Sunday, February 18, 2018

First Sunday of Lent

Genesis 9
8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.* 11I 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.’ 12God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16When 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.’ 17God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’

Wherever you fall on the evolution versus creation debate, I think we can agree that the whole thing may be a failed experiment.

On one hand, we emerged from the primordial ooze as complex molecules, sprouted opposing thumbs, made tools (as the song goes) and embarked on a path that leads to mutually-assured destruction and Twitter. I don’t need to spell out the connection.

On the other hand, Adam and Eve, naked long enough to beget an entire race of humans, also begat such disobedience and wickedness that God felt compelled to end the experiment and begin a new one with one family and an ark.

Odd that the sign of both Twitter and the flood story is a single bird, but the connections seem to end there. How can I test my failed experiment hypothesis?

What I need is a sign, and I think I got one on Wednesday, pulling up to the drive-thru, passing over $1.55 and receiving that now-famous red cup in return. (Do Ontario’s distracted driver laws include rolling up the rim to win?) Nevermind, because I was given a sign that Lent has begun, and that failed experiment may not be a failed experiment after all, if we follow the signs.

The Bible, of course, is filled with signs: signs that mark an event, signs that demonstrate God’s presence, and signs that symbolize one of the many covenants between God and God’s people. Working backwards, there is the covenant with Moses and Israel, two tablets and the gift of the law. Then there is the covenant with Abraham—that he will be the father of many nations—with an obvious and painful sign to follow. Finally, there is the covenant with Noah, that never again will God destroy the earth, the sign being both that bird and the rainbow above it.

Going over the list again though, there are some important differences in the signs and the covenants they represent. On the more tangible side, Moses and Abraham have covenants that require a response, demand obedience, and always remain in the conditional. ‘Follow this and the covenant will continue’ is the message, true then and now.

But the covenant with Noah is different, and hardly seems like a covenant at all. Noah and his family didn’t do anything to receive the covenant promise (unless you count surviving the flood as doing something) and there is no means by which they can invalidate the promise. It just is. Different too is the sign of this covenant, or signs, since both bird and rainbows are ubiquitous, constant reminders that the promise continues to stand.

So how is this a Lenten passage? How does the rainbow promise tie into the beginning Lent? It relates to the traditional Gospel lesson for the first Sunday of Lent, forty days and nights of temptation and forty days and nights of rain. And that’s it. Unless we look a little deeper, pondering the signs and looking for another connection.

You recall the wilderness story: Jesus heads into the desert and is tempted by the devil, offered bread to break his fast, offer protection from danger, offered power—only to reject all three. In effect, Jesus is offered various forms of power—from hunger and peril and anonymity—and refuses to take them up.

So too with the story of the flood. God makes a promise that no longer will the power to destroy the earth be exercised. Even knowing the humans will return to the same state that existed before the flood, God will not destroy the peoples of the earth. God has power, but refuses to take it up.

So if humanity is a failed experiment, and a quick look at the newspaper seems to confirm this, then it’s an experiment that God is willing to let continue. God has the power to end the experiment, but refuses to take up it up. God seems content to see how this whole thing will play out, much like God-in-Jesus in the wilderness—not willing to end the Gospel by simply skipping to the end with all the power and all the glory.

No, the story of Lent is a journey. It begins with a redeemed planet and a fresh start. It continues with temptations resisted and a ministry launched. Soon disciples will be called, more signs will be generated, confusion will germinate, anger will grow, betrayal will be plotted, arrests made, trials held, crosses prepared, and the story will seem to reach it’s logical conclusion (in the context of our ever-failing human experiment). God has the power to save us from the way this story unfolds, but refuses to take it up.

But God will do something else, another habit that should have been obvious all along: make a covenant. Maybe this was God’s motto all along: when in doubt, make a covenant. Or, when experiments fail or are about to fail, make a covenant. In this case, it’s a new covenant in Jesus’ blood, poured out for us. A sure sign of the coming Kingdom, broken and shared, uniting us into one body.


Before I inadvertently skip Lent and head straight for Easter, I want to share will you some wisdom from the desert, that fitting sign and symbol of Lent. I want to introduce you to Father Anthony, also known as Anthony the Great, Anthony of Egypt, Anthony the Abbot, Anthony of the Desert, Anthony the Anchorite, and Anthony of Thebes. If the number of names is a measure of your importance in the Christian tradition, then Anthony deserves his place near the top of the list.

Anthony is regarded as the Father of All Monks, not the first Christian monk, but the one who sets the pattern and inspires the monastic tradition that defines our faith in the centuries that follow. His retreat to the desert is second only to the temptation story of Jesus, and written about, depicted in art, and still widely quoted.

And like the story of the temptation in the wilderness, the story of St. Anthony (another title) involves retreating to remote place, resisting the work of the adversary, wrestling with bread, danger and power to later emerge enlightened and ready to preach and teach others. And for today, the first Sunday of Lent, Anthony has a word:

"Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach."

Let’s break down his advice, and let it sink in. Do not trust in your own righteousness: Lent is a time for sober self-reflection, a time to let go of the need to ‘get it right’ and feel ‘in control.’ When we can look candidly at ourselves, and admit we don’t have all the answers and don’t make the right choices every time, then we are freer to be ourselves (and perhaps make better choices next time).

Do not worry about the past. This one is self-evident, even if we need to be constantly reminded. You can regret the past, make amends for the past, but eventually you need to leave the past, and the worry that this brings. “The past is done, and new life has come.”

Control your tongue and your stomach. Now this feels very Lenten. I read somewhere that a quarter of all Fish Filets at McDonalds are sold in Lent, just another version of the red cup. But Anthony says stomach and tongue—it’s not enough to give up certain foods, and maybe we should give up certain thoughts, words, ways of speaking.

"Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach."

A sure sign of the coming Kingdom is near. And as we wait, we give thanks that our failed human experiment is allowed to continue, and that God is with us. Now and always, Amen.


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