Editor’s (admin’s) Note. First of ___ Lenten meditations based on lectionary readings on the covenants of Noah, Abraham and Moses. This one riffs on Noah the the sign of the rainbow.
Genesis 9 [NRSV]: 8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.[a]11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 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.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
Last Sunday’s gospel reading wasn’t from Genesis — it was St. Mark’s account of the temptation of Christ in the wilderness: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” (Mark 1:12-13) So the dialog in our Thursday morning pericope study session went something like this:
PASTOR: So what in this passage strikes you as Good News?
There wasn’t enough in Mark for me to go on. Maybe we can get back to it later.
In the meantime, the Old Testament reading for the first Sunday in Lent was better news. It’s the passage in Genesis where God announces the covenant with Noah, and establishes the rainbow as God’s sign of the covenant. I didn’t have too much to say about that one either, but for an opposite reason: I’ve been reading up on covenants lately for a historical research project, and I had way too much to say about them — none of it very good, or germane. I didn’t want to hijack the conversation.
At least to me, the whole idea of a covenant with the Almighty gives off dour, Calvinist vibes. Take, for example, a lay sermon by John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop wrote it to be delivered aboard ship in 1630 when the colonists were on the way to New England. He said:
Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when hee shall make us a prayse and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “the Lord make it likely that of New England.” For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. Wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of God, and all professors for God’s sake.
To the Puritans, a covenant was a contract, a quid-pro-quo arrangement with God. If you didn’t hold up your end of the bargain, God was going to smite you. (At the very least, to cause your enemies to speak evil of you.) But there’s none of that in Sunday’s reading from Genesis. Instead, the way I read it, it’s all about grace and the place of humankind in the created order of things.
Besides, there’s this whole thing about rainbows.
In the story of Noah and the ark, the rainbow appears right after the worst is over. I imagine the scene on Mount Arafat, or wherever tradition holds the ark landed, The sun’s coming out, peeking through scudding clouds. Animals are leaving the ark, padding two by two down the gangplank, gingerly, sniffing the ground. Noah and his family are gathered off to the side. So what do we do next? Maybe plant a vineyard? And out of the heavens comes a voice. (My imagination fails for a moment: Is it a deep, commanding voice like in a Cecil B. DeMille movie? Or the still, small voice that Ezekiel heard? I’m gonna go with the still, small voice.) “I am going to make a new covenant with you,” says the still, small voice. “With you and all the animals coming out of the ark, and this shall be a sign of the covenant.”
With that, Noah and his family look up … and there’s this big, beautiful rainbow amid the broken clouds.
On this first Sunday in Lent, after a year of sheltering in place due to the pandemic, I’m ready for a few rainbows. Vaccinations are moving right along at St. John’s and the county health department, and they’re opening up a big vaccination clinic on the Illinois State Fairgrounds. Debi and I got our second pokes last week. And maybe the worst is soon over now. But it’s been a long year.
It’s been just about exactly a year, in fact — Ash Wednesday 2020 was the last time I’ve physically been in church. A few nights later, I was hospitalized for what I think was a COPD flareup. The pandemic hadn’t hit yet — but it was a Saturday night toward the end of what had been a bad flu season, and let’s just say spending a couple of hours on a gurney hooked up to IV drip in the main hallway of the ER put the fear of the Lord in me.
That was my last night out on the town, so to speak, for the next year.
A couple of days later, I was released from the hospital — turns out it was the same day as the first reported Covid-19 case in Sangamon County. The home health care nurse came around a couple of times on routine aftercare visits, and the last time she left us with several disposable surgical masks. In mid-March, her visits ceased. So, of course, did everything else as Springfield went into lockdown.
And I’ve been staying home ever since.
So for me, the First Sunday in Lent this year feels like the 53rd Sunday in Lent. I could definitely use a rainbow sign.
Which means, as I think about it, maybe that gospel reading isn’t so far off after all. It comes in Mark’s gospel right after Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist. The action is pell-mell. A voice comes down from heaven: “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Again, I’m stumped as I try to imagine myself on the scene: Would the occasion call for the still, small voice or a Charlton Heston voice? I don’t think I want to know the answer, but I’m hoping for still and small.) Down comes the Spirit, “descending like a dove” on Jesus, and wham, bam, “… the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” That’s the way it goes in Mark. Everything happens immediately (and the verb tenses veer back and forth from past to present to past again).
Tradition holds the temptation of Christ took place on a barren desert cliff face west of Jericho. There’s a Greek Orthodox monastery there now, but from a distance it doesn’t look too inviting. Mark says Jesus was tempted by Satan; “and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
And that’s all he says about it.
Next verse — wham, bam, thank you ma’am — John the Baptist has been arrested, and Jesus is back in Galilee, “… proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’.”
So going back to the question in our Zoom session — what strikes me here as good news? (Well, aside from the fact Mark mentions “good news” twice in one sentence?) I guess I could wax theological about the kingdom, but I kind of like the idea of angels waiting on Jesus in the wilderness.
Seems like the last 53 weeks have been a kind of wilderness, too, and I feel like I’ve been waited on by angels. From the folks at my parish who coordinate our Zoom sessions and put together prerecorded videos of Sunday services — it’s all been a lifeline — to the kids who work for food delivery and restaurant takeout services at Schnucks, Hy-Vee and the little mom-and-pop Indian restaurants we want to patronize even in a pandemic. And essential workers of all kinds, without whom Debi and I couldn’t shelter in place, and relative safety, at home. Friends on social media — another lifeline — one of whom sent us a yoga video in response to a status on Facebook. And people in our neighborhood, one of whom left a 24-pack of toilet paper on our backyard deck one morning early in the pandemic. She knew I’d been in the hospital, and she happened to think of us when she was out shopping. So unsolicited, she picked up an extra pack for us.
And it’s been like that, even at the worst of the pandemic, through all 53 weeks. Each new day, even when I was scared to death, has been a blessing. Maybe with each new day, we venture into the wilderness anew.
And maybe the pandemic is a reminder of that.
Which brings me back around — improbably — to signs and covenants. And rainbows.
Maybe the whole idea of covenants isn’t as cut-and-dried as my Puritans had it in 17th-century New England. They split hairs over the covenant of works, the covenant of grace, predestination, election, the Westminster Confession of 1646 and something Wikipedia describes as “the Covenant Theology of standard Westminster pedobaptist federalism” (which has something to do with infant baptism, I guess). Reading up on it, I remember struggling with the literary theory of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault as an English teacher and thinking 16th- and 17th-century Calvinism is what you get when you turn a French lawyer loose on theology. But God’s covenant with Noah isn’t a quid-pro-quo. There’s some stuff about keeping kosher a few verses back in Genesis, but mostly it reads like it’s God’s promise — no more floods next time.
So maybe the covenant of Noah is a promise — to Noah and “every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.” And maybe the rainbow is a sign of that promise.
A footnote: When we were talking about rainbows on the Zoom session, the idea came up that we’re so glad to see them, we rush outside to take pictures. So I mentioned a picture I took when Debi and I were touring the Holy Land with a group from Rock Island. As we were coming out of the Church of the Nativity, I noticed a rainbow in the distance, stopped for a moment and snapped the photo.
It had been raining earlier that afternoon, kind of a muggy drizzle like we get in August or September in central Illinois. Nothing like 40 days and 40 nights. Nothing cataclysmic. Just a nice afternoon shower. And touring the Church of the Nativity was just about the complete opposite of an ordeal. I thoroughly enjoyed it — although I have to agree with other Protestant American pilgrims it’s pretty kitschy — and I came outside feeling inspired.
And, oh, look a rainbow! Off in the distance. Between a garden next to the church and the Casa Nova guesthouse, back in the general direction of Manger Square, downtown Bethlehem and our tour bus.
It was really faint. You’ll probably have to squint to see in the picture at the head of this post. But that’s the way rainbows — or covenants, or promises, or whatever you want to call them — come to me. Kind of faint, a little way off in the distance and surrounded by day-to-day reality.
A footnote to the footnote. My rainbow picture from the Holy Land wound up as one of several used to illustrate Sunday’s sermon. One advantage of watching prerecorded services on YouTube is that I can do a screen grab. So here’s a picture of my picture, as it appeared in church on the 53rd Sunday of Lent in this time of coronavirus.