First Sunday in Lent for Year B (February 22, 2015)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

In Genesis, God establishes a covenant with those who come through the Flood. It’s pretty much a one-way deal, as God promises to refrain from such stern judgment ever again. The “rainbow” in the sky — so often seen as a sign to us — is actually pictured as a sign for God, so that God may remember God’s own promise. Regardless of our actions, God says, “I will remember….”

Psalm 25 continues the theme of remembrance, this time with a twist. The prayer is, “Remember your mercy, O Lord…” — always a good thing! But notice that the prayer continues, “Do NOT remember the sins of my youth…!” Sometimes, we need to ask God to forget?

1 Peter gives us a great summary of the gospel in the opening verses of this passage. There’s a connection to the Noah story from Genesis, reminding us of the power (symbolic, or otherwise) of baptism. And, we get the quasi-ambiguous line about Christ “preaching to the spirits in prison.” I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but I note that it — like the other mighty acts of God listed throughout scripture — is a work of the Spirit. So, there you have it.

Mark gives us a quick review of passages we have already heard in recent weeks (Jesus’ baptism and John’s arrest) and adds the important “sandwich” story of Jesus in the wilderness. Again, a work of the Spirit, who drives Jesus to this lonely place. Mark’s account is the sparsest of the gospel accounts — we get no details of the “conversation” Jesus had with the devil. But, we do understand that Jesus is tempted, he survives, and God shows up when God is needed. Jesus is not alone (love the wild beasts hanging out, not to mention the angels.)

Neither are we.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

My wife and I have been married for over forty years, and we met while we were still in high school. When you’ve been together that long, you have a lot of shared memories.  Well, actually not so much.  What you have is a lot of shared experience which you almost inevitably remember differently.  This situation provides a lot of, shall we say “opportunity for vigorous conversation,” which usually begins with, “I have no idea who you’re talking about.  You say we went to dinner with them in Nashville in the 1990s?” or “No, no, no; you’ve got that all wrong, it was in Hightower in 1979 – not China Grove in 1985.”  Trust me, sometimes this can go on half the night.

It’s a good thing then that we can be sure that God’s memory is better than ours; clearer, more precise, and, most importantly, more to be trusted. After all, God has promised that “When I see the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant.” (vs. 16) And what is that covenant? Again, God speaks, “. . . that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood.”(vs. 11)

Now most people, especially those of us who were raised in church or synagogue, know the story of Noah and the flood and most of us think of God’s promise, at least fleetingly, when we see a rainbow.  But how many of us remember that the bow was intended as a sign to God, not to us?  How many of us remember that the bow is primarily intended to help God remember God’s promise, God’s covenant, to not destroy all flesh?  I know I didn’t.  Even though I have studied it many times, I remembered it differently.

This time, as I read the story of Noah and the flood, I kept thinking of something North Carolina novelist, English professor, and occasional scholar of the New Testament Reynolds Price said.

There is, he opined, one sentence beyond all else that people yearn to hear in all stories: “The Maker of all things loves and wants me.” (Price, p. 72)  Professor Liston Mills of Vanderbilt Divinity School often said a similar thing, “All theological questions boil down to one thing, ‘Can God be trusted?’ ”

The story of the flood is a story that tells us that God can indeed be trusted.  It is a meditation upon issues of human sin and divine wrath, of our fragile vulnerability in the face of the world’s unpredictable power and violence, and the possibility that God can repent, change God’s mind, and in the future remember a promise to be merciful.

The psalmist remembers God’s promise to remember and holds God to it.  Verse 6 and 7 use “remember” three times.  It is not by accident that the writer first calls upon God to “Remember your compassion and love.” Look to the rainbow, God.  Remember your promise.  Then the psalmist invites the Lord to “remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions.”  Finally, God is asked to remember the person, not the deeds but the person, in light of God’s own steadfast love and goodness.

Both the flood story and the Psalm reflect a consistent thread that runs throughout the Hebrew Scriptures – the thread of God’s compassion and mercy and love outweighing God’s judgment and wrath and condemnation. And remembering is the key. Both God and us remembering God’s promises to us, God’s covenant of grace with us. Methodist bishop Will Willimon used to say that in preaching, “We do not so much need to be told as we need to be reminded.”

In 1 Peter, we are reminded of the basic facts about the Cross of Christ.  “Suffered for sins,” “once for all,” “brought us to God,” “resurrection of Jesus Christ,” “gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God.”    In the midst of this familiar and almost creedal language is buried a reference to Noah and the flood.  Peculiar stuff about “proclamation to the spirits in prison,” and the flood waters being like our baptism.

While this bit is open to a lot of interpretation, it seems that Peter was in some way trying to say that God had not forgotten those who died in the flood, those who, “in former times did not obey.”  With Christ “descending into hell” to invite those languishing there to “repent and believe in the good news,” God closes the circle and indeed makes Christ a sign that God’s love is for all people and for all time.

After forty plus years together, my wife and I do have trouble remembering the same details of our life together, or remembering the same details the same way – but we always remember we love each other and want the best for each other.  So it is with God and us.  We sometimes remember the story of God’s love differently, we forget details others think are important, we harp on things nobody else cares about.  But underneath it all, we can be sure of one thing – “The Maker of all things loves and wants (us).”

“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 one the earth.”  Genesis 9:16

Price, Reynolds in “Incarnation: Contemporary Writers on the New Testament” Alfred Corn (ed.)

New York: Viking Penguin, 1990, p. 72

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