I saw something very surprising in the sky the other day. Something rare. Something unexpected. It was a rainbow. Now I know that rainbows are a fairly common occurrence; a scientist would tell you, perhaps, that they are the result of the refraction of light through droplets of water vapor in the air, the result of a prism effect that in essence splits the light into different colors and wavelengths which then become visible in the distance. And they would be right. That’s how and why they happen, partly. The one I saw was rare because we haven’t had enough rain around these parts in the last 16 months to grow grass and weeds, much less split light into various wavelengths. On that particular day, a cool Monday in January, the wind was howling and a rogue gray cloud blew into Amarillo like a semi-truck hauling through I-40 at midnight. It wasn’t much of a cloud, and not enough rain to wet the pavement, and the rain that did come fell more horizontal than down. It was over fast! But not without one residual benefit—a well-defined half-rainbow in the northeastern sky, beautifully framed amidst the brownish-gray clouds, fickle remnants of the teaser of a storm that had blown through moments before.
If you’ve read your Bible at all, you probably remember the story of the flood in Genesis, and that after the flood God makes a promise that he will never again destroy all life on earth with a flood. The conditions of the covenant are repeated a few times there in Genesis 9, specifically, that the rainbow is an “everlasting covenant” between God and all living creatures. Interestingly enough, it is a one-sided covenant that appears only to depend on God and his promise to “never again” wipe out creation with a flood. Living where we do, that God will keep this particular promise has never been a worry of mine. It would take a flood of Noah-nian proportions to wet the dirt really good! And if he should get really ticked-off, even without a flood, there are plenty of other ways he could wipe the disease off the planet.
I remember very well learning the story of Noah and the flood as a child, at the feet of my parents who faithfully read us Bible stories. I remember doing the same thing for my own children. What never dawned on me until I was a children’s pastor many years later was how frightening that story might be to a child. I don’t remember ever being all that concerned about it when I was little, but I guess with a vivid imagination the picture of everyone on the planet except for 8 people in an ark drowning in a terrible flood might fuel some nightmares, and questions. I don’t know why it didn’t bother me. Maybe, just perhaps, in my childlike understanding I could quite easily accept that if God had made all of humankind, it was within God’s right to “un-make them.” Maybe I lost the gruesome images in the more exciting details of the great ship, or all the animals inside, who had miraculously come two-by-two. Maybe I was more fixated on the happy rainbow ending wrought by God’s grace than the horrible ordeal wrought by man’s sin and God’s wrath.
For whatever reason, the story didn’t scar me for life, didn’t make me fear God’s wrath, or even make me prone to worry during thunderstorms that I might be missing the boat somewhere. But it did make me take notice of rainbows, and I never see one that I am not reminded of just one aspect of God’s grace, a promise made many thousands of years ago that his anger would not be satisfied ever again by a flood. That reassured me somehow. And maybe it served to teach me a very important lesson that I grasped, even as a child, that God is first and foremost a God of love and mercy whose ultimate desire is reconciliation, not war; pardon instead of vengeance. Where humanity cannot find their way, God makes one for them.
As a parent I tried to teach my children as well as my parents did me, and we didn’t shy away from this story of wrath and grace. I will never forget once asking Jamie, my daughter, what the rainbow means. In her 5 year-old wisdom she quickly answered, “It means ‘everything’s gonna be o.k.!’” And you know what? For a 5 year-old, that’s pretty deep theology. She was right. In spite of how “out of whack” life can get, how hard, how grueling, how difficult—God has promised us a hope that will not ultimately be disappointed. In spite of our sins and fallen-ness, through the amazing blood of Jesus Christ, we who were once “far off”—have been brought close as brothers and sisters of Jesus and sons and daughters of God. Another one-sided covenant! But that is the nature of God, and also the story of our relationship with him in spite of the fact that he could justifiably wipe us out at any moment, with cause. While God can and does and must get angry with sin, his default mode seems to be mercy and grace.
A little later in the Old Testament, in Exodus, When Moses and God have a very-up-close-and-personal meeting which occurs not that long after Moses has seen the terrible wrath of God, and has basically had to “beg” God to stay the hand of his wrath against the Israelites—God introduces himself to Moses by name. “I am,” God says, “…the Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” (Exodus 34:6) God is saying, “This is who I am, Moses.” On the heels of anger, those are the words out of God’s own mouth that offer to Moses, and to us, the best picture of his essence. I remember too many times to count from my childhood, when immediately after my mother whipped me (with cause, I’m afraid)—the very first thing she did was to embrace me in her arms and remind me that I was loved and accepted. Not because of my evil, or corrected and somewhat penitent state. But in spite of it. Not because I would never disobey again, but even knowing I probably would! I got whipped ferociously, then I got loved, hard! It was her way of telling me that “everything’s gonna be o.k..” We need to hear that from time to time, even as the pain of our sinful choices or the cursed remnants of our diseased fallen nature stings and burns, in concert with our tears.
That “everything’s gonna be o.k.” isn’t merely the moral of a Bible story book. It is the message of Jesus on the cross. That is another brutal, gruesome, terrifying story when you think about it. The wrath of God visited fully upon his own son so that you and I would not have to pay the penalty for our sins. Or earn our own salvation. Another one-sided covenant. Another very exacting picture of justice and mercy, punishment and grace. And another storm that led to another rainbow, as the Light of the world’s tears and blood were prism’d by the laser focus of first God’s wrath as it collided head-on with his love, and then by his power as Jesus walked from the grave. In fact some of Jesus’ first words to his friends and followers after Easter morning were, “Don’t be afraid.” I think that is the message of every rainbow, as well.
I wasn’t the only one who saw it that day. I made sure it was seen by a dear friend whose circumstances right now are forcing her to be a single mom. And I heard from another sweet family that they saw it as they were leaving the cemetery, having just finished burying a son and brother whom they had lost under tragic circumstances. Both of these families felt that it was a message from God, sent purposely for them. And I think they are right in that. We must learn to look for the rainbow in every storm, because it will always be there, God’s resolute and compassionate reminder that indeed everything will be o.k.—that a greater flood, the “fountain of mercies” the writer Augustine called it, the “fount of every blessing, drawn from Immanuel’s veins” reads William Cowper’s hymn—this flood of grace has indeed become the ark that saves us.