The record of debt that stood against us…
Last month, a professor at Princeton posted something on Twitter that went viral. He called it his “CV of failures.” A CV is a resumé that some professionals use, which lists all of their accomplishments—all of their successes. Except in this case, his wasn’t a record of his successes; it was a record of his failures: For example, he listed “Degree programs I did not get into,” “Research funding I did not get,” and “Paper rejections from academic journals.”
You get the idea.
The truth is, whether we post it online or not, most of us carry around with us, in our hearts, our own “record of failures,” a record of guilt, a record of shame… about mistakes made, sins committed… Things we’ve done to harm others… Things we’ve left undone. We don’t want other people to see this. We try to keep it hidden. But it’s there. And Satan, our accuser, always wants to remind us of it: Look at your sins, look at what a failure you are!
The sign of the rainbow means that we can let this “record of failures” go. Christ wants to take it from us. In fact, if we’ve placed our faith in him, he already has… He’s taken our record of failures and nailed it to the cross with him! Which means most of us are carrying around a Xerox copy of it!
Christ is telling us this morning to let go of that, too. Let go of the guilt. Let go of the shame. Because of the cross, in God’s eyes, you are “only holy.” Nothing that you’ve done—no sins you’ve committed—stand between you and God.
 Genesis 6:5 NIV
 Genesis 6:6 NIV
 1 Peter 3:20
 Galatians 3:27