While it strays from the traditional lectionary readings I believe Noah’s story is fitting for today’s celebration of Epiphany. If you are unfamiliar with this traditional Christian holiday the best way to describe it is to say it commemorates the Magi arriving in Bethlehem.
By definition, the word epiphany means “manifestation” or “revelation.” It comes from the Greek word Epiphania, which means, “to show, make known, or reveal.” With the bright star in the night sky God drew the attention of the Magi who would discover God's divine revelation lying in a manger.
God also reveal something in the sky to Noah. To show his covenant promise to us, God bends the colors of the heavens into a rainbow. Through this beautiful and colorful sign, God reveals a profound promise that he will no longer cleanse the sins of world by destroying every human life. Be it from a rainbow in the day or a bright star at night God constantly draws our attention to the great revelations of his wonderful works.
I believe we've all had an epiphany...at least once in life. Perhaps it was in church, or at a retreat. Maybe in a therapist's office, or in the first step of a 12-step meeting. You might be the kind of person who had yours in a bar. Or behind bars in the county jail. Epiphanies have come in examination rooms, hospital rooms... and, yes, even in the bathroom at my parent’s house.
Just off their kitchen, my parents have a small half bathroom. It's adorned with all sorts of art work....or should I say "ark" work. There are drawings, paintings and watercolors of Noah's ark. And all sorts of statues with animals walking two-by-two towards a wooden ship perched atop a mountain. Then there are the soap dispensers, towels, bathmats, numerous knick-knacks, and of course a Christmas tree... all depicting, in one form or another, the giant ark, the animals, and the great flood. Present in each one is a rainbow.
Years ago, a small child exited this very bathroom and asked my mom if she had lived on Noah’s Ark. In her lovely southern voice she replied, “Oh heavens, no.” Without missing a beat, the boy shot back, “Then how did you survive the flood?”
Now I have been in this bathroom hundreds of times. But it wasn’t until this recent trip that I noticed the two words weaved into a gigantic tapestry that hangs on the wall...like the holy centerpiece in this Noah shrine.
Those two words are: “Promises kept.”
This was my great epiphany! God spoke this wonderful truth years ago, but it would take this particular trip to my parents house, and to this particular throne...for me to realize it. Promises kept! What this reveals to me is that God keeps his word, even if we fail to notice. His promises are true.
I don't know about you, but I can't recall another great flood that has killed off the human race to rid the world of sin. Instead, God kept his promise by sending his Son, whose blood has cleansed us all. In short, Jesus’ blood is new covenant of our salvation. He is the great promise God made with the world, thousands of years before the Magi rolled up to his Bethlehem crib.
Making covenants is nothing new to God. In fact, there are three distinct covenants God made with humans, which are so important to the story of Christ that they are the first three great stories in the bible. In Genesis 1-4, God makes his first covenant with Adam; entrusting dominion over all the earth to the care of human beings. Next, in Genesis 5-11, God makes the Noah covenant. And then from Genesis 12 - onward, God reveals a covenant with Abraham through whom a great and holy nation is created from an aging and barren old couple. Covenants with Moses and David would follow.
The bible goes on to tell story after story of how Israel would both test and betray God's covenants. Yet time and time again God remained faithful to them, steadfast in his love and righteous in his judgment and mercy. In spite of their personal problems, Israel's ancestors knew they could call on God, and rely on his strength. Why? Because God’s promises are never broken.
We too can rely on God because of the covenant God made with us in Jesus. No matter how much we put God to the test grace and mercy abounds. We can always rely on God, even if God cannot always rely on us. God's covenant grace is the distinguishing mark we receive for following Christ. And it's also the mark of covenant people like us who belong to the Congregational Way. Both tie us to God. But one is conditional...and the other is unconditional.
A conditional covenant is an agreement in which two parties agree to fulfill certain conditions, and if either fails to meet their responsibilities, the covenant is broken. For example, as members of this church each of us has promised support through worship, tithes, prayer and sharing the workload of church governance. If one of us should fail to uphold these conditions, then the covenant is broken and our church community becomes weaker. We have conditions that bind us together.
An unconditional covenant is different in that it is an agreement between two parties, but only one of the two parties has to do something. Nothing is required of the other party. The covenant of grace God makes with us through Christ requires nothing from us but our desire to be a recipient of this blessed gift of grace and salvation. Since God’s love is unconditional, there is nothing we can do to earn it or to cause God to break it. This is why we can always rely on God even when God can't always rely on us.
As the psalmist wrote, because God keeps his promise made to our ancestors, we are able to cry out in our pain and suffering, knowing God will hear our cries. When it feels like the world is ganging up us, we can turn to God knowing we will find refuge. When we find ourselves on shaky ground, we can stand on God, the rock of our foundation.
God will never deny us, never turn away, reject or hurt us all because of God’s love is unconditional, whether we know it or not. All we have to do is accept God’s love with an open and willing heart. Promises kept. This is the new covenant, made for us, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Rachel Held Evens reminds us that Adam taught, “we cannot become like God." But through a small and helpless baby "God became one of us.” Through Christ, God entered our brokenness, and showed us “how to heal instead of how to kill, how to mend instead of destroy, how to love instead of hate, how to live fully instead of longing for more. Even when we nailed God to a cross, God forgave us. Or when we buried God in the ground, God simply got up” and came back to us, to eat and to walk with us, and to lead us towards our salvation. God keeps his promises, even if we don’t.
So when God says, “Come follow me” we must follow without hesitation. When God says, “Do not fear for I am with you” we must be brave and remember God’s word is true. When God says eat of this bread and drink from this cup, we come and gather at God’s table of blessing with great certainty knowing we are God’s beloved, washed clean in the everlasting grace of Jesus Christ.
(Move towards communion table)
The Bible, NRSV. Gen 9:8-15; Psalm 61.
Evens, Rachel Held. Searching for Sunday: loving, leaving, and finding the church. Nelson Books: Nashville, 2015. pp. 45-46.