Sunday, February 26, 2012

Lent 1B: Recommitting to the covenant

Lectionary: Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

When our kids were little, they honestly believed that Steve and I could help them understand any mystery they confronted, or solve any problem that arose in their lives. Then they became teenagers and we suddenly knew nothing – until they got to their twenties, when we became smart again!

Of course, Steve and I couldn’t (and still can’t) understand the mysteries of the world, and we can’t solve every problem that arises for our children, though we will give it our best. But the innocence of a child’s total trust in their parents’ care for them is a beautiful thing, when the parents are faithful to that trust. Even really good parents, however, aren’t perfect, but God is.

God alone is steadfast in faithfulness, compassion, grace, and mercy, and deserving of our total trust. In our relationship with God, we strive for the kind of innocent faith that knows absolutely that, even knowing our weaknesses and mistakes, God loves us, and is willing and able to help us anytime… every time we need it.

But the original sin of humanity, which is the underlying subject of the whole book of Genesis,is our hubris, our tendency and desire to forget our utter dependence on our Creator. We live as if our lives are in our own hands not the loving hands of God. We believe that we are in control, that we are in charge, forgetting that our very breath is a gift from God each moment of our lives.

And when we live like that we are failing to keep our part of the covenant relationship which is simply this: that God will be our God and we will be God’s people.

Today’s reading from Genesis is a reminder of that covenant relationship. To understand this covenant, however, we need to go back for a minute to the creation stories in the beginning of the book of Genesis. In the beginning, the chaos waters covered the earth and God calmed them, and brought order to the chaos. (Gen 1:6)

In the story of Noah, the chaos waters are again covering the earth, destroying everything. The chaos waters symbolize the consequence of human sin.

The Creator looks upon the devastating effect of sin on creation and brings order to the chaos again, because that is the character of God. As the psalmist reminds us: God is “gracious and upright,” God “teaches sinners” the way to go and “guides the humble” (that is, those who will let God be God), onto the right path. And the psalmist continues: “all the paths of God are love and faithfulness” to those who keep their end of the covenant. (Ps 25)

So God, seeing the destructive effects of sin on creation, breathes the breath of life over the earth again, calming the chaos and removing the power of sin to destroy. Then the Creator invites the created to renew the covenant saying: “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you…” When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember this covenant which is everlasting. Never again will all flesh be cut off from me and never again will the chaos waters destroy the earth. (Gen 1:14-15).

This theme of water is heard again in Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. As promised, the earth and its waters are calm. This time, it’s the heavens that are ripped open.

The Hebrew word being translated here as ‘torn apart’ is ‘rend’ (a violent word), the same word we heard on Ash Wednesday in the reading from the prophet Joel: “rend your hearts, not your clothing…” (Joel 2:13)

On Ash Wednesday, the prophet Joel called us to rip open our hearts so that we could let God in. Now God is doing the same. As Jesus comes up out of the water, God rips open heaven and lets us in. In this baptism, humanity and divinity were joined one to another, not just ritually, or conceptually, but actually - in Jesus.

Immediately after his baptism, the Spirit of God drives Jesus into the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan, the one who opposes God. That is exactly what we are called to do during Lent. We are called to go into the wilderness, knowing that wild beasts are in there, and trusting our survival to God.

We’re called to devote time to be in the presence of God in the fullness of our humanity, so that we can remember who God is to us, and who we to God. In this wilderness, we’re called to remember what tempts us to sin, and repent of it.

Medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, calls sin “a wretched and continual contrariness to peace and love.” (John Skinner, ed., Revelation of Love, Julian of Norwich, 137.) Julian likens a sinner to a headstrong toddler who, she says, must be free to run and explore her little world if she is to grow to maturity, but who inevitably falls, tearing her clothing and becoming hurt and dirty.

[The child] cries out – not to a God of punishment but to a loving mother Christ. (This was a revolutionary concept for the Middle Ages – Christ as a loving mother!) The loving mother [Christ] picks up the toddler, cleans and comforts it, then holds it close again.” (Margaret Guenther, Holy Listening, the Art of Spiritual Direction [Cambridge, Cowley Publications, 1992]) 27.

That is the gift and fruit of repentance: being held close in the loving embrace of God. Repentance means choosing to lay aside our shame and guilt, and asking to be lifted up so we can rest in the lap of our Creator.

As long as we live, we will fall into sin, and it sneaks up on us. We often don’t even realize a sin has taken hold in our lives until we stop to notice.

That’s why practice Lent. We set aside time to look deeply inside… to go willingly and humbly into the wilderness with our hearts torn open so that God can enter in, and we stay there for the full 40 days, so that we can be guided by God back onto the path of love and faithfulness. Then running down that path with the innocent faith of a child, we throw ourselves, with all our might into the embrace of our loving mother Christ where we are filled with God’s grace and forgiveness.

In just a moment, we will pray together the Nicene Creed, as we do every Sunday at Holy Eucharist, confessing that “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty.” (BCP, 358) By saying this prayer together, we are remembering that God, the Creator of all that is, is our devoted parent and we are God’s beloved children.

God never forgets that, but we do. Thankfully, we have Lent, which we practice together so that we can notice and repent of our sin, individually and communally, and recommit ourselves to the covenant, letting God be God for us and being God’s faithful people, innocent, trusting, and loving as we are loved, in return.


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