The First Sunday in Lent (Lent 1B): February 22, 2015
Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
Welcome to St. Michael’s on the first Sunday in Lent. You do know how that works right? This is the first Sunday in Lent, but not of Lent—that’s because we are to consider each Sunday a mini-Easter; they aren’t counted toward the total of 40 days in the season of Lent. I just love that little detail…
Lent, is defined in the Book of Common Prayer as “a season of penitence and fasting.” In the early church this was the time that converts to the faith prepared for Holy Baptism. Over the years it has become a time of repentance and renewal for the entire congregation.
We started our observance of Lent on Ash Wednesday with a solemn service that focuses on our own mortality. We mark a cross on our foreheads with ash (ash that came from palms left from last year’s Palm Sunday celebration – thank you to those of you who took part in the burning on Shrove Tuesday, after our feast of pancakes). As we make the mark, reminiscent of our being anointed with oil at baptism, we say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” One theologian has said that Ash Wednesday is the day when Christians attend their own funeral. The liturgy for Ash Wednesday is a moving service, and a profound reminder of the need to make the most of the opportunities we have in our short time on earth.
This morning we began the service with the Great Litany, which was prayed by many congregations on this first Sunday in Lent. Church history shows that this prayer was used as early as the fifth century in Rome, and that it was the first English language rite prepared by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in the mid 16th century. Henry VIII ordered this litany to be used in the churches of England when that country was at war with Scotland and France. I think it is a beautiful prayer, one that we prayed this morning in a contemporary version that updates a good deal of the language, but maintains the tone of the original. Its use links us a little closer to our church mothers and fathers and sets the tone for our Lenten Sunday observances.
We are also taking a more contemplative tack by maintaining silence after our scripture readings during this season. Silence can be a challenge, especially to those of us in the 21st century who are accustomed to the relentless stimulation that comes from being bombarded by various media. I hope you will relax into this little bit of extra silence, and find it meditative rather than tedious.
And as we walk this pilgrim road of repentance and renewal, our Old Testament readings for the first three Sundays in Lent remind us of three promises made by God: God’s covenant with Noah, God’s covenant with Abraham, and God’s covenant with Israel at Sinai. All of these stories remind us of our backstory as God’s people, those whom God has chosen. One theologian has said that, “while each covenant is distinct from the others, taken together they testify to God’s ongoing desire to be in relationship with humanity.”[i]
Covenants can be important to creating fruitful relationships. Historians tell us that, “In the ancient Near East, covenants were legal documents, cementing a relationship of mutual obligation, usually between a greater power and a lesser power. For example, a conquering kingdom might covenant not to destroy a losing kingdom, as long as the losers promised to fight against the conqueror’s enemies and to support the conqueror with troops and supplies.”[ii] This weekend our vestry was on retreat, and one of the important things we worked on was our covenant with each other—how we will work together to conduct the work of the church.
The story of Noah is foundational for our faith. Our reading today occurs after the dramatic events of the building of the ark and the coming and receding of the flood. After all is done, God makes a promise to Noah. And as I read today’s Old Testament passage, there are three facets of this covenant that I find particularly noteworthy.
First, note that God makes the covenant not just with Noah, or just with his family, but, “with every living creature.” The writer of the story must think this is very important: The point that this covenant is made with all creation is stated in one form or another six times in these ten verses. God promises the entire creation that there will never be another mass destruction like the flood.
Second, while covenants are generally understood to be two-sided—that is, both parties make promises—this covenant is only about the actions of God. God promises that he will not again take such harsh measures against his creation. When we encountered this passage last fall in our Wednesday night Bible study of the Book of Genesis, we discussed the idea that in this story God almost seems to be learning how to be God—God seems to come to the realization that the creation is imperfect, and then changes his way of dealing with us, promising to tolerate our imperfection.
And as if to drive home this point that we are flawed beings, the very next thing that Noah does after this passage is get drunk and embarrass himself. God makes generous promises to us, but we routinely fall short. And yet, God loves us still.
The final, and for me most interesting thing about this covenant has to do with that reminder that God promises: the rainbow. Again, during our Bible study this past Fall, we noted the text’s clarity that the rainbow is a reminder not for humanity, but for God! “When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds,” God says, “I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh.”
Why would God need to remind himself of the covenant? Is it because our behavior can be so maddening that God might be driven to rash action? Probably. I know that when I see the harsh ways we treat one another, and the ways we abuse God’s creation, I wonder how God can even tolerate us.
And yet, God continues to bless us; God is faithful to us. The story makes it clear that God chooses to stick with the creation, even as it fails to live up to that gift of grace.
And then there is the reminder itself: a rainbow. Not long ago I heard the story of a young seminarian who took a walk with her four-year-old son after a rainstorm. They saw a rainbow, and the boy looked up in wonder and said, “Mommy, can we take that home and put it in our house?” Instead of just laughing it off, she took her son’s question literally, and began, “imagining what it would be like to have a rainbow in their house, on their walls, emanating from the windows and doors, coming out the chimney. [In her imagination] the house was transformed, and it could not contain the glory of the rainbow and its colors.”[iii]
What would it mean for each of us to fill our lives with the rainbow? What if each of us embraced God’s promise to care for us no matter what—to come into the chaos of our lives and sweep away the flood waters of stress, of fear, of hurt, and anger? To dry up our money worries, or our nagging fear that we are unloved? To bring life back to us when we are ill, or in the throes of addiction?
I think this promise of God’s grace is not one we should just take lightly as a metaphor, or as an ancient pre-Enlightenment explanation of natural phenomena. We are called to embrace that promise—to live as God’s own, as ones that God loves and will shelter. Our job is to believe it – to live into the promise.
And how could we translate this image of filling the house with a rainbow to this place? What might it mean for us to live as though that bright colorful light filled every corner of this room, of this complex? How might we be seen by our neighbors here on the Upper West Side if we made this place glow like a rainbow? What might we become if we were filled with that colorful glow?
It is no coincidence that we hear this story on the first Sunday in Lent, just as we begin our walk with Jesus toward Jerusalem, and work to understand the magnitude of God’s love shown to us by Jesus the Christ. This God vows not to create chaos in our lives; God promises to stand with us through the times of chaos as well as the times of joy. This God marks us not only with a cross of ashes, but also with a rainbow made of light in every color. May our Lenten journey transform us so that we shine with the light of Christ, and learn how to joyfully embrace all that God manifests for us and in us. Amen.
[i] Howard, Cameron B.R. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2375, accessed 2/21/2015.
[iii] Ferguson, Jane Anne. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, p. 26.