Have you seen them? All over everywhere, rainbows are appearing in windows — a gift from children to those who pass by. A promise of hope and solidarity.
Children understand rainbows. Rainbows are pure joy — fleeting wonder — surprise and delight. Quick, come see. Look what I’ve made. Then they put down their crayons, and move outdoors. They play with one of the miracles of the universe. Light bends. It refracts. White is all the colours joined together. The crayons tell a different story, but the garden hose knows the truth.
I have no desire to interpret these gifts from the children — they are pure gift, and we will find in them what we need.
But inevitably, in Christian circles, the rainbows are leading to other stories – of Noah, and the flood. The rainbow as sign of promise. Parents are relieved to tick off the RE lessons for the week, as youth leaders send out rainbow prayers. Noah is indeed one of our oldest stories — but it is not one I think we should be encouraging children towards right now.
Lots of you know that I will never by choice use the story of the Noah with young children. Yes, of course it is lovely to imagine animals two by two. A boat. A giraffe. A bit of rain, and then the raven. The dove. The bow of light that is the sign of God’s faithfulness.
But children will not be fooled. This is a terrible story. The boat and the gathering of animals, the rainbow itself — it is all predicated on the thought that God is weary of most of us, and is willing to kill us off. Any child who is paying attention to the story will quickly turn against this God character, who is mighty but fickle, and who is willing to do us harm. Some children will hear this story and internalise fear: ‘something bad has happened. It must be my fault. How can I be better so that no one will be hurt?’ Others will look at it, and write God off — and who can blame them really? A god who kills off unicorns is not a god we need.
And yet — this story is there in our scriptures. And the rainbows are everywhere. What are we to do with a story so captivating, and so cruel?
First, we need to remember that Noah is just one story. It’s an early story, and formative. It is a founding myth and legend. But it is not the whole story of God.
The Noah story (Exodus 9) may suggest that God is willing to save only a few, to write most of us off . But Isaiah says:
Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;Isaiah 49
break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people,
and will have compassion on his suffering ones.
But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me,
my Lord has forgotten me.’
Can a woman forget her nursing-child
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands
God cannot forget us. God will never let us go.
So which is it? Do we worship a God who might drown us, or one who inscribes us in the palm of God’s hand?
In Scripture itself, the God of wrath is troublesome. Job saw it. Isaiah saw it. They bear witness to those who trust God enough to challenge the story, and to find a better way.
In Christ the story is challenged again:
‘Who sinned? This man or his parents, that he was born blind?’
‘Neither this man, nor his parents sinned. He was born blind so that God’s work could be seen in him.’John 9
Jesus becomes a new prism, through which we can see the glory of God. Blindness isn’t punishment. Sorrow isn’t always sign that we’ve done something wrong. That just isn’t how the universe works. God loves us, and sometimes it hurts. God loves us, but still people die.
What we know (what Job believed, what Isaiah had begun to understand) is that God is in the pain. And sometimes, the scale of the pain shows us the very depths of love.
The Noah story posits that God gets sick of us, and writes us off. The story of Jesus also posits that God gets sick of us: Jesus gets so cross that he overturns tables in the temple and curses a fig tree. But then, from crossness, he walks straight to the cross. He chooses death, rather than spinning the cycle of violence. He accepts suffering, so we can learn that even in suffering, God is there.
The stories of scripture are like the colours of the rainbow: none stand alone. It’s together that they show us the light of God.
Remember the rainbow comes first. Before the Noah story — before any talk of of covenant, there was the light. And in the light, the rainbow hides.
In the beginning, when God created the heaven and the earth, the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep… God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light… And God saw that it was good.’
The rainbows are always there — waiting to happen. The Glory of God, hidden and revealed.
We have no claim on the rainbow.
It is given to us, but it is not ours.
It doesn’t need Noah, and it doesn’t need us.
It cries out glory, all by itself.
The children know this, and are willing to show us — if we just let them play.