Look to the Skies

On the nature of covenants... from the first one whose sign was set in the clouds. A sermon for Lent 1b.

SJF • Lent 1b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Lord said, This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you... I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.

We come now to the first Sunday in Lent, and through the coming four weeks our readings from the Hebrew Scriptures will focus on the concept of covenant. On each Sunday the Scriptures will refer to one of the various covenants that God made with humanity, and with the chosen people — including, next week, the covenant which was marked in flesh and blood.

But today we go back to primeval history, to the covenant made between God and every living thing on earth. This covenant is marked with the sign of the rainbow set in the clouds after the flood. God promises that he will never again cause it to rain so much as to wash away all living things; and that the rainbow will remind God himself not to get carried away and destroy all living things by a flood. When God sees it, God will remember — as if God could forget!

This first and model covenant goes far to tell us what a covenant is — what is the nature of a covenant. It shows us that the covenant has two parts: an agreement or promise, and a sign or testimony to that agreement or promise. Think for a moment about the agreements or promises that you make yourselves in your own lives. Even the most basic and simplest agreement is marked at least with a nod or a handshake, isn’t it? That outward sign is what tells you that the other party has agreed; if they just stared at you blankly, how would you know if they have agreed or not? We need at least a wink or a nod if we are not to have serious misunderstandings. And the graver and more important the agreement, the more likely we are to demand more than a wink or a nod, or even a handshake. We are likely to want it in writing — some kind of testimonial stating exactly what it was that was agreed to, and the terms of the agreement; something towhich we can refer back, later down the road, if it appears the agreement isn’t being kept. We want something we can hold up and say, “But you agreed — here it is in black and white.”

Of course, the agreement God made with humanity in this earliest covenant wasn’t in black and white. It was in the colors of the rainbow, set in the clouds to remind all — even God himself — of his promise not to flood the world again.

How many of you recall that grade-school memory device for remembering the seven colors of the rainbow, Mr. Roy G. Biv? Anyone remember that? It seems that although we think of the rainbow as having seven colors, at least some of the ancients did not perceive so many gradations of color. One of the ancient Greeks refers to the rainbow as “three-colored” and it has been suggested that the Hebrews saw it as having four distinct colors. And that these four colors spelled out the sacred name of God himself, to which I referred some weeks back. So they may have understood the rainbow literally as God’s “signature” in the heavens!

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There is another unusual feature to this covenant, and that is its essentially one-sided nature: if the rainbow is God’s signature, his is the only one on the agreement. Usually, and in all the later covenants we’ll talk about, a covenant marks out an agreement in which both parties have a responsibility to do something. But in this case, God does not look for or ask for anything specific from Noah. It’s true that in a portion of the story not included in our reading, God does demand that Noah and his descendants — which is to say, everybody, all of humanity — are not to eat meat with blood still in it. Adam and Eve, as you recall from Genesis, were allowed to eat of the fruit of the earth — no meat — but God gives Noah and his family the right to eat meat, on the condition they not consume any blood. But this permission to eat meat and the commandment not to eat blood do not seem to be at all linked with the covenant about the flood itself or the promise not to flood the earth again, or with the sign of the covenant set in the clouds. This appears to be a completely one-sided covenant, a promise that God is making to himself as much as to Noah, and the rainbow is there to serve as an aide-memoire for God himself, like a string you might tie on a finger to remind yourself of some task, or a memo you might jot on a sticky-note, attached to the side of your computer monitor.

Still, this is precisely why covenants have such an external sign: the sign is the testimony that a promise has been made, the reminder and proof that the covenant exists. And whether it serves to remind one or both parties, it does its work most effectively when the covenant itself specifies the sign as part of the agreement — in black and white, or in the colors of a rainbow.

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As you may know, the various churches that make up the Anglican Communion are exploring whether or not we should adopt a covenant that has been proposed for all of the member churches to adopt. This would make more formal what up to now has been a relatively informal arrangement. The discussion is whether we should move from the realm of handshakes, winks and nods, to a written constitution of sorts. There is also discussion as to whether the draft document proposed meets the test of being something that we all can agree to. There seems to be some interest in having some kind of agreement, but no clear agreement as to what that agreement should be. I will be alluding to this proposed Anglican Covenant over the next weeks, but I do not plan to make it the focus of my reflections.

For today I will only say that it seems the proposed Anglican Covenant is a bit short on specifics and long on good intentions; that is, the things everyone is supposed to agree to seem fairly agreeable, but they seemed that way already — so some are asking, Why do we need such an agreement when a handshake will do. As one English bishop put it: if we can agree to it, we do not need it, and if we can’t agree to it, it won’t accomplish anything. And even in England, out of the dioceses that have voted on it, they are ten-to-seven against it.

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But as I say, this proposed bit of Anglican diplomacy will not form the substance of my sermons this Lent. (Thanks be to God!) My primary interest is in exploring the historic covenants of the people of God, and that will form the content of our Scripture readings over the next few weeks, and my reflections on them.

And to return to today’s Rainbow Covenant, let us remember its most striking characteristic: it is God’s covenant with the earth, a reminder to God to keep his promise not to destroy the earth with a flood. It asks nothing of the earth, or of the people who dwell on it. It is the sign of a promise made by God, signed in the colors of the rainbow, and set in the clouds for all to see. As I said in a sermon a few weeks ago, this is a real, “I’m God and you aren’t” kind of message; God is saying, in effect, “By myself I have sworn.”

What promise could be more faithful, what words more comforting, than a covenant from God, a promise that God sealed with a sign of God’s own making. When we look to the skies and see the sign of the rainbow, let us remember that this is a sign from God and of God, a reminder that God is faithful and never-failing, and will stand fast by his Word. Let it be a sign to us of God’s unchanging compassion, unfailing love, and great faithfulness unto me, and to you, and to every descendant of Noah who dwells on God’s good earth.+