Why – why in God’s name would God, of all people, need to set a reminder to remember not to wipe out creation?
We tell the story to our children, that the rainbow was a gift from God to remind us that God loves us, will not abandon us, will not destroy us. But here it is in black and white: the sign was not for us. The rainbow was God’s reminder of the covenant God made, single-sidedly, as if there were anything Noah or any of us could do should God choose to break or amend or set it aside; the rainbow was God’s reminder to godself.
“When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth,” God said to Noah.
It is still a sign of God’s loving care for creation, of God’s promise, God’s commitment, God’s covenant not to return creation to chaos, undo the mess we have made of what God has made.
But why would God, of all people, need to set a visible reminder, to remember that God loves us?
I’m almost afraid to ask the question.
It’s easy to see how we need the reminder. It is easy to feel as though everything’s going to hell in a handbasket, with ISIS wreaking havoc in the middle east and north Africa, Christian martyrs dying once more for their faith as though we were back in the time after Christ. With eastern Europe sabre-rattling as though we were back in the fifties. Even in our own little lives, quiet on the outside, we know death and destruction and abandon. It is easy to see why we might need a reminder that God loves us and has not decided to leave us to destruction, has not forgotten that God created us for good.
Even Jesus, right after God has announced to him at his baptism that he is beloved, well pleasing to God, doing the right thing in the right place at the right time – even Jesus, immediately after this, finds himself driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, the desolate place, abandoned to the devil, tempted on all sides, at the mercy of wild beasts. It is the very Spirit of God that sends him there, out of sight and out of mind, and out of food. When Jesus cries from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” it isn’t for the first time.
Then God remembered him, and angels came and ministered to him.
The first time in the Bible that God is said to have remembered is about halfway through the Noah story, when the rains had fallen for forty days and the floods had swelled for another 150 – six months of misery on the Ark. After all, God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all of the domestic animals that were with him on the Ark, says the Bible. And when God remembered, God closed the doors to the waters over the earth, the waters of chaos that had been confined at the time of creation and let loose in the deluge. And when God remembered, God sent a wind to sweep over the waters, as the Spirit of God swept over the waters at creation, and dried the earth, reclaiming the dry land that had been separated from the sea on the third day.
Old Testament scholar Gordon J. Wenham notes, “When God remembers, he acts.”[i]
When God remembers, God acts.
The dirty little secret about that flood story is that the world is not washed clean. The dirt is not removed. The Ark lands on squishy mud and the giraffe probably breaks a leg sliding down the hillside, and the crocodile thinks it’s died and gone to heaven. Noah goes out and pretty much straight away disgraces himself. Humanity is not set upon a new trajectory, but continues to grow into the path it has set for itself. The arrival on the mountaintop is the high point; it’s all downhill from there.
When God looked upon creation, God saw that all was good. When God looked at the lands in which Noah lived, God was pained, anguished by the difficulties and the hardness and the evil that had grown up. The word that is used for God’s pain is that of a woman in labour, in the throes of contractions, the completion of forty-odd weeks of pregnancy.
It is as if creation was God’s conception of the world, and this, this deluge, this crisis born out of the pain and anguish of God, is God’s labour, God’s bringing to birth of the creation that will endure, that will live out its days not in the garden of Eden, but in the whole earth; not in innocence, but in worldliness; not in forgetfulness, but accumulating days and years and lives and deaths and joys and sorrows and grief and pain and anguish – and love.
Things would never be quite as they had been, when God walked in the garden in the cool of the day. Giving birth involves a lot of letting go. But not forgetting.
We are not innocent. We do not live in paradise. We have not resisted temptation, and we have hidden ourselves from God when God would walk with us in the cool of the day, afraid to show our whole selves. We have seen the wilderness. We have felt the pain of birth, the giving and the receiving. We have known death.
God loves us anyway. Even when we feel that God is far away – my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? – God remembers. God doesn’t need the rainbow to remember God’s covenant of compassion for us, any more than a woman needs a lock of hair in a silver pendant to remember her child, or a man needs a ring to remember that he is married, or a scar to remember what has been lost.
Perhaps God is a little bit sentimental.
Or perhaps the sign, after all, is for us a reminder that God remembers and will act on our behalf, even when it seems as though the storms will never end; it is God writing in the sky, “You are my child, my beloved.”
Maybe we will turn around and find ourselves in the wilderness right afterwards. But God has not forgotten God’s resolve, to remain in relationship with us, to keep reaching out to us not matter how trying we may be – through Exodus and wilderness, Exile and return the cross and the grave and the crowds crying crucify – God nevertheless returns to us, returns life to us, time and again.
It seems a long way from rainbow season right now, in the season of Lent, in the season of winter, in the winter of much discontent. But no matter how deluged in distress, no matter how swamped in sin we may become, we have been given a sure sign, assurance, that God will remember us, in the fullness of time; because the good news is that God’s kingdom has drawn near; God has drawn near, and will send angels to minister to us, when our forty days are over.
[i] Gordon J. Wenham. Gensis 1-15, World Biblical Commentary Volume 1 (Word, Inc., 1987), 184