A Tale of Two Rainbows

Pastor Matt Anderson
Surprise Church
Tale of Two Rainbows 2.0

The Sunday following the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to legalize same-sex marriage in all fifty states, I informed my congregation of three things. First, my decision to preach about John the Baptist that day—who was imprisoned and executed for criticizing the sexual sins of King Herod—was made long before the ruling came out. Secondly, Surprise Church embraces traditional marriage values while welcoming people who do not share them, making us a safe, respect-filled community in which anyone can belong, grow, and make a difference. Call me crazy, but we actually think that’s possible.

Third and finally, I declared, I’m not giving up on the rainbow.

The rainbow has become the “banner” of progressive morality, a rally call uniting those who dream of a better world. On the other hand, the rainbow is an ancient symbol within the Judeo-Christian faith that proclaims radical truths about God and humankind. This one symbol has refracted into two alternative visions for reality, both of which express a common longing for some form of revolution that ushers in a new age.

As a courtesy nod to the perceptual relativism of our post-modern era, I’ll concede that symbols can mean different things to different people. And yet, it’s nonetheless compelling to compare these two visions as best we can, which I respectfully attempt below.

The Political Rainbow
At its best, this multi-colored spectrum represents diversity, a dominant value in progressive thought. This symbol finds roots in a Civil Rights movement that lifted us from the monochromatic realities of racism toward the acceptance of those who are different. Multi-culturalism and inclusivity themselves represented the pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, guarded not by a red-haired, green-clad man of Northern European descent, but shared and celebrated by all.

The political rainbow beckons us toward a society in which people of all races and backgrounds find acceptance and inclusion among those who have been enlightened. It calls us to see past the superficial, to withhold judgment, and to value one another as human beings. Few of us would disagree with these ideals in general, and most of us are proud of the progress we’ve made in this country.

But that’s it. This spectrum of diversity is a functional end in itself, with no greater purpose to pursue or embrace. After the inclusion and acceptance of previously unacceptable people or practices, one simply moves on to the next cause and mechanically reapplies the same principles with increasing zeal and momentum, like an army rapidly taking more ground on a battlefield. This political symbol can be used to advocate for political rights or flaunt public sexuality, whatever an individual believes should be celebrated as the next goal on the forbidden frontier. Unfortunately, this acceptance usually excludes traditional values and those who embrace them, which are often seen as the enemy of the political rainbow and the lone exception to an otherwise inclusive vision. The political rainbow represents both the beauty and brokenness of a generation that longs for a better day but finds itself unable to fully bring that reality about.

The Rainbow as a Christian Symbol
Many of us have overlooked the Biblical roots of this symbol. In Genesis 5, God laments the rebellion that He sees among His creatures. Humans have so utterly rejected God and His vision for the world that He utters a statement so redundant that it makes every English teacher cringe: Every inclination of the human heart is only evil all the time (Gen 6:5). God saw that the world’s sin was “rava” in the Hebrew, so all-encompassing that every aspect of our world had become stained and perverted. Everything about humanity, from birth to death, represented rebellion against our Creator.

So God killed everyone but Noah’s family and started over. Was that harsh? Sure. Does it expose the seriousness of sin? Yup. Is it proof that God doesn’t confine Himself to the moral preconceptions of creatures who are engaged in an active rebellion against Him? Absolutely.

But the most provocative thing about the flood happens after the waters subside, where God proclaims, Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done (Gen 8:21). Even now, after obliterating all but the most righteous family on earth, God teaches that the problem (sin) remains. Punishment exposed, but didn’t destroy human rebellion.

And so God sets His bow in the clouds: Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth (Gen 9:16).

The “bow” in question (keshet in the original Hebrew) is not a fluffy array of clouds, unicorns and splashes of color. The word refers to a war bow and represents God’s weapon of judgment. Like a middle-aged man hanging up his football cleats once and for all, God hangs up his bow to demonstrate that judgment doesn’t remove sin and will not be His solution for dealing with it. God commits Himself to staring at His abandoned heavenly weapon as a perpetual self-reminder to respond to His rebellious creatures in a manner other than annihilation.

God’s new way of dealing with sin was ultimately to insert Himself into the human story and die in our place. God’s self-sacrifice was intended to draw us to Himself through an act of love, which simultaneously bore the consequence for our rebellion. So it shouldn’t be surprising that in Revelation 4:3, the Crucified and Risen Jesus is portrayed upon His heavenly throne with an intriguing taste in décor— He’s surrounded by a rainbow.

The Christian rainbow represents a God who has been rejected by humans, but chooses to gaze at us through the prism of His promise to take our punishment upon Himself. The Christian rainbow represents a fallen humanity, which—though born sinful—has been handed the unthinkable and undeserved opportunity to be born again through Jesus. The Christian rainbow rejects judgment, not because sin doesn’t exist or should be condoned, but because God has taken our judgment upon Himself and reserves judgment for Himself. The Christian rainbow represents a God who desires far more than diversity, who dreams of an eternal family from every tribe and tongue and nation that is united by nothing less than the blood of Jesus Christ.

These two rainbows represent two different gospels: Western culture’s gospel of inclusivity and the Biblical Gospel of Jesus Christ. I may be biased, but to me the Gospel of the Biblical rainbow is so incredibly superior to that of the political rainbow that words fail to do it justice, offering vastly more hope, joy and yes pleasure to a world that is desperately searching for it. Comparing the two visions is like comparing Niagara Falls to a dripping faucet, a sunset to a cigarette lighter, or the Mona Lisa to graffiti on an overpass. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is simply too grand to grasp. We’ll spend our entire lives just scratching the surface and all eternity savoring its splendor.

So if you ever see a rainbow on my T-shirt, car bumper, or Facebook page, please understand that I’ve chosen Jesus’ rainbow, because it offers far better news for gay and straight sinners alike. The rainbow I champion, display, and cherish symbolizes nothing less than the story of a God who hung his weapon in the clouds—and Himself on the cross—so that I (and my fellow rebellious humans) who was born into sin could be reborn to a better world.