David Walker Sermon - 22nd February
May I speak in the name of the living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
It all begins with water. We cannot live by water alone but we equally cannot live without water. Too little and we die; too much and we die also. Our bodies are made from water. When we scan the universe for signs of life we look for water. It nourishes our bodies, it cleanses us. It is energy and it is a resource. We live here in Barnard Castle because our forefathers settled by water, water to drink, to drive their mills and to protect them from the invader.
When God created the world he created it with love and he loved us from the start. ‘God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good’. But then we began to let him down. God saw our wickedness and it grieved him to his heart. He pledged to blot out humankind, except for one righteous man, and that was Noah.
So, he sent the flood, and the water of life became the agent for the death of the world. God used the flood to cleanse the world.
But what is important is that he did not end the world, he did not give up completely on his creation or on humankind. He sent the flood, the deluge that lasted for forty days. This wasn’t just a severe weather warning, this was an inundation, an outpouring, an overflowing torrent that covered and overwhelmed and engulfed the whole land, the plains and the valleys, the hills and the mountains. The heavens opened and everything except Noah and his family and his animals was swept away.
Noah was alone in his watery wilderness. The world he knew had disappeared. Every person he had ever known or loved, except for his nearest family, was gone. Even God was missing. And time passes.
But then the crucial moment, just before the passage we heard this morning, at the beginning of Genesis Chapter 8. ‘God remembered Noah’. The whole of creation is on the brink of being forgotten when God acts. And he begins creation all over again.
God does this because he cannot forget us; we are known eternally beyond past and future. This moment is, in the words of theologians, ‘the tiny pinprick of hope which will allow the future to be inaugurated’, ‘the decisive turn which abruptly reshapes the world’.
God cannot let us go and as a sign of his commitment he makes a new covenant with Noah, and the sign of this covenant is the rainbow.
This is the reminder to God of his covenant with humankind and with all of his creation. God here is doing a new thing - because the God that created everything in the first place can do new things. The world has been cleansed through water to emerge into a new future with God.
So, is that the end of the story? No. The Hebrew Bible is full of new beginnings - God and humanity working through conflict and reconciliation, destruction and blessing, loss and faithfulness.
But God is always there for us in the end, never willing or able to abandon us completely, always clinging on in hope and love.
And then there is Jesus. Mark’s gospel wastes no time. There is no Christmas prologue. Jesus comes to us through water, through baptism, through the announcement of the Father. He is the fully formed Son of God, here amongst us, the Son, the Beloved, with whom the Father is ‘well pleased’. In the space here of six verses Jesus arrives from Nazareth, is baptised as the Beloved One, is tempted as human being, and is back in Galilee announcing the fulfilment, the approaching kingdom of God, and inviting all to share in the good news. Again a new covenant, a new thing. This time it is the most radical of new things, because God has come to us, God is one of us, God is sharing in the life of humanity. This is super-charged, God-charged, commitment.
What do we make of these stories? Are they just stories? Are they parables, metaphors from which we are expected to discern some version of a generic and generalised truth? The flood may have happened. But there are many who are sceptical of it as a historical event. There are lots of flood stories in ancient times, going back to the 3rd millennium BCE. There’s the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh and the Sumerian flood narratives. There’s a tradition of water as bringer of both life and death which is part of the narrative of humanity. Geological, hydrological, archaeological and scientific research has attempted to locate the flood. The Ark has been ‘found’, several times. I don’t believe last years blockbuster film added much to the debate, despite the presence of Russell Crowe.
The fact, or non-fact, of the Ark does not, in the end, matter.
If God is God the creator of everything, then God could send a flood, could save the one righteous man, could begin a new phase of human history, and could do it over and over again. Whether we believe in the literal truth of the flood story, the reality is there for us to see in our understanding of the nature of God, Our God, the God who loves us and who will never forget us or give up on us.
For us, gathered here, the reason we really know this is to be found in the second story, is to be found in the person of Jesus. This is the God that we know, who knows us. We know he knows us because he understands what it is like to be us.
Jesus is baptised, cleansed by the water that blesses all humankind. And at that point he knows who he is. The Father does a new thing for him, He rends the heavens, He sends the dove, the Spirit which descends upon him, He tells him that he is the beloved Son.
And what does Jesus do? Does he punch the air, high five those around him, clothe himself in splendid robes, offer himself for worship and praise. No. He humbles and tests himself. If he is to be God and human he must be human, he must be tested, he must be tempted as we are tempted.
The truth of these stories is that God knows us and loves us, that he cannot stop loving us. That is the good news. When all hope might seem to have gone, when we feel abandoned, he will remember us. We have a covenant with God, a covenant that is now made with God in Jesus. There is no end to this covenant. God has no need to remake it time and time again as he did in the time of the Old Testament. Those old covenants needed renewal and confirmation. But God did the new and radical thing through Jesus and this was once for all, for everyone and for all time.
When we fail - as we know we will, as we know we are destined to do, because that is who we are - when we fail we know we can keep going back for forgiveness, and God will forgive us, simply because he wants to.
Lent is a time to think again about the opportunity we have been given, to put ourselves right with God.
During the forty days of Lent we will be tested, as Noah was tested and as Jesus was tested. Do we really understand? Do we understand who Jesus is? What he wants us to do? Who he wants us to be? And how he can never stop being in a relationship with us?
How should we respond during Lent? It’s all too easy in the busyness of our lives to forget God, to put other things in His place, to get on with our routines, once a week perhaps reminding ourselves of his presence when we come to this place. Well - Lent allows us each year to go back to the beginning, our beginning, and think through our relationship with God. It’s not about giving things up, although it may help us if we do, it’s not about being penitential, certainly not all of the time anyway, we are human and we can’t be sorry for that, as after all that’s what God made us to be. It’s not even about doing extra good things, good works, although again that might help. It’s about finding more time to be with God. He wants us to be in relationship so let’s be there for him, as he is for us. Let’s spend extra time with him during the next few weeks, and perhaps we can develop a habit of being with him more often, or more of the time, or most of the time or even all of the time.
God in Jesus doesn’t need to remember because he cannot forget us in the first place. The burden and the joy of remembering is all ours.