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Sermon for Sunday 25 July 2021

First Reading: Genesis 9:8-17

8God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9“Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, 10and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. 11I 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.” 12And 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: 13I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15I 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. 16When 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.” 17God 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 136:1-9

1Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endures forever. 2Give thanks to the God of gods, for his mercy endures forever. 3Give thanks to the Lord of lords, for his mercy endures forever. 4Who only does great wonders, for his mercy endures forever; 5Who by wisdom made the heavens, for his mercy endures forever; 6Who spread out the earth upon the waters, for his mercy endures forever; 7Who created great lights, for his mercy endures forever; 8The sun to rule the day, for his mercy endures forever; 9The moon and the stars to govern the night, for his mercy endures forever.

Second Reading: Ephesians 3:14-21

14For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith — that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Gospel: Mark 6:45-56

45Immediately {Jesus} made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. 47And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, 49but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, 50for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” 51And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 52for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. 53When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored to the shore. 54And when they got out of the boat, the people immediately recognized him 55and ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard he was. 56And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well.

Rainbows and Roses

Huck Finn, Moby Dick, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 10,000 Leagues under the Sea and Sherlock Holmes all have something in common.  All these are among the most recognizable stories of our time.  Yet, one of the best-known stories in all literature is the story of Noah and the Ark.  Ask most anyone on the street today and almost every one of them has heard the story of Noah and the great flood.  Sometime back, I ran across a tongue and cheek version that I thought I’d share with you. 

I’ll give you an abbreviated version as posted by somebody on the Internet: The Lord spoke to Noah and said, “Noah, in six months I’m going to make it rain until the whole world is covered with water.  But I want to save a few good people and two of every living thing on the planet.  So I’m ordering you to build an Ark.”  “OK,” Noah said, trembling with fear.  “I’m your man.”  Six months passed, the sky began to cloud up, and the rain began to fall in torrents.  The Lord looked down and saw Noah sitting in his yard.  There was no Ark.

“Noah!” shouted the Lord, “where is My Ark?”  “Lord, please forgive me!” begged Noah.  “I did my best, but there were some big problems.  First, I had to get a building permit.  My neighbors objected, claiming that I was violating zoning ordinances by building the Ark in my front yard.  I’ve spent months trying to get a variance from the city planning board.  After all that, I had a big problem getting enough wood for the Ark, because of the endangered species act.  “Then the carpenters’ union started picketing my home because I wasn’t using union carpenters.

Next, I started gathering up the animals, but got sued by an animal rights group.  Just when that lawsuit got dismissed, the EPA notified me that I couldn’t complete the Ark without filing out an environmental impact statement for your proposed flood.  Then the Corps of Engineers wanted a map of the area to be flooded.  So I sent them a globe and they went ballistic!  Lord, I’m sorry, but based on the current restrictions and regulations, I don’t think there’s any way I can finish the Ark in less than five years, if ever!”  Suddenly, the sky cleared, the sun began to shine, and a rainbow arched across the sky.  

Noah looked up and smiled.  “You mean you’re not going to destroy the world?” he asked hopefully.  “Wrong!” thundered the Lord.  “But I’m going to do it with something far worse than a mere flood.  Something far more destructive.  Something that man himself has created.”  “What’s that?” Noah asked.  “Government!” said the Lord.  From the time we’re small children, we’ve been taught the story of Noah and the Ark and of the animals God saved.  Most memorable is the ending to the story.  

God made a promise to Noah, and to all humankind.  Never again would God send a flood to destroy the earth.  And this would be a sign of God’s promise.  God placed a rainbow in the clouds.  Whenever we see the rainbow, we, and God, remember His promise.  There’s something special and hopeful about a rainbow, isn’t there?  You probably already know this, but here are some facts about God’s sign of His promise.

Rainbows appear at the end of rainstorms because it’s then that you have the two prerequisites for making them:  water droplets suspended in the sky and sunlight.  A rainbow’s visible colors are always arrayed in the same order: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.  Did you know that rainbows are actually circular?  They appear to be arches [or half‑circles] only because their bottom halves are cut off by the ground.  If you wish to see them in their full circular glory, you need to view them from high above the ground, such as onboard an airplane.   This is why you can never find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  The rainbow really has no end.

Those are the technical truths about rainbows, but these don’t explain the emotional lift we get from these wonders of nature.  A father was asked by his 8-year-old son if he knew what a rainbow was.  The father gave his son the scientific answer, sort of like I just gave you.  The son said no dad, a rainbow was God standing on his head and smiling after eating skittles.  As I mentioned a moment ago, rainbows follow storms.  Maybe that’s one reason we like seeing rainbows.  

No matter how fierce a storm may be, if we see a rainbow afterward, it gives us hope.  Nancy Leigh DeMoss, in her radio series “The Blessing of Thorns,” tells a touching story.  It’s a Thanksgiving story, but it bears a universal truth.  The story is about a woman named Sandra, and for brevity, I’ll give you the Readers Digest version.

Sandra was feeling exceptionally low as she made her way into the florist shop.  It was Thanksgiving week.  Several weeks prior she had been involved in an automobile accident that left her scared both emotionally and physically.  As if to add to her grief, her husband’s company was threatening a transfer and her sister called to say she couldn’t come for the holiday.  “Thanksgiving?  Thankful for what?” she wondered aloud.  “For an airbag that saved her life, but failed to save the life of another?”

“Good afternoon, can I help you?”  The shop clerk’s approach startled her.  “I need an arrangement, “stammered Sandra.  “For Thanksgiving.”  “Are you looking for something that conveys ‘gratitude’ this Thanksgiving?” asked the shop clerk.  “Not exactly!”  Sandra blurted out.  “In the last five months, everything that could go wrong has gone wrong.”  Sandra regretted her outburst, and was surprised when the shop clerk said, “I have the perfect arrangement for you.”  Just then another customer entered the shop.  

The clerk said, “Hi Barbara . . . let me get your order.”  She walked toward a small workroom, then quickly reappeared, carrying an arrangement of long-stemmed thorny roses.  Except the ends of the rose stems had been snipped . . . there were no roses, just stems with lots and lots of thorns.  “Want this in a box?” asked the clerk.  Was this a joke? thought Sandra.  Who would want rose stems with no flowers?  But it wasn’t a joke.  After the customer left with her order Sandra stammered, “that lady just left with, . . . she just left with no flowers!”  “Right,” said the clerk. “I cut the flowers off.

That’s the Special . . . I call it the Thanksgiving Thorns Bouquet.”  “Barbara came into the shop three years ago feeling very much like you feel today.  She thought she had very little to be thankful for.  She had just lost her father, the family business was failing, her son was addicted to drugs, and she was facing major surgery.”  “That same year I had lost my husband,” continued the clerk, “and for the first time in my life, I had to spend the holidays alone.  I had no children, no husband, no family nearby, and too great a debt to allow any travel.”  “So what did you do?” asked Sandra.  “I learned to be thankful for thorns,” answered the clerk quietly.  

“I’ve always thanked God for good things in life and never thought to ask Him why those good things happened to me, but when bad stuff hit, did I ever ask!  It took time for me to learn that dark times are important.  I’ve always enjoyed the ‘flowers’ of life, but it took thorns to show me the beauty of God’s comfort.  

St. Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians, that it’s “the God of all comfort who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (vs. 3b-4).  To this Sandra said, “I guess the truth is I don’t want comforted.  I’ve endured a terrible accident where a life was lost and right now, I’m angry with God.” 

Just then someone else, a man named Phil, walked in the shop.  He said his wife sent him to pick up their usual Thanksgiving arrangement . . . twelve thorny, long stemmed stems!  “Those are for your wife?” asked Sandra.  “Do you mind me asking why she wants something that looks like that?”  “No . . . I’m glad you asked,” Phil replied.

“Four years ago, my wife and I nearly divorced.  After forty years, we were in a real mess, but with the Lord’s grace and guidance, we slogged through problem after problem.  God rescued our marriage.  Jenny here (the clerk) told me she kept a vase of rose stems to remind her of what she learned from ‘thorny’ times, and that was good enough for me.  I took home some of those stems.  My wife and I decided to label each one for a specific ‘problem’ and give thanks to [God] for what that problem taught us.”

As Phil paid the clerk, he said to Sandra, “I highly recommend the Special!”  “I don’t know if I can be thankful for the thorns in my life,” Sandra said to the clerk.  “It’s all too . . . fresh.”  “Well,” the clerk replied carefully, “my experience has shown me that thorns make roses more precious.  We treasure God’s providential care more during trouble than at any other time.  Remember, it was a crown of thorns that Jesus wore so we might know His love.  Don’t resent the thorns.” 

At this point Sandra anger turned into tears.  For the first time since the accident, she loosened her grip on resentment.  “I’ll take those twelve long stemmed thorns, please,” she managed to choke out.  “I hoped you would,” said the clerk gently.  “I’ll have them ready in a minute.”  “Thank you.  What do I owe you?” asked Sandra.  Nothing.” said the clerk.  “Nothing but a promise to allow God to heal your heart.  The first year’s arrangement is always on me.”

The clerk smiled and handed a card to Sandra.  “I’ll attach this card to your arrangement, but maybe you’d like to read it first.”  It read: “Dear God, I have never thanked you for my thorns.  I have thanked you a thousand times for my roses, but never once for my thorns.  Teach me the value of my thorns, and to see you and your mercy guiding me through them.  Show me that you always walk with me along the path of pain.  Show me that, through my tears, the colors of your rainbow look much more brilliant.”  Sandra had been through the storm.  Now she could see the rainbow.  Isn’t one of the reasons our spirits are lifted by rainbows is because rainbows follow storms?

Second, rainbows also remind of us of the beauty of God’s world.  There are many people who believe this beautiful world happened by blind chance and they try to make compelling arguments for their position.  This is sad; there’s so much evidence of God’s divine creation.  One of the questions I ask is, if the world did happen by blind chance, why is it so beautiful?  Why do we have the wonderous things like roses and rainbows? 

There’s a story of a child from the back streets of a great city who was taken for a day in the country.  When she saw the bluebells in the woods, she asked: “Do you think God would mind if I picked some of His flowers.”  That’s the way we ought to feel about creation.  This is God’s beautiful world, a world He filled with beauty, splendor, and wonder.  I find it odd that those who forward evolution and the Big Bang theory, never seem to want to address that question, why there is so much beauty in the world?  

Some people want us to explain why there’s suffering in the world, why we have thorns and storm clouds.  In a world of chance, thorns and storms are easily explained.  It’s simply part of the fight for survival.  It’s part of the evolutionary process.  But how do you explain roses and rainbows?  Roses and rainbows aren’t necessary for survival.  I’m no theoretical physicist, but their beauty serves no evolutionary function that I can tell.  These aspects of God’s creation are simply a gift from a loving and gracious God.  They’re just part of the many pieces of evidence we have of God’s love.

An unknown man tells about a reproduction he once saw of the Constitution of the United States.  This reproduction had been skillfully engraved on a copper plate.  At first glance this reproduction seems to be nothing more than a piece of noble writing.  However, if you looked at it from the proper perspective, you can see the portrait of President George Washington artistically etched in minute detail in the words of the Constitution itself.  Washington’s face is revealed in the shadowing of the letters, and you can see his person in the flowing words.  So it is with creation.

When we take the time to really look at the rainbow or the rose, we see the nature of God.  God is a God of love who colors our world with beauty.  Rainbows follow storms.  Rainbows remind us of the beauty of God’s world.  And there’s one more, very important, thing for us to consider: the rainbow reminds us of our covenantal relationship with our creator and God.  God made a promise to Noah, and He sealed that promise with a rainbow.  God has given us many promises in the scriptures.  

In fact, some will tell you that there are more than 3,000 promises in the Bible.  These people also forward that you can find a promise to meet every need you will ever encounter.  Promises, we know, are important to God, and they’re important to us.  We often make lasting promises, promises we intend to keep.  In baptism, we promise to “reject sin, and confess the faith of the church.”  Additionally, “we reject all the forces of evil, the devil, and all his empty promises.”  As an elected official, they too are required to make promises to their people. “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  That’s the President’s promise.  In our professions, we too, at times, are asked to made lasting promises.

I, Steven King, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  So help me God.  This was the oath I made 6 times during my career in the Air Force.  A man and a woman make vows at their wedding.

“To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness or in health, to love and to cherish ’till death us do part.”  We all know that promises are important.  Of course, a promise is only as good as the character of the one making the promise.  But, the One who has made more than 3,000 promises to us in scripture, has a flawless character, a perfect track record of keeping His promises.

When God said, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20b), we can count on it.  When He said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt.11:28), we can take it to the bank.  When He said “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am (John 14:3), we can look forward to it.  When we read St. Paul’s words; there is “nothing in all creation that will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38), we can then relax.  

When God makes a promise, we can consider it a certainty.  This is just one more thing we can be thankful for the next time we see a rainbow.  The rainbow isn’t simply a reminder that God promised Noah He would never again destroy the world with water.  It’s also a reminder of all the promises God makes to us throughout the scriptures.  It’s after the storm, that we see a rainbow.  Rainbows not only remind us of the beauty of God’s creation, they also remind us of the beauty and steadfastness of God’s promises. Amen

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