FIRST READING Genesis 9:8–17
8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 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. 16 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.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
PSALM Psalm 25:1–10
1 To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul. 2 My God, I put my trust in you; let me not be put to shame, nor let my enemies triumph over me. 3 Let none who look to you be put to shame; rather let those be put to shame who are treacherous. 4 Show me your ways, O LORD, and teach me your paths. 5 Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long. 6 Remember, O LORD, your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting. 7 Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; remember me according to your steadfast love and for the sake of your goodness, O LORD. 8 You are gracious and upright, O LORD; therefore you teach sinners in your way. 9 You lead the lowly in justice and teach the lowly your way.
10 All your paths, O LORD, are steadfast love and faithfulness to those who keep your covenant and your testimonies.
SECOND READING 1 Peter 3:18–22
18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you — not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
GOSPEL Mark 1:9–15
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.”
GOD”S PROMISES ARE SURE
Jack Coe was a popular evangelist in the first half of the twentieth century. Like many evangelists of the time, Coe held services in a tent. Coe’s tent was a massive structure which would hold ten thousand people. One day Coe had a dream in which he saw a flood. The dream troubled him greatly and eventually he told his wife about it. Later, when he was conducting a tent revival in Kansas City, he again dreamed about a flood. Together these two dreams seemed so real that he felt that perhaps God was sending him a message.
A short while later, while in the midst of the revival, Coe felt God speaking clearly to his heart, telling him directly to move his tent. Without hesitation, he started packing up. The last hours of packing the giant tent were sheer panic. Many people mocked Coe as he and his helpers fled in their loaded trucks. However, they were just in time. On Sunday morning, May 31, the river started to rise, beginning the most disastrous flood in the history of Kansas City. Great torrents of water swept down the Kaw and Missouri Rivers until the valleys were one raging mass of water from bluff to bluff. All the bridges spanning the two rivers were swept away, completely isolating the city from all outside communication. The East and West Bottoms manufacturing, wholesale and road districts, were covered with water to the depth of from six to twelve feet. In total the river rose twenty-two feet over the next few days, and the ensuing flood brought the worst disaster of its kind in North American history. God’s warning that day saved countless lives, all because one man was willing to listen and respond to God’s warning. It’s an event that reminds us of another famous story from the Bible.
In the book of Genesis a man named Noah has a similar kind of experience, except, God doesn’t tell Noah to move his revival tent. Instead God commands Noah to build a large boat; an ark. Responding to God’s command and despite the criticism he received, Noah built the vessel and Noah and his family were spared. Additionally, the Bible records that God caused the animals to gather and they too were saved. It’s a magical story that even our children know quite well. But as important as that part of the story is, I want to call your attention to the later part of the account. The part when the waters begin to recede.
God comes to Noah and his sons and makes a promise to them: “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you, the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you, every living creature on earth. I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.” It’s the first time God makes a promise to His chosen that includes a visible sign of a reminder of the covenant. And this is an important part of the story.
This visible sign is a reminder for all generations, that every time we see a rainbow it’s not merely sunlight refracting through water vapor. It’s a reminder of God’s covenant. It’s a reminder of God’s love. It’s a reminder that no matter how disappointed God may become with humanity, never again will the story of the great flood be repeated. But how many really stop and recall this part of the story once the rain is past?
Terry and I were sitting in the Burger King in Dallas not too long ago and saw a double rainbow. As the initial surprise wore off, we, like many people do, joked about what’s at the end of the rainbow. My guess is that, in our materialistic culture, most people who see a rainbow think of the pot of gold that’s supposedly at the end, rather than on God’s promise. And when you think about it, it’s a shame. God’s promise is worth far more than any pot of gold.
Besides, according to one popular legend, this pot of gold is guarded by a mischievous mythical creature, the leprechaun. If the treasure is ever in danger of being discovered by a mortal, legend has it, the leprechaun is to trick the human out of his prize!
There’s an amusing story of a man who once tricked a leprechaun into revealing the whereabouts of his valuables. The treasure was located beneath a bush in a large field surrounded by other similar shrubbery. The man needed to go off and get a shovel with which to dig up the treasure, so he tied a red ribbon to the bush so he could identify it on his return. He made the leprechaun promise not to remove the ribbon. Convinced he was more clever than the leprechaun and had secured his gold, the man made off to get his shovel. On his return however, much to his dismay, he found that the little creature had tied a red ribbon on every bush in the field!
I guess this is why you never run into anyone who has ever found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. A leprechaun has tricked them out of it. I guess it would be foolish to include finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow in our retirement planning—although it does make as much sense as betting on the lottery. Pot of gold aside, in our planning for life, it does however make sense to look for rainbows. Anytime we remember the flood story, we’re reminded of God’s sign of the covenant and of His promise.
Seeing a rainbow reminds us that God promised never again to destroy all life in a flood. God made a promise to prosper Noah and his descendants and that promise or covenant should remind us of yet another promise God made to us. That promise came with a sign as well, a symbol that’s even more important than the rainbow, that’s the sign off the cross. The reason God gave us these visible sign is that anytime we see them, we’re reminded of His promises, which will help us deal with every aspect of our life.
On May 12, 1993 two slivers of an olive tree, said to have come from the cross on which Jesus was crucified, were sold for more than $18,000 in an auction in Paris. Accompanying the two slivers of wood were two certificates from the Vatican issued way back in 1855 that apparently authenticated those slivers of wood. It sounds like a lot of money for two small pieces of olive wood, but who knows what this woman’s motive might have been in buying those two relics.
Maybe she has more money than she knows what to do with, and bought them on a whim. Perhaps, on the other hand, she will reverently mount them in her home and display them in the same way we might display a precious stone. Or maybe, just maybe, if she really believes them to be authentic, she might forever carry those slivers with her, and each day touch them and remember what Christ has done in her behalf. If so, she wouldn’t be the first to do that.
How many have heard the expression “knock on wood”? How many know the origin? Most of us, I’m sure, have knocked on wood for luck at some time in our lives. I read recently that the “knock on wood” superstition originated from an ancient practice that has nothing to do with luck at all. According to this ancient practice, a person would touch wood whenever he or she experienced an act of good fortune. The reason he or she would touch wood was in gratitude to Christ who died on a wooden cross.
Actually, this ancient practice sounds like a good idea. As far as I’m concerned “knocking on wood” won’t change your luck; it’s a mere superstition. However, when something good happens to you, I’d suggest you knock on wood or simply touch a piece of wood and say thank you for all that Christ has given you, including His own life.
In this season of Lent, we’re preparing ourselves for the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. Truly what happened in those three days in Jerusalem, more than 2,000 years ago, dwarfs even the rainbow that Noah saw in the sky. And yet, they’re part and parcel of the same story of God’s love for fallen humanity. Both declare this mighty truth: God isn’t interested in punishing humanity for its sin, but in saving humanity from that sin. You and I need to hold on to that promise. It’s spelled out in John 3:17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” That’s been God’s intent since the beginning of time. That’s what a rainbow in the sky means. Every time we see it we need to give thanks. Knock on wood, if you will. Through the wood of the cross, God has made a covenant with humanity. These are comforting promises to remember when the storm clouds are rising and you think there might be a flood.
The past few years have been devastating for many families—I’m not just thinking of those who have been affected by actual floods like those that hit here in North Carolina and in other parts of the east coast, or droughts and wildfires like those that hit Texas, or tornados like those that hit the South and the Midwest over the past few months. I’m thinking about events like the flood of foreclosures and the flood of lost jobs. Studies show that children have been affected by the economic downturn more than any other segment of our population. For many, recovery has been painfully slow and for many families with kids, it’s been an outright depression.
But even when economic times are good, there are other calamities that come like the flood did on Noah’s neighbors, tragedies like sickness, death, or divorce. Sooner or later the flood waters begin to rise for all of us. Some of us make it through life with relatively few storm clouds, but no one escapes altogether.
There’s a Jewish legend called the “Sorrow Tree.” According to this legend, on the Day of Judgment everyone will be allowed to hang all of their unhappiness on a branch of a great tree. Each person will then walk around the tree and examine all of the troubles hanging in the branches. Anyone may freely choose someone else’s unhappiness as their own. But, the legend concludes, no one will choose someone else’s sorrows: everyone will instead reclaim their own over those of others. This is a way of saying, that sooner or later all of us will experience the flood waters of adversity.
I’m certain that some of us have already waded through those waters. Others will someday soon. It’s a truth that we need to acknowledge. Far too many TV evangelists give the impression that, if you trust Christ, your life will be one long stream of blessings. That’s simply not true. Our hearts, our souls, our minds will be blessed, but the flood waters will still rise.
Pastor Jerome Cooper of Baltimore tells about a woman named Lynn. Lynn was a woman seeking for truth. Even though she’d been a member of a Christian church, she began her intense search for truth in Buddhism. The reason she chose Buddhism is that Lynn was impacted by the suffering of the world and Buddhism deals a lot with suffering. She began that path toward Buddhism, seeking an answer on how to deal with the suffering of the world. However, it was through her seeking an answer in Buddhism, that she was led back to Christ.
As she thought more and more about suffering, she eventually looked back at Jesus in a new way, and saw that Jesus had also suffered. He had suffered pain of the heart, as well as pain of the body. She saw Jesus answering in a new way the questions she had been asking about suffering.
She could have come to this understanding of the suffering Christ much sooner, but the church, as she had known it, had painted an entirely different Christ, a Christ who was always happy, always positive. She realized that what had been presented to her was only a half truth. It was only the victorious Christ, without the suffering Messiah, and she had difficulty relating to that Jesus.
We need to be honest about it lest anyone misunderstand. Sometimes some of the best people that God ever created suffer horribly. People who sing in the choir, people who teach Sunday School, people who serve for years on church councils, no one escapes the evils of this world completely. And the vexing part is that we don’t always know why.
A young minister was in his office one day when a lady he didn’t know came in. “Are you the minister here?” she asked. “Yes, I am,” he replied. “Come with me,” she said curtly. They went out to the front of the church where she had her car parked on the street. Stretched out in the back seat, the minister saw a twisted figure of a man. She waved her hand referring to that man, and said, “This is my brother. He was paralyzed by an accident caused by a drunk driver. If you’re a man of God, do one of two things: heal him, or explain this tragedy.” He could do neither. And neither can I.
I can’t tell you why suffering comes, other than the result of sin in this world. I can, however, point you to a rainbow and a cross and say to you: God has not forgotten us. God has promised that He will not forsake us when the flood waters of sorrow and suffering threaten. We need to hold on to these promises. By remembering God’s covenant, it will help us through the difficult times in life.
I read a story sometime back about Dr. Wayne Oates. You may not recognize the name. Wayne Oates was a psychologist and religious educator who coined the word ‘workaholic.’ Oats wrote fifty-seven books, many of them dealing with pastoral psychology. He was a great man who influenced many people, particularly thousands of pastors over his lifetime. In his autobiography, which is titled The Struggle to be Free, Oates described his growing up years.
Wayne Oates knew what it was to struggle. Born to a poor family in Greenville, South Carolina in June 1917, Oates was abandoned by his father in infancy and was brought up by his grandmother and his sister while his mother supported them by working in a cotton mill. His mother made $30 a week. They survived, says one source, on pinto beans, turnip greens, cornbread and molasses.
In his early school years, Oates discovered he had the ability to excel academically. And if he was ever going to get out of the mill town, out of poverty, that might be his way. “The trouble was,” says this source, “at age 14, everybody had to go to work in the mill and that meant you never graduated from high school. He was tempted to quit studying, but his grandmother told him to keep trying and to remember that life was like a funnel, if you started on the small end, the difficult end, the tough end of the funnel, that then life began to broaden out. But if you started at the easy end, the broad end, life became narrower all the time.” It’s an interesting philosophy!
Wayne Oates worked hard and he had an amazing break at the tender age of fourteen. He was one of a small number of impoverished, but bright, boys selected by a congressman to serve as a page in the United States House of Representatives. It was a life-changing experience, but it didn’t keep Oates out of the mill forever. Sixteen is the highest age you can be a page and so he had to go back to Greenville and his work at the mill. But he had tasted something more in Washington and so he insisted on finishing high school. He worked his way through Wake Forest University then went on to Southern Seminary, the first of his family to get a higher education.
He writes in his book how difficult it was to leave that mill town and how much the peer pressure was to stay, not to leave. People were saying, “So you think you’re too good to work in the mill? Think you’re better than we are? Just don’t want to have anything to do with hard working folks like us, is that it? I never thought you, Wayne, of all people would ever desert your family.”
But it wasn’t that Wayne Oates felt better than his peers, nor that he wanted to desert his family and friends. It was simply that Wayne Oates was sustained by a promise, the promise of his grandmother that if he kept trying, he would eventually end up at the broad end of the funnel. He was also sustained by God’s promise that whatever came, he would never be alone.
It’s the same promise that has sustained millions of people through the centuries. Christians don’t look at life through rose-colored glasses. We know there will be storms. We know the flood waters will rise, but God has promised us, that they will never overwhelm us, and so, even in the midst of the storm we look for the sign of a rainbow. And it’s there . . . it’ll always there. Even more important, we can see that promise in the cross upon which Christ died. God has made a covenant with us, a promise that’s sure. It’s a covenant that we can place our hope and trust in because when God makes a promise, it will not fail. Amen