The ancient story of the great flood that we find in the Book of Genesis is not unique to the Judeo-Christian Tradition. Many cultures and religious traditions have similar stories about a time long, long ago, when God decided to flood the earth and begin again. We tell the same story (with some variation in the details) because, as humans, we share the same experience. We witness great floods and terrible disasters, and we want to make sense of them. We witness human sin, and failure, and disobedience to God, and we want to make sense of these things too.
These stories make sense to us when we think about the world that we live in today. We have no trouble imagining a world that has spun so far out of control that God might want to wipe it out and begin again. We read about that world in the newspaper each day, and we see it before our eyes on the nightly news. At least, it can seem that way some days, because the Noahs of this world rarely make the headlines.
But the story of Noah and the Ark and the Great Flood does not serve only as a warning. On this first Sunday in the Season of Lent, we might be tempted to read it that way. We might be inclined to warn each other back into obedience to God: Turn back before it’s too late! Pay attention to God before God decides to write you off! Return to God’s ways before God changes his mind and takes back the invitation!
Yes, the first part of the story may serve as a warning, or as a call to return to the Lord during this season of prayer and repentance. But the final part of the story is not so much a warning as it is a promise. When the flood subsided, and Noah and his family came out of the ark with all the animals, the first thing that Noah did was to build a place of worship. He made an offering to God, and when the Lord smelled the pleasing odour, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.”
It’s like God suddenly realized that human beings are never going to get it all together. It’s like God figured out that people are people, that we’re not God, and that we’re never going to be as loving and faithful and good as God is all of those things. And God decided that he would accept us as we are.
The best comparison that I can think of is the “honeymoon period” in a relationship. The honeymoon period refers to the early part of a relationship when you walk around in a haze of lovey dovey feelings, believing that your partner is the best thing since sliced bread, that he or she can do no wrong, and that life together is going to be just glorious because you’re just perfect for each other!
You might experience a honeymoon period in a marriage or in a friendship, in a new job or in any kind of new and exciting situation in life. Church folk often talk about a honeymoon period when a new minister comes to a congregation. It’s that first year or so before the congregation discovers the minister’s foibles and failings, and before the minister uncovers the unique quirks and challenges that exist in any Christian community. (Of course, you and I are long past that stage!)
When I’m doing marriage preparation with couples who have decided to get married, we do a lot more than plan the wedding service. And one of the things that I’m listening for when we meet together is whether they are still in the honeymoon period of their relationship. You see, it’s one thing to make a lifelong commitment to a person who is smart, strong, beautiful, loving, reliable, thoughtful, and perfect in every way. And it’s quite another to make a lifelong commitment to a person who is human, who makes mistakes and who does wrong things. What we most want to avoid is getting married during that honeymoon period, and then waking up some months later to discover the person that we’re really married to, and to be tempted to give up and walk away.
When couples get married in the church, we use the word “covenant” to describe the promises that they are making to each other. It’s the very same word that is used in the Bible to describe God’s promises to us as God’s people. And just as the rainbow becomes the sign of the covenant – the reminder of God’s promise to us never to give up on us again – many couples exchange rings to serve as a reminder of the covenant that they have made, a sign of the love and faithfulness that they have promised to each other.
It’s not just that the covenant is unconditional, though it is certainly that. God promises to remain faithful to us, to stay in relationship to us, EVEN IF we forget about God, and disobey God, and do wrong things. But the covenant is made with the knowledge that we WILL do wrong things, that we WILL be unfaithful, that we WILL forget about God. God makes the covenant even THOUGH God knows us well enough to know that we will mess up. God makes the covenant even THOUGH God knows that there will be times when God will want to wipe us all out with a giant flood and start again. And God promises NOT to do that!
Sometimes the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament that we meet in Jesus the Christ are seen as quite different from each other – the contrast between a harsh and judging God who required God’s people to live according to a set of rules and laws, versus the loving, forgiving, reconciling God that we experience in Jesus. But I’m not so sure that God has changed all that much.
Once upon a time, God made a promise to humanity. God knew that we would forget him, and turn away, and do wrong things. But God made a covenant to be our God and not to destroy us again. More than two thousand years ago, God made a new covenant with us in Jesus Christ. God made that promise to us right in the middle of a pretty good demonstration of our human failure and sinfulness. Even as Jesus spoke the words of promise to his disciples at supper, some of them were doubting, and some of them were planning betrayals, and all of them were soon to run away when he needed them most. But he took a loaf of bread in his hands, broke it, and gave to them. He said, “This is my body that is for you.” He took a cup of wine, passing it between them and telling them, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”
Today I invite you to hear these words again. They are words that have been spoken so many times in this place, as we have gathered at the Table of the Lord to remember him and celebrate the feast. I invite you to hear the words again, and to consider them as Jesus’ wedding vow – Jesus’ promise – to you and to us as a People. Don’t worry. He knows what he’s getting into. He’s making the covenant with his eyes wide open to the people that we are with all our imperfections, and with the full knowledge that we’re going to mess up again because we are human.
But he loves us, and he’s committing to keep on loving us. He’s giving himself fully and completely to being in relationship with us, knowing that his self-giving will inevitably lead to pain and hurt and even death itself. His body will be broken. His blood will be poured out. And he will keep on loving us, and forgiving us, and drawing us back into relationship with him, into relationship with God.
As bread and wine are shared this day, we are invited to do two things. We are invited to hear and receive the promise of God in Jesus Christ, to hear God’s promise once again and to rest in God’s amazing love. And we are invited to respond to that love, to renew our own promises to God, to make our own vows once again, that we might give ourselves fully to God and God’s will for our lives.
May God bless the giving and receiving of our promises today, and may God give us the strength to live by them more and more each day. Amen.