HOPE AGAINST HOPESpotting Rainbows in the Midst of Life's Storms
I had a friend ask me recently whether I thought all of the recent hurricanes and earthquakes and wars were signs that the world is coming to an end. It would be easy to interpret what we see around us in such disastrous ways.
There’s an ancient story about a man instructed to build a boat to survive a divinely ordained flood. The man brought his family and seed of all living things on board, while the rest of humanity was killed by the rising waters. As the flood waters receded, the man set free birds to look for — and finally find — dry land. With the disaster now over, the man built an altar and provided a sacrifice. A sacrifice that god could smell from heaven and that would never be forgotten.
So here’s a question for you: what was the name of that man? If you’re familiar at all with the stories of the Bible, your answer is Noah.
And you’d be wrong.
The man from this ancient story is named Gilgamesh, the central character in an Epic story which predates the biblical story of Noah by nearly 2,000 years.
You see, flood stories weren’t that unique in the ancient world, particularly in Mesopotamia. Literally meaning “land between two rivers,” Mesopotamia was the region located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern day Iraq. Though the Middle East is thought to be dry and arid, Mesopotamia has always received heavy amount of rain.
Which is a little problematic when you live between two rivers.
Floods — massive, catastrophic floods covering their entire known world — were a common occurrence. And inevitably following such catastrophes are narratives that try to understand how and why something so terrible has happened.
So in one respect, the story of Noah in Genesis is not all that different from the other flood stories of Mesopotamia — an ancient author wrestling with the purpose behind natural disasters.
And yet, in one very important way, the Bible’s flood story is unique in a very important way. Other flood stories ends with the gods’ disappointment that any humans survived or with new plans for controlling humans.
But this story … ends with a rainbow.
Genesis 9.12-16 reads:
12 And God said, “This is the guarantee of the covenant I am making with you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all subsequent generations: 13 I will place my rainbow in the clouds, and it will become a guarantee of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, 15 then I will remember my covenant with you and with all living creatures of all kinds. Never again will the waters become a flood and destroy all living things. 16 When the rainbow is in the clouds, I will notice it and remember the perpetual covenant between God and all living creatures of all kinds that are on the earth.”
Now, is this really what rainbows are? Not really. Science has taught us that rainbows exist because of reflection, refraction, and dispersion of light in water droplets.
But the ancients didn’t have this science. And they didn’t need it. Knowing what rainbows ARE wouldn’t have changed what they came to MEAN. You see, the rainbow as a sign is the coopted, an everyday occurrence creatively interpreted to remind a broken world about God’s love. The warrior God set down his bow, the weapon he wielded against humanity.
The point of the Bible’s flood story is not that a disaster happened but that disasters HAPPEN. And when they happen, we have a symbol to remind us that God is not punishing us.
Maybe that’s how we once understood how God operated. But not anymore. Because our God isn’t like that.
When the flood waters are rising up and the world is crashing down, often all we have are obscure symbols that give us just the smallest glimmer of HOPE.
In the days and weeks and months and years and decades and centuries after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, his followers have wrestled with how to interpret the world in light of the Jesus.
From early on, there was a conviction that this Jesus event had implications not just for souls but for humans and for the entire earth.
How then are we to understand life when the world is falling down all around us? Is God angry? Is God even there?
Perhaps you’ve asked that same question.
Well in an attempt to interpret the times in light of Jesus, one of his earliest followers named Paul said this:
18 For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the coming glory that will be revealed to us. 19 For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility—not willingly but because of God who subjected it—in hope 21 that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. 23 Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with endurance.
26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how we should pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes on behalf of the saints according to God’s will. 28 And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose, 29 because those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified.
31 What then shall we say about these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 Indeed, he who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, freely give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is the one who will condemn? Christ is the one who died (and more than that, he was raised), who is at the right hand of God, and who also is interceding for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will trouble, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we encounter death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we have complete victory through him who loved us! 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We can break down some of the sloppy or destructive theology that people assemble from these verses. I am as pessimistic as they come. But our world doesn’t need more pessimism — it needs more hope.
More importantly, we need symbols that give us hope that cuts through our groans and the groans of creation.
For followers of Jesus, that symbol has been a cross — a symbol of torture and death coopted to give us a glimmer of hope in a world of despair.
Hope against hope that the world won’t always be this way.
Hope against hope that we won’t always be this way.
Hope against hope that God isn’t a monster trying to punish us.
Hope against hope that God loves us enough to die for us in order to flip the script that told us the world is going to hell in a handbasket and we are too.
We live in a fractured and hurting world, pounded again and again by disaster after disaster. These disasters demand our attention and the people require our care.
But when so many tangible things are being washed away or destroyed, we need to be people who coopt tangible signs of hope in a God who is with us and for us when disaster strikes. Even if it’s hope against hope.
We need to be in the business of stealing everyday objects and occurrences and reinterpret them.
So what symbols give you hope?