In the Beginning… Rainbow and Baptism

Genesis 7:1-5, 7:17-18, 8:1-3, 9:12-16 

Today is a good day, a very good day, because today I get to baptize a special 21-year-old man in a local river.  I feel the Holy Spirit at work every time I baptize someone.  An important part of that for me has been the liturgy:  the traditional questions and answers, promises and prayers we say before a baptism.  As I’ve repeated that language over and over as a pastor, these words have made me ask:  What is it about baptism?  What is it about water?  What is God doing here? 

During worship we’ll say some of these words together.  Later today I’ll finish them when I wade into the waters of the East LaPorte river with my friend, Joe, and pray the prayer the Church has prayed over baptismal candidates for centuries:

            Eternal Father:

            When nothing existed but chaos,

            You swept across the dark waters

            And brought forth light.

(We’ve been talking about that, remember?  How “in the beginning” God brought order to chaos and light to darkness?)

            In the days of Noah

            You saved those on the ark through water.

            After the flood you set in the clouds a rainbow.

The prayer goes on from there, remembering other ways in which God worked through water… but often my mind stops here, even as my mouth moves on. 

When I remember how God worked through that flood – I feel conflicted. 

I didn’t always.  When I learned this story as a kid in Sunday School it seemed innocent and happy.  We attached felt animals – in pairs! – to a big picture of the ark hanging on a wall. 

There was even a cutsey song to go along with it:  The Lord said to Noah, there’s gonna be a floody, floody… Get those children out of the muddy, muddy!

But as I grew up, this story felt… less cute.  It felt more like… a natural disaster.  My mental image of an ark filled with felt animals was replaced with images like this…

The 2004 floods hit Haywood County shortly after I moved to the area.  I didn’t know mountain towns could flood – but they can, and it’s devastating.  And you know that even if you haven’t lived here that long, because last year we saw this:

Some of our church members visited the Cruso / Clyde / Canton area not long after Tropical Storm Fred washed through.  We mourned the loss of six lives.  I was shocked the first morning I drove in:  traffic stops in place to discourage looters, cars wrapped around trees by the force of the water, houses moved from one lot to another, the strangeness of seeing people’s personal items hanging and scattered everywhere.  In this picture, the newly-renovated Pisgah Field is underwater.

Which reminds me of another sports arena devastated by a flood.  Do you remember?

The world watched as Hurricane Katrina annihilated New Orleans.  1,800 lives were lost.  This NFL stadium that had hosted Superbowls became the “shelter of last resort” for 16,000 people. 

This is what a flood looks like.  I can’t erase images like these – these, and worse. 

In the days of Noah

            You saved those on the ark through water.

            After the flood you set in the clouds a rainbow.

As I pray these words before a baptism, I think about God saved Noah on the ark… but I also think about the 6 people in Haywood County, the 1,800 people in New Orleans.  What about them?

Some people had an answer for Hurricane Katrina.  I heard it; maybe you heard it, too.  It was something like:  “God punished them.  God saw their wickedness like God saw the wickedness of Noah’s day.  This is what happens – they got what they deserved!”

We humans have an unfortunate hunger for seeing people get what they deserve.  Folks said this kind of talk like they were sad – “Oh, if only New Orleans had repented of its wicked ways!” – but there was also a kind of satisfaction in this talk.  Something that implied, “We weren’t flooded because we’re not like them.”

Aren’t we? 

In Noah’s day, God is grieved by the wickedness of humanity – so God chooses to start over, to wipe it all out and the sin along with it.  The flood is supposed to be a solution to the wickedness.  But it’s not; in the end, after everything has been washed away and all that’s left is the one that God hand-picked, Noah – God looks at Noah and his family and says, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth…”

God sees that although God has wiped out all but the most righteous of humans, the wickedness is not wiped out – it’s in Noah, too.  (In fact, one of the first things Noah will do will be to grow a vineyard, make wine, and get fall-down drunk.  Read it for yourself in Genesis 9.) 

And don’t you feel the truth of this?  I do!  There is a lot of good in me – God created me good, and the Holy Spirit is making me good.  But there is also a wickedness that I haven’t been able to completely wipe out.  The only way to get rid of it might be to wipe me out altogether – and I don’t want that!

God doesn’t want that, either. 

This, for me, is where the story of the flood gets powerful – if we’re willing to look beyond the two dimensional version of the story and confront the gritty, real-life truth.  It’s a story about the seriousness of wickedness and how God desires to rid the world of evil.  It’s also a story that tells us that God puts limits on how evil will be addressed.  It ends with God saying, “In order to eliminate evil completely I’d have to eliminate these humans – and I’m not going to do that.  Instead, I’m going to make you a covenant, a forever-promise:  this will not happen again.”

            After the flood you set in the clouds a rainbow

The solution to our wickedness will not be our destruction.

In the fullness of time you sent Jesus, nurtured by the water of a womb.

Instead, the solution to our wickedness will come through one perfectly righteous man. 

            He was baptized by John and anointed by your Spirit.

This righteous one would be destroyed for the unrighteous all.  This righteous one would be destroyed – so that evil’s hold over us could be destroyed with him. 

He called his disciples

            To share in the baptism of his death and resurrection

The rainbow is a reminder that God will not wipe out evil with water in the form of a violent flood.  Instead, it’s the gentle water of grace:

            Pour out your Holy Spirit

            To bless this gift of water and those who receive it

            To wash away their sin

            And clothe them in righteousness

                        Throughout their lives

            That, dying and being raised with Christ

            They may share in his final victory.

Amen.

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