Monday, February 23, 2015

The First Sunday in Lent [Year B] - February 22, 2015 (Genesis 9:8-17)

Who doesn’t like a clear, undeniable sign? I think it’s a universal fact that when people want to be told something, they’d want to be told in a straightforward, unmistakable, and preferably timely way.

You know who gets that? Andy Jenks gets that. He’s the Director of Public Relations and Communications for Henrico County Public Schools, which means he’s the one who has been in charge of announcing school delays and closings for the Richmond Metro area. And, as you may have guessed, those whose lives are affected by the public school schedule have heard a lot of him this week. Maybe it’s his past career as a local news reporter, but he seems to understand that when the weather gets bad, people are hanging on his every word. I don’t know how it is in Chesterfield or Hanover County, but in this neck of the woods we follow Mr. Jenks on Twitter, we check our email, we wait for his robocall...whatever we can do to get that undeniable sign that once again (ahem) the children of the earth in Henrico County and every living creature that is with them shall be cut off from another school-day because of 1 inch of snow. In an age when digital signs and symbols are the name of the game Mr. Jenks knows how to play.

This guy (me) is still learning.

You know who else is into clear, undeniable signs, don’t you? Noah’s God. Can’t you see Noah there, finally on solid ground after forty days and forty nights of rain, constantly updating his Twitter feed, wanting to know what God is going to do next? And then comes the sign: a bow in the clouds, rays of divine light bouncing off dark, foreboding clouds. It’s a sign, says God, of the covenant that I am establishing between you and every living creature that is with you that never again will you be cut off by the waters of a flood. God is an excellent Director of Public Relations and Communications! God is establishing a new covenant with the people he has saved through the flood and is announcing it with an enormous, undeniable Tweet of a million colors.

Early peoples must have been amazed by rainbows, if you think about it. They had no scientific understanding of things like light waves and refraction and dispersion of water droplets. To them, dark clouds were primarily scary things that threatened destruction with their thunder and lightning, but that every once in a while could also hold a thing so wondrous and ephemeral and harmless as rainbow. For Noah and Noah’s God, this was the perfect sign that the flood’s cleansing was over. The sin that had scarred the earth and all its human relationships had been washed away.

On its own, the story of Noah and the rainbow is intriguing enough because it reassures us of a God who values setting things straight with his creation, but set against the backdrop of other ancient cultures, the sign that God gives Noah is even more surprising and unique. In the Hebrew language of the Old Testament, the word used here is actually “bow,” which referred, of course, not only to the arc shape of the rainbow, but also to the bow that was used as a weapon. In every other ancient civilization that we know about that the Hebrews had to live among and sometimes share stories with—people like those of Mesopotamia, Babylon and Ugarit—a bow in the sky, often in star constellations, was always a sign from the gods that symbolized warfare and hostility. Noah’s God, by contrasts, boldly turns this symbol of violence into something good and hopeful, a sign of reconciliation. Rather than a re-establishment of God’s power and force, which is so easily what it could have been, for Noah and his people it’s a sign of a fresh, new beginning.

Who knows how much they actually pay attention to it. But, still, God’s sign in the heavens was clear and undeniable, and for the millennia that followed, God’s people could look up after a storm and be reminded of God’s goodness, hope.

Yet as true and as good as that is, notice that the rainbow was never really intended to be a sign to Noah or God’s people, The sign of the rainbow was a sign for God to remember God’s covenant. This undeniable symbol of new beginnings was a reminder for God to heed God’s word. So here in this colorful, peaceful ending to the flood we find something important for Noah and all of Noah’s descendants to understand about the God with whom they are dealing, the God who created them. That is, we see that a central piece of God’s identity is that God is going to remember the covenant God makes with them. There is nothing in this covenant-relationship about Noah needing to do anything in order to validate this arrangement of grace and hope. The responsibility of salvation—the hard work of redemption—is going to fall to God, not on Noah or anyone else. When it comes to making good on this promise, God is the one whose name is on the line.

"Noah's Thankoffering" (Joseph Anton Koch 1806)
And our part? What must we do to make this covenant count? Nothing. Like Noah, we just get to receive it, look at it, give thanks for it, and live into it. A clear, new beginning. This is grace. Interestingly enough, spelled backwards in Hebrew, the letters for “Noah” spell “grace.”

Of course, God’s people eventually come by a different way to spell grace: “J-E-S-U-S.” As the waters subside at Jordan one day, the skies are torn open, like after a storm, and God’s people realize they realize the journey out of sinfulness is finally over and that they’re waking up to another fresh new beginning that God has freely given. Interestingly enough, God had promised Noah many, many years before that there never would again be a flood to destroy the earth…but, as it turns out, God does send another flood. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God, out of God’s own desire and will, floods the earth with mercy, forgiveness and grace so that our lives may begin again. And the sign of the bow in the sky given to Noah becomes a foreshadowing of God’s ability to take a symbol of oppression and violence and turn use it as a sign for hope and goodness.

Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Beloved Son on the cross, is God’s final and full sign—undeniable and clear—that God loves us and wants to continue a relationship with us. Our life in Christ begins in the flood of these waters. And, in a way, we’re like Noah all over again. In faith, we learn to look to the cross and see that there is nothing we do or can do at all to receive God’s love. God is going to do the hard work of redemption. With the company of others on this journey, we trust that we can look into the darkest of the darkest clouds and still expect to find a token of God’s presence, a sign that God is there, recalling his covenant of life. And with the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit, we learn that the wilderness is a place where, despite the temptations of life, Jesus shows up to walk with us.

That’s why we Lutherans like sacraments so much. They are clear, undeniable signs of God’s grace to us. In fact, Martin Luther liked to point out that the best response to the powers of darkness and doubt that can overwhelm is to shout, “But I am baptized!” not “I was” but I am baptized. That is, this is not just one event along our life’s path, but a status we live in. It’s not just a certificate we receive, but an identity that is formed by an ongoing relationship with J-E-S-U-S. As God’s people, as descendants of Noah, we are baptized. Henceforth we pray that Kaito here will always feel the wet fingers of Pastor Joseph Bolick on his forehead. He has been claimed in Christ because God loves him, and there is nothing he will ever have to do to deserve it.                                                                  

Every now and then I come across blog posts by other pastors and church leaders who talk about reasons why people don’t attend worship or take part in congregational ministry. Just this week Gallup released some statistics about church attendance, broken down by state.

Virginia’s weekly attendance rate is around 35%. I don’t know if I think that’s high or low, but I know that those who do think it’s low blame it, at least in part, on the prevalence of other Sunday morning distractions, like sports, in our culture. Quite frankly, a lot of people have to work on Sundays now.

To be honest, though, I often wonder how many stay away because they don’t feel worthy enough to attend church.  Maybe it’s that they feel they can’t hang with a group of people who seem on the surface to be holy, or be with people who talk about a God who seems distant and disinterested. I know I’ve heard that at some places folks feel more welcome in the Twelve-Step programs that meet during the week than they do on Sunday morning.

If that’s the case, and there’s probably some ways that it is, perhaps it’s time to consider the job we’re doing as Public Relations and Communications agents for God. Perhaps it’s time remember that we’re all born again in these waters. In fact, it is time—it’s always time—it’s good to begin our worship, our life, with a the reminder that God’s flood of grace has claimed us here, that no matter where we are in life and no matter how unlovable we are, no matter the power of temptations we struggle against, the skies have parted again and God has given us a fresh new beginning.

We are baptized people. Every day, every week, every month…we are baptized.

The sign is there. It is in the sky, up there, at the top of Golgotha, and we can trust it. God has washed us and set us free to go, once again, on dry ground. Thank heavens, this is undeniable.

Tweet it.

Tell it.

Live it.

Paint it in a million beautiful colors.

We have been saved.                          


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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