Friday, February 24, 2012
February 26: Lent 1, The Signs of God, part 1, The Sign of the Rainbow
Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-9, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-13
This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature this is with you, for all future generations: I set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
Is there a God? The answer to that question is that we believe so, but we have no proof, and the Christian faith does not offer any proofs of God. What it offers is signs of God. The difference is subtle but important. Not proofs of God but signs of God. For proofs you can sit back in your chair and be a judge. For signs you have to get up and move to where the signs are pointing you. Proofs conclude and signs suggest.
Actually, though, in my experience, the question of whether there is a god is relatively infrequent. Most people seem to believe there is, of some sort or other, and the ones who don’t have usually thought it through. The much more frequent question is whether God is personal. Is God a personal God? Do the signs of God direct us to a God who is a personal God?
I usually answer Yes, because the God of Judaism and Christianity is a God who talks like a person, saying such things as “I am, I choose, I desire, I make,” and most importantly, “I love.” But actually the Bible never says it quite that way, that God is personal. It’s partly because of historic terminology. We use the word “personal” in modern terms and its current meaning has connotations from psychology and anthropology and law, which connotations cannot capture God. So it’s better to say that God gets personal with us. It’s better to say that God gets personal, if we also say that God’s getting personal is true to God’s truest self, and not just an act on our behalf.
(Note: When historic Christianity uses the word "person" for God, it's classically in the Trinitarian sense of one of the three persons of the Trinity.)
If God gets personal, and if God says, “I desire” and “I make,” then we should expect the signs of God to be signs of God’s initiative and God’s design, of God’s intentions and of God’s devices and desires. One of those signs is Holy Baptism, which we will celebrate today. Baptism is a sign that God gets personal with a little girl named Josephine. More on this later. For now let’s look at the sign of the rainbow, from Genesis. The sign is given to Noah — to Noah as the pastor of the congregation of the animals, to Noah as the high priest of the creatures of the earth. God selected the rainbow to be a sign of something new. A sign is a sign when it has meaning in itself and it also points to something beyond itself. So what does the rainbow mean and what does it point to? We can skip all the lovely speculations from tradition on the significance of the colors, because what’s mentioned in the text is not the color but the shape.
What God says is very clear: “I have set my bow in the clouds.” To “set your bow” has the specific meaning of an archery bow, a bow-and-arrow bow, loaded and stretched and ready to be shot. The stretching pulls the shape of the bow into a curve, and the curvature is convex to the target of the arrow. So if you imagine that God has set a bow in the clouds, then the imaginary arrow which is set into the bow is pointed up into the sky. God points the arrow back at God’s own self. The target of the arrow is the archer of the arrow. God is saying, “Cross my heart and hope to die, if I don’t keep my promise to the earth.”
How far can we go with this? Can we go all the way to Good Friday and the crucifixion of God’s Son? Is that when God let the arrow go and when God shot Godself, the dearest person of God who was hanging like a target on a tree? The arrow shoots across the seven weeks of Lent, the arrow points us to the road that we must take each year, the road to Jerusalem, our annual inner pilgrimage of our imaginations. That is the end of the road that we have started on today, this first Sunday on the seven weeks of Lent, our Emerald City and our fiery Cracks of Doom.
That’s where our gospel lessons will lead us in these next few weeks of Lent, following Jesus down this road. And the signs along this road are the signs which we will be reading from the Old Testament, the signs he read himself from the Torah and the Prophets, the signs that told him where to go, the signs that pointed him to God as well as to himself. These signs were personal to him. The sign of the rainbow was very personal to him, as it was personal from God.
If the sign of the rainbow is the sign of a bow and arrow pointed back at God, then it has many implications. It means, for one, that God commits, that God commits Godself. It means God says, “I take this on,” it means God says, “I’m in.”
Allow me that old joke, that when it comes to a breakfast of eggs and bacon, the difference between the chicken and the pig is that chicken invests but the pig is committed. God was like the chicken before the Flood of Noah’s ark, God had created a world and invested in it and appointed managers. When the managers bankrupted it, God wrote it off and sent the Flood to clean it all away. But after the Flood, God promises to be the pig. God commits. God says, “I’m in this now, I will enter it and be part of it, and I will see it through and win it back no matter what the cost, I swear it, even if it means the death of me.” And yes, that’s right, “a pig’s a dirty animal.” What kind of God is this?
The sign of the rainbow is also the sign that God takes personal responsibility for all the sin and suffering and misery of the world. Not that God is the one who is guilty or at fault, but like a newly elected president has to assume responsibility for all the mess her predecessor made, so God accepts responsibility for the evil that we human beings have let loose in the world. “Okay, I’ll take the blame, but I will also take the credit for what I do to deal with it.”
That’s a credit we human beings don’t like so much to give, because of our collective self-regard. But the Christian conviction is that if you are asking the question of whether there is a God or not, or whether God is personal or not, you cannot solve the question abstractly or objectively. You have to travel subjectively and personally through the signs of loss and grief and anger and evil and salvation. You have to consider that the signs of God look self-defeating. The foolishness of God.
The sign of the rainbow is that God gets shot with the arrow on our behalf. This feels like mythology, and maybe the myths are the expression of human efforts to explore the moral structure of world of God’s design. But as certainly as our prehistoric ancestors learned to make fire, so they learned that evil makes its victims, and they recognized that to rectify the evil seems to require the cost of sacrifice. And the sign of the rainbow tells us that God will be the victim of the sacrifice, to free us from the claim and power of the evil we have let loose in the world.
The sign of baptism is that the virtue of God’s sacrifice is applied to us. Not mythologically, not by some abstract mathematics of cosmic spirituality, which was the belief of the ancient Greeks and as well as many modern Hindus and Christians, but actively and personally, by God, by God’s Holy Spirit, as a living act of love. The sign of the water upon the head of Josephine is the sign that a living active God applies to Josephine those very strange things that God has done in human history to deal with the realities of human history.
The sign of baptism is the sign that God gets personal with Josephine. That’s the meaning of the exchange of names. I will ask the parents what her name is. That’s personal. In response I will announce the name of God, the personal name of God, the persons of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. When we put God’s name on her, that means that from now on this God is known as the God of Noah and of Abraham and of Jesus and of Josephine. Which God do we believe in? Well, one of the signs of God points us to the God of Josephine India Pope.
The signs of baptism and the rainbow are that God binds Godself to us. God says I’m with you and you’re with me. I will be your Noah from now on, and you will be my animals. We are the animals on the ark. You can be chickens; I’m a pig. Look, here comes baby Josephine, carried by her parents up the plank and through the door. The dogs run up to greet her. The elephants nuzzle her. Her mother puts her down to sleep between the lion and the lamb. It’s a lovely picture, even a little sentimental. It’s meant to be a sign that this God gets so personal as to love us.
Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.