You’ve got to start this story with the rainbow. Otherwise, it’s too awful to think about. I don’t think I really got that until I watched Ridley Scott’s recent film version of Noah’s story. Ridley Scott directed Blade Runner, and he’s never seen a color other than grey, brown, or black, and Noah looked bleak. And it really highlighted how dark the story of Noah really is. There’s one scene that stuck with me. Noah and family are on the ark, the rains have come, the floods are rising higher and higher. And Noah steps out on the deck for a minute. And nearby he can see a rocky outcropping that is still above the water. With people on it. Clinging to it for dear life. And others trying to fight their way onto the rock. Noah looks out at it for a minute and goes back inside.
That’s a heavy story. And it’s hard for me to square it with the actions of God. Which is why I think you have to start with the rainbow. Because the rainbow means that God will never let something like this happen again. The rainbow is a sign of God’s protection. Never again will I give up on you. Never again will I save the righteous and leave the hopeless. Without the rainbow, it’s a different story. Righteous man saves himself by abandoning humanity. (If he abandoned his neighbors, how righteous can he be?) With the rainbow, it’s about hope for a new humanity. Before the rainbow, God defeats sin by killing sinners. After the rainbow, God defeats sin by saving us. You can’t tell this story without the rainbow, because the rainbow saves it. The rainbow saves us all. This isn’t a story about how righteous Noah was to build an ark. It’s a story about why righteous people don’t build arks anymore. God promised, with the rainbow, that we would never need to.
And God made the rainbow a ubiquitous symbol so that we would be reminded of this promise ALL THE TIME. Rainbows aren’t hard to find. Anytime the sun comes out after it rains. You see it on the way to work when you wash your windshield. In the summer watching kids run through sprinklers. God must know that we need the reminder. You can even make one in your kitchen sink if you need to. Sometimes you’ve got to make your own hope. But God made the rainbow something we’d see everywhere so that we would always remember the promise. God will never give up on us again.
Which brings me to the biggest question of the Noah story for me. If we have the rainbow as a sign of God’s promise, why do we keep building arks? Why do we keep finding ways to save ourselves and leave everyone else behind? Why do we make ourselves out to be righteous, and tell ourselves that we deserve what we’ve got, and if people don’t have enough it’s probably because they weren’t deserving (or righteous enough)? Why do we watch out for our future and then pull up the ladder behind us? Why do we build arks?
There is a type of wisdom in our world that says that you’ve got to take care of yourself first. We see that as good, practical advice for survival in a tough world. Keep your head down, don’t go making trouble that you might get caught up in. You can’t save everybody, you know. And the myth of rugged independence is deep in our DNA. We all believe that everyone should succeed on their own. Even though one of our most important national holidays is about how the Pilgrims couldn’t survive on their own. We tell people to take care of themselves first. That worldly attitude seems to make a lot of sense. But the end result is that we’re all out here building lifeboats when God has promised that the flood will never come again. And lifeboats are busy and exhausting and easily overwhelmed. The only way people ever survive in a tough world is by showing up for each other.
So why do we keep building arks? Plans and constructions to ensure that we’ll survive and be okay, without much regard to our neighbors. Building a bunker in your backyard so that you can survive the apocalypse—that’s an ark. U.S. History is full of arks. Protestants lost the war with the crown to shape the country the way they wanted to. And so they built an ark called the Mayflower, and declared that they’d build their perfect world for themselves somewhere else. Only to find out that all the problems they had in Britain came with them. But there are other, more modern arks that are much less obvious. The college acceptance arms race – spending thousands on SAT Tutors, extra curriculars, and competitive internships so that your kid has a leg up in the college acceptance lottery – it’s an ark. Segregation is an ark– buying our way into separate neighborhoods and schools that are safer and more prosperous, while abandoning others to crime and low funding? Perfect Stepford towns with perfect Stepford laws right next to cities you’re afraid to visit at night. Arks. If you’ve got enough money you make it on the boat you do and if you don’t, you don’t. A lot of the major problems with our world are because everyone capable of fixing them built an ark and left the rest of us behind. Anytime we build a secure future for ourselves and either forget about or move to block the people we’ve left behind, we’ve built an ark. And we don’t need to do that anymore.
Because we’ve seen the rainbow. And because we’ve seen Jesus. After the rainbow God never gave up on humanity. God kept calling to us in the prophets, in faithful servants, and eventually in sending God’s only son, Jesus.
Jesus was a righteous man. Like Noah. But God didn’t send Jesus to build an ark and save himself from the doomed unrighteous. God sent him to us. He went to a suffering people. Didn’t have to. He stood up for the ones who were left out. Sex workers, tax collectors, Samaritans. The poor, the prisoner, the disabled. Everyone a righteous ark-builder would leave out. He went willingly to the cross. He lived and died with and for us, so that we could know that living and dying for each other is the only way to live. The one righteous man died with the unrighteous, to fulfill the promise.
Arks will not save us. They will only isolate us from the shared hope of humanity. Our job isn’t to follow Noah. It is to follow Jesus. It is to lay down our self-righteousness, our selfishness, our selves, take up our cross and follow him. You don’t have to save yourself. God will save us all. By the One who chose not to abandon his neighbor but to die with him, and so brought us forth to live.
I remember being in Houston, and somebody at church said, “Well, we all know what you do after a hurricane passes, right?” Everybody else did and I didn’t. Do you know what you do after a hurricane passes in Houston? You grill. The power’s gonna be out for at least a week. All that meat in the freezer going to go bad, and everybody’s got propane. Everything you’ve been saving for a rainy day is useless now that the rains have passed. So after the storm passes, and the sun comes out, everyone is out in the street grilling. Grilling whatever meat was in the freezer, and checking in on each other to make sure everyone is all right.
Every time you see a rainbow, remember this truth, this promise. You can’t save yourself. You can only be saved by Christ. Whose grace has set us free from self-righteousness. Instead of asking yourself, “how do I make sure that I get through okay,” ask yourself, “How do I make sure everybody gets through okay?” It’s kindergarten stuff, really. Don’t eat it unless you have enough for the whole class. We’ll do better by helping each other than we can ever do alone.