A Change of Mind
Genesis 9: 8-17 & Mark 1: 9-14
First Sunday in Lent/ 1st March 2009
You were probably taught in Sunday School, like me, that God placed the rainbow in the sky to remind Noah that God would never again destroy the world with a flood. I grew up believing that's why we have rainbows, that they weren't part of the creation before then. We see rainbows as a reminder of the covenant God had made with Noah.
When we become adults we try (or should) to put away childish ways. As an adult, it came as quite a shock to see what the text really says. What matters most is the covenant, of course, as we'll see in a minute. But there's something else here we might find disturbing, an image of God here we might find surprising. God establishes the covenant with Noah and his sons, as well as with every living creature (did you notice that?).
A covenant is a pact, a commitment, and an agreement. Did you also notice, three times God makes this point, each time it becomes clearer? It's almost as if we're hearing God thinking aloud, talking himself into something, convincing himself of something he's not exactly sure he wants to commit to. This new covenant stands for all generations, "I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring the clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters will never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. I will see it and remember…."
Who is doing the remembering here? Not Noah, but God. Noah is noticing; but God is remembering. The bow is a reminder to God of the promise made to creation. It's a sign of the change in the "mind" of God. Remarkably, we see here the evolving consciousness of God who is learning, growing, and having a change of mind. If your image of God is All-knowing, and All-powerful, All-sufficient, then such an image comes up against what we find here in Genesis 9, and in so many other places in scripture. This might sound blasphemous, but it's there: God is discovering that a truly God-like response to human waywardness is not the threat of judgment, punishment, and annihilation. Human beings are not enticed to live faithfully with God or their neighbor under threat. Morality cannot be successfully legislated.
God takes a different approach now. "What has changed is not anything about humankind or creation or waters or flood. What has changed is God. God has made a decision about the grief and trouble of his own heart." The covenant gives us an insight, a window into the inner "thoughts" of God, of a God who changes.
The rainbow is a sign of the covenant that has been made and that even if God wished to destroy every living creature at some point in the future, the promise is that God would not. The rainbow checks the possible future wrath of God. Does this then mean God "forgets" in between rainbows? Does it mean that God needs to be reminded? Is this then humanity's role in the covenant, to remind God to be God in a new way? There is a tradition in Jewish spirituality that insists that human beings are called to remind God to be God. There are two parties in the covenant and we have to do our part. It's a provocative thought.
And what is this new way? The choice of the rainbow as the sign is no mistake. It's very intentional. We should really think of "bow," as in an archer's bow. The "rainbow," literally in the Old Testament is "the bow of war." Post-flood, the bow is no longer a symbol of war and death; the bow here is an undrawn bow, the bow relaxed. "The creator has won his victory, perhaps over the chaos and his own inclination to punish. God is no longer in pursuit of an enemy." The promise of God is that God will not again be provoked to use his weapon, no matter how provocative we become. The bow at rest thus forms a parallel to the entire creation at rest on the Sabbath, which is the goal of creation – to rest and trust and live confidently and joyfully in the goodness and faithfulness of God.
This covenantal faithfulness of God to creation does not need to be renewed. It stands forever, regardless of what humanity might do to provoke the anger of God. It's a promise. Therefore, humanity is invited to rest in the arms of this promise. We are invited to trust in the goodness of God, of God's love upholding creation and our lives within it. When we recall God's love, when we know God is on our side and not an enemy trying to pursue us or punish us or destroy us, we find that we can live more freely, more confidently, more generously, more gracefully. Knowing God's faithfulness to us is generative – it generates a change within us, it changes how we see ourselves and our neighbors, it changes how we live, it changes how we spend our time and our money, it changes everything. It releases something in us that was pent up in the anxiety and fear caused by worrying if God is really safe or good, if God can be trusted.
This way of being is beautifully illustrated in the opening words of Mark's gospel. Pay attention to the order of events in Mark 1: 15. Jesus arrives in Galilee, first, proclaiming the good news of God, saying "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near." The reign of God's justice has broken into the world with, through Jesus. Then, second, repent; third, believe the good news. You see, receiving the good news is not contingent upon repenting! Repentance is never the ground of forgiveness, as Calvin (1509-1564) reminded us. We're not called to first get our act together, repent, and change our lives, in order to somehow receive or enter the kingdom. The gospel, the good news of God, is always prior. This is the order of salvation. It is because the good news has already come in and through Jesus, that people are free to repent, want to repent, are eager to repent – and to repent means to change (metanoia), to change our minds and our ways, our attitudes and our beliefs, everything that hinders us from living fully in God's arms, everything that prevents us from receiving, trusting, and resting confidently in the goodness of God. God's covenant still stands, and in Jesus Christ is now embodied, enfleshed before our very eyes, so that there's no mistaking, no missing the point that God has always wanted us to know. Just in case you haven't noticed the rainbow lately, then look to the sign that Jesus' message and his life signify.
As we enter the season of Lent, it's easy to see all the soul-searching and navel-gazing and whatever sacrificial acts we might do as a way for us to curry favor with God. As if we have to identify every sin, clean up our lives, as it were, in order to receive God's forgiveness. It doesn't work that way. It's the other way around; turn it around. Because of God's faithfulness and forgiveness already given through Jesus Christ, we are free to see our sins, shadows, and demons, our brokenness and our waywardness as they are and to give them up and over to God with no fear of being abandoned or left outside the bounds of the covenant. We are free to repent – metanoia – to change. God doesn't ask us to change in order for us to be loved and accepted. In God's love, within the context of the covenant, we find ourselves changed and changing.
Because the covenant stands secure, God's goodness and good news have come in the flesh, we are free to move closer to God without fear; because the covenant stands secure, we are free to move closer toward one another without fear, reaching out in love; and because God's good news has already come, we are free to go down and in our hearts, without fear, to the deepest recesses of our soul that have never seen the light of day (or least in a long very long time) and welcome there the love of Christ. Because the covenant stands firm, we can face our fears and we can identify and name the things that hinder us from receiving, trusting, and resting confidently in the goodness of God. And when we do, we will find ourselves changed and being changed – for the glory and joy of God, the God of the rainbow.
1.God is also trying to convince Noah. Robert Alter notes that with v. 12, "this is the first instance of a common convenient of biblical narrative: when a speaker addressed someone and the formula for introducing speech is repeated with no intervening response from the interlocutor, it generally indicates some sort of significant silence – a failure to comprehend, a resistance to the speaker's words, and so forth (cf. Judges 8: 23-24). Here, God first flatly states His promise never to destroy the world again. The flood-battered Noah evidently needs further assurance, so God goes on, with a second formula for introducing speech, to offer the rainbow as an outward token of His covenant. The third occurrence of [this] formula, at the beginning of verse 17, introduces a confirming summary of the rainbow as the sign of the covenant." The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004), 51.
2.Walter Brueggemann, Genesis – Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 83-87.
3.This is particularly true in the mystical spirituality of the Kabbalah.
4.George Mendenhall, The Tenth Generation (1973), cited by Brueggemann, 84.
5.Cf. the quote from the worship bulletin: "Repentance is not placed first, as some ignorantly suppose; as if it were the ground of the forgiveness of sins, or as if it induced God to begin to be gracious to us; but [we] are commanded to repent, that [we] may receive the reconciliation which is offered to [us]. Institutes of the Christian Religion.