I Set My Bow In The Cloud

THE THIRD SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY

Today we embark on our Summer Sermon Series which we are taking from the Old Testament Sunday readings appointed for Morning Prayer throughout Trinity-tide, which include the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Old Testament authored by Moses, and concludes with Joshua. The Trinity-tide season is organized around the narrative of beginnings and becoming the books ofGenesis through Joshua telling the grand story of God creating a people for himself and preparing them to inherit the land he promised to give them. But ultimately, the overarching theme in these Old Testament books is God’s covenant faithfulness and love. And this is our summer enterprise: to discover anew, in the Old Testament, the covenant faithfulness of God in Christ.

What I’m suggesting is a different approach to reading and comprehending the Old Testament Scriptures, not simply as an accounting of history (which it certainly is) nor as individual morality tales given to make us less intolerable, more polite, and good citizens. Now to be clear, neither of these approaches to studying the Old Testament is necessarily wrong; they’re not. But they are woefully incomplete and inadequate for the task of discovering the rich fabric of redemptive history woven in and through the entirety of the Old Testament. They simply will not lead the student into the actual presence and reality of God. 

My hope is that over the course of these many Sundays we learn to read the Scriptures sacramentally, or to put it another way, Christologically. Now the Prayer Book catechism teaches that a sacrament is an outward sign of an invisible reality. So if the letter of the Old Testament writings is the outward sign, then what is the inward, or hidden reality? Well, I submit to you that it is Christ. He is the hidden treasure in the field of the Old Testament: its narrative, poetry, wisdom literature, and prophets collectively allude to, typify, and point to Christ: Jesus of Nazareth.  St. Augustine astutely observed, “the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” You see, Christ is the reality veiled in the Old Testament shadows.

Let’s quickly look at three Biblical examples where Christ is discovered in the Old Testament. First, consider the account of Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch in the New Testament book of Acts where Phillip interprets and reveals from Scripture Jesus Christ to be the ‘Suffering Servant’ spoken of in the fifty-third chapter of the book of the Prophet Isaiah. Upon understanding Jesus as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, the Eunuch is baptized in the Triune name of the living God. 

Second. On the day of Pentecost St. Peter preaches on God’s promise of resurrection by quoting verse ten of Psalm sixteen listen: “For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption” (Ps 16:10). Now, listen to how Peter unlocks the true meaning of this passage with the Key of Jesus Christ, “Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulcher is with us unto this day. Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption. This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:29-32). According to St. Peter, Jesus is the resurrected man of Psalm sixteen, he whom Hades could not hold. And three thousand were baptized that day for the forgiveness of sins. 

Last but not least, let’s examine Jesus’ own understanding of the Old Testament. After the resurrection, St. Luke records a meeting between the risen Christ and two disciples walking with Jesus on the road to Emmaus and invite him to dinner. And there, at the table, not knowing who was in their company, Luke states that “beginning at Moses and all the prophets, [Jesus] expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Lk 24:27). Jesus unveiled the reality of his presence in the Old Testament and having encountered Christ, Luke writes, “their hearts burned within them.”

To read Holy Scripture sacramentally is to apprehend the reality of Christ’s presence in the narrative, poetry, and prophecy of the Old Testament: he is there. Christ is the hidden treasure in the field of redemptive history, from beginning to end, the ribbon of salvation which runs from Genesis to Revelation. He is the expressed hope of Scripture: hope for today and our sure hope for the future. Love. Assurance. Hope. This is what the story of Noah found in today’s Old Testament reading is all about.

And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.

Put yourself in Noah’s place. God has brought unimaginable judgment upon the wickedness of men by flooding the whole earth, from which Noah, his family, and a remnant of animals were saved in the Ark. For an entire year, Noah and his boat bound companions have survived within the dark confinement of the Ark. And now, God brings them out safely onto dry ground. By grace, God afforded the means of their salvation and by faith, Noah trusted Him by building and entering into the boat as God commanded. But what now? Will the Lord once again bring judgment? Will Noah and the whole human family live forever in fear of a God who has proven to hate sin and wickedness? Just imagine the anxiety and trepidation that would flood Noah’s heart at the next forming of the storm clouds on the horizon. What conclusion would you come to as the first drop of rain hit your brow?

And yet, what Genesis chapter nine reveals is that the God of judgment is the covenant-making God. He is the initiator of peace. Moses writes, that God established a covenant with Noah; not a bi-lateral covenant dependent on the faithfulness of the man but wholly with Himself; a covenant of peace with Noah that covered not only the righteous man but his family and every living creature upon the earth. And by this gracious covenantal act, God sets Noah’s heart at peace. “I establish My covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” By this God communicates a very important aspect of his character: He loves and values his creation; God hates nothing that he has made for God is love.

God knew that Noah needed to be reassured, to know that judgment (as the prophet Isaiah tells us) “is God’s alien or strange work.” By this Divine covenant, God promises no new destruction, never again to end the world by a flood. Friends, behold the breadth of God’s love in this promise made not just to Noah and his family, but to humankind and every kind of animal even the forests, hills, and deserts. This covenantal promise given to Noah is the beginning of God’s merciful forbearing of Divine judgment by a flood. And to bring further assurance to Noah’s heart, lest in the midst of the next great storm he should cower in fear, God graciously gives a sign, a heavenly covenant sign in the form of a rainbow. 

Think about this… what are the conditions that accompany the formation of a rainbow? It is produced from the sun shining in and upon mists and rainwaters, in other words, rainbows are necessarily accompanied by rainstorms, they emerge from ominous rainclouds, it breaks forth as a sign of God’s promise of peace in the midst of the storm. God gives this sign of assurance whether men obey his laws or not, in spite of non-compliance with his revealed will. It is a heavenly promise to withhold (for a time) Divine judgment upon the wicked and a pledge of protection to the godly. God has put up his “war-bow” which is the meaning of the Hebrew word form which rainbow comes from. He has hung up the instrument of destruction, in fact, if we picture the rainbow as a “war-bow”, which way is the point of the arrow pointing? Not towards creation but up into the heavens, his judgment is pointed towards himself.

The rainbow is a sure sign given to all that God takes and has no pleasure in destruction, that he does not give way to moods, nor suffers from the capriciousness of the Greek gods. Friends, he does not always chide but promises that if weeping may endure for a night Joy is sure to follow. How generous and gracious he is! If anyone is under a cloud leading to a joyless and heartless life, if anyone believes that God has given him or her up to catastrophe, this covenant sign assures us, that without the storm cloud breaking into heavy sweeping rains there cannot be the bow and that no cloud of Gods sending is permanent but will one day give way to unclouded joy. Clouds will fill the skies of this life, but clouds fade and the promises of covenant keeping God stand firm.

Now the unregenerate man, though he thrives, sees a rainbow as a beautiful phenomenon of nature because he is incapable apart from the Holy Spirit, to see beyond the bow. He looks up and is fascinated by its beauty, happy the storm has ended. But the sign doesn’t lead him to its Author, the God of Heaven. The rainbow is a cosmic and universal sign of God’s grace given to all of humankind but for the unenlightened, it is just another rainbow. Oh, how wide and expansive is the love of God!

Do we not see the unrighteous flourish? Do we not see even the wicked have bread? For the Lord makes it rain on the righteous and the unrighteous because he is love and desires life and flourishing for everything he makes, so that every man, woman, and child might abound to the praise of his glorious grace. The rainbow is as a balm of gladness stretching across the sky which soothes even the hearts of unbelievers. Now, if God is so gracious to those who do not yet believe then how great must his love towards those who do; whose vision extends beyond the heavenly sign and to the good and merciful God. Yes, the rainbow is a natural phenomenon, the material glory of the earthly heaven, but it is ultimately given to point beyond itself (up higher) to Him who is glorious and most radiant: the God of heaven the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. 

God always gives a sign to accompany his covenants to remind, explain, and assure. And so the rainbow is a sign to all that God is graciously and patiently withholding judgment until the end of this age. But, friends, judgment will come because scriptures tell us. Divine judgment will come first upon the household of God and then upon all men: both the quick and the dead. The second flood of judgment will come upon the earth, not by water, but fire, and not merely with earthly but eternal consequences.

But God has given another sign, which too, he lifted into the sky: his Son, Jesus Christ raised up on a cross. God has lifted him up as a sure sign of his great love. And, by this sign, salvation is offered to all who would look up and believe that by faith in Christ they will be saved on that future day of judgment. Jesus said, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me… He that believeth on me, believeth not on me, but on him that sent me. And he that seeth me seeth him that sent me. I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness. And if any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.  He that rejecteth me, and receiveth, not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day” (Jn 12). Jesus is the Divine rainbow, the sure means by which all who believe find peace: everlasting peace. His resurrection and ascension is the sure sign and hope of our being raised from the dead, to go where Christ has already gone, to basque in his glory. Forever liberated from danger and injury. 

By grace, St. John was given a revelation, a to peek into the heavenly realm and this is what he saw, “Immediately I was in the Spirit, and a throne was standing in heaven with someone seated on it! And the one seated on it was like jasper and carnelian in appearance, and a rainbow looking like it was made of emerald encircled the throne” (Rev 10:1). The pledge of God’s peace rests squarely upon the risen Christ, in him are all the covenantal promises realized and enjoyed. 

Though we may not be allowed to gaze into the heavenly throne room, God has given a sign to his church: the Holy Eucharist. The bread and cup we lift at the altar as our proper act of praise and thanksgiving… these are the sure and effectual signs of God’s love and mercy. They are tangible pledges given by God to assure us of his great love towards us. For in the breaking of the bread and pouring of the cup God reminds us that we are very members of his family, beloved, protected, and heaven bound. For the peace of Christ abides in all who by faith, eat his flesh and drink his blood to the betterment of the soul. Therefore, prepare your hearts to fix your eyes upon the risen Christ. “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” Amen+