February 26th, 1st Sunday of Lent

We begin our Lenten journey with a covenant. If you remember, the call to worship this morning began by saying that God holds us in his covenant of grace, and our Old Testament reading talks about the covenant God made with his people after the flood. Since today was the day that Lise made a covenant with this church, and the day that she was accepted as a member of this congregation, it is particularly appropriate that we talk for a while about covenants. Many people seem to think that a covenant is the same as a contract, but there is actually a huge difference. You see, when we sign a contract, it involves two people or groups agreeing to certain things. I will do this for you if you will do that for me. It is generally assumed that the two parties in a contract are equal in most ways, and defaulting by one of the parties renders the contract null and void, and relieves the second party of any obligation towards the first.
A covenant, on the other hand, is a promise made by one person to another. The people involved in the covenant are usually not equal, and there is no hint of reciprocity in a covenant. And in the reading from Genesis, what we saw was the first covenant God made with his people – the covenant that he would never again destroy the world by a flood. And what did he ask in return? Nothing. Not one single thing. He made a promise, and didn’t exact anything from his chosen people. Not only that, he set a rainbow in the sky, as a symbol of this covenant.
Cal you remember telling KNOCK-KNOCK jokes as a child? There is one which goes like this:
Would you forget me in a minute?
Of course not.
Would you forget me in an hour?
Of course not.
Would you forget me in a week?
Of course not.
Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
I thought you said that you wouldn’t forget me!
This is a joke, but, sadly, it is often true in our society. We meet people, and we forget them. We make promises, and we don’t keep them. And we don’t seem too worried about it. We make excuses like: Oh, I am just too busy to fulfill that commitment right now. I’ll do it when I get the time. But God doesn’t do that. He makes a promise to us, he makes a covenant with us, and he keeps it. And, just in case, he should get too busy with whatever it is that God DOES when he isn’t creating, he placed the rainbow in the sky as a reminder.
This covenant which God made doesn’t have any clauses in it. There are no conditions. Nowhere do we see the word “if”. God didn’t say: IF you love me, I will do this. He didn’t say: IF you keep my commandments, I will do this. There is no “notwithstanding” clause in God’s covenant with his people. It is, in fact, a covenant based on pure love, the kind of love that we can only know through God.
And we should be so thankful that this is the kind of covenant God made with us, because we are a forgetful people. If we take a look through the Old Testament, we will find story after story about God’s people forgetting him, worshipping other gods, and behaving in a generally not-so-godlike manner. But don’t get complacent, and say that we don’t do this. Living in the society in which we live, we see people turning their backs on God all the time. We see people removing God from public assemblies. In this province, which was once the most religious one in Canada, we see churches converted into libraries or condos, because there are no people worshiping in them any more. A friend of mine, who is an Anglican priest, once commented that he could spend all of his time deconsecrating churches, because they are closing at such an alarming rate. And yet, God will not forget us. And he placed a rainbow in the sky to remind him, just in case.
But what will remind us of God? Well, our youth group held a retreat this weekend, which was an important step on their faith journey. We come to worship most Sundays, some of us read the Bible more or less regularly. But I think that we need more. We need to be aware of God in our daily lives, and we need to make him an essential part of our daily lives. It is in that way that we will not forget him, and it is in that way that the rainbow will become a true sign of the covenant between two unequal partners.
During this time of Lent, many denominations advocate treating it as a time of penitence, and recommend that people give up something for the duration. I remember, as a child, giving up candy for the 40 days. It wasn’t as big a hardship as it might seem, though, as candy wasn’t as plentiful as it is nowadays – or maybe I just didn’t have the spending money children have now. But, for me as an adult, this paled, because I no longer look at Lent as a time of penitence. Rather, I look at it as a time of preparation, a time to get ready for what is surely the most important day in Christianity. No, it isn’t Christmas, which was a couple of months ago. Nor is it Good Friday. Both those days matter, of course, but without the joy that comes at Easter, neither of them would mean very much. So I spend time preparing the way of the Lord, just as did John the Baptist. For me, this means preparing myself, and making myself more conscious of God in my life on a daily basis. It means starting every day with a Bible study, and ending the day with a devotional from the books in the narthex. It means looking for God everywhere – whether in the water dripping off the roof as a sign that spring is really coming, or in the fresh snow falling to remind that winter isn’t quite over yet. All of these things remind me that God has made a covenant with me – a covenant of love which was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
And this brings us to the Gospel reading. As I have mentioned to you, Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the four, and one of the reasons is that he doesn’t give us a lot of detail. It is believed that this Gospel was the first one to be written down, and it is also the most concise. It seems to me that Mark is trying to tell us just the facts, and isn’t wanting to add any of the details which we find so interesting. For instance, we learned today that Jesus was baptized by John, but there was nothing about John’s clothes or his diet, and certainly none of the conversation recorded by Matthew.
Just listen to part of the reading: At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. Two short verses are all that Mark gives this story, while Matthew takes 11 verses, and Luke takes 13. As well, Mark’s version, depending on the translation, begins with the word IMMEDIATELY or the words AT ONCE, again heightening the urgency which characterizes this entire Gospel.
But I can’t help but wonder why Mark only gives this 40-day trial in the desert only two sentences. The whole idea of the number forty occurs over and over again in Scripture, so there must have been something important about it. The most common connection, of course, is with the 40 years that Moses and the Israelites wandered in the wilderness on the Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land. But today, we make the connection with the Ark, and the rain which fell for 40 days and nights. This rain purged the world of sinful man, and left only Noah and his family to repopulate the earth afterwards. And I would imagine that, during that time, there was much reflection happening among the people of the earth.
In the same way, Jesus spent 40 days and nights in the desert, preparing, reflecting, praying, getting ready for what we now call Holy Week. And like Jesus, we will be spending today and the next five Sundays preparing, reflecting, praying, and getting ready for what is to come. But this is where I differ from Mark. I don’t want us to rush towards the cross and the resurrection. I want us to consciously slow down, to take time to see where we are, and where God is in our lives.
There are too many times when I identify with Mark, when I find myself anticipating something, when I find myself rushing from one event to the next, without taking the time to appreciate what is happening now. And I don’t want us to do that with Lent. I want our Lent experience to be one which lasts, one which will cause us to think seriously about what is happening.
Mark chose not to write about the specifics of Jesus’ time in the desert, and, even though I find it a bit frustrating that he didn’t, I think that I understand why he did this. After all, just think about your own life. Imagine if you had to remember all the minutiae which helped shape you, which made you the person you are today. Think about the times when you have felt alone, when you have not felt God’s presence in your lives. Even though these are not times we want to remember, they are all a part of you. Every single thing which happened – or DIDN’T happen – contributed to the person you have become. And, even more importantly, those things which are still to happen to you, will continue to shape you, will continue to change you.
In the same way, things which are happening in the world and in the church today will continue to shape the church, will continue to change the church. That is why we refer to the Presbyterian Church in Canada as: ALWAYS REFORMED, ALWAYS REFORMING, UNDER THE GUIDANCE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT.
Jesus, if you will remember, came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. That is the difference between out and out change, and reformation. Reformation refers to a slow change, one which takes a long time to begin, and even longer to finish. And with Jesus came the most amazing change of all. Jesus came to make God’s final covenant with his people – the covenant of forgiveness. Long ago, God sent a flood to deal with his unrepentant people. Later, he sent his own son, to show his people that they were forgiven. And yet, and yet, like the Israelites of long ago, we still turn our backs on God and his love. But he remembers his covenant. Even though we have provoked God even more than the ancients, he will never again destroy the earth by a flood. Even though, as a society, we have sinned grievously, he still loves us and he still forgives us and he still remembers us. In Isaiah, God told his people – and us – that we are carved on the palm of his hand. I have often thought that this is why so many depictions of the crucifixion show Jesus with the nails going through the palms of his hands, rather than through his wrists.
So what is our response to God’s love? What do we say when we hear him knocking? What do we say about the two signs – the rainbow and the cross? We know what God wants. He wants us to accept his love, to open the door. And he wants us to see the signs, and to recognize that they are both signs of his covenant with us.
Jesus spent 40 days struggling with temptation, so he knows how we struggle. And, truth be told, I think that most of us don’t have the success that he had. There are times, I am sure, when we give in a bit too easily to temptation, when we turn away from God, however briefly. I am reminded of a story about a man who had been put on a strict diet by his doctor. And this man was one of those whom my grandmother would have described as being able to resist anything except temptation. So one day, he came into the office with a box of freshly baked pastries to share with his co-workers. One of his friends said: I thought you were on a diet. What are you doing with all these pastries? Well, he replied, I was driving past the bakery, and these smelled so good. But I knew that I shouldn’t buy them, so I prayed. I said to God: if is your will that I buy these pastries, I will find a parking spot right in front of the building. And, sure enough, I found one, on the 8th time around the block!
So resisting temptation is what this Lent can be all about. Sure, it is easy to give in. It is easier to indulge in gossip than to ignore it. It is easier to condemn than to forgive. It is easier to fill the garbage bag than to recycle. It is more comfortable to hang onto our sinful ways than to change them. But the good news is that, no matter what we do, God forgives us; that, no matter how we behave, God loves us; that, no matter how often we forget him, God remembers us. The covenants God has made will endure forever; they have not been and will not be broken. Whenever you find yourself struggling, remember the covenant, and know that you are not alone. Thanks be to God.


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