The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

UNDER THE RAINBOW

Delivered 8/20/2000
Text: Genesis 9:8-17
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Noah. We learned all about him and the flood in Sunday School. Our kids learned about him this week in Vacation Bible School. Those in my generation had the picture filled in even more vividly about 35 years ago by that wonderful preacher, Bill Cosby. Remember? Cos has Noah working around the house, down in his rec room, doing a little remodeling...Voobah, voobah, voobah...when a voice comes: "NOAH!"

"Somebody call?" Voobah, voobah, voobah.

"NOAH!"

"Who is it?"

"It's the Lord, Noah."

"RIGHT...What do you want? I been good."

"Noah, I want you to build an ark - go out and gather up every species of animal, two by two, male and female, and bring them into the ark, because I'm going to destroy the world."

"RIGHT...Who is this really? Am I on Candid Camera?" And on and on it goes. Fun stuff.

Of course, the biblical account is meant to be taken seriously. The story of Noah was the ancient Hebrew way of reflecting on the responsibility and accountability of humanity under the sovereignty of God. There is a respectful and reverent affirmation that God brought us into this world, and, if we get out of order, God can take us right on out again. But ultimately, the message of this old, old lesson is that God's supreme aim is our redemption, not our destruction. It is a wonderful story of grace.

We first meet Noah at the end of Genesis, chapter 5, where we learn that his grandfather was old Methuselah (the one who lived for 969 years), his father was Lamech and that he was named "Noah" (which comes from an ancient root related to "rest")(1) when his daddy said, "He will COMFORT us in the labor and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the LORD has cursed."(2)

Such was not to be, though. As the story unfolds, God sees that folks are not measuring up to divine expectation, God is angry at all the evil and wickedness going on, and as the scripture has it, "The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain."(3) So the decision is made that God will wipe us all out and start fresh. But, as the old spiritual has it, "Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord," so he and his family would be preserved as progenitors of a new and improved creation.

The story continues with Noah working around the house... down in the rec room (or wherever). God lets him know what is coming, gives him instructions on building an ark along with direction on the birds and animals which are to be included.

At this point, my mind jumps back to Bill Cosby who has God saying to Noah, "I'm going to destroy the earth. I'm going to make it rain for a thousand days and a thousand nights and drown 'em all out."

Noah replies, "Right! Look, why don't you do it like this...you'll save water. Let it rain for forty days and forty nights and wait for the sewers to back up?"

God answers, "RIGHT!"

We know the rest of the story. The rains come, the floods rise, and the world is destroyed...everything except the ark and its contents. Forty days and nights of rain, then another 150 days of floating around, after which the waters began to subside. All told, it would be over a year before Noah and his fellow travelers would be able to get out of the ark. And yes, it must have been pretty ripe in there. Some wag has even suggested that the ark is a parable for the church: if it were not for the storm without, you could never stand the smell within! Perhaps so.

Finally, this floating menagerie is able to disembark, and, filled with the hope of a new beginning, the first thing they do is worship the God who delivered them.

I was intrigued to hear a discussion of this sometime back on the Public Television series called "Genesis: A Living Conversation," hosted by Bill Moyers. The conversation about the deliverance of Noah turned to the deliverance of the survivors of the Holocaust. A quote from Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel was read: "April 11, 1945, Buchenwald. Hungry, emaciated, sick, and weakened by fear, Jewish inmates welcomed their sudden freedom in a strange manner. They do not grab the food offered by the American liberators. Instead, they gather in circles. Their first act as free human beings is to say KADESH, glorifying and sanctifying God's name."(4) Just like Noah. I was equally intrigued to hear that the wonderful movie Schindler's List, the incredible story of how one man saved hundreds of Jews from the concentration camps, was originally titled Schindler's Ark.(5) Interesting.

Back to the story. Noah worships. God responds. "Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: "I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you--the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you--every living creature on earth." No more wipe-outs like this one - no more will I engage this world in mortal combat. And in fact, as my own personal reminder, I am hanging my war bow up in the heavens. "Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life." The covenant is unconditional; God hangs up the bow in return for nothing from Noah. Unilateral disarmament. The covenant is perpetual, and the covenant is universal - with "all living creatures."

An aside here. In the Hebrew there is a "sing-songy" emphasis-by-repetition style that is not reflected well at all in English translation. It is almost in the meter of a nursery rhyme - a teaching device that every culture has used to great advantage. That reminds us that these early chapters of the book of Genesis are not to be understood as history. Rather, they answer, in story form (and even in nursery rhyme fashion), the deep questions that all people have. In a style that might be used by an ancient Hebrew grandfather to answer a little boy's or girl's question about where people and animals and birds and trees come from, we hear about the Garden of Eden. To answer where all the evil in the world comes from, we hear about Adam and Eve and the serpent. To answer why people speak so many different languages, we hear the tale of the tower of Babel. OK.

But if that is the case, one wonders what question the story of Noah is trying to answer. An easy response is that this explains where rainbows come from. But I believe that the real question being answered here is this: "Grandpa, since this world is such an evil place, why does God not just wipe it out and start over?" The answer, my child, is found in this story - the covenant God makes with Noah: Never Again!

I love that old classic about the country preacher who announced that his sermon the following Sunday would be about Noah and the Ark and told the congregation the scripture reference ahead of time so they might read it in preparation for worship. A couple of youngsters noticed something interesting about the page layout of the story in the church's Bibles so they slipped into the sanctuary during the week and glued two pages of the pulpit copy together. Sunday came. The preacher began to read his text. "Noah took himself a wife," he began, "and she was..." He turned the page to continue, "...300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide and 30 cubits high." The preacher paused for a moment with a quizzical look on his face. Slowly he turned the page back and read it silently then turned the page again and continued reading. Then he looked up at the congregation and said, "I've been reading this old Bible for nigh on to 50 years, but there are some things that are still hard to believe."(6)

Yes, indeed. This story is not one that warns what might happen when God gets mad, but rather it is a story of incredible grace. Just a few verses prior to God's covenant, we read God saying, "Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done."(7) God makes this wonderful promise DESPITE knowing that we will be wicked anyway.

One of the participants in that PBS conversation with Bill Moyers was a newspaper editor. Bill asked him what would be the headline for an article that would tell the Noah story, and he responded with something like GOD DESTROYS WORLD. Quickly, another panelist, Samuel Proctor, that wise old retired pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, jumped in with an alternative: GOD GIVES HUMANS SECOND CHANCE! Right on, Sam.

Speaking of Sam, he said that he learned the Noah story from his father, a Sunday School teacher. He said, "Sometimes we laughed at the ridiculous aspects of it...(but) we didn't try to rewrite it. We drew from it what it said right then to the people and went on. Every Wednesday, though, my daddy would press his trousers and go down to the Philharmonic Glee Club rehearsal. These sixty black guys -- table waiters, coal trimmers, truck drivers -- would give one big concert a year to the white population. (We) couldn't sit where we wanted to, even though our daddy was singing - we had to sit in the back. But in the midst of all that rejection, hate, and spite, they went. And do you know the song they sang at the close of the concert? They sang, "Yesterday the skies were gray/ but look this morning they are blue." Noah! "The smiling sun tells everyone come/ Let's all sing, hallelujah/ for a new day is born/ The world is singing the song of the dawn." Sixty black guys in tuxedos in the 1920's, with lynching everywhere and hatred - "nigger" this and "nigger" that. But they had something we need to recover right now. I can't turn loose this story of Noah and the Flood because after all of the devastation...there's a rainbow...I'm not going to live without that kind of hope..."

The Peanuts characters Linus and Lucy are standing at the window watching the rain. Lucy says, "If it doesn't stop raining everything will be washed away."

"Oh no!" says Linus. "Genesis chapter 9 says that never again will God wash everything away."

"Thank you." says Lucy, "that is a great comfort to me."

Linus replies, "Sound theology will do that."(8) No Doubt.

Over and over and over, scripture shows our gracious God giving second chances...new beginnings. One after another after another after another. We thought of some a few weeks ago on our first Sunday together:

  • The first second chance came when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden - God gave them clothes, sent them on their way, and began again.
  • Then Cain killed his brother, Abel, and God, not killing Cain in fair retribution for what he had done, sent him on his way, and began again.
  • Then the world became such a horrible place that God found Noah, had him build an ark, put himself, his family, and the animals of the world in it, sent him on his way, and began again.
  • Then came Abraham and God made a covenant with him to be his God and to make him a great nation, and God began again.
  • Soon God's people were in bondage in Egypt and they cried out for deliverance. So, God sent them a deliverer, Moses, through whom they were freed from bondage and brought into the Promised Land, and God began again.
  • Then, in the fullness of time, God sent his only begotten Son to bring the good news of another "new beginning," a new beginning of salvation for all and eternal life through Jesus the Christ. And God began yet again.


Over and over, in the midst of our sinfulness, in the midst of our willfulness, in the midst of our wandering, God begins again and again with us.

A generation ago, Judy Garland captured our imagination as she dreamed of a place "Somewhere, over the rainbow, way up high, there's a land that I heard of, Once in a lullaby"(9) - a better world to which we might escape when trials and troubles threaten to overwhelm. "Somewhere over the rainbow, Blue birds fly; Birds fly over the rainbow, Why, oh why can't I?" We know the feeling.

The reality is that, as appealing as that magical ride into the blue might be, we can be comforted in knowing that we live UNDER the rainbow. God's promise of grace hovers over as a divine punctuation mark to every storm. Yes, we are flooded time and time again:

    • The pain comes in waves...but we are under the rainbow.
    • The grief threatens to overwhelm us...but we are under the rainbow.
    • The loneliness is about to drown us...but we are under the rainbow.
    • The stress is stifling...but we are under the rainbow.
    • The abuse has worn us out...but we are under the rainbow.


God's message of grace to Noah is the ark in which we can take refuge. No matter what, REMEMBER, you and I are UNDER THE RAINBOW.

Amen!


1. "Noah," Holman Bible Dictionary, electronic edition, (Hiawath, IO: Parsons Technology, 1994)

2. Genesis 5:29

3. Genesis 6:6

4. Quoted by Bill Moyers, videotape, Genesis, a Living Conversation, "Apocalypse," (Newbridge Communications, 1996)

5. Karen Armstrong, ibid.

6. Loyal Jones and Billy Edd Wheeler, Laughter in Appalachia (New York: Ivy Books, 1987)

7. Genesis 8:21

8. Posted by Bill Adams, Sutter Creek, CA via Ecunet,"Illustrations For This Week" #179, 2/15/97

9. Music: Harold Arlen, Lyrics: E.Y. Harburg, copyright 1939

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