Rev. Teri Peterson
Genesis 9.8-17, Mark 1.9-15
18 February 2018, Lent 1B, my last day
Genesis 9.8-17 (NRSV)
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and 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. 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.’ God 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: 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 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. 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.’ God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’
Mark 1.9-15 (NRSV)
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
Over the last few weeks, I have had to make a lot of decisions about things like paint colours and curtain fabrics and flooring materials. The manse I am moving in to tomorrow has been redecorated in anticipation of my arrival—and good thing, because at least one room had a bright orange feature wall that was definitely not going to work for me. Instead, where there was a bright orange wall, now there is a deep red one. And another room as a deep purple wall....and another a sapphire blue...and at the very top of the house is a sage green room. I very nearly have a rainbow spread throughout the house!
The crate containing the things I shipped from Chicago was delivered a few days ago, and it was a delight to see things again after nine months—especially the artwork that will hang on the walls, or stand on the shelves. I love all the pieces I’ve collected over the years—paintings on papyrus, from the time I spent living in Egypt; photographs of my mother as a child; icons I’ve collected from around the world; a poster from the musical Wicked, signed by the entire Chicago cast; an olive wood carving of the woman at the well; a watercolour I bought from a street side painter in Belgium; a reclaimed wood art piece given to me for my ordination. Every one has memories and emotions attached. I see them and I’m reminded of places and people and experiences.
I think that’s a part of what happened in the story we heard from the book of Genesis. It’s almost as if God redecorated the creation—and what hangs on the walls is there as a reminder, not just because it looks nice but because it calls to mind memory, emotion, and commitment.
Things in God’s creation had not gone particularly well...far worse than a bright orange wall, the world was filled with violence and greed and self-serving people. But after trying to get back to a clean slate, God realised that fighting violence with violence was never going to work—not for gods or humans. And so God makes a declaration:
I am setting up my covenant with you.
No conditions, no requirements. Just God acting, unilaterally, to re-create the world with something other than violence at the core.
And so God says, I am setting up my covenant with you...and with your descendants after you...and with every living creature. For all future generations.
This is an all-encompassing promise, from God to the world and all who live in it: God will not direct violence toward the world ever again.
And as a reminder, God redecorates. God takes the bow, and hangs it on the wall, facing away from the earth. From now on, we fight back with beauty, not with weapons.
Often I think we overlook the living creatures in this promise. It’s hard enough for us to allow God’s promise to be for people other than ourselves or those who look like us and worship like us...to be asked to include the rest of creation is often more than we can bear. Add in the idea that somehow we are supposed to believe that God chooses—even insists on—a nonviolent way, and we are called to follow in those footsteps, and that makes this story feel impossible.
Which is probably why we have so often turned it into a nice children’s story—because if we can domesticate it then perhaps it won’t ask so much of us.
But as we enter the season of Lent, a season of preparation, of turning our face to Jerusalem, of walking with Jesus toward the cross, I think it matters a great deal that we see this story in its starkest light: God has laid aside violence. Period. The weapon is unstrung and affixed to the wall, turned from an instrument of pain and death to an symbol of beauty and love. From this moment onward, God will call us to turn swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, to lay down the sword and take up the cross, to look on the rainbow and remember that violence can never work. God is the first to make this commitment—it is God who sets up the covenant, and God who keeps it, and who keeps us.
It is so easy to make God in our own image, insisting that God is violent or vengeful, that God requires blood and sacrifice. But here, right at the new beginning of all creation, we see that the opposite is true, and that we have so often worshipped something other than God. Rather than trusting that love is stronger, that grace is sufficient, we have trusted in the very weapons God himself laid down. We have believed God continued to use the violent way, when God very clearly said otherwise. And our society reaps the rewards of that idolatry, as children die in their classrooms, wars rage around the globe, the earth itself groans and cracks and dies by our hand, and our governments tell us we need to put more effort and resources into protecting our borders and fighting the bad guys than we do into healthcare and education and the arts.
And this promise is for you, for your children, and all who are far away, and for all future generations....and for every living creature, from the greatest to the smallest. God says “when I see the beauty I have painted in the clouds, I will remember”....will we remember? Will we look on the promise of God and not just believe, but live as if it is true, and as if we are made in God’s image, as if we are following the One whose cross and empty tomb are the proof that God’s love always wins?
In the psalm we sang a few minutes ago, we prayed for God to show us God’s ways, to teach us the path, to guide us in truth...of steadfast love. That is the true path, for God and for the people of God. It may be that when we see the way, we will find it harder than we imagined, because honestly the path of violence and exclusion is easier. But it will always require more blood, it will never leave us satisfied...because it is not God’s way. God’s way leads to life abundant, for all creation.
In this season of Lent, I invite you to make a practice of fighting back with beauty. Look at the rainbow, the painting, the icon, the sculpture, the sprouting plants, the moving clouds, the returning birds...whatever it is that draws your eye. Marvel at God’s redecorating, and allow yourself to be re-made, too. Look and be reminded that God hung up the weapon and turned it into art. Then go and do likewise.
May it be so. Amen.