Genesis 9:8-17 & Mark 1:9-15
I usually think of the Bible as a recording of God’s interactions with God’s people from several human perspectives. Every so often in scripture, however, we are presented with descriptions of God’s interior life, emotions, thoughts and even surprise. Both passages this week include God setting up a sign in the sky, not for normal humans, but to communicate an emotion-laden message to Godself and Jesus.
The Genesis passage describes God’s covenant with Noah, his family and all the animal life on earth. God promised to never again wipe out all life by a flood. This always struck me as somewhat cold comfort. God is pretty creative, literally, and could come up with any number of ways to blot out life that did not involve floods. Nonetheless, God set up God’s bow in the sky that when it was seen, God would take care not to allow extinction-level flooding. The rainbow in the sky, contrary to my son’s children’s Bible, is not a sign for the people, but a sign for God. In Genesis 9:14-16, God specifically said that the sign was to be a reminder to God for God not to violate what God promised to all animal and human life.
This is one of those passages in the Bible where God spoke about God’s internal process. The text could very easily have said what our children’s picture Bible says: the rainbow was a sign for Noah that God wouldn’t send a world-flood again. But God set up a reminder for Godself. God told Noah, “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God has a complex emotional life and is filled, moved, and according to several of the minor prophets, overwhelmed by God’s pathos (Isa 54:7-8):
For a brief moment I abandoned you,
but with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing wrath for a moment
I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,
says the Lord, your Redeemer.
A cursory review of scripture reveals many times that God was provoked to wrath. God knows this about Godself. And so God set a sign in the sky to remind God of God’s promises, lest God’s regret at making humans temporarily overwhelm God’s love for God’s children [again].
In the same way, as Jesus was coming up out of the Jordan river after being baptized by his relative John, he saw heaven split open, and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove, and he heard a voice saying, “You are my beloved son, in you I am well pleased (Mark 1:10-11). In Matthew’s gospel the crowd also heard the voice, whereas Mark and Luke simply recorded that “a voice said”… In every case, though, the vision of heaven opening seems to have been primarily for Jesus. Why? We are still early in the gospel according to Mark, and the messianic secret must still be kept. A vision of heaven opening and the Spirit descending upon a man would have done wonders for winning Jesus acclaim and followers, but that was not the goal yet.
The goal of the heavenly vision and voice seems to have been an encouragement to Jesus. Immediately [as is usually the case in Mark’s rushed narrative] after his baptism, Jesus was driven [Greek ekballo – expelled, forced out] out to the wilderness to be tempted. Jesus was about to be sorely tempted. The temptation did not begin immediately, but only after surviving 40 days in the wilderness, which was a challenge enough on its own. Jesus was in store for a tough time, but he had the words of God ringing in his ears: “You are my beloved son, and in you I am well pleased.” God was concerned with Jesus’ emotional experience and wanted to make sure that during the difficult period of temptation and near-starvation, that Jesus knew that God loved him. This sign was not primarily for the people, but to speak encouragement to the messiah, lest he be overwhelmed with the difficulty of temptation.
Friends, if God sets up reminders and signs to prevent Godself and Jesus from being overwhelmed with negative emotions, certainly we humans who are the image-bearers of God also ought to think about memorializing important decisions and our identity as beloved children of God before difficult times come. We will be overwhelmed with anger, fear and doubt. That is normal. Even God’s emotional life is a roller coaster. What signs can we set up for ourselves and how can we listen for the divine voice before we struggle so that in the midst of difficulties, we do not falter? Let us think about fulfilling Jesus’ commandment to be mature like our Father in Heaven (Matt 5:48) and steel ourselves to endure the ups and downs that will surely come.