your Son battled with the powers of darkness,
and grew closer to you in the desert:
help us to use these days to grow in wisdom and prayer
that we may witness to your saving love
in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Genesis 9:8-17 (NLT)
8 Then God told Noah and his sons, 9 “I hereby confirm my covenant with you and your descendants, 10 and with all the animals that were on the boat with you—the birds, the livestock, and all the wild animals—every living creature on earth. 11 Yes, I am confirming my covenant with you. Never again will floodwaters kill all living creatures; never again will a flood destroy the earth.”
12 Then God said, “I am giving you a sign of my covenant with you and with all living creatures, for all generations to come. 13 I have placed my rainbow in the clouds. It is the sign of my covenant with you and with all the earth. 14 When I send clouds over the earth, the rainbow will appear in the clouds, 15 and I will remember my covenant with you and with all living creatures. Never again will the floodwaters destroy all life. 16 When I see the rainbow in the clouds, I will remember the eternal covenant between God and every living creature on earth.” 17 Then God said to Noah, “Yes, this rainbow is the sign of the covenant I am confirming with all the creatures on earth.”
Mark 1: 9-15 (NLT)
9 One day Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. 10 As Jesus came up out of the water, he saw the heavens splitting apart and the Holy Spirit descending on him[a] like a dove. 11 And a voice from heaven said, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.”
12 The Spirit then compelled Jesus to go into the wilderness, 13 where he was tempted by Satan for forty days. He was out among the wild animals, and angels took care of him.
14 Later on, after John was arrested, Jesus went into Galilee, where he preached God’s Good News.[b] 15 “The time promised by God has come at last!” he announced. “The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!”
So, today is the first Sunday of Lent and we begin our journey towards the cross with Christ. But where does the journey to the cross begin? Does it begin with Mark’s breathless account of Jesus baptized, tempted and then beginning his public ministry? Is that where we begin.
Or does it go further back? You could say that Lent and the journey to the cross begin in the same place – with dust. God took dust and blew life into it and so the human story, with all its joys and failures began. Our freedom to think and live and love as we chose meant we also had the freedom to sin and that sin deserved judgement. On Ash Wednesday we remember the dust from which we come, and surely the journey to the cross in some ways started the moment God took that dust and gave it life?
However, the cross was not the obvious outcome. God tried something else first.
It always amazes me that we tell Noah’s story as a children’s tale. Lots of cute animals and a colourful rainbow have their appeal, but I remember as an adult to three children with enquiring minds dreading the question “But what happened to all the other people, Mummy?” The tale of Noah is cataclysmic and tragic and terrible – the entire known world blotted out by an unprecedented flood.
Now some say, well it is only a tale, a myth, it didn’t really happen… I think it is probably more complex than that. Other Near Eastern ancient civilisations have similar flood tales. I guess that there might well have been a catastrophic flood in pre-history, which was interpreted and understood in different ways by those who survived it. The Judeo-Christian tradition have – inspired by the Holy Spirit – understood this calamity in the life of the world in a terrifying yet ultimately hopeful way.
So back to God’s problem of sin. God made the world and loved it dearly, but oh the agony God must have endured watching people inflict pain and injustice upon one another. Finally, God could bear it no more and decided to give the world a fresh start. God would wipe out all the sin and reset creation. Noah was a righteous man, so God called him and his family to build the ark, preserved them and the animals they travelled with through the flood and began again with them. In the verses before the reading we heard today, God commissions Noah and his family much as happened with Adam and Eve: God tells them to enjoy and steward the earth, to be fruitful and multiply and to remember that every human being bears God’s divine image.
Then God does something new. God institutes a covenant. Now a covenant is a bit like a contract or a treaty of a will. It establishes a relationship between two people or groups, and there are usually rights and obligations on both sides. God makes several covenants with people throughout the Bible and we will hear more about some of them as Lent progresses. But this first one is unique. Firstly, the covenant is between God and Noah’s descendants (which, given the story assumes that Noah and his family are the only people left on earth, means all of humankind) and every living thing. It is a covenant between God and all God’s creation. Secondly, it is a one-sided covenant. God asks nothing of creation – God commits to a particular way of behaving towards creation for eternity. And thirdly, the sign of the covenant is a rainbow. Back to that in a moment.
In the commitment God makes towards creation, God promises that never again will he destroy the world by a flood. Now some people have taken that very literally – that God will never again send a massive flood. I think that it is more interesting than that. God has tried dealing with sin by wiping out humanity once, and for whatever reason, God decides never to try this again. Before humanity have a chance to sin again – and indeed a few verses on we find Noah drunk and undressed in a vineyard – God has decided that the final cost of sin will not be borne by creation. The one who will bear the cost of sin will be the Creator. God will pay the price of our sins.
Back to the rainbow – a apt reminder to a traumatised ancient world that the rain will always end. Some say that the rainbow is like a warrior’s bow at rest – a bow and arrow laid down. God is no longer at war with creation. Judgement has been postponed. But a lovely Old Testament scholar who once taught me made the interesting observation that the bow now points towards heaven. The arrow of judgement is pointed to the very heart of God.
And so, the journey to the cross begins here. God has decided that humanity cannot bear the cost of its sin, and so there is only one alternative. God will bear it. In our gospel reading we hear how God begins to do this – God becomes one of us. He goes through the waters as all creation has, he spends time in the wilderness which is both exodus and exile as Israel has and God is ready to begin. One of the things I love about this story is that it begins with being beloved. Creation was beloved. Adam and all his kin are beloved. The second Adam who comes to rescue us from our sins is beloved. It is and always has been about love.
But before I finish, let us turn for a moment away from the cross and look again at the rainbow. Isn’t it amazing how old symbols keep their power? In a largely post-Christian world, when something truly terrible happened, the symbol of the rainbow swept our country – a simple image of hope. A reminder that the rain will always stop one day. A reminder that there is a God for whom all creation is beloved.
I don’t know where you are in your relationship with God. Sometimes remembering that you are beloved is the hardest thing in the world. I think it can be easier for humanity to imagine judgement than love. And that is why this story matters. I often wonder if the events of the Old Testament are more to help humanity understand God than for God to understand Godself. Perhaps God had always chosen the cross. Perhaps God just needed us to know it was a conscious choice. Because God loves us.
So if you are one of the people struggling with belovedness today, and after a year of pandemic and everything else life throws at us you won’t be alone, know this. God loves you. God wants no sin or mistake or failure to come between you and God’s love. And so that is possible, God chose the path to the cross. Again and again and again. God chose it. For you.
through Noah you gave us the rainbow
as a sign that you would never separate Yourself from us again
and through Christ you gave us the cross
as a sign of your everlasting mercy and grace
In these signs we recognize and acknowledge your love
and how that love is present to us to sustain us and guide us each day.
Truly in you we live, and move, and have our being.
By you alone do we receive the strength and hope we need for each day.
We thank you Lord,
and we promise as your covenant people,
to follow in your ways.
Help us, we pray, to do so…
Lord, hear our prayer…
you promise to your people a full and abundant life in Christ.
Sometimes in that life you call us into the wilderness –
into those places where we must rely totally upon you for our survival –
at other times your Spirit drives us into those places,
and each time we have entered those places we have been tempted and tested –
tempted to turn back before the time is right for turning back,
tempted to give up before the time you have appointed for our testing and for our growing is over.
Help us, Lord, should this be a time in our lives when we feel alone –
a time in which are struggling to trust in our belovedness –
help us to remember you travel with us in the middle of the wilderness –
lead us on our journey – and bring us safe to the other side….
Lord, hear our prayer…
Lord God, you are our strength.
When the battle of good and evil rages within and around us,
keep your Church steadfast in your Word
and, when we fall, raise us again and restore us through your Son, Christ Jesus…
Lord, hear our prayer….
As we have prayed, O God, for ourselves and for your people,
so too we pray for those you have placed upon our hearts and minds this day.
Bless, heal, and strengthen all whom we hold before you now……
We pray to you, O God, through Jesus, our brother, our Saviour, and our Lord,
he who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, both now and forevermore.
adapted from http://www.spirit-net.ca/sermons/b-le01su.php