Our Limiting God

“This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and everything living around you and everyone living after you. I’m putting my rainbow in the clouds, a sign of the covenant between me and the Earth. From now on, when I form a cloud over the Earth and the rainbow appears in the cloud, I’ll remember my covenant between me and you and everything living, that never again will floodwaters destroy all life. When the rainbow appears in the cloud, I’ll see it and remember the eternal covenant between God and everything living, every last living creature on Earth.” – Genesis 9:12-16, The Message

We study a familiar story this week, but we skip the two-by-two part along with the rains come tumbling down section and head straight to what God promises creation after the floodwaters subside.  In Genesis 9, we find the first mention of a covenant in the Bible.

In the ancient near east, a covenant was an agreement between two groups.  Most always, this agreement was a promise made by a conquering kingdom to not destroy the conquered kingdom and even protect this people in exchange for access to the conquered’s resources and land.  The agreement is reciprocal but not equal:  We the conquering will not destroy you but will protect you as long as we have access to the resources that will make us greater.  There is clearly a have and a have-not.

What we see in the covenant promise that God makes to Noah’s family on behalf of all creation is different.  Clearly God is the powerful player in this scene.  God has just all but wiped out his creation, save for Noah’s family and the two-by-twos.  But as one scholar puts it, God appears to be just a little shocked at the display of his strength toward creation. Therefore, God makes a unique covenant, a one-sided covenant, with the people and animals that God delivered.  In doing so, he sets his bow down in the clouds, as a warrior would do when he has come home from battle.

This rainbow becomes a sign for God and a reminder that he will never destroy creation again.  The rainbow acts as a reminder to God.  I admit I’ve never given much thought to the rainbow being a reminder for God.  I’ve always seen it as a reassuring sign for creation.  Why does God need reminding?

Perhaps it is because when God promises to not destroy, God is limiting his ability to bring to an end to his creation.  And from time to time, humanity’s propensity to selfishness might just frustrate God enough to consider it again.  And why would God want to do this?  If we look back to Genesis 6:5, we read that God saw the wickedness that had overtaken all of creation  – that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only to evil continually.  And God is sorry about his creation – enough to blot them out; except there is Noah. So God saves the only family that found favor in his sight.  And God destroyed the rest!

We don’t spend much time on this part of the flood story, do we?  We love the faithfulness of Noah and the way God saves his family and all the animals.  Its safe.  We make it a children’s story and decorate nurseries with these images.  But the times leading up to the flood and the catastrophic flood are far from G-rated!  There are very adult themes here.  God was fed up with the evil in his creation’s heart.  Seems like the world was like Las Vegas, times ten!  Even God’s angels got into the mess, falling in love with women and impregnating them with giants!  Really?  Read Genesis 6:1-4.

To harken back to Adam and Eve’s original sin, it appears that the people of Noah’s day had no regard for God or his commands, which were created for the purpose of humanity’s flourishing.  People had their mind set on evil, day and night (6:5).  I take this to mean people did whatever made them feel good, putting their desire ahead of the good of the whole and the order that God had created.  Such disregard for God, the divine parent who cared so much for creation, was enough for any mortal to give up.  And for a moment, so the scripture says, so did God.

But there was Noah. God provided the necessary instructions for Noah’s family to survive.  They boarded a ship and the floods came.  But what about all those bent on evil?  What happened to them?  They got what they deserved, right?  Can you picture the hopeless struggle as the waters rush and rise?  Its not a pretty sight.  And now that Noah, his family and the animals had survived, God, fresh from his victory in battle, is ready to lay his weapon down for good.

What must it be like to be angry at creation?  Many of us have been angry at our children, sure.  But angry enough to kill?  Is this really the kind of God we read about in the rest of our Bible and worship?  Its hard to imagine.  But his wrath is right there in scripture. Is there more to this?

Since the beginning, civilizations have had their flood narratives.  What does one do when everything they know is wiped out by rushing water?  When lightening strikes from the sky?  Thunder rolls overhead?  We know a lot about the weather today (although not enough to control it or even predict it well).  But in ancient times, this was all mysterious and assigned to the anger of God.  Certainly, we know that sin is pervasive and at times almost irresistible to humanity.  Its can be enough for anyone (even a deity) to want to give up.

Recalling that much of the Torah was written down during the Babylonian exile, what might the homeless Israelites have thought of this story?  They believed their continual sin had carried them away into exile.  Might flood stories also be explained as righteous anger?

The beauty of God’s covenant is that, no matter the cause of the flood, we see God taking initiative to promise that no matter what evil may come in the future, God will not destroy, even though it may be tempting as evil can be so frustrating and hurtful.  But God is willing to be limited so that even when humanity turns to evil all the time (and I think we can admit it still happens) God will refuse to destroy.

With this in mind, I think the story can be more about who the LORD God is in contrast to those other near eastern gods.  Whatever resemblance God and the flood may have had in other flood stories, the covenanting God who limits his power out of love and compassion for creation is a far more compelling and, in the end, powerful.  It is also a foreshadowing of God’s final redemptive work through Jesus, as he limits himself all the more, taking the form of a human and denying any divine privilege. (Philippians 2)

What I take from this story is God does hate the state that sin leaves us in but loves us so much that he finds another way around the sin problem.  It wasn’t through destroying his wayward creation but being vulnerable enough to conquer the sin that would put Christ to death.

One last feature I noticed, with the help of others: God’s bow – the rainbow – is taut, as if strung and ready for action.  A bow that is strung will look more like the bending arch in the sky than one that is not loaded.  This could reflect that God is patient with his creation even though his patience is tense, full of pent up energy.  He’s laid his bow down but it doesn’t mean God is OK with the evil that remains in creation.  And because God was willing to suffer at the hands of evil, God knows all the better the terror that it inflicts on us.  Just look at the evil that leads one teenager to kill so many other innocents this week.  And even how we are becoming so used to it.  So, no.  God isn’t OK with the evil that woos us.  So, just as the rainbow is a reminder to God that he will never destroy his creation for even this, the strung, tense bow should also be a reminder that God doesn’t take our sin lightly.  In righteous love, God has defeated evil through his incarnational sacrifice.  But in God’s righteous anger, God is still burdened by the sin that keeps us from fully knowing and seeing his love, this side of the kingdom.

Therefore, I believe that anyone who suffers for righteousness sake, who stands up for God’s creation in the face of evil can expect to suffer but also expect to be blessed.  (Beatitudes, Matthew 5)

  • How does our lesson speak to God’s radical love in the face of even the heartbreaking events of this week?
  • While God will not destroy us because of our sin, what might the taut roundness of the rainbow reveal about God’s attitude toward sin?
  • Following God’s example, should our attitude toward sin be different than our attitude to those who sin?  How does our attitude toward sin and sinners reflect that God’s Kingdom is available to all?



Honoring God or Self?

There is a paradox in life that seems to only be learned by experience.  Sometimes, the things we strive for the most are the things that in the end become our undoing.  Things we think are worthwhile or beneficial end up hurting us.  An example:  Many feel that the best gift they can give their family is security.  So they work hard, insuring that their work provides the best in life to their spouse and children.  All the while, what their children needed the most, what would have been the best gift, was mommy or daddy at home, spending time with them.  Harry Chapin’s song, Cats in the Cradle comes to mind.  I am sure you can think of other examples.

In our scripture for this week (I’d recommend using all of 2 Samuel 7:1-16), we find David, fresh off being established as the new King of Israel, in a moment of reflection.  And, like I am sure we’ve also done, he realizes how good he’s got it compared to others.  Except this time, the “other” is God!

Something should be done!  I’ve got to do something about this!  I’ve reacted this way in situations that I find inequitable.  I am sure the reader has an easy time identifying with David here.  What could be wrong about giving God a rightful home, when David finds himself so comfortable in his own?

Only God did not ask David for a home (2 Samuel 7:6-7).  Does David’s assumption looks a lot like ours?  We know what needs to be done on God’s behalf, so let’s get busy doing it.  Except, do we ask God if what we are busy doing really needs to be done?  For whose glory do set out to work?  Who is in control here?

At the end of my email signature, I include a quote from Bono, the lead singer in the band U2.  (I’ve been inspired by U2’s unique way of living out their genuine love of God and have loved their music since I was a young.)  His quote simply says:

Stop asking God to bless what you are doing.  Find out what God is doing.  It’s already blessed.

Perhaps David could have used Bono’s advice in his day.  Luckily, he had Nathan.  While we can’t know for certain if David’s motivation was pure or self serving in purposing the construction of a permanent home for God, God quickly lets Nathan know this will not be David’s role.  (For helpful insight into possible tensions of motivation underlying the construction of a temple, read this short article:  http://www.nextsunday.com/formations-02-19-2017-tension-and-resolution/)

If David hoped to glorify God with a new home while also using God’s favor to bolster his kingship, God is quick to turn David’s plans on its head.  Instead of David building God a home, God desires to build David and his family a home and a legacy in which their faithfulness will bring God honor.  If David thought he was doing God a favor, David finds out that God doesn’t need any favors.  God is ready to serve and build up David’s throne for Godly purposes,  not the other way around.

U2’s famous song I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, from their 1987 album, The Joshua Tree, outlines a man’s quest to find the one thing that will bring him purpose, pleasure and meaning.  The thing is, everything he strives for fails him – even when he reaches out in genuine faith toward Christ and his coming Kingdom.  “What’s that about?” we are left wondering.  Riches, lust, fame, and power are but fleeting attempts at immortality that fail.  But God, too?  Perhaps Bono’s lyrics reveal a subtle truth: until you are really willing to let go of control and all outcomes and really be led by God, even your attempts to live for God will fail.

We, the benefactors of God’s covenant and steadfast love, need to pay attention to the ways we respond to God’s love.  As “works in progress,” there are sometimes subtle differences in the way we seek to honor God in our life.  Are we sometimes tempted to use God’s favor in such a way that brings us glory, instead of God?  If our chief desire is to bring ourselves glory, how will that backfire?

To introduce this concept, have the class try their hand at a few optical illusions.  There are three links below to classic illusions.  What you may see at first blush may not be what is really there.  How can subtle differences in this art illustrate the sometimes mixed motives we bring to seeking our will over God’s?  How can we begin to tell the difference between right motives and self-serving ones?

May God bless you as you wrestle with God’s living word!

Covenants Guide Us Through the In-Between Times

How do you remember your past?  Are there important stories from your past that have played a role in who you are today?  Are there pictures, objects, even artifacts that you display prominently in you home or office that help you remember where you came from, who you are and what is important?  Perhaps as you begin the lesson, you can bring in a picture, an object, or a story from you past to share with the class.  You might decide to encourage the class to share some of their “stories of origin.”  Doing so builds community and trust. It also sets the stage nicely for this Sunday’s lesson!

Covenants (legal and binding promises) aren’t about the past, however.  Making commitments to one another (marriages come to mind as an example) are about the future.  Such a promise, from one person to another, is a forward-looking agreement in which both sides make commitments of action on behalf of the other.

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