Sermon from Sunday 21st February 2021 by Revd Janey
(First Sunday of Lent)

When I was young, I was in the Brownies, as I’m sure many of you might have been too. I
can still remember the words of the Brownie Guide Promise - as it was then –
"I promise that I will do my best, to do my duty to God, to serve the Queen and help other
people and to keep the (Brownie) Guide Law."


The words, of course, have changed now to reflect our society’s cultural and religious
diversity, so Brownies now promise to do their best, to be true to themselves and develop
their beliefs, to serve the Queen and their community, to help other people and to keep the
(Brownie) Guide Law.


Promise-making is something we become familiar with from an early age.
 

The Old Testament readings during Lent, are a series of texts about a particular kind of
biblical promise – covenants.

 

What do we think of when we hear the word covenant?
 

In modern usage, it is generally seen as a legally binding agreement which sets out rights
and obligations between two or more equal parties. It’s often related to land use. It’s a
contract – if party A does X, then party B will do Y – and it’s bound in law.


And in the Ancient Near East, a covenant between people was a serious matter too. It was
much more than a verbal promise – it was enacted in a ritual to make it a life-or-death
agreement. The two parties would slice an animal in half and walk between the two halves
of the carcass as a sign that if either of them did not uphold their side of the covenant, then
what had happened to the animal would happen to them. Grisly stuff!


Covenants are generally thought of as multi-party and multilateral. What do we mean by
that? Multi-party means, as you might think, that there is more than one person (or body)
involved in the covenant. Multi-lateral means that each of those parties is somehow
implicated in the covenant’s initiation, establishment and fulfilment.


Our Genesis reading this morning, looks at what is known as the Noahic Covenant. It
comes after the narrative of God’s rescue of Noah, his family and all the animals in the Ark
from the destruction of the flood.


The passage uses the word covenant seven times in only ten verses. How should we
understand this emphasis on covenant, which is being outlined here between God, Noah
and all the animals?


Who initiated the covenant? Who established it? And who fulfils it?
 

The Noahic covenant described here may have been multi-party – i.e. between God,
humans and animals - but was it multi-lateral?


Note the language:

Verse 9 - I am establishing my covenant
Verse 12 - This is the sign of the covenant that I make
Verse 14 and 15 - When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the
clouds, I will remember my covenant

 

The Hebrew word used here for covenant is qum – which means to raise up. Normally, the
word for covenant would have been krt meaning to ‘cut’ – a reference to the rather
gruesome practise described earlier.


God is doing something different with covenant here. He is raising up a unilateral
covenant. God initiated it. God established it. And it would be fulfilled by God alone.
The people and the animals were under no obligation to play any part in initiating,
establishing or fulfilling the covenant. All the obligation was on God. In a work of self-giving
grace, the God of creation spoke to enact a renewed bond of loyalty and fidelity with all
life.


The sign of God’s pledge is a bow in the sky. What we understand to be a rainbow. But at
the time, this would have had a double meaning – it also would have been understood as
the weapon, the bow and arrow. A bow hung up without its arrows signifies disarmament, a ceasing of hostilities. The suspended bow was a sign of God’s intention to make a new
peace with all creation.


Why is this worth knowing? What difference can this make to us in our walk of faith, and
particularly as we begin our journey into Lent?


As Christians, we live under a New Covenant; a new pledge of how God relates to his
people through grace and the forgiveness of sins. The words from our New Testament
reading from 1 Peter 3 tell us:

“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in
order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the
spirit…”


Much like the covenants of old, this New Covenant was struck in blood through Christ’s
sacrifice on the cross. Christ was put to death in the flesh. If we stretch the analogy, it was
Christ’s body that was torn apart to enact the New Covenant and we pass through it –
through his death into our spiritual life.


And, like the Noahic covenant, the New Covenant is unilateral. It is God’s covenant with
us. God initiated it, God established it in Christ, and it will be fulfilled in the course of time
by God alone.


We had no part in its initiation; we are under no obligation to uphold our side of a ‘bargain.’
This, again, is God’s self-giving grace enacting a renewed relationship of salvation and
peace with his creation.


As we embark on a season of lent, then, this Genesis passage reminds us that it is a
season of penitence, not penance. The great salvation work of Christ is done – we cannot
add to it by our merits, or diminish it by our sin - all the obligation to initiate, establish and
fulfil the New Covenant has been, and will be done in and through the work of Christ.
We enter this season with a rightful sense of solemn repentance, but it is within the scope
of that self-giving grace of God. As the words of the Benedictus remind us:

“In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to
shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our
feet into the way of peace.”

 

Now, you may be wondering, if Christ’s work of salvation in the New Covenant requires
nothing from us to establish or fulfil it, then why worry about our sin? Or to put it another
way, if we know God will forgive us anyway, why bother repenting?


Sin. Let’s talk about that word for a minute! For some it’s just a normal part of their spiritual vocabulary. For others, it’s a bit squirmy. And for others still, it has become loaded with judgement and spiritual abuse.


Do you know where the word comes from?
 

The word sin comes from the Old English word synne, which means a mis-step. At the
time of early English translations of the bible it was the closest English equivalent for the
word that was used in the Greek New testament, which was χάμαρτια (pronounced
hamartia). This is a technical word used in archery - it literally means to miss the mark
because the arrow fell short of the target.


There’s definitely a bow and arrow theme coming into play today!
 

The word sin is often used in a way to label specific behaviours as ‘wrong’. Whilst that
does make sense in some contexts, in other contexts, that way of thinking about sin can
feel very condemning to those tentative about exploring faith and has been used unjustly
to cut certain people groups off from the fellowship of the church.


If we take on board the root of the word sin, it can be seen much more as a leveller – as
something we all encounter on the journey of faith - we trip up, we make mis-steps, or
despite our good intentions to hit the ‘target’ of God’s best for us, we miss the mark and
our arrows fall short.


When that happens, our sense of peace with God becomes fractured. The New Covenant
still stands regardless, but it is our perception or awareness of our standing within it that
has become dulled. As with a physical journey, taking a wrong turn doesn’t necessarily
mean we abandon the journey, but it can leave us disoriented, and we can lose sight of the
destination.


When we come before God in repentance, and acknowledge our sin, we are reawakened
to what Christ has done for us. God, in his infinite mercy, revives our sense of security in
him and in our salvation. The ears of our hearts are retuned to Christ’s call to ‘follow’ and
we are set back on the right path again - and again – and again.


When we were preparing the ashes with the children last Sunday afternoon, Lizzie asked
the question “What does it feel like to be forgiven by God?”. One of the children replied,
“safe.”


Yes - we are held safe. We need not fear. We can embark on this often-times
uncomfortable journey of self-examination and penitence – even if it takes us into the
wilderness for a while – because we are assured not only of the loving embrace of God,
but we can be confident that in his mercy, God has provided the way for our forgiveness,
our healing and our redemption. God has hung up his bow as a sign of his intention for all
creation to be at everlasting peace with him through Jesus Christ.


We enter into Lent, then, not with a sense of despair and condemnation as those who are lost, but simply as those who have wandered. To finish, I’m reminded of a poem from The Fellowship of The Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien, which says:

 

“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

 

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.”

 

I pray that from the ashes of Lent, a fire shall be woken in each of you; that your Lenten
journey this year will deepen your love for God, and that you will be renewed in spirit as
you look ahead to the Cross and to the Easter dawn.

 

Amen.

First Sunday of LentRev'd Janey Hillier
00:00 / 13:15