"THE SIGN OF THE COVENANT"
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12)
July 29, 2018
Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church
"I have set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember My covenant that is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth."
Genesis 9:13-15 (ESV)
Symbols (or signs) can be very powerful, conjuring up all kinds of both positive and negative emotions. The Confederate flag has certainly done that in the last couple of years, inspiring some to do everything in their power to eradicate this item of our nation's history from our culture and others to fiercely defend it with equal enthusiasm. But symbols (or signs) can also be very deceiving, especially for those who don't have a grasp of history. If you are like most people, the swastika brings to mind Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s, together with all of the atrocities that went with it. But centuries before World War II the swastika was an ancient Hindu symbol for peace, so the devout Hindu no doubt would react to that sign in an entirely different way than a twentieth century Jew would. If you get your information from Hollywood or pop culture (as unfortunately many do) the pentagram or the upside-down cross would immediately make you think about Satanism, even though these signs were used by Christians centuries before there even was a "Church of Satan." For the earliest Christians the pentagram symbolized the five wounds of Christ and the star of Bethlehem. The upside-down cross has for twenty centuries been the symbol for the apostle Peter, who, we are told, when he was put to death told his executioners that he was not worthy to die in the same way that his Lord did, so they crucified him upside-down.
Signs and symbols can be and often are hijacked by people who are diametrically opposed to the people who originally used them. So you can understand that it was with some reluctance that I chose to preach this morning on the sign that God gave to Noah in this morning's Old Testament Reading: the rainbow. The rainbow flag and the White House bathed in rainbow colors have come to represent something that traditional Christians cannot condone because it stands in opposition to and in defiance of the Word of God and His order in creation. But that's not where the sign of the rainbow originated. This morning, with these verses as our guide, let's examine God's sign and covenant with Noah after the flood and also with us after the sacrificial death and glorious resurrection of our Savior.
The sign for Noah and for all of creation after the flood was the rainbow. There has been some speculation that this was the very first occurrence of a rainbow--that before this time rainbows didn't exist. While it is likely that the flood altered the earth's atmosphere, we can't say with any certainty that rainbows didn't exist before. But whether they did or not, the rainbow certainly took on a new meaning, becoming for believers a source of hope--the calm after the storm, you might call it. It is also significant that God used the bow--a weapon of war--and transformed it into a symbol of peace and a reminder of His covenant of love with His creation.
Just as God gave a sign to Noah after the flood, He has given us signs after the death and resurrection of Jesus. These are the Sacraments. The people living after the flood took comfort when they saw the rainbow because it reminded them of God's covenant of love for them. We take comfort in the Sacraments for the same reason. But the Sacraments are much more than just reminders. Through them God actually gives us what He has promised in the death and resurrection of His Son. In Baptism we are united with Christ in His death and resurrection, making us dead to sin and alive in Him. This gives us New Life, not just after we die but right here and now. We are God's children, having been born again of water and the Spirit. In the Lord's Supper we are reminded of Jesus' sacrificial death for our sin but we also receive, in His body and blood, the blessings that He gained for us in that sacrifice: the "forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation" (Small Catechism, the Sacrament of the Altar). These Sacraments are signs, not in the sense that they only symbolize something, but that through them God gives us "a foretaste of the feast to come" (Lutheran Book of Worship, #955).
The power and influence of signs, however, no matter how magnificent they may be, lie in what these signs point to. In Noah's day, after the flood, the rainbow pointed to the covenant that God had made with Noah and all of his descendants--in fact, with all of creation. In a couple of verses before our text the Lord stated His covenant quite clearly when He said: "I establish My covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth" (Genesis 9:11). His promise was that the earth will remain until the very end of time.
But as great as that covenant is, it is a covenant regarding creation. It has nothing at all to do with the redemption of the fallen world. But the covenant that stands behind the Sacraments is something altogether different. In the flood God purged the world of sin and made a promise never to destroy the world until the end of time. But in the death and resurrection of His Son He purged the world of sin and all of its consequences (the worst of which is death) and made a promise that all who trust in His grace will be delivered from sin and death and reconciled to their Creator. This promise and the assurance of its fulfillment is what we receive in the means of grace. Through these means the Spirit of God gives to us everything that Christ has accomplished for us in His perfect life, innocent suffering and death, and glorious resurrection from the dead, and makes it our own.
So are signs important? Indeed they are, but only if they point us to the substance of what they offer us. The rainbow was a sign, giving to Noah and still to us the assurance of God's promise to preserve His creation until the end of time. Baptism and the Lord's Supper are signs to us as well, giving to us the "forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation" (Small Catechism, ) that Jesus won for us. For this reason we treasure these means of grace, knowing that in them we have everything that the Gospel of Jesus Christ offers. They are signs in that they remind us of everything that Christ has done for us in the past, they give us everything that He does for us here and now, and they assure us of everything that He will give us when He returns as Judge and King and takes us into His kingdom of glory.
May the Lord bless your hearing of His Word, using it to accomplish in you those things for which He gave it. May you be enriched and strengthened in faith that you may leave here today to go out into our world armed with the whole armor of God, prepared to be able ambassadors of your Savior Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, and He will do it. Amen.