In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; Amen.
Well here we are again: the time of year spanning from Ash Wednesday to Holy Week called, “Lent.” Every year on the first Sunday of Lent we hear the story of Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness. This time around, being that we are in the year of Mark, we not only hear the very short version of Jesus being tempted, living among the wild beasts and being waited on by angels…but if you were paying close attention, you noticed that we heard Mark's rendition of Christmas, of Jesus' baptism, and of the beginnings of his preaching ministry. There are not many details in this account; a lot is left to the imagination. Because of that, and the fact that we have heard and reflected upon many of these verses multiple times in the past couple of months, I want to focus my message on the first lesson this morning – the end of the story of Noah and the flood. This is the first of three weeks when we will hear about covenants that God makes with the early inhabitants of his creation – this one with Noah, next week with Abraham, and in two weeks on Mt. Sinai with Moses and the Israelites. It is good to begin this season by thinking about covenants, because covenants are vital to our healthy relationship with God.
Lent is a season where we cannot help but think about sin and our sins; we tend to focus at least part of our time on our regret over how we have fallen short of God's expectations for us, the sinful state of humanity and of our individual lives obviously takes center stage. But we do not want to wallow in any kind of hopeless situation as sinful human beings; that is why it is right and good to begin Lent the very first week by examining God's covenant with us.
Covenants are contracts, entered into by two parties who promise to do or provide something, whether it is products, services or even payment. Building contracts, leases or mortgages are obvious covenants, as are agreements on hiring and firing of employees. Also, marriages are covenants, and one might say that all friendships are based on some kind of covenantal understanding that the society places on the relationship. When we are in any of these situations and the person with which we have a covenant breaks their promises and does not live up to their part of the bargain, then we feel cheated, angry and taken advantage of. In today's day and age, we want justice and then we want to walk away, ending that relationship forever.
God's covenant with us is different. In our first lesson, we heard the conclusion of the flood story – it often makes us feel warm inside because every time we Christians see a rainbow, it not only lifts our spirits and fills us with joy, but it reminds us of this story. God has promised never to destroy the earth again with a flood, and that is good news indeed! But it is also important to consider the entire story leading up to this point in scripture. It didn't take long after God created everything for his prized possessions to begin to slide down a slippery path. Soon the serpent coaxed the Adam & Eve into breaking God's one and only rule, then there was animosity between not only males & females, but between humanity and the animal world; brother killed brother, and as the numbers of people multiplied on the earth, Genesis 6:5-7 says, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. 6And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.'
It was regret and anger that brought God to do what he did – to create such a catastrophic event that all living creatures on the earth (except 8 people and two of each animal) were wiped out. Fortunately for us, the regret that God experienced after the flood was much greater than his regret at creating humanity in the first place. And so, in our first lesson today, we hear God promising never to do it again. It is not like the covenants or contracts that we enter into – it is a promise that no matter how sinful or evil the world is, the option of total annihilation is off the table. The bow in the sky is an intentional pun for us – it not only refers to the rainbow, but also to the fact that in ancient times deities were often pictured in battle, riding a horse with bow and arrow drawn. To hang up one's bow means that they retire permanently from battle. God has hung his bow in the sky, and this kind of worldly catastrophe will never happen again. That is the promise of the covenant that God shares with Noah, and that is the covenant that every one of us INCLUDING GOD are to remember when we see a rainbow in the sky.
But if you think that God proclaimed this promise with some kind of naïve optimism - that by doing so, his creatures would stay on the straight and narrow, you are sadly missing the point and the power of God's mercy and love. God renewed this covenant with Noah and his family knowing full well that his people will continue to be selfish and sometimes evil creatures. To be sure, the first thing that we read about after this covenant promise is Noah planting a vineyard, drinking too much of the wine from it and lying naked – then cursing his youngest son who covered him up. And in a short period of time, you can read about the story of the Tower of Babel – human beings thinking that they can achieve the status of God by building a structure that reaches the skies. Imagine the frustration of God when all of this and other day to day sins are happening around him, knowing that even though he has made a promise, human beings will still be the same rotten scoundrels that we always have been! And God continues to love these people.
So, on this first week of Lent we hear of God's grace-filled promise to us. As we focus on our need for God's love and forgiveness, we do so remembering that we will not change too much. Even if we are able to put aside one destructive thought, habit or addiction, we will still find ways to hurt ourselves or others around us; we will still think and say and do things that we will regret. Having been born into this sinful condition, we are called every day to return to the Lord our God who is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Lent is a prime time for us to focus on that need.
In the reading from Peter's letter we see a connection between God's activity in the flood and in our own baptisms. God saved Noah and his family and made a covenant with them not because he knew they would always be perfect, but because somehow they had favor in God's sight. In our baptisms, God makes a covenant with us identical to the one he made with Noah and his family. God knows that we will fall short of this relationship every day. God knows that we cannot hold up our end of the bargain; still God promises to love us, care for us and keep setting us straight until he saves us totally and finally at the resurrection.
In our adult Sunday school lesson this morning we are studying the background to our opening hymn: O Lord Throughout These Forty Days. The author of the study rightfully points out that in our current culture it has become inappropriate to use the word, “sin.” As a matter of fact, a few years ago the Oxford Children's Dictionary removed the word sin to make room for words like chatroom, MP3 Player and database. But sin still persists everywhere – even within you and me. If I was the type of pastor to create clever sermon titles, I would call this first Sunday of Lent sermon, “I am living in sin.” That would catch your attention, wouldn't it! The fact of the matter is, we are all living in sin – maybe not the way the culture uses that phrase, but as we regularly fall short of the expectations that God has with the people with whom he has initiated a covenant. Lent is a season for all who live in sin; it is a time to remember our need for the wonderful love of God in our lives – because God has promised never to forget. No matter how much we forget, God will never forget. As we journey through these 40 days may God inspire repentance in each of us, so that we may celebrate the joy of Easter together as renewed, forgiven people. Amen.