Knitters have a special name for the act of unknitting rows of stitching; they call it “frogging” because you have to tell yourself to “rip it, rip it.” I frogged the knitting in this picture, turned it back into yarn, not because it was bad or riddled with mistakes, but because it was just Never Quite Right.
And I have to tell you, as I stood there frogging a sweater’s worth of stitching, rewinding about months of work, unraveling somewhere around 50,000 knits and purls, I thought: just imagine how God must’ve felt when he turned on the rain. My disappointment in a sweater gone wrong, my frustration at frogging all those weeks of effort, the feeling of futility and even loss as I watched it unfurl, stitch by stitch—all that sadness was a drop in the bucket, a single molecule of H2O, compared to the flood of sorrow God must’ve felt over his creation when he decided it was necessary to let the clouds roll in.
Once the rain starts, back in Genesis 7, we don’t hear much from God for those 40 days and nights. I can’t help but wonder what the Creator was feeling during those drenched days, watching his beloved, flawed creation “unravel.” We don’t get to hear about God’s disappointment, or frustration, or any sense of futility or loss as the waters rose. God closes the door of the ark behind Noah’s family and all the menagerie, and the rain starts. 40 days and nights, until even the mountains were underwater, and every living thing except those huddled safely on the ark, perished. The waters stayed on the earth for 150 days–that’s 5 long, soggy months–before God comes back into the story, in chapter 8 verse 1, which tell us that “God remembered Noah,” and caused the clouds to part, the waters to begin to subside. Then the story is Noah’s again, as the ark bumps up against Mount Ararat, and the series of doves are sent out, and–if I calculated the biblical math correctly–after more than a year’s time, the earth is dry.
And then, in that calm after the storm, God has something to say to his remnant–the small band of folk and flock who will be knitted together into a renewed creation. God doesn’t pat them on the back for their fortitude on the boat, doesn’t praise them as the only people worthy of the ride. Rather, God simply calls them off of the ship and into their new home, and gives them a command that is reminiscent of the Garden of Eden: “be fruitful and multiply.”
Then God’s divine nose caught the scent of the aromas drifting up from Noah’s altar of praise. And at the end of chapter 8 we get to eavesdrop on God’s talking to himself, we hear God mulling over the damp, bedraggled ball of yarn, the frogged remains of that once-perfect paradise he had so painstakingly created, word by word. This is what God said to himself, in verse 21: “I will never again curse the ground on account of humanity… and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done.”
The passage we read this evening is a very familiar one, and it’s a comforting conclusion to a story we’ve all heard again and again. But the Noah story, laden with details of death and destruction, is hardly the sweet nursery-room children’s tale we often tell. This rainbow-promise also is unusual in its own way: here, God makes a remarkable promise to ark’s inhabitants, to their descendants, and to all creation: never again will he use his limitless powers to destroy the world by flood, never again use that watery force to wipe clean the messy slate of humanness. It’s here, in this passage, that the Hebrew word berit is first used in the Bible. It means “covenant,” and appears often throughout the Old Testament, where God makes a mutual, binding, even legal pact with his people. But this particular covenant is not only with Noah, or his family, or even humankind; in verse 12, God says it’s a berit “between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all successive generations,” and in verse 13 the covenant relationship is broadened even further, “between Me and the earth.” This special covenant is between God and all creation!
Traditionally, the berit is not just a promise, but an agreement between parties, where each has responsibilities to fulfill, and the vow hinges on each person upholding their part of the promise. But here, on the side of the mountain, under the curve of the rainbow, God changes the rules of the berit, and makes a one-sided covenant. This berit is God’s alone. God commits never again to unleash the waters of destruction upon creation, and it’s no bargain, no negotiation. There’s no requirement placed upon Noah, or the descendants, or the creatures; there’s nothing they have to live up to to keep the agreement valid. Because there’s nothing Noah, or the creatures, or the earth, or we can do to save humanity or to bring the earth back into right relationship with the Creator. That power, and that promise, are God’s alone.
And God remembers his promise. Wants to remember, and needs to be reminded. One commentary I read on this text suggested that the rainbow is like a string tied around God’s divine finger! When God set his bow in the sky–the word “bow” actually refers to the Hebrew bow of war, the weapon repurposed here as a symbol of love–God set the rainbow in place not so much to remind us of the covenant, but to remind himself. Hear again verses 14-16:
It shall come about, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow will be seen in the cloud, and I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and never again shall the water become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the cloud, then I will look upon it, to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.
Lent is a season of remembrance. When we take on lenten practices, they become strings around our fingers, reminding us, even in our most inconsequential choices, of the temptations and the sacrifices of the Savior. I’ve felt the tug of those strings several times this past week… when I make my grocery lists, and when I make a Starbucks stop, and when I sit down at the computer and use the keyboard as an instrument for prayer. In Lent, we choose to cast off on a journey of sacrifice, and it forces us to set our sights on the One who gave us our ark-building plans; when the waves crash around us, we more clearly remember all God’s promises, and we stand upon them even when “the howling storms of doubt and fear assail.” In Lent we remember “in whom we have believed”–in an ever-loving Creator, who is with us in these 40 days as he was with Noah during the downpour, and with Jesus in the wilderness. And in Lent, we remember how God has continually transformed articles of destruction into images of love. The bow of war becomes the rainbow sign. The floods that destroyed the earth become the waters of baptism. And a terrible tool of execution becomes the cross of Christ, the Promised One, who is the ultimate fulfillment of God’s eternal covenant–the final restoration that only God could provide.
Let us pray:
God of the many waters, even when we do not understand your plans, we trust in your instructions, your power over the storm, and your abiding love. From the flood of our fears, and from the wilderness of our temptations, only you can redeem us. Only your own sacrifice saves us. Remember us, O God; hold us in the palm of your hand; and bring us together again to sing your wondrous story. Amen.
HEAR THE SONG
Glorious version from the Royal Albert Hall, London. Contemporary setting by Leo & Meagan Flores. Classic instrumental on an 1897 reed organ. And you can learn to play it on guitar with Army chaplain Mark Morgan.