Sermons from St
Fr Dennis Smith, Sunday, 18th February, 2018
Lent is not tidy, because it faces us with the effects of sin. This year Lent begins with timeless stories of floods – and therefore mud everywhere – temptation, wild animals, and a wilderness. Water and wilderness go together, and today’s epistle links these robust stories of Noah’s deliverance through the flood with baptism and deliverance from the power of sin.
In Genesis, Noah picks up the pieces after the flood. Pictures of the devastation that floods wreak today, both in our own country and abroad, come to mind: destruction everywhere and relentless clearing of debris. Noah’s burnt offering pleases God, but past experience indicates that rebellion will ensue, so God takes the initiative, launching into a speech: “As for me, I will establish my covenant with you.” Although a covenant requires agreement between two parties, God doesn’t negotiate or consult Noah when setting the ground rules in an outlandishly generous manner – not just with Noah, but with all his descendants and every living creature.
This part of the Flood story is by the priestly author of Genesis Chapter One, where God also took the initiative, spoke and creation happened. After the flood’s devastation of the first creation, the same Creator begins again with this universal, unilateral covenant: salvation and blessing are entirely at God’s initiative. As before, the charge is to “be fruitful and multiply”, but some things have changed: now human sin is in the equation, the rest of creation will fear humans, who now can eat not only plants but animals, and murder has to be specifically prohibited. God promises never to destroy the earth again through a flood, and gives the sign of the covenant, the bow in the clouds. We immediately think of the rainbow, but, in the Old Testament, where battles involved bows and arrows, the word usually meant “the bow of war.” When the rainbow appeared, significantly it wasn’t Noah, but God – who had the power to override the covenant and destroy the earth – who would remember the everlasting covenant. So the rainbow would “remind” God, and reassure Noah that God had abandoned his bow of war. It would rain again; there would be thunder and lightning again. When that happened, Noah might well be afraid that water would again destroy the earth. The sun would however, shine again, sometimes while it was raining. Noah saw rainbows only when it rained, when in the words of Job, “what I dread has befallen me.”
Sometimes, it’s in the midst of what we dread rather than beforehand that we discover God’s faithfulness. Much as we would like to avoid being in that situation in the first place.
In Mark’s Gospel, which we heard today, Jesus, after he, too, has been immersed in water through baptism is driven – Mark uses a strong word, unlike Luke’s more gentle ‘led’ – into the wilderness, where the wild beasts and Satan await him. For him, just as for the people whom Moses led through the Red Sear into the wilderness, there is no respite. Deliverance by God is followed by the testing of human trust in God in less favourable times.
After the temptation in the wilderness, the sun came out metaphorically, for Jesus: angels ministered to him. But then John was arrested: in Noah’s language, it rained again, or, in Jesus’ recent experience wild animals came again. What did he do? Undeterred, he began preaching the good news of God’s Kingdom’s coming near, acting as though he saw in the midst of this cruel event the rainbow of God’s covenant.
Lent is a time for dealing with the disorder in our lives, the mud that messes up God’s world, addressing not just the effects but the causes.
A Church Times report of a few years ago quoted Linda Tionqco from Christian Aid alerting us to the logging in river watersheds in the Philippines and other environmentally destructive practices that were causing or exacerbating flooding.
In addition to tending our own concerns, our Lenten discipline might involve engagement with other such hard, big issues that devastate people’s lives. As Christians observing Lent, the challenge is for us to get our hands dirty, and clear the mud – whether literal, metaphorical or spiritual – that ruins lives. At the same time, we follow Jesus’ example, and, undaunted by the recurrence of testing, proclaim God’s good news. With God, there are rainbows.