What the Promise is For

February 22, 2015

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA

The 1st Sunday in Lent
Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

Today’s Old Testament lesson is the very end of the story of Noah and the ark. Y’all remember Noah – he was a righteous person, chosen by God to build an ark. And, in spite of the ridicule he surely received from those around him, he built a HUGE floating barn, and then gathered up all the species of animals, two-by-two, and loaded them into the ark.

He must’ve looked like a fool, but for him, he was being obedient to God, even if it didn’t make much sense – that’s what made him righteous. Then, you remember what happens next, it started to rain… and it rained, and rained… and NOW who looked foolish? Not Noah!

He and his family boarded the ark with all the animals and the story says that it rained for 40 days and 40 nights until water covered the whole earth; as far as they could see. After the rain stopped, they floated around awhile as the water receded and the ark was finally resting on solid ground. Noah, his family and the animals were once again on dry land, and when it was all over God made a promise:

“…  I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

And what comes next is what I find most remarkable about this passage. God gives a sign of this promise, the rainbow. But listen carefully – the rainbow isn’t a reminder to those on earth of the promise, but instead, it’s a reminder to God of the promise. It’s not only said once, but twice:  

God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make… I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant… and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”

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This sign of covenant is God’s way remembering the promise. And, while our seeing a rainbow reminds us of God’s promise, it is first and foremost God’s reminder to God.

A little later in Genesis, God makes a covenant with a ninety-nine year old Abraham, promising that he will be the father of many nations. God tells Abraham that he and all his descendants are to be circumcised as a sign of this covenant. This cut foreskin becomes THEIR reminder of who they are as people of God; committed to God. A tangible and constant reminder indeed!

And later, when God was about to destroy the “stiff necked people” who, in their fear that God had left them, created a golden calf to worship, Moses interceded, reminding God of the promise made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and God did not destroy them. So, as you can see, signs of covenant can be powerful reminders!

In the gospels Jesus used earthy things as signs of covenant. First, we see the baptism of Jesus. Baptism was not new to the Jews; it was an act of purification. But Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit – the dove of peace, and also the fire of purpose. This baptism begins a new covenant for us with God, through Jesus Christ.

communionLater Jesus takes bread and wine – common things accessible to all – and with them, forges a place of community. He brought those from all walks of life – fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, the poor, the oppressed, and even the wealthy (if they were willing to eat with the others) – together to share in a common meal. And this act of breaking bread and sharing a common cup became the sign of Jesus’ presence with them and in them; Jesus with US, and in US.

These signs of covenant are given TO us so that we remember God’s promise of everlasting relationship WITH us.

We also use signs of covenant in our Christian tradition; in our liturgy.

In the Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage, for example, rings are exchanged. Before the exchange of rings, each person makes the vow that in the name of God they will take the other:

… for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death.  This is my solemn vow.

Then the priest blesses the rings that will be a sign of these vows that bind the two lives together. Then the couple each says to the other as the rings are exchanged:

I give you this ring as a symbol of my vow, and with all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

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Just as the rainbow is a sign to God of GOD’s promise, the ring that is given is a sign of the GIVER’s promise. The ring I wear isn’t a symbol of the wearer’s promise, but of giver’s solemn vow to be there and to be faithful to the marriage covenant.

 

AshWednesdayWe shared another liturgical sign a few days ago. As we entered into Lent this past Wednesday, ashes were smeared on our foreheads, more boldly by Ceci and Napoleon then by me I’m afraid (I need more practice). We said these words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This mark is a reminder of God’s power to create us out of dust, and also of the temporary nature of our lives on earth. And, in remembering, we are called to spend our limited time here doing what God would have us do – even if it seems as ridiculous as building an ark. We are called to stay turned toward God – repentance is to turn toward God – and seek God’s will and purpose for our lives.

Many of us take on a Lenten discipline to increase our focus on God, or we give something up that distracts us from God. I’ve found it helpful to have a sign of that commitment, like wearing this James Avery Cross-ring. I’ve had it for years, but I don’t wear it very often. It has become my Lent ring. I wear it throughout the season of Lent as a reminder to ME of MY promise.

And while all these symbols, all these signs are good and useful, they don’t make us bullet-proof. Unfortunately, covenants don’t protect us from hardship.

We see in today’s gospel that even Jesus, having just been baptized, the heavens torn open and the Holy Spirit descending upon him like a dove, “And a voice came from heaven [saying], ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”

And then we are told:

“And the Spirit immediately drove (Jesus) out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” 

So, like Jesus, we will have our days in the wilderness.Like Jesus, we will be tempted by things of this world; things that threaten to separate us from God. Like Jesus, we will find ourselves among wild beasts, making us vulnerable and afraid.

But, also like Jesus, the angels of God will be with us and will be waiting on us. A more accurate word is that the angels of God will be ministering to us; caring for our needs during this time of struggle.

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You see, even in the wilderness, even among beasts, even when we are vulnerable… no ESPECIALLY when we are vulnerable, God is with us. There is a rainbow in the sky that reminds God of the promise to care for and protect us, and God comes through. God is there!

 

 

And in God’s command that we love one another, we are called to minister to one another, too – to help others through the difficult times.

Our Baptismal liturgy is part of the Holy Eucharist service precisely because it’s a community covenant; not just a family and god-parent thing. After the presentation of the one to be baptized, this question is asked of the whole congregation: Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ? To which we ALL reply “We will.”

Similarly, the Blessing of a Marriage is not a private ceremony, but is a community covenant. After the couple declares their consent to be committed to one another and enter into marriage, the congregation is asked “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage? To which we ALL respond “We will”.

With these questions, even our liturgy acknowledges that life as a baptized person, or life in marriage, does not insulate us from struggles. There’s a song by Andrew Peterson that speaks truth about this realty as it relates to marriage. It’s called “Dancing in the Minefields.”

The song begins by sharing that he and his wife got engaged when he was 19 and she was 21. And even though their friends and family warned them that it was too young to get married, they did it anyway. The $40 pawn-shop wedding rings were symbol-enough to convey their promise to one another – to hold them in covenant. And now, here they are, 15 years in – but they still face obstacles. The refrain goes:

We went dancing in the minefields

We went sailing in the storm

And it was harder than we dreamed

But I believe that’s what the promise is for

The promise gets us through the hard times; the minefields. And one verse in particular holds, I think, what living into this promise looks like:

So when I lose my way, find me

When I loose love’s chains, bind me

At the end of all my faith, till the end of all my days

When I forget my name, remind me

And when we forget the name that God has given us, or when we are unsure of our faith and don’t feel God within us, we have a community of faithful people here to help us. We have the bread and wine, shared with the whole communion – all that came before, all that is here now, and all that will come after – to strengthen and sustain us. It is a sign that reminds us of who we are and WHOSE we are.

None of these promises are meant to be done alone. We have one another to minister to us, and what’s more, God is with us. God sent his son, Jesus, to live, die and rise again for us. And, God does not forget us.

God promised it – and I believe that’s what the promise is for.

 

YouTube of Dancing in the Minefields:

I invite your thoughts and insights.

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