I saw something that got my attention in the eastern sky last evening. 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. Around these parts we consider them miraculous because, it takes rain to make rainbows. I cannot thank God loudly or long enough for all the rain he’s sent so far this year; there was another inch yesterday morning, and then about 6:30 last night the sky darkened a bit and the heavens opened again for a short burst of blessing. It was over fast. But it didn’t leave without leaving also one lasting benefit—a well-defined half-rainbow in the northeastern sky, beautifully framed amidst the brownish-gray clouds, remnants of the tiny storm that had blown through moments before. Like I said, one reason rainbows are noteworthy is because rain is pretty noteworthy in the Panhandle of Texas. But there’s another reason, as well.
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 that particular promise has never been a worry of mine. It would take a flood of Noahnine proportions to wet the dirt for more than a few days! 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: a tornado, a hailstorm, a wildfire, closing all the coffee shops, no donuts at church, etc. Natural disasters, you know?
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 come two-by-two. Maybe I was more fixated on the happy 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, rainbows and not devastating torrents.
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! Perhaps the very same 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 and no explanation.
A little later in the Old Testament, in Exodus, When Moses and God have a very-up-close-and-personal meeting, not that long after Moses has seen the terrible wrath of God, and has almost 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) 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; see my last blog)—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 state. But in spite of it. Not because I would never disobey again, but even knowing I certainly 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, as do our tears.
That, of course, is the message of Jesus on the cross. It’s 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 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, then magnified by the Son’s sacrifice and displayed as a masterpiece of grace.
Every rainbow is worth stopping to look at, stopping to remember where rainbows really come from and what they really mean. They are testaments of God’s glory, reminders of God’s grace. And they are a pretty unmistakable message of just how much God loves us, too. He wants you to know that after the storm–even when the storm has been brutal–everything is going to be o.k.!