The Rainbow

Genesis 9:8-17
Mark 2:9-15

Many years ago, the clown Roly Bain came to this church to perform his presentation of the Christian story using clowning. When he offered prayers, he used a small pot of bubble mixture, and as he blew the bubbles he invited us to look at the bubbles and drew our attention to the rainbow within each bubble. He then reminded us of the story of Noah’s Ark – which everybody knows – and explains that when flood waters subsided, God put his sign in the sky, the sign of a rainbow. He offered some short prayers and invited us to attach our prayers to a bubble, and then said, very quietly and reverently, “when the bubble bursts, you know that your prayer is heard.” It was a powerful moment that electrified the congregation.

There’s something about rainbows. Perhaps it’s the historical link with our ancestors since the beginning of time, or perhaps it’s a feeling that as long as the rainbow is seen in our skies from time to time, God is still in charge of the world.

Yet, it does feel this week as if a bubble has burst, and the rainbow has lost some of its colour. Several people in this church have had particular associations with Oxfam since the first days of Oxfam in Farnham. Somehow many of us expect humanitarian charities to be squeaky clean, yet with thousands of staff, it’s inevitable that a few bad apples will be found from time to time. Looking beyond some of the more lurid and excitable tabloid headlines, it’s clear that some Oxfam staff did things, which are rightly condemned, but Oxfam rapidly parted company with them all and did not provide them with references. Even so, it’s clear Oxfam still has work to do on workplace behaviour, on safeguarding, and on charity reporting. Yet, the danger is that these failing will be used by those forces in our society that seek to stop overseas aid. It cannot be coincidence that these old issues at Oxfam emerged just after a tabloid newspaper petition to limit foreign aid. The Bible is very clear that all Christians have a duty to support the refugee, the stranger, the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, whether nearby or far away. If this serious difficulty in Oxfam were allowed to disrupt, limit, or even halt essential support to the poorest people in the world, it would be a victory for the forces of darkness.

The rainbow is a sign of light. As we heard in Genesis, the rainbow is a symbol of the covenant that God makes with Noah. God freely and generously makes a covenant with human beings, and asks nothing in return. This covenant is unconditional, and is a sign of God’s unconditional love for human beings. This covenant is not only with Noah, but is with all Noah’s descendants, and with every living creature. Since all human beings and all living creatures apart from those on the ark have just been destroyed in the flood, this covenant is therefore with the whole of creation and is for all time. God’s promise is that he will never again destroy the earth, even if we have a jolly good go ourselves, and his rainbow is a sign of that promise. Both God and human beings will remember God’s promise whenever they see the rainbow.

In ancient times the bow was a weapon and therefore an image of war, but in God’s hands the bow has been reversed and serves as an image of peace and a sign of God’s eternal promises. And since this passage was written around 500 years before Jesus was born, when the Israelites were suffering in exile in Babylon, the sign of the rainbow would be powerful and significant. Just when it seemed as though all hope was lost and the people had been deserted by God, when God saw his bow in the sky he would remember his covenant and the people would be able to go home. So, today the rainbow is still a symbol of hope in so many different contexts.

Shortly after God gave his covenant to Noah, things went horribly wrong. Noah’s first act upon reaching dry land again, was to build a vineyard and make his own wine. As everyone knows, home-made wine can be very potent, and after drinking his own wine, much to his son Ham’s horror, Noah was discovered naked in his tent in a drunken orgy. Ham told his brothers, Shem and Japheth, who discreetly walked backwards to avoid setting eyes on their naked father and draped a garment over Noah. But poor Ham, the father of Canaan, seems to have been the victim in this story, for when Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” This might explain why the Canaanites were later dispossessed, but we’re told that despite his failings, Noah went on to live for 950 years!

The Christian story has always been based around forgiveness. No matter what we have done, we can be forgiven by God and enabled to start over again. Is not forgiveness for Oxfam, in response to their obvious repentance, the only Christian thing to do, for the benefit of the world’s poorest people? Love and forgiveness has been brought to us by Jesus, who received his own sign at his baptism. We’re told that just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The dove is common to the story of Noah and the rainbow and to the story of Jesus’ baptism. On three occasions Noah released a dove and only knew that the waters had receded sufficiently to allow disembarkation from the ark when the dove failed to return. When Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descended upon Jesus, convincing Jesus of his vocation and effectively starting his ministry. The dove was a powerful sign for Jesus, and the rainbow remains a powerful sign for us today. Whenever we see a rainbow we can not only remark upon its beauty, but we can also know that God is alive and at work in the world, offering forgiveness to Oxfam, to our enemies, to you and to me.

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