Text: Gen. 9:1-17
…And God said: “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between Me and you, and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be for the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. It shall be, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the rainbow shall be seen in the cloud; and I will remember My covenant which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. The rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”And God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
Last Sunday, early in the morning, there was a gruesome and terrible shooting in Orlando, just about 60 miles north of here. The loss of human life was terrible, but almost immediately afterwards there was a second conflict, a fight over what the killing meant. You see, the shooting took place at a gay nightclub, and the killer appears to have been a radical Islamic terrorist. Because of this, what should be a tragedy over the loss of human life is now one more installment in the culture war, another battle for gay rights.
There was and is a lot of confusion in all of this. And in the midst of it, I was particularly struck by two powerful symbols which seemed to stick out. The first is the rainbow. This has become the symbol of gay rights, and it’s been put on flags, bumper stickers, road signs, and Tampa Bay Rays hats and shirts. It’s now becoming a symbol for Orlando itself and the supposed values of tolerance and inclusion. Some Christians believe that they should accept this symbol and join the cause for gay rights. Others, like probably most of us, fear that we will be forced to choose between supporting a cause we consider immoral or be labeled a bigot and become a social pariah. This makes the rainbow a polarizing a divisive symbol, a symbol that many of us reject.
But I have noticed a second symbol as well. This symbol is actually a song, “Amazing Grace.” Of all the songs to sing, it has actually been “Amazing Grace” that has been sung in Orlando, Tampa, and across the country at many memorial services. I suppose it is one of our country’s shared spiritual songs, sung during times of special significance, and many people probably don’t pay attention to what they are saying when they sing it. Most people probably wouldn’t agree with the lyrics if they thought about them. But they sing them anyway. “Amazing Grace” is still something of a symbol of unity.
This morning, I would like for us to consider these two symbols in more detail. They can provide the meaning people are looking for. They have both been given a new meaning in our day, but they both have a powerful original meaning whose memory is not quite gone. In fact, on one level, the rainbow and “Amazing Grace” are connected in meaning. They are both about God’s covenantal promises to us. They both teach us that we are in desperate need of God’s grace. The rainbow shows us that we need God’s sustaining common grace, and the hymn “Amazing Grace” shows us that we need His special redeeming grace. So when people talk about meaning in Orlando, we should talk about the meaning which still echoes through each of us when we see and hear these symbols, even when we don’t realize it. In the wake of Orlando, we should point people to the meaning of God’s grace.
The Rainbow flag has grown in prominence over the last 10 years. After the US Supreme Court Decision in Obergefell vs. Hodges, we saw rainbow lights shining all over national landmarks, including the White House. Just yesterday in Lakeland, there was a “Pride Festival” where the Rainbow Flag was a dominant symbol. And it is emerging as one of the most common symbols for the Orlando Shooting. But what if I told you that the Rainbow has an earlier meaning, an ancient meaning that Christians can claim?
Now, before we go any further, I need to say that I am not suggesting that you to take up the rainbow flag. No, I don’t think that would be smart at all, and Christians shouldn’t try to blur the lines and appear to be siding with the LGBT movement out of empathy. The Bible’s position on human sexuality is clear. Men should be paired with women for all sexual relationships, and those relationships should only take place within the bonds of marriage. This isn’t a message of hate but of God’s design for our world. If others attempt to manipulate us into denying God’s truth during a time of deep emotion, we must stand our ground graciously but courageously.
But still, the rainbow has a different meaning, an original meaning, that people to need to know. The rainbow was chosen by God to be a mark of His covenant with mankind. The rainbow testifies of His love towards all humans, and it speaks to the value of their lives. We Christians must be the ones to remember that and to remind people of that.
Genesis 9 explains the meaning of the rainbow. Immediately after the Flood, God starts again with the human race. He repeats the dominion mandate:
So God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be on every beast of the earth, on every bird of the air, on all that move on the earth, and on all the fish of the sea. They are given into your hand. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs.” (Gen 9:1-3)
Then God draws attention to the fact that man is made in His image, and He assigns the death penalty as a civic marker to demonstrate the value of human life:
Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning; from the hand of every beast I will require it, and from the hand of man. From the hand of every man’s brother I will require the life of man.
“Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed;
For in the image of God
He made man.” (Gen. 9:5-6)
The death penalty is not a nasty bit of revenge. No, it is a powerful statement that human life has value. It is God’s very image, and it cannot be taken without the gravest of penalties.
Finally, God establishes the rainbow to be a covenantal sign to symbolize His love and care for the whole earth:
And God said: “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between Me and you, and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be for the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. It shall be, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the rainbow shall be seen in the cloud; and I will remember My covenant which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. The rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” And God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth.” (Gen. 9:12-17)
This is what the rainbow really means. It is a symbol that God Himself gave meaning to. It stands for His covenant, the promise that He will protect and preserve the earth.
And this covenant applies to all people, whether believers or unbelievers. God gives them what we call “common grace.” Now, we shouldn’t hear the word “common” and think “no big deal.” No, the grace is common in that it is given to everyone. But it is very important because it has to do with the value and preservation of our very life. This grace keeps God from destroying the earth.
Notice also that the rainbow is a reminder. Certainly it reminds us of God’s covenant when we see it. We should even direct our thoughts to God’s covenant when we see the rainbow flag. For though men mean something “for evil” with that flag, we know that the rainbow actually means something else, that we—and they— are created in the image of God. Their lives do have value, and while we disagree with them quite strongly on their positions, we believe they are valuable people. We can never carry out evil against them.
But there’s another aspect of the remembrance as well. God is remembering. “Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant…” (Gen. 9:14-15). As incredible as it is, the Bible says that the rainbow actually holds back God’s judgment and wrath, even though the people deserve that judgment and wrath. God brings His storm clouds, but He sees the sign of His promise, and so He relents for a time.
This means that the rainbow is a sign of God’s common grace and of His special forbearance in holding off judgment and wrath. He doesn’t hold it off because the person is secretly good. No. And He doesn’t’ say that He will put it off forever. But He holds it back for a certain amount of time because of the promise He made.
This makes the rainbow an especially appropriate symbol for Orlando. It says that there’s still time for the rest of us. Judgment will indeed come, but God has given us time to turn to Him. Indeed, Jesus says that His judgment will be like the “days of Noah” (Matt. 24:37), and so when we see the rainbow we should remember this. Sinners have time to repent, and we believers have time to share the gospel with them in the hopes of drawing them unto salvation.
But how can they get that salvation? This is where the rainbow stops. It tells us that we need it, but it cannot provide that need. We need more than common grace. We need special grace, and that brings us to God’s amazing grace.
There’s been a second sort of symbolism to come out of Orlando. Beside the rainbow flags, there’s also been this desire for spirituality. Everyone says that they are “Praying for Orlando.” Even while certain journalists attempt to blame the violence on traditional Christianity, the majority of people say that they are praying. They even sing Christian hymns, especially “Amazing Grace.”
I heard “Amazing Grace” being sung over the radio as they covered memorial services in Orlando and in Tampa, and I even heard it again from a service in Rhode Island. The people seemed to feel no contradiction at all saying the following words:
Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
T’was blind but now I see
What’s really surprising about this is that Amazing Grace is so obviously Christian. Sure, we can understand that most people don’t associate the rainbow with God’s covenant with creation. They probably haven’t ever read that section of Genesis, or if they have, it’s been so long that they’ve forgotten. But how can you hear, much less sing!, the lyrics of Amazing Grace without noticing what it’s about. After all, why are we calling ourselves “wretches”? What even is “grace,” and where does it come from?
“Amazing Grace” is a song all about salvation. It was written by John Newton, an English clergyman, and it explains how God’s special grace changed his life. It turned his life around and gave him a new vision, a peace of mind and a desire to praise God.
So why are people singing “Amazing Grace” for Orlando? Why is it a song that they naturally pick during times of despair and grief? Aren’t they awfully confused?
Yes, I would say that they are confused. They don’t know exactly what they are asking for. But this is actually pretty normal. People know they have a need. They don’t know exactly how to fill that need. So they go to something familiar, they go to the last thing that they associated with God’s presence. They run to “Amazing Grace.”
We Christians should be the ones who can explain that grace to these people. We should help point them to the salvation they need. We should show these wretches how God’s grace saved wretches like us, like me. We should point them to Jesus Christ.
This will mean some difficult conversations, but we should have those conversations in the spirit of love, in an effort to love our neighbors and give them God’s grace:
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14)
Times of crisis, times like last Sunday, are times that shock us. They shock us because they interrupt our normal life, our normal routine, and they remind us of our weakness. They remind us of our mortality. They remind us that we are not God. They remind us that we need God.
There is much confusion in our country right now. It should come as no surprise to see confusion in the response to Orlando. But instead of simply being angry at the confusion, we should take the opportunity to find meaning. But we shouldn’t find the meaning of the world, nor even our own meaning. We should find God’s meaning, and that meaning shines through the darkness. That meaning speaks out, even over and against the intentions of men. May those claiming the rainbow find its meaning. May those singing Amazing Grace find true grace. May we believers be instruments that God uses to help the rainbow find amazing grace in the Cross.
We are living in dark and dangerous times. It’s true. There’s so much to be anxious about, and this past week weighed heavy on me, as I’m sure it has one you. These are times when we must stand firm. We must be true to the teaching of the Word of God. These means that we must speak out against sin, but it also means that we must mourn with those who mourn. We must love our enemies and bless those who curse us. It means we must be prophets to the world, telling them God’s will as He has revealed it.
We must look past the false meaning given to God’s symbols. When we the rainbow flag, let us see the rainbow. Let us see God’s covenant with the world. Let us see more time, a chance for repentance and a means of escape. And when we hear “Amazing Grace,” let us hear the means of that escape, the true need of all who sing it.
And when we are scared or worried in this life, when we don’t know what’s going to happen or what we should do, let us not be afraid to sing those same words and mean them:
The Lord has promised good to me, his Word my hope secures; He will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures. And when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall case, I shall possess within the veil a life of joy and peace.
Let us pray.