Sermon delivered on the first Sunday in Lent, February 26, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
Lectionary texts: Genesis 9.8-17; Psalm 25.1-9; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.9-15.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, the 40 day season where we focus on confession, self-denial, and repentance, and on Ash Wednesday we looked at why we engage in these Lenten disciplines. If we care anything at all about our relationship with God, Lent is also a time when we must be honest with ourselves regarding both our own lives and the overall human condition because as we will see, our human pride and willful rebellion against God has not only made a mess of things, it has also cut us off from our lifeline, which is God. Our Lenten lectionary (the assigned lessons) starts us off with a covenant, God’s covenant, and so this morning I want to paint for us a stark picture of contrasts between human behavior and God’s to see what we might learn from it so as to help us keep a proper perspective during these 40 days. Having a proper perspective will, by God’s grace, help enable us to observe a truly holy Lent.
This morning’s OT lesson starts with the aftermath of the great flood that destroyed every living creature on earth, human and animal, except for Noah, his family, and the creatures he brought on board the ark. But to help us better understand the powerful grace note that we find in this morning’s OT lesson, we need to quickly survey the events that preceded the flood. As we saw on Ash Wednesday, God made his creation good and then created humans to reflect God’s image out into his good creation by being wise stewards over it. This is one of the reasons God created us. But things went terribly wrong in paradise and we got ourselves kicked out, primarily because we weren’t satisfied with being God’s creatures and wise stewards. No, we wanted to be God’s equals and things haven’t changed much between now and then, have they? We are still busy trying to create God in our own image (cf. Genesis 1-3).
Then in Genesis 4-6 we see the cascading effects of human sin. For example, shortly after our expulsion from Eden, we see murder and fratricide introduced. Then we see stronger doses of pride which led to the introduction of polygamy and blood revenge. Genesis 5 sums up the sad state of human affairs when we are determined to reflect our own glory instead of God’s. In it, we read about Adam’s family line, each ending with the sad refrain, “and then he died.” The moral train wreck that is humanity turned inward on itself reaches its climax in Genesis 6 where we read the terrible words, “The LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled” because every thought and inclination of the human heart was only for evil, which resulted in great wickedness on the earth (cf. Genesis 6.5-7).
But right when we are about to throw up our hands in hopelessness and despair over the way the Genesis story (and our own) are turning out, we read the little sentence at the end of Genesis 6: “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (v.8). Ah! Perhaps a glimmer of hope for humans after all. Sadly, however, there was no hope for the people of Noah’s day. The flood did come and everyone and everything except the folks and animals in the ark were destroyed.
This brings us to today’s lesson where the story picks up with the aftermath of the flood. Human wickedness did bring God’s terrible judgment, not just on us but on all creation. It was true in Noah’s day and it is true in our own. This reminds us of how miserably we have failed to reflect God’s good image into his world through our wise stewardship of it as well as what Paul writes in Romans 8 when he talks about all of creation groaning as it waits for its liberation that will accompany human redemption that will be part of God’s promised new creation. It seems that the destiny of humans and God’s creation and its creatures are inextricably tied together in ways we do not fully comprehend.
Before we go any further, let me ask if I have gotten you sufficiently depressed yet? I hope so because until we see the utter folly of the notion of human self-help, which the biblical narrative consistently and powerfully stresses, or the inevitability of human progress, which is one of the lies our culture has bought into, we will never be ready to hear the glorious good news of God’s character and what his faithfulness and constant love for his stubborn and rebellious people have brought about! Neither will we be able to observe a holy Lent because too often we turn our Lenten practices into a program of self-help couched in religious terminology.
Of course, there are those who would disagree with this assessment of the human condition. They would cite the remarkable gains we have made in science, technology, and medicine, for example, as proof that we are better off than those of Noah’s day, and certainly we are in some ways. But for every good that has come out of science, technology, and medicine, an evil cognate has appeared. For example, jets have made travel easy and our world smaller. But they can also be used to fly into buildings. The taming of the atom and its corresponding benefits have also produced the atom bomb with its terrible destructive capacity. We have never been more efficient in our killing because our toys have gotten so sophisticated. Medical science has improved our quality of living and extended our lifespans. But we still don’t know how to deal with end of life issues adequately that advancements in medicine cause. And then there are the earthquakes, tornadoes, and tsunamis that regularly afflict us and which we cannot control. Our toys and lifestyles have gotten more sophisticated and our standard of living has advanced tremendously, and this is mostly for the good. But my point remains. The human condition remains essentially unchanged from Adam’s day to our own. We still seek primarily our own glorification, not God’s. Twitter or Facebook, anyone?
Returning to our lesson, we are now ready to hear its wondrous good news. In the wake of human wickedness and with no indication that things are really going to change, at least regarding the human condition, God makes a covenant with Noah. What is so remarkable about this is that Noah did not promise God anything in return for God’s covenant promise, nor did Noah particularly deserve it. Righteous he was, but he wasn’t sinless. But God promises never again to destroy any of his creatures by a flood—ever. And as we look at human history after God made his covenant with Noah, we see that human sin and folly continue unabated. For example, in Genesis 11 we read the story of the tower of Babel, that pitiful symbol of the futility of human pride that seeks to make us God’s equals. Surely God foreknew that the human condition would continue to manifest itself in much the same way as it did before the flood. But God still made the promise to Noah and his descendants. Remarkable. Unbelievable.
And here is where we must pay close attention to what the story is telling us because in the covenant the very heart of God is being revealed to us. It is a heart that is faithful to his creatures. It is a heart full of love for us and which wants us to turn from ourselves and back to him so that we can live and not die. That is what the rainbow symbolizes—God’s great love and faithfulness toward his creatures. Don’t get all bent out of shape over the language used here. God doesn’t need reminded that he won’t destroy us because God knows everything. Like so much language in the OT, the words are written more for our benefit than anything else. We are the ones who need to be reminded and reassured of God’s constancy and love because we are so inconstant, fickle, and unloving. The rainbow is a covenant sign of God’s promise to Noah and his descendants, Jew and Gentile alike, that he would never again destroy us, despite who we are, despite our dismal track record of carnage, failure, folly, and mayhem. The rainbow is a tangible reminder of what God’s heart is really like and from that we can have real hope.
“But wait!” you say. “God only promised not to destroy us by a great flood! That’s hardly an airtight guarantee. After all, there are countless other ways God can destroy us!” If you are asking the question, you probably aren’t sold on the truth that the heart of God pulses love for you. To the point, however, Scripture does make it clear that God’s judgment awaits those who refuse to be reconciled to him. But there is an even greater covenant sign of God’s great faithfulness and love for us that should end any of our doubts and fears. It is the cross of Jesus Christ, God become human. As Peter reminds us in today’s epistle, God has taken care of the root of the problem, human sin, by taking on our flesh and dying for us even though we are utterly undeserving of the reprieve! In the cross of Christ we see sheer grace in action as we watch Jesus’ blood being poured out for us so that we might be able to live as free men and women in the Messiah.
What both the rainbow and the cross remind us is that God is a God who loves and pursues us relentlessly because he wants us to live, not die. We see this relentless love for us manifested in other ways too. For example, Peter reminds us of our baptism and we remember that in our baptism we are buried with Christ so that we will rise with him again (cf. Rom. 6.3-4). Baptism is another sign of God’s sheer grace because it reminds us that God loves us first and claims us, even before we know what it means to be claimed! Sure, we all know baptized folks who grow up and act like they never heard of the Lord, but that is not God’s fault! God loves us enough to allow us to walk away from him, even when it means our own destruction, because love can never force the beloved to return the love offered. No, baptism is a visible reminder (a sacrament) that demonstrates God’s faith, love, and relentless pursuit of his creatures. Just as God said to Jesus at his baptism “you are my beloved,” so he says the same to us at ours.
Then there is that strange story in Peter’s epistle about Jesus preaching to the imprisoned spirits. Whoever and wherever they are, surely one of the reasons Peter tells us this is because it illustrates the truth that Jesus really is the Hound of heaven who wants even the worst of us to enter a life-saving and -giving relationship with him. These are just three examples of many that we find in Scripture that reveal to us the very heart and character of God. There are countless others that I encourage you to explore so that you come to know this God who loves you and has given himself for you in a great act of redemption on the cross.
And this is precisely what we should do with the covenant signs of God’s holy love for us. We should read and reflect on them constantly because they give us every reason to respond to God’s relentless pursuit of us. We respond by saying yes to God’s gracious invitation to us in Jesus to come and live with him both here and now and forever. We don’t do this on our own, of course. Instead, we do it in and through the power of the Spirit living in us, another of God’s gracious gifts to us to help us overcome our sin and live. As Peter reminds us, the same Spirit that transformed Jesus’ mortal body at his resurrection will do the same for us in the new creation and we have that power available to us right now to help shape us into the people God created us to be, into the very image and likeness of Jesus, the only truly human being to live.
And so Lent and the Christian faith are about our response to God’s love and gracious pursuit of us, not self-help. In other words, we partake in our Lenten disciplines and seek to live the Christian life, not to try and earn God’s love and favor or put him in our debt, but to respond to God’s heart of love for us. And because we are responding to God’s love for us, our behavior will increasingly reflect love back to God and outward to our fellow humans. We love because God loved us first (cf. 1 John 4.19), all with the help of the Spirit living in us.
Of course, we can expect to be attacked along the way as we seek to respond to God’s love for us in Christ. We will be tempted just like Jesus was. But that’s OK because his temptation story in today’s gospel lesson reminds us that the Spirit will use even our temptations to help mold us into the very image of Jesus and equip us with a heart just like God’s. In fact, apparently the Spirit insists that we be tempted so that he can use our temptations to help us grow in our love and faithfulness to God’s call for us. Yes, this will be long and difficult work and we will stumble from time to time because the Enemy is strong and we are weighed down by our body of sin. But Christ and his love for us and his Spirit living in us is stronger.
Think deeply on these things this Lenten season (and beyond). Read the stories of God’s covenant signs that culminate in the cross of Christ. Remember that the cross is God’s symbol of justice and give thanks to God that his heart and passion for you are so wide and deep and long that he doesn’t repay us for who we are and all that we have done in our rebellious pride. Then let that love work on you and in you and through you so that you will naturally want to reflect God’s love in Christ out to others so that they too can learn about or know better this Hound of heaven who loves us despite who we are. The God who gave his covenant promise to Noah, to Abraham, and ultimately to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, is the same God who loves you right now. As you get better at responding to the mind-boggling love that God has shown you in the cross of Christ and in the power of the Spirit, you will not only increasingly realize that you have Good News, you will also be able to share it as wildly and relentlessly with others as God has shared it with you, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.