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Genesis 9:8-17

When I was eleven years old, I went on a wilderness journey in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota and Canada. With a handful of adults and other young people, we drove all night to arrive early in the morning in Ely, MN, where our adventure would begin. We’d spend the week paddling, portaging, fishing, making camp, hanging our food in the trees to keep it away from bears, and exploring the wilderness. Our rations were what we caught (the walleye was unforgettable), daily pancakes, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.


It would be an exhilarating week I’d never forget, but it was certainly physically taxing. And thinking back, I realize how vulnerable I was as an eleven-year-old (I was the youngest in the group) in the wilderness with older kids and adults who weren’t family. It was dangerous. Bears. Moose. Terrible rain storms. I was completely at the mercy of those around me.


When we arrived to Ely to start our trip into the wilderness, we bumped into a group that had just finished their week at a local restaurant. They were exhausted. You could see the fatigue in their eyes. I knew a big adventure was ahead, but they served as a sign that this wouldn’t be easy.


On this first Sunday in Lent, it fascinates me that we meet Noah having completed his journey, receiving a covenant promise of God while we’re just getting started on our own pilgrimage. We’ve received the mark of the Ashes; we recalled our finitude. We’ve toned down the colors of the sanctuary. Grays, blacks, and purples are used to remind us of our penitence. But for Noah, the darkness and the grays have lifted. At last, after such a grueling, horrific, aimless journey, Noah sees all the magnificent shades of blue in the sky. The light shines through where the clouds are no longer dark and gloomy, but the ones there are brilliant white. Perhaps it’s difficult for Noah and his family’s eyes to adjust to all the colors that had evaded them not just for 40 days and nights, but for 150 days.


Finally, there is a sign of magnificence colors that may have been unimaginable while cooped up in that ark. A rainbow. All of its shades shine so marvelously. Noah’s long journey has found its culmination. Ours is just beginning. Noah sees all the vibrant colors. We see sackcloth and ashes. Noah’s aimlessness in a watery wilderness is over. For us, the fast is just beginning.


What an interesting contrast for the first Sunday in Lent. What is more interesting is the circumstance by which all the colors of the rainbow are revealed to Noah and his family after such a dark moment in salvation history. We find the living God dealing with remorse and creation so sin-ridden that the only solution seems to be to undo it. The Earth, save a small chest called an ark with a few of God’s treasurers, is wiped out. Gone. Swallowed up. Blotted out. Everything dies. The scene is so graphic that it’s terrifying to wonder what it was really like when it “Rained and poured for forty daysies, daysies.”


And, we haven’t even gotten to how difficult it would be for those in the Ark. Imagine being confined with all the creatures of the world. The stench. The boredom. The seasickness. The brokering of peace between predator and prey! Would it ever end? We know what happens – they send out a dove (and a raven, and a dove again) and eventually know that there is dry land. At last, they are out of the boat. When they do, God begins to speak.


It is important to note for this passage, and for the first Sunday in Lent, that God's speech is all about God’s action in promises and covenants. God will never destroy the Earth again. Flesh will never be cut off. But this divine speech isn’t cheap; this God will give a tangible sign in the bow that is hung in the heavens. Every time we see it and every time God sees it, it is a sign for us and God can remember this promise to all of creation.


This text is so rich because calls into question the classical nature of God – whether or not God is mutable or if this God takes risks. Textually, we cannot escape the fact that God has changed in a substantial way through the undoing of creation. The (rain)bow was considered a divine weapon in the ancient world. Bolts of lightning were its arrows. As a sign that God has changed posture toward creation, God hangs up the bow. The bow is not broken, as this God retains the awesome power to create and undo, but out of his covenant promises Yahweh will keep restraint. Terrance Fretheim suggests, “No bow appears unless there are clouds; the bow thus suggests restraint in the midst of deserved judgment.”[1] There will certainly be episodes where the wickedness of human beings deserve the judgment of the undoing of creation, but Yahweh will see the bow and remember mercy.


We remember the culmination of Noah’s journey so that we can remember what we are moving towards in the season of Lent. God’s covenant with Noah will be the first of a series of covenant themes through Old Testament readings. Though in the narrative God changes substantively, with assurance we believe that God is bound up in God’s own promises. God continues to remember the covenants. We can have assurance that the fast of the Lenten season will not lead to our ultimate demise, but that there is always life on the other side of death. We get a glimpse of the colors of the rainbow to reassure us that we will not be left in sackcloth and ashes forever. The bright and marvelous radiance and glory of the resurrected Son of God will shine forth on Easter.


[1] Terrance E. Fretheim, Book of Genesis, New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 400.

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15 feb

Thank you for beautifully connecting this passage with Ash Wednesday and Lenten sacrifice/denial, something I was finding challenging.

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