Lent I; February 22, 2015
I Peter 3:18-22
I wonder if Noah, standing on the deck of the Ark, thought that he was being “saved through water” (v. 20) or if he thought he was being saved “from” the water. Forty days and forty nights of rain, and the water table bursting forth from underneath, drowning everything: that hardly feels like the means of salvation; the Ark was the means of salvation from the water.
So Peter is a poet as well as a fisherman. Anyway, Peter’s retelling of the story as a foreshadowing of baptism is beautiful, and I love it that our Revised Common Lectionary pairs it with the story of the covenant of the rainbow (Genesis 9:8-17). And to top it all off, Peter doesn’t even say about baptism the sorts of things we normally say. We normally say that baptism cleanses from sin, that baptism is accompanied by our promises to God. Peter says: No, you’ve got that backwards. God is the one who makes the promises, and baptism isn’t about cleansing so much as it’s an appeal to God. When you and I go into the water, it’s not to cleanse our conscience, but as a prayer to God for God to give us a good conscience.
Here’s another curious thing about the readings, and specifically about the rainbow. God says, “I’ll put my bow in the sky.” The same word is both “bow” as in “the thing I pull to let fly an arrow to kill my enemy” and “the curved many-colored thing in the sky when the sun is shining and there is rain at the same time.” So God hangs his war-bow in the sky, his many-colored war-bow, as a sign of his promise not to destroy the earth. And another curious thing: not only is that God’s war-bow hanging in the sky, hanging as a reminder, but did you notice: who is it supposed to remind? No, God doesn’t hang the war-bow to remind you and me of God’s promise; God hangs the war-bow in the sky to remind God of his promise! Look it up: it’s verses 15 and 16.
We have all these things swirling around in the air here: a rainbow, God hanging up his weapon and reminding himself of his promise; baptism, an appeal to God for a good conscience; and being saved through water.
The focus in both stories is salvation: God saves Noah and his family; God saves you and me. I warned you a few weeks ago that sometime I was going to ask you to consider what God is saving you from. So, follow these questions and think about them. I am not going to ask you to tell everyone else what you come up with. First: what is something in your life – past or present – that has made it difficult for you to be all God has created you to be? (Pause for thought) Second: what is God doing in your life that is helping you with that? (Pause for thought) Third: how can remembering that you have been baptized remind you of what God is doing? What sort of link can you make there?
Keep that in mind. In fact, if you keep a spiritual journal or you simply want to make a note to yourself in your bulletin or on your cell-phone, it would be well to keep the baptismal font as a sort of anchor, a reminder of how God is saving you.
And the rainbow is to be God’s reminder of his promise to us. Perhaps something you and I can do from time to time is give God a nudge in our prayers. Isaiah has a haunting picture in chapter 62: sentinels posted on the walls of Jerusalem who are to keep reminding God of God’s promise to establish Jerusalem and make it renowned (62:6-7). If you think God isn’t seeing the rainbow often enough, then stand in the breach for the world: remind God of God’s promises.
God has promised not to destroy the world, but God has not promised to prevent us from destroying it. God has unilaterally disarmed, hanging his war-bow in the clouds, but we are still very much armed. We used to worry about nuclear war; the threat of it is still real, although not as urgent as when I was a child. Then we worried about air and water pollution, and we’ve made some progress on those. Now the threat is climate change; much of the talk at the meeting I attended last week was about climate change and what we can do, if we find the political will.
Part of our appeal for a good conscience is to continue to confess the world’s sin, even as we remind God of God’s promises to the world. Sometimes, when you say the prayer of confession in church, you may think, “Well, I don’t do that!” I’ve even heard, after a particular prayer of confession, “We don’t have that problem here!” Well, maybe you don’t do that particular thing. But remember that when we make our confession, we’re making it for everyone, not just ourselves alone. You may have given up your car and you may be carbon-neutral in the way you heat and power your home, but as long as the human race as a whole is burning fossil fuels and increasing the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we have something to confess. And if we clean up that act, there will be something else, some other sin to confess.
So we appeal to God for a good conscience, we appeal to God to keep saving us, and to save the world. The rainbow promises that God will not destroy the world; we know that God intends to do better than that, for God intends to remake the world into a “new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1). We can pray for that too.
There are a lot of ideas swirling around in the air right now, I know. This wonderful passage from Peter’s letter is almost like one of those paintings where the artist stands in front of a blank canvas and throws color here and there and some more over there. But there is a key idea in it, that takes all those colors on the wall and makes a rainbow of them, that takes those ideas swirling in the air and turns them into an appeal to God for a good conscience: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
You see, the way baptism saves us – to use Peter’s words – is by taking us into the grave with Jesus Christ and breaking us out again with him. That’s why Peter talks about Christ “preaching to the spirits in prison” – no one has to live in hell, not now, not after death, not never. We may be doing our darndest to turn this world into a living hell, but God is working steadily and constantly to make a new heaven and a new earth. By raising Jesus Christ from the dead God made the project visible and announced it publicly and invited us to be part of it.
I’ve thrown lots of color on that canvas; God makes them into a rainbow by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Whatever you decided today that God is saving you from – and you may think of something else on your way home from church – the power to save you comes from the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And baptism, which appeals to God for us, may remind you of that power and that salvation, just as the rainbow reminds God of God’s promises to us.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
 The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science