In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters —
These are the first sentences in the bible, written by Moses more than 3500 years ago. And they are very familiar verses — perhaps too familiar. Most of their power has been lost for us.
But for ancient people, these words would have sent a shiver up their spines. Because what Moses is describing here is a scene of terror. If we could imagine ourselves on a small ship in the middle of a vast ocean, caught in the pitch blackness of a storm with waves the size of mountains rising up all around…that is the feeling Moses wants to evoke in us — except a million times worse, because he is describing a storm the size of the universe, with the earth like a chip of wood caught in the chaos.
And yet, in the midst of all this terror and darkness, we find the Spirit of God himself hovering over the surface of the waters in the form of a powerful, storm-stilling wind. And we know this because, in Hebrew, Moses’ language, the word for spirit and wind — and breath — is the same word.
And Moses goes on to describe how the Spirit of God — the speech of God — takes control of the cosmic storm, parts the waters, and brings the earth up into light and peace and safety. He plants a garden in the midst of the wilderness, he fills the garden with life, and then he places Adam and Eve there to work the garden and protect it. And they had no idea that the God who walks with them in the garden is also a Spirit who is greater and more terrifying than the chaos of the outer universe.
In the beginning, Adam and Eve were like the newborn children of a king: they had no idea how powerful their father was. To them, God was nothing more than a gentle Father who loved them and played with them and provided everything they needed.
But then the serpent comes along and questions the goodness of their relationship with God. He points out that they are still like very young children compared to God, and that they have a lot to learn about God and about themselves. And he suggests that what their Father really wants is for them to hurry up and grow up. And he suggests that the best way for them to speed up the growth process is by thinking and acting independently from their Father. He suggests that rebellion against God is actually the mark of true maturity.
So Adam and Eve take the serpent’s advice. And he turns out to be right: they did have a lot to learn about God and about themselves. The first thing they learn about themselves is just how young and helpless the really are. And the first thing they learn about their gentle, loving Father…is that he is also the terrifying, chaos-dominating wind from the black dawn of creation. They hear him coming, riding on the winds of the storm…and everything changes.
And over the last few weeks as we have travelled through the story of Noah, we have seen how Moses has reused this language of terror and darkness to show us that Noah’s flood is not just some random ecological disaster movie — this is the story of God re-creating the earth: washing it clean of violence and injustice, making it new once more: Earth 2.0.
We have seen how each step of the creation story has been repeated again here in the flood story: how the wind of God moved strongly over the waters, and parted them, and brought dry land back into view; how vegetation was reestablished; how animals began to refill the land and the skies; how Noah took up his role as high priest, and finished the reconsecration process by performing a sacrifice and dedicating the earth to God once again.
And last week we saw how God gave Noah a more advanced constitution than the one he gave Adam. It had all the same elements as Adam’s constitution — it even had the same structure — but it was better designed for Noah’s situation. It gave Noah and his sons more detailed instructions for what true worship looks like on Earth 2.0.
So last week was about what mankind is supposed to do to worship God.
This week is about what God is going to do for mankind:
 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him:  “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.”
Way back at the beginning of Noah’s story, God came to him and said, “I am going to destroy all life with a flood — but I will establish a covenant with you.”
Here is the fulfillment and the reversal of that. Here, God establishes the covenant he promised at the beginning — and he says, “Never again will I destroy all life with a flood.”
And we have already discussed this a little bit back in Chapter 8, when Noah came out of the ark and performed a sacrifice and finished the earth’s re-dedication process. At that time, the Lord was pleased and said in his heart, “Never again will I curse the ground, never again will I destroy all living creatures.” At that time, God promised he would provide an underlying structure for the earth, to keep things from falling apart: “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” In other words, God is always going to provide a space and a structure where living things will be able to worship him.
Here God makes it all official. Everything that happened before this was like the dating process and the engagment and the writing of the marriage contract…this moment is the wedding. This is the moment when the covenant vows are exchanged and the rings are given.
And we must pause here to notice something very significant: God is only one who makes a vow here. Noah does not.
And that is strange, isn’t it? Because, normally, when a covenant relationship is established, both parties make vows of faithfulness to each other. We would find it very weird if, during a marriage ceremony, the groom made his vows to the bride — and then said, “It’s okay, you don’t need to make vows to me in return.”
But that is what happens here. Why?
Well, let’s think about it. What if we were at a wedding and that happened: what conclusions would we draw about that groom’s relationship with his bride?
It seems to me that we would have to conclude one of two things: either that bride has been so completely trustworthy, and the groom loves her so much, that he doesn’t need her to make vows to him…or the groom knows his bride is going to be completely untrustworthy, but he loves her so much he doesn’t want her to add to her sins by making vows she cannot possibly keep.
So, which one of these is happening here, do you think? Has Noah been so completely trustworthy, and God loves him so much, that God doesn’t need Noah to make a vow in return?…or does God know mankind is going to be completely untrustworthy, and doesn’t want Noah to make vows he cannot possibly keep?
The answer is…yes. To both.
Noah has proven completely trustworthy throughout this whole dating and engagement process. God has been testing Noah’s faithfulness and obedience from the first moment, and Noah has passed every test. He has been perfectly faithful and obedient. And it is because of his faithfulness and obedience that God now comes to him and says, “I am making a covenant with you!” In a way, Noah’s actions have been his vows of faithfulness, and God’s covenant is his reward. So God does not need Noah to make any vows in return.
At the same time, God has already noticed that every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. Noah has been faithful and obedient…but his descendants will not be. Noah deserves the reward of a covenant relationship with God…but his descendants do not. And so, because of his love for mankind, God does not require Noah to add to his sins by making vows he and his descendants cannot possibly keep.
So God alone makes a vow during this covenant ceremony.
But we also have to pause here to notice a second very significant thing: God alone makes a vow to Noah, who has earned it; but he also makes that same vow to Noah’s descendants, who have not earned it — and will not earn it, cannot earn it! In fact, God not only makes a covenant with Noah’s descendants…he even makes a covenant with the animals, who cannot possibly even understand what a covenant is!
And that is also pretty strange, right? We would find it weird if, during a during a marriage ceremony, the groom made his vows to the bride — and then went on to say, “Oh, and by the way, these vows of faithfulness also apply to any kids we might have — and to your pet cat.”
We would find it weird if that was actually spoken out loud during a wedding, but — actually, if we think about it — that is what those wedding vows actually mean. When a groom makes his vows to his bride, he is not just promising faithfulness to her, he is also promising faithfulness to whatever family, whatever household, is going to grow out of their marriage relationship.
So this second thing is actually not very strange: we practice it in our marriage relationships all the time. It is actually very common for us to make a covenant with someone we love — and then extend that covenant agreement to include others that don’t even exist yet, others that we might not even like very much!
And what this proves is that the validity of a covenant does not depend upon the acceptance of the recipient. God’s covenant love is always poured out upon us long before we have any idea that it is happening! — that is just the way God works. That is how gracious he is: he is kind even to people and creatures who do not have the ability to be grateful.
And these two things we have just noticed are very very important for us to keep in mind, because this is the first time in scripture Moses begins to explain what the word “covenant” means. This moment here lays the foundation for how we are supposed to understand the concept of God’s covenants. This moment points backwards and helps us understand God’s relationship with Adam better; it also points forward to God’s future covenants with Abraham, Moses, David, and ultimately Jesus.
So these are the first two foundational covenantal concepts that Moses wants us to pick up:
First, when God makes a covenant, he makes his vows to a man — a son — who has already proven himself righteous.
Second, when God makes a covenant with that righteous man, in his grace he also extends that covenant to cover all those who are under that man’s care.
And, very practically speaking, what this means for mankind is that we do not earn — we will not earn, we cannot earn — the right to be in a covenant relationship with God: we are simply not righteous enough. However: we do not need to be “righteous enough”. What we need to be is under the care of the one who is righteous enough. That is how we are brought into covenant relationship with God.
So, at this point the vows have been exchanged — or “the vow” in this case. What usually comes after the vows?
Well, in most covenant ceremonies, after the vows are exchanged there is often some kind of symbol exchanged: an action or an object that serves as a physical representation of the covenant vows. In many modern weddings that symbol is a pair of rings. In this covenant ceremony, it is something else:
 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.  Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”
 So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”
And again we have to pause here and notice a couple of significant things:
First, this “exchange” of covenant symbols is not really an exchange: it only goes one way. God gives this sign to Noah — but he does not require a sign from Noah in return. And this is meant to reinforce the fact that this is a one-way covenant from God to mankind.
Second, we have to notice that God doesn’t really give this sign to Noah, he gives it to himself. Noah gets to see it and share in it, of course, but really this covenant sign is for God’s benefit: “Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant.”
In our context, this would be a bit like if, during the wedding ceremony, the groom took out a ring and then put it on his own finger, and said, “This is now my reminder to myself that I have vowed to be faithful to my bride.” That would be…a little different, but still understandable, right? And in many respects that is how our modern wedding rings work anyway: technically, my bride gave me this ring on our wedding day — but it is my ring, and really it is a symbol of my vows.
Now, who is God making his vows to? Technically, he is making his vows to himself. Yes, he has also made these vows to Noah — but Noah is going to die one day, and legally speaking vows always die when the recipient of those vows dies. But God has just said that this covenant is an everlasting covenant. And God is the only everlasting person in this covenant. Therefore, God is ultimately making these vows to himself.
So it makes sense that the covenant God makes with himself should also be marked by a sign that he gives himself.
But at this point many of us wonder: why a rainbow? Why not something else? Was the rainbow especially significant to ancient people?
Well, God does say whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, then I will remember my covenant. So, obviously clouds and rainbows go together, we all know that. And since stormclouds carry water, and water is what God just used to judge the earth, then clouds must symbolize God’s judgement.
So maybe it just makes sense for rainbows to symbolize hope and mercy?
And, adding to this theory, many scholars have pointed out that, in Hebrew, the word for “rainbow” and “war-bow” — like bow-and-arrow war-bow — is the same word. And they point out that elsewhere in the bible God is sometimes described as a warrior with a bow, who shoots lightning like arrows of judgement.
So many scholars suggest that the rainbow symbolizes how God’s war-bow has been hung up on the wall of his heavenly palace. And every time God is tempted to bring a final judgement-storm against the earth, he looks at his bow hanging there and says, “Oh yeah, I promised not to use that weapon against the earth ever again…”
And that is an okay interpretation of what all this means. Archaeology has confirmed that many ancient peoples did see the rainbow as the war-bow of the gods hanging on the wall of heaven.
But, honestly, this interpretation does not dig deeply enough into how the ancient people of Israel would have understood this image of the rainbow appearing in the clouds.
So let’s zoom out a bit and try to see these moments through the eyes of ancient Israel. Remember, these were a people who had been rescued from slavery in Egypt, and then led into the Arabian desert — where they came to a mountain that was burning with fire, covered in darkness, gloom and storm. And God himself had spoken to them out of those clouds. And the experience was so terrifying they begged Moses to make it stop! They said, “Please, you go talk to God, then come back and tell us what he said!” Just like Adam and Eve in the garden on the day they sinned, the people of Israel also wanted to hide from God when he showed up.
So Moses entered into that thick darkness and talked with God, and came back with the outline of a new covenant. He asked the people if they wanted to join this covenant, and when they said “yes!” Moses sacrificed some bulls and goats, collected their blood, and then baptized the people with the blood, sprinkling it on them and saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God has made with you.”
And then something very interesting happened: Moses took the elders of the people — 70 of them — and brought them up onto the mountain with him, into that darkness where God was — and they saw God. And, as Moses describes it: under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky.
— in other words, God met them in a way they could understand. They believed that the earth was flat with a solid roof for a sky, and that the sky-blue roof of our world is actually the floor of God’s heaven. So they set out to climb a mountain black with storm — and found themselves transported into the throne-room of God.
But that detail is not actually the interesting part. This is: but God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.
So, God restrained himself: he did not judge them or destroy them. Now, ordinarily you cannot see God and live; but these men did. How? Why? Was it because they were perfectly righteous? No. It was because they were protected by the covenant God had just made with Moses.
So by the time Moses told his people this story about Noah, they had already experienced for themselves how the glory of God’s presence arrives in terror and a towering darkness, like the stormwind from the dawn of the universe. They had already discovered that the covenant mercies of God are an act of restraint for him. Death and judgement should have fallen upon those 70 elders — but it did not because the God of Israel is the God who keeps his covenant promises, even to people who have not earned the right to have that relationship.
So when Moses got to this point in Noah’s story where God says whenever I bring clouds over the earth — the ancient people of Israel would have had a visceral reaction to that sentence! Those words would have sent a shiver up their spines, the memories of a mountain covered in clouds of darkness.
But then, when God goes on to say: and when the rainbow appears in those clouds, I will remember my covenant — then the people would have taken a deep breath…and remembered that beyond the darkness and the terror of judgement there is light and mercy for all who live under the protection of God’s covenant.
And in the centuries that followed, this idea continued to develop and grow in the minds of God’s people, until — about 1000 years after Moses — the prophet Ezekiel was also given a vision of God’s throne-room. And we read portions of his vision for our Call to Worship today, so if you want you can actually turn to the first page of our worship guide and see what he saw.
The first thing Ezekiel sees is a windstorm coming out of the north — an immense cloud with flashing lighting and surrounded by brilliant light.
Ezekiel is experiencing what Adam and Eve did in the garden on the day they sinned; he is experiencing what the people of Israel did on the day they arrived at Mount Sinai.
Then in the middle of this cloud of fire and darkness Ezekiel sees four strange creatures. And as the vision goes on it turns out that these four creatures are a set of monstrous angels who are carrying over their heads something like a vault, sparkling like crystal, and awesome. And then, above that crystalline vault, Ezekiel sees what looked like a throne of lapis lazuli.
Now, again: does that sound familiar? Didn’t the 70 elders of Israel see a floor made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky?
And now Ezekiel sees a throne made of lapis lazuli, sitting on a vault that looks like crystal, which is held up by these four monstrous angels…?
Ezekiel is seeing the same thing the 70 elders saw, but with even more detail. As Ezekiel looks upward from his place on the earth, he is seeing that the sky-vault itself is being carried by these four angels, and that God’s throne is set on top of the sky-vault, made out of the same sky-blue material.
In other words: Ezekiel is seeing that the massive sky-blue roof of our world is actually nothing more than the base of God’s throne. To us the sky is huge and immovable and permanent; but from heaven’s perspective the sky is just a piece of furniture, small enough that four angels can pick it up and carry it around!
So the idea here is that, when God sits on his throne, he is basically seated on the entire sky. Which is just an ancient Israelite way of saying that God is present everywhere.
But we already knew that about God, right? Those details aren’t actually the interesting part. This is: when Ezekiel looks at the throne, he sees a figure like that of a man. And around this figure, guess what he sees? A brilliant light: like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.
Friends, this is hugely significant, because this verse is only other place in the whole Old Testament where a rainbow is mentioned. And that is why this verse from Ezekiel’s vision must be our guide to understanding what the rainbow really means back in Genesis.
It is true that the Hebrew word for “rainbow” and “war-bow” are the same word, and it is okay to understand the rainbow in the clouds as a symbol and reminder of how God has hung up the bow and arrows of his flood judgement.
But the rainbow in the clouds actually means so much more than that to God’s people. As Ezekiel has just revealed to us, the stormcloud and the rainbow are actually the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord! The terrifying cloud of God’s judgement and the brilliant rainbow of his mercy are both eternal features of God’s presence.
So: the clouds and the rainbow are actually eternal expressions of God’s presence and glory. How is this understanding supposed to change our lives?
Well, this understanding changes our lives by changing our understanding of who God really is.
See, to us, stormclouds come and go. To us, rainbows are only a sometimes thing. And this generally leads us to think that God’s wrath and judgement also must come and go, while his mercy also is only a sometimes thing. And so, many people, when they read these verses in Genesis, think that Moses is describing a God who is mostly in a judgemental bad mood…until he sees a rainbow, and then he calms down for a bit. And that is, frankly, the kind of god that most people believe in: a god who is always waiting to wack you, unless you can make him happy somehow.
But that is not the God that Moses is describing. That is not the God Ezekiel saw. When Moses says that God sees the rainbow and remembers his covenant, Moses is using time-based language to describe an eternal reality. And the eternal reality is this: God is eternally enthroned in the midst of the clouds of his glorious judgement, and he is eternally enthroned in the midst of the rainbow of his glorious mercy and restraint.
God does not ever put aside for one moment his promise that one day he is going to destroy all those who have abused the weak and the helpless: there will be justice, there must be justice.
At the same time, God does not ever forget that he has promised to be merciful even to those who do not deserve it.
In short: God does not need to “remember” to be merciful, because the everlasting sign of his everlasting covenant is always right there with him.
So the God that Moses is describing is 100% justice and 100% mercy all the time.
And once we understand this about God…everything changes.
Once upon a time Adam and Eve lived in a garden with a gentle Father who loved them and played with them and provided everything they could possibly need. They were innocent children. But then their eyes were opened, and for the first time they saw the windstorm in all of its terrible significance.
And ever since then our species has lived in terror of God. The gentle Father of the garden has become veiled in the darkness and the terror of judgement, and for thousands of years now we have been trying to hide from that terrible truth.
And, as a species, we all try to hide from judgement in a variety of ways. Some of us try to pretend there is no God, there are no clouds, there is no judgement. Some of us try to pretend that there are actually two gods: one is a God of Love, and the other one is a God of Judgement…and we get to choose which one we have a relationship with. Some of us will admit that God must be a God of Judgment — but we also try to pretend that, if we just shine our little lights brightly enough we will create a rainbow and maybe even turn God’s frown upside-down! Just like Adam and Eve, we have all tried to hide the truth about God from ourselves, and the truth about ourselves from God.
But now, through God’s covenant with Noah, all mankind has an advantage that Adam and Eve did not have. They finished out their lives in the grief of knowing that they would never see the face of their gentle Father again. But we, as Noah’s descendants, have this hint and this promise that one day, through a covenant, it will be possible for human beings to see the face of God and live.
God’s covenant with Noah shows us that it is possible for our species to pass through the stormclouds of judgement and experience God as a gentle Father once again, just as Adam and Eve did in the beginning.
So, very practically speaking now: how do we do that?
Well…the first step is to stop hiding from the truth of our situation as a species: Noah’s flood — and the covenant that follows — shows us that God is everywhere present and he is the God of justice.
He sees your sins. He sees mine. He sees everything that goes on: every injustice, every abuse. He sees that we are all guilty. And this means that every human being — actually, every living creature! — lives surrounded by the stormclouds of God’s presence. We all live no more than one breath away from God’s judgement.
And that should fill us with fear. That should send a shiver up our spines. And that fear is actually the first step toward experiencing God as your Father. So embrace that fear! Acknowledge that God’s judgement is real, and that you deserve it.
The second step, then, is to stop hiding from the evidence of God’s mercy: Noah’s flood — and the covenant that follows — shows us that, if we are still breathing, then that is nothing less than an act of God’s mercy!
Because we do not deserve to keep breathing! We deserve judgement, and we deserve it now. But God has promised to restrain himself. He has promised to sustain the ecological systems of this earth…forever! Seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.
That is voice of a God who wants to be your gentle Father again, and in his mercy he is willing to keep you breathing in order to give you every chance to approach him.
And that, friends, should fill us with hope. That should make each one of us cry out, “But how, Father? I’m afraid to approach you! I do not deserve to approach you!” And that cry of longing is actually the second step toward experiencing God as your Father.
And that brings us to the third, and final, step: accept the protection of God’s covenant. Noah’s flood — and the covenant that follows — shows us that only those who have been gathered together into the ark of God’s covenant can pass safely through the storm of God’s judgement.
But at this point someone is going to say, “Wait a minute? Isn’t God’s covenant with Noah a covenant will all living creatures, including us? That means all of us are already in covenant with God! And that must mean we’re all going to be saved.”
Not quite. Noah’s covenant does apply to all mankind. But Noah’s covenant is not a covenant of salvation; it is a covenant of restraint. God does not promise to save every living creature; he promises not to destroy every living creature.
And some people are going to say, “Well…that’s dumb! That doesn’t give me, personally, any guarantees at all that I’ll end up on the “not destroyed” side of the ledger!”
— and that is exactly right! God’s covenant with Noah does not guarantee your salvation — or mine! All it guarantees is that not all will fall under judgement. In other words, God’s covenant with Noah is a guarantee that some will be saved. God’s covenant with Noah is a guarantee that, someday, somehow, God will provide a covenant of salvation for our species.
The Good News for us is this: our Father has fulfilled that promise. He sent his only begotten Son to live as a human being on this earth: the man Jesus of Nazareth. The Father tested his Son’s faithfulness and obedience in every possible way…and his Son passed every test. Jesus proved himself to be perfectly faithful, perfectly obedient. And, then, as his reward, his Father came to him and said, “I now establish my covenant with you — and with all your descendants after you.”
And, very practically speaking, what this means is that we do not earn — we will not earn, we cannot earn — the right to be in a covenant of salvation with God: we are simply not righteous enough. However, we do not need to be “righteous enough”. What we need to be is under the care of the only One who is righteous enough. And that one is Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God.
So this is step three: place yourself under the care of Jesus Christ. When you feel the black clouds of judgement beginning to close in around you, ask the Holy Spirit to open your eyes and let you see the Son of God, who is the living radiance of God’s glory, the one who sustains all things by his powerful word. Jesus has provided purification for sins, and the promise of his covenant is that everyone who calls upon Jesus’ name for salvation will pass safely through the darkness and find themselves transported into the throne-room of God.
And when we arrive there guess we are going to see!
That’s right: a rainbow.
It is actually a little bit strange that such a powerful sign is only mentioned three times in all of scripture. The first time is here, at the beginning, in God’s covenant with Noah. The second time is in the middle, during Ezekiel’s vision.
And the third time is at the end, in the Book of Revelation, Chapter 4, when John the Apostle also receives a vision of God’s throne-room. And we are going to read those verses as our benediction at the end of our service today — but I’m going to go ahead and give you a spoiler now: just like Ezekiel, John sees four monstrous angels, and a floor that looks like a sea of glass, clear as crystal. And then —
“There before me was a throne with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and ruby.” And then he says this: “A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne.“
Friends, brothers and sisters: this is the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord! We will see our Father and our Saviour face to face, we will eat and drink in God’s presence — and we are going to live.
So I take it back: it is not strange for such a powerful sign to be mentioned only three times in all of scripture. It is only right and proper for an image so holy to be mentioned only at the holiest of moments.