Sunday, February 26, 2012

(Lent 1) God's signature

"Where do we sign?" -- Lent 1: God's covenant with Noah
Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-10

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The story of God . . . in the Bible . . .
is a story of God trying, over and over,
to get human beings to sign on to God’s big project in the world,
to get them to sign on to a covenant, a love-pact,
a relationship agreement to work together on the same agenda:
restoring and reconciling creation.
That’s it.
That’s the story of God.
Trying repeatedly to get us to sign on.
To be joined, together with God, in covenant.

This turns out to be a daunting task, even for God.
Beginning in Genesis,
and working your way through the end of the Bible,
you could map your path
by all the broken covenants strewn by the roadside.
In the biblical story, time and again,
God reaches out to humanity with arms full of love.
And it doesn’t always go so well,
at least for God.
God looks like a spurned lover.
A tragic figure in a cosmic drama.

You could have predicted the story would go that way.
Because love, love . . . was the foundation of that covenant.
And love, if it’s going to be authentic,
if it’s going to be reciprocated,
absolutely requires free will.
And free will is what makes any covenant
such a risky endeavor.
When we’re left to choose for ourselves,
we usually do just that . . . choose . . . for ourselves.

This year in our worship during Lent,
the Old Testament readings
take us through a series of covenant stories.
Covenants with Noah and his family,
with Abraham and Sarah and their family,
with the whole people of Israel at Mt. Sinai,
and another covenant for healing,
and a covenant inscribed on their hearts,

Each of these covenants share the same core characteristic—
the same amazing, and beautiful,
and virtually unimaginable, characteristic.
In each of them, we human beings are invited into
a love relationship with Almighty God.

God invites us to reclaim the loving, relational
identity and purpose we were given at creation.
God invites us to embrace our original beautiful, joyful,
creative, loving, and life-giving role in the world.

Unfortunately, we’ve often turned away from that role,
from the Garden of Eden . . . onward.
But God never gives up on us.
God has an agenda in the world—
a restoring and re-creating agenda—
and God wants to work with us on it.
God wants a people, a covenant people.
But not just any people.
Not a people who will go along with the program
out of a sense of duty.
Not a people who will obey only because they were commanded
and they are afraid of the consequences.
Not a people who are faithful to the covenant,
only because they know they should be.
Not a people who continually test the limits of obedience,
hoping to discover the least they can do, to get in under the wire.

God wants a people who will not only agree to sign on to the covenant,
but who eagerly, boldly, lean in toward God, asking,
“Where do we sign?”

You know, it’s a very different thing to ask, “Where do we sign?”
than it is to just be told, “Sign here.”
Asking “where do we sign?” shows a bold eagerness
to say “yes” to the possibilities in this covenant.

In this season of Lent, as we explore these biblical covenants,
let it be our aim to ask, in eager anticipation, “Where do we sign?”
Let it be our aim to be looking for the opportunity
to say “Yes, I’m in . . . We’re in.”

In these covenant stories in the Bible,
it’s interesting to note that the “yeses” are spoken mainly
by communities on the margins—
the estranged, the poor, the outsiders, the wanderers, etc.

They were the ones who could see, plainly,
that something has gone badly wrong in the world.
They were the ones ready to participate—
completely, joyfully, freely and in full surrender—
in the re-creating and restoring work that God is about in the world.
And it was precisely because they were on the margins,
because they were being pushed down and pushed out
by the oppressive powers of the world,
that they were so eager to say “yes” to God,
that they were so ready to surrender
to the free and generous and prodigal love of God.

God did not go to the powerful, to the well-connected,
to the influence-peddlers of the world,
to join in covenant with him.
God went to the margins.
God invited, specifically, and strategically,
those who were distant enough from the center to be
undeterred by the lure of power and wealth and status quo.

Noah was on the margins.
In a world full of violence, of immorality, of abuse of power,
Noah and his family quietly kept their distance.
They didn’t fit in, nor did they want to.

This story of Noah and the Ark
is one of the most compelling in the Bible.
It’s arguably the most well-known bible story, period.

But how can such a horrific story—
that, purely on the face of it,
is a story more catastrophic than both World Wars,
the Holocaust, 9-11,
Hurricane Katrina, and the Japanese tsunami combined—
why has this story been depicted so whimsically
in children’s picture books,
on babies’ crib sheets and pajamas,
and on our church nursery walls?

Well, the easy answer is,
we don’t ever tell the whole story.
We only tell the story from the perspective of
the Ark and the animals and Noah’s family.
It’s a great imaginative and colorful and fantastic adventure story.

But the best way to read this story,
is to read it as a story about God.
It was written to present the one God, Yahweh,
the one revealed to the people of Israel,
and to teach some essential characteristics of this God,
as opposed to the gods of some of the other nations.
Other nations, out of a paralyzing fear,
bowed to all kinds of Gods
who were distant and vindictive
and random in their judgements.

Here, God is portrayed as one who loves
and longs for intimacy with his creation.
The God depicted in Genesis 6-9 is quite the character,
an almost human character,
who first tries one thing and then another.
Who apparently sometimes feels regret or remorse.
Who sometimes changes his mind completely.

We try to make this story into something other than it was meant to be.
This is not science or history, as some Christians like to think.
There are no lessons in here
about biology, zoology, geology, or climatology.
If we want to learn about early floods and earthquakes,
the formation of sedimentary rock,
or how dinosaurs became extinct,
we don’t turn to Genesis.

Genesis is trying to accomplish one main thing.
To help the people be clear about what kind of God they worship.
This flood story was written, I think,
because it has one basic, fundamental truth
to tell about the main character in this story, this character God.
And it’s simply this:
God is full of love—passionate love for his creation.

For a God whose greatest desire
was to be in loving fellowship with creation,
the situation described in Genesis 6,
in which the whole earth was full of violence,
was deeply painful to God.

This God-character, in a human-like way,
thinks and deliberates and decides and re-decides.
This character has deep human-like emotions and passions,
even experiencing the depths of despair.
Genesis says “the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind . . .
and it grieved him to his heart.”
Out of this deep despair over creation, God decided to start over,
to save only two of every species of animal,
and Noah and his family—
the only humans fulfilling their created purpose.

God was determined to fix the problem earth had become,
and chose a radical solution—
to blot out every living thing from the face of the earth (Gen. 7:4).

And then we get to the part that children’s book illustrators love—
the big boat carrying two giraffes, two lions, two black snakes,
two flamingos, two of every kind of animal on the earth,
plus Mr. and Mrs. Noah and their family.
This part of the story reveals God to be
a loving, creative, and preserving God.

And after the waters go down,
and Noah and his family and the animals walk out of the ark,
we get another glimpse of a God with an almost human reaction
and emotional response.
Before the flood, it says that God was sorry he created the world.
After the flood, it almost sounds like God was sorry he destroyed it.
The first words out of God’s mouth were, “Never again!”
Never again!
Five times, according to this account, God states emphatically,
“Never again will I do such a thing!”

It makes me imagine God looking out over the devastation of the earth,
remembering all the joy of creating this beautiful world,
remembering the end of the sixth day of creation
when God looked at the universe and said,
“This is very good.”
Now God is filled with remorse.
“What have I done? What have I done?”
So the first thing God says to Noah is, “Never again.”
It was all just too painful for God.

And so we have this covenant God makes with Noah,
the covenant whose signature is the rainbow.
This is the first biblical covenant between God and humanity.
And it’s different from every other covenant in the Bible,
in that it’s one-sided.

God did not cut a deal with Noah and his family.
God did not hold out a parchment and quill pen,
and ask Noah to sign.
In fact, this is the one covenant in the Bible
where no opportunity is even given
for humans to sign on to it, or not.

God did not ask Noah to do anything at all.
God just promised never to destroy the earth again.
No conditions. Just a promise. “Never again.”
The only signature line on this covenant document is for God.
And God’s signature is the rainbow.

According to this story, when God sees the rainbow,
God remembers.
God is reminded he has a covenant to keep.
Even if Noah and his descendants totally mess things up again.
God has a covenant to keep.
Even if the earth becomes full of violence once again,
God has a covenant to keep.
Even if humanity utterly turns its back on God,
God has a covenant to keep.
Even if God becomes deeply pained and grieved again.
God has a covenant to keep.
It’s a covenant of love.
Because God loves,
God will never put creation through this trauma again.
God will never put himself through it again.

The writers of scripture sought to communicate,
through a compelling story,
what kind of God they worshiped.
They understand God as longing for intimate fellowship with them.
They understood God as compassionate and forgiving.

With modern eyes, we look on some of these Old Testament stories,
and we conclude that God must be some
angry, demanding, judgmental, and violent God.
But that’s certainly not how other scripture writers viewed God.

God is not portrayed as some fearsome deity that walks around earth
with a very short fuse and a chip on his shoulder,
just waiting to lash out at whoever crosses his path.
No, God’s heart beats with love and compassion.
God’s heart is full of longing.
God’s forgiveness is abundant.
The reach of God’s mercy is long.

Even in an Old Testament full of stories of violence and judgement,
God has a reputation as a God of abundant mercy, endless love.
Remember the prophet Jonah’s attitude,
after God relented, and spared the city of Ninevah from judgement?
Jonah pouted, and I quote,
“I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and ready to relent from punishing.
I knew it.”

And God hasn’t changed.
God is still full of love and mercy and compassion for us,
and for all creation.

What does that mean for how we live in the kind of world
we have today?

We could start by acknowledging,
with the Old Testament writers, that God is passionate,
that God can feel deep pain and anguish and anger.

Is there much question about how God feels
about what is happening, as we speak, in Syria?
or Afghanistan?
If God looked on the world in Genesis 6,
and saw it was filled with violence and corruption,
and God was pained to the point of despair,
how do you suppose God feels today?

We know that God’s ideal of justice is violated,
by the evil we witness in the world today.
But have we considered the state of God’s passion,
God’s pain?
How does God feel
when one person God created in his image,
takes the life of another person God created in his image?
How does God feel when that happens on a huge scale,
to tens of thousands of persons created in God’s image?

I doubt God is any less pained and grieved today,
than in Genesis 6.
I can only hope God is still noticing his signature on that covenant.
At least I pray God can still see that signature bow in the clouds,
the sign of the covenant that we didn’t sign.

In our prayers, it’s okay, I believe, to remind God.
The psalmist had no qualms about it.
In Psalm 25, that opened our service today, the psalmist writes,
“For your goodness’ sake, O Lord, remember!”

Yet, even though we didn’t have to sign this covenant,
we still have a part to play in it.
In the same way that Noah was chosen,
to preserve and represent the reality of God’s love and passion
for all of creation,
so we are still chosen.
God still needs a people,
through whom God will work in the world,
through whom the good news of the possibility of abundant life
can be shared with all who need to hear it.

May it be, that neither God, nor we,
ever forget this covenant.

Creator God,
we give thanks for your steadfast, passionate love for us,
and for all creation.
In the midst of this world full of violence,
remember your promise.
Remember your tender love for your people.
Preserve us all, by your grace.
Thank you for choosing us, as partners in your good work.

—Phil Kniss, February 26, 2012

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