The story of the rainbow is a curious reading for the first Sunday in Lent. We are at the beginning of the most somber season of the church year, a time set aside for reflection and repentance, for fasting and self-denial.

We began the service today with the Great Litany, a long and sobering list of all our sins, individual and collective. This is the season where there are no flowers on the altar, no alleluias in our songs and prayers.

And so it seems odd that in this somber and bleak season, the first bit of scripture we hear is a story of hope, the story of the rainbow. 

It seemingly would be more in keeping with the season to hear these words from Genesis: “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt.

“And God said to Noah, ‘I have been determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.’

“And God blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. And the waters swelled on the earth for 150 days.”

Now that is a Lenten story.

But instead, we hear what amounts to an apology from God for the flood, and a promise that God will never again wreak such destruction upon the earth.

“I am establishing my covenant with  you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you,” God says to Noah. “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.”

There will still be death and destruction. Evil has not been eradicated from creation. But God promises the death and destruction will not come from God’s hand.

This covenant, this promise from God, has no strings attached. It is irrevocable, not dependent on human actions. This is a pledge to creation by the Creator. In an act of amazing graciousness and love, God commits to the creatures who have made no commitments.

And then, to make sure that this promise is not forgotten, God gives us a sign. “I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth, “ God says. “When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant.”

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann notes that the rainbow is not to be seen in some romantic way, like the illustration on a Hallmark greeting card. Rather, he says, the rainbow is an allusion to bows and arrows, weapons of war, hostility, and destruction.

That the bow is suspended in the sky, Brueggemann says, “means that God has made a gesture of disarmament, has hung up the primary weapon, and now has no intention of being an aggressor or adversary.

“The demobilized weapon of God is a gesture of peace and reconciliation. God intends to be at peace with God’s world, recalcitrant though it has been.”

The rainbow is more than a sign to us; it is also a reminder to God of the promises God has made.

“The bow is not first a message to humanity,” Brueggemann says. “It is rather an elemental reminder to God to be faithful and everlasting, as God has promised to be. The bow is not simply decorative. It is crucial in getting God to act on the basis of God’s best self, pledged as God is to the covenant.”

The rainbow also reminds exiles and the survivors of floods and destruction that God’s graciousness is sure. 

In this season when we are instructed to reflect on our own sins, and to seek forgiveness, we are first reminded that no matter how sinful we are, no matter how much evil abounds on earth, God’s promise of grace and faithfulness is still there.

And sometimes it does seem that God hangs the bow in the clouds at times when a reminder is needed that God’s faithfulness outweighs and outlasts human sinfulness.

I would guess that many of us can remember specific rainbows we’ve seen over the years. I remember a double rainbow I saw over Yellowstone many years ago. 

\ There was a very vivid rainbow over I-75 during the pandemic, when I was driving home after a visit with my parents in Chattanooga. A few years ago on the Blue Ridge Parkway I experienced an unusual and rare one called a Brocken Spectre, a compact rainbow that had my shadow in the middle of it, and moved as I moved.

But the most memorable and dramatic rainbow I’ve seen was many years ago along the Mekong River, which forms the border between Laos and Thailand.

There was a time when the river was bustling with trade and commerce. People crossed back and forth freely to shop, sell their goods, visit friends and family. No passports were needed, no guards barred entry.

Some people even lived in one country and worked in the other, commuting daily back and forth across the river.

But when I was there, only a few years after the Vietnam War, the days of free passage across the river were gone. The waters were empty and quiet, and soldiers armed with machine guns patrolled the shores of both sides. 

Those on the Laotian side were trying to prevent refugees from leaving. Those on the Thai side were trying to prevent them from entering. 

But even armed guards could not stop people from fleeing from war-stricken Laos into Thailand.

Those who did make it across were usually captured by Thai soldiers and put into refugee camps, including one that overlooked the very river they had crossed hoping for freedom.

It is a strange feeling to stand on the banks of a river looking across to the opposite shore, knowing you cannot go there. Think of going down the street to the Chattahoochee, and being unable to cross over into Cobb County.

The land on either side of the river looks the same. The people who live in that land look the same. They even speak the same language. And yet crossing the river meant risking being arrested or killed.

The Mekong River had become a symbol of danger, death, and despair. This river, created by God, had become a symbol of humans’ inability to live together as God intends us to live.

I was with a group of travelers who had spent the day in the refugee camp, talking to those who lived there, hearing their stories and feeling their despair.

When we left the camp we climbed into the back of a pickup truck and drove through softly falling rain along a winding road that paralleled the river. The things we had seen that day depressed us, and we were quiet and reflective on the journey.

And then I gasped in surprise and pointed at the river ahead of us. There through the clouds was a rainbow.

Not just an ordinary rainbow, but a perfect, 180 degree arc of color – stretching from the ground in Laos, over the Mekong River, not ending until it touched the ground in Thailand, spanning the river that was uncrossable for so many.

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between you and me and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and ever living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”


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