The God Who Makes Promises

A sermon by Rev. G. Lynn Turner, Senior Associate Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
February 26, 2012

The First Sunday of Lent

Genesis 9:8-17

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t smile and get excited when they see a rainbow, do you?  That beautiful display of colors in the sky just makes us stop and marvel at this wonder of God.  And it’s always arrayed in the same order, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. 

I had a gentleman stop me in the hall after the eight-thirty service and he said, “ROY G BIV.”  I said, “What?”  “ROY G BIV, that’s how I teach it to my physics students. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. ”

But I imagine every time you see a rainbow you are not thinking of the physics of it.  You’re not thinking about the millions of water droplets that are dangling in the air and the clouds that have rolled back for the sun to shine just right so we get that brilliant array of colors.  I imagine you, like me, are thinking once again of a God who makes and keeps promises. 

There was a pastor who was flying with his four year old daughter and they were encountering a severe thunderstorm on the flight, and the pilot came over the intercom and he said they were going to go to a higher altitude to fly over the storm.  Soon they saw the black, dark clouds beneath them and the lightning darting through those clouds and above them the sun shining in all its glory.  And the pastor said, “We beheld a wondrous sight at that moment.  A glorious rainbow stretching from horizon to horizon in the shape of a perfect circle, the rainbow as a multi-colored halo was a spectacle to behold.”  His daughter was the most thrilled with what she saw and her enthusiasm could not constrain her any longer and she cried out, “Daddy, Daddy, look, it’s a rainbow and we’re seeing it from the same side that God sees it!” 

Seeing this rainbow as God sees it is what we’re going to talk about this morning.  Our pastor is preaching a series during this Lenten season called “The God Who Makes Promises,” and so on this first Sunday of Lent we begin with the first covenant promise in scripture.  It’s found in Genesis chapter nine.  I would invite you to turn there with me in your Bible as we read together verses eight through seventeen.  Genesis chapter nine verses eight through seventeen.

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth. I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”

So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”  

This covenant of the rainbow is not just a happy ending to a very horrible story.  It is actually a covenant that comes from the very heart of God, and to truly grasp the meaning of this promise of God you’ve got to go back and understand what happened before the covenant was made before the flood.  Because Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the garden, sin entered into the world and we became separated from God.  And God’s story of redemption began at that moment. 

So, from the fall of man in Genesis chapter three to chapter six we read these words, perhaps some of the saddest words in scripture, from Genesis six verse five.  The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart were only evil all the time.  The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.  So the Lord said, “I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth, men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air, for I am grieved that I have made them.” 

Very sad that God would say, “For I am grieved that I have made them,” and I wonder does it ever occur to us that today our sinful actions or our indifferences grieve the very heart of God?  But God found a righteous man, named Noah, who had found favor in his sight and he told him to build an ark.  And you need to keep in mind that Noah was six hundred years old when he built this ark.  And he told him to take his family and two of each animal on the ark and you know the rest of that story, which brings us to the point of this covenant today. 

There are several significant things that we don’t need to miss from the scripture.  First, God made us and desires for us to live in covenant with him, in fellowship with him. 

You’ll notice that the word covenant is used seven times in those verses that I read.  I think that in our culture today we have lost the meaning, the true meaning, of the word covenant.  The Lord did not establish a contract with Noah.  A contract is usually established for goods or services rendered and whether it’s a formal or informal contract it helps us specify the failure in those relationships.  But, a covenant is different.  A covenant is everlasting.  And this covenant with Noah is even different from the covenant that he will later establish with the people of Israel with Abraham and Moses leading all the way up to the new covenant in Jesus Christ.  And this covenant with Noah, it was initiated and it was dictated by God.  It was a covenant not just for Noah but for all generations to follow.  It was a universal covenant.  It included all flesh, all living creatures.  It was unconditional. 

Some covenants were contingent upon both parties carrying out certain stipulations such as in the case of Moses when God says, “I my people will obey my law then I will send my blessing.”  But the covenant with Noah was that God would give regularity to the seasons and never again destroy the earth by flood, not because of anything that human beings would do but just because God promised it.  And the sign of this covenant would be a rainbow. 

Every covenant God made had a sign, with Abraham it was circumcision, with Moses it was the observance of the Lord’s Sabbath day.  There was always a sign to represent the covenant. 

So what do we do with this covenant of the rainbow, this promise of God as we enter this Lenten season? 

I found it most interesting as I was reading and re-reading the scripture this week that I was always come back to verse sixteen.  Verse sixteen says that, “Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.” 

And I thought to myself, God is omniscient.  He is all knowing.  He doesn’t need to remember anything, but we do.  And what brought me great comfort out of that verse was when God said, “Every time I see a rainbow, I will remember.”  And to think that every time we see a rainbow God is thinking of us and that covenant relationship that he has made for us gives me comfort and great hope in the faithfulness of God.  And for Noah it must have brought great comfort. 

Think about it, up until this point, Noah had only seen rain one time and that was very scary.  It was God bringing judgment upon the world so God is reassuring Noah that it will never happen again and the proof is the rainbow, the sign of my covenant promise with you and a sign that when I see it God says, “I will remember.” 

The rainbow is a sign of grace, mercy and faithfulness of God.  Every time we see a rainbow it represents the victory of grace over judgment.  We deserve the judgment, but God in his mercy hung up his bow, the symbol of war and judgment, and this time the bow had no string, no arrow.  It was pointing straight to heaven and in light of the true covenant that would come in Jesus Christ.  That sign of the new covenant would be the bread and the cup, that every time we partake of the Lord’s table we remember that his judgment has passed over us, that Christ has set us free, that he has given us grace. 

Tom Long in a sermon on grace describes it this way, “When the New Testament uses the English word grace it’s actually the translation of a Greek word “charis” which means gift.”  And this is the New Testament’s way of saying that at the very center of life, there is a God that is not a punitive judge or scolding parent but a God who gives gift after gift after gift. 

That is grace, and so when the New Testament talks about grace, it’s talking about the gifts that are from God at the heart of our lives.  But it’s also talking about more.  It’s talking about how our very relationship with God is a matter of grace.  It’s a matter of gift.  And if we had to stand before God on our own strength, on our own merit, on our own moral character, our, well I imagine none of us would be able to do it.  We are human beings and we are flawed and we are broken.  So we stand before God as a gift of God. 

What if on this first Sunday of Lent we stand before God today?  As flawed and as broken as we are but we stand before him as a gift and we offer ourselves to him as a gift given to a grieving father?  And we remind ourselves that we live under the covenant of God and that in that covenant God does not promise us that there would be no storms, but what God does promise us is that the storms will not destroy us. 

We’re reminded every time we see a rainbow in the sky that God’s promise of grace hovers over us through every storm in life that we will encounter.  Pain comes in waves; we are under his grace.  Grief threatens to overwhelm us, but we are under his grace.  Loneliness is about to drown us, but we are under his grace.  Stress and worry in our lives is stifling us, but we are under his grace. 

The rainbow is a sign of that grace, but during this time of lent maybe the more meaningful symbol might be the cross. 

There was a woman on May 12, 1993 who bought two slivers of an olive tree that was said to have come from the cross of Jesus and she paid eighteen thousand dollars for these two little slivers of wood at an auction in Paris.  Accompanying the two slivers of wood were two certificates from the Vatican issued way back in 1855 that apparently authenticated those slivers of wood.  Who know what this woman’s motive might have been in buying those two slivers of wood.  Maybe she had more money than she knew what to do with, but perhaps on the other hand she will take those pieces of wood and reverently mount them in her home and display them in some way we might display a precious stone.  Or maybe, just maybe she’s going through one of the toughest times, storms in her life and she will take those two little slivers of wood and put them in her pocket and touch them to remind her that God is near and what God has done on her behalf and the grace that is extended not matter what we’re going through. 

Over these next weeks of Lent we’re preparing ourselves for the remembrance of Christ’s death and the celebration of his resurrection, and truly what happen in those three days in Jerusalem more than two thousand years ago dwarfs even the rainbow that Noah saw in the sky that day.  And yet they are a part and parcel of the same story of God’s love for fallen humanity.  Both declared this mighty truth.  God is not interested in punishing humanity for its sin, but in saving humanity from that sin.

You and I need to hold onto that promise today.  It’s spelled out in John three seventeen, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.” 

This covenant making, grace giving God has offered us a promise to be faithful to us, to love us unconditionally, to offer us the grace that covers any sin that you and I may ever commit, but it’s even more than that.  He’s offering us a relationship with him, covenant relationship that will last forever.  And it’s a relationship that offers us hope. 

I’m using as a part of my devotional reading during Lent a book called, Surrender by Emily Griffin, and in it she recalls a poem that was written Gerard Manly Hopkins call The Wreck of the Deutschland.  It was a poem that was dealing with a disaster that completely shook and baffled this man, a poem that was dedicated to five Franciscan Nuns who lost their lives on Dec. 8, 1885 when the German ship Deutschland went down.  In the last line of this poem he writes “Let him,” meaning Christ, “Easter in us.”  And in this case, Easter was not a noun.  It was a verb, a nautical term meaning “to steer the craft toward s the east into the light.”  And he prays that, “Christ will easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us.” 

Christ will easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, and I thought what a prayer to begin this Lenten season, a season where we enter the dim, dark places of our souls with the light of Christ and the resurrection before us always with a promise that God is our security and that God is our hope because that’s been God’s intent since the beginning of time.  That’s what a rainbow in the sky means.  Every time you see it, give thanks.  God has made a covenant with you and with me. 

I don’t know where you are in your life today.  I don’t know the dimness that maybe covering your soul, but perhaps in this Lenten season we could all pray this prayer.  “Christ easter in me.  Turn me in the right direction facing the light of who you are.  Help me to shake the darkness, the heaviness of heart giving me hope that no matter how violent the storms may be there is always the promise of the rainbow to remind me of your grace.  Christ easter in me.”  

—Lynn Turner 2012

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