8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: 9 “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you 10 and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth. 11 I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
12 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: 13 I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. 16 Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”
17 So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”
Today is the first Sunday of Lent. Because many of us did not grow up observing Lent, I want to take some time today familiarizing ourselves with this practice. First of all, Lent is a word that means Spring, and it seems appropriate that we begin to celebrate Lent on a week where the temperatures spiked into the upper 60’s.
Lent is intended to be a period of time when we make a special effort to better connect with Jesus. Lent is a period of 40 days which is intended to reflect the 40 days that Jesus went out into the wilderness to fast and pray at the beginning of his ministry.
Fasting is something that we read about a number of times throughout the Bible. There are different kinds of fasting. There are fasts from all foods, certain foods—like sweets, alcohol, and coffee, and about any combination you can imagine. Some people choose to give up non-food items during periods of fasting like television or Facebook. And I usually like to remind people that they are to take the time that they would spend doing these activities and they are to fill that time with something that will help them connect better with God. When Jesus went out into the wilderness he did indeed fast, but it wasn’t an attempt to drop a few pounds or to cleanse his system. We are told that he went out to fast and pray.
If you choose to fast, let’s say for instance that you might fast from television, I would suggest spending the time that you usually spend watching television doing something that will help you connect better with God. Read your Bible, memorize Scripture, pray, serve the needy, work in the garden, do something that will help you connect better with God.
One of the reasons that many of us did not observe Lent growing up is because there is nowhere in the Bible that tells us to observe Lent. There are places that talk about fasting, but nowhere do we find a direct commandment to fast during the 40 days leading up to Easter. It is for this reason that I will never tell you that you have to give something up for Lent. I did not choose to give anything up this year, though I have in years past. My on-going joke has been that with a new baby due in March that I have decided to give up sleep for Lent. So no, the Bible doesn’t tell us that we need to observe Lent. But I think that it is a good thing. Lent is a man-made observance that is meant to help us connect with God. And if you believe that you can better connect with God through observing Lent, I encourage you to do so! I have found that to be the case in the past, and perhaps I will do it again in the future.
What I really don’t like to hear or see is when people get all high and mighty and start talking about how Lent is evil because it isn’t prescribed in the Bible. I saw where one person had written something about how the death of Jesus was sufficient to cover our sins, so we don’t need to observe Lent; that nothing we can do will add to the sacrifice made by Jesus. And to that I would say, “Amen.” We don’t observe things like Lent to add to the sacrifice made by Jesus. We observe things like Lent because of the sacrifice made by Jesus and because his life, death, and resurrection are the only way that a sinner like me can be seen as pure and holy by God.
So that is my two cents on Lent. I don’t think we need to observe Lent, but if it helps someone connect with God, then it is a good thing.
I recently read a blog post by Nadia Bolz-Weber where she reflected on why Ash Wednesday and Lent are her favorite holidays. She wrote:
Ash Wednesday is my favorite day of the church year and Lent is my favorite season. Our culture has quite ruined Christmas and Easter with Santa and the Easter bunny and all the grotesque consumerism and made for TV specials behind all of it. But oddly nobody waits every year to watch the Ash Wednesday Peanuts Special. There are no Doorbuster sales at 4am on the first day of Lent. There are no big garish displays in the middle of Cherry Creek Mall with mechanical Children in sack cloth and ashes. Nope. We get this one all to ourselves. Our culture has no idea what to do with a day that celebrates the fact that we all sin and are going to die.
There is something beautiful about that. And I wonder if that is also one of the reasons why Lent is becoming more common in Protestant churches. Christmas and Easter have been secularized and I wouldn’t doubt if most people who celebrate these holidays didn’t know what they were actually celebrating. Less than two weeks ago many cards, boxes of chocolates, and flowers were exchanged for Valentine’s Day. That is a strange way to celebrate the martyrdom of two men named Valentine.
Lent is a reminder that we all sin and we will all die. We can fight death for only so long. We can try all of the new fad diets, exercise, take pills, even get cosmetic surgery, but we will all pass away at some point. Even with all of the advancements in medicine today, the mortality rate is still 100%. Lent is a period of 40 days meant to remind us of our own mortality and our need for a savior.
So we move now from the general background for Lent to our Lenten series entitled “Where do I sign?” Over the next few Sundays we will be looking at the covenants that God makes with his people. We will be talking about signing up, signing in, and signing on.
A covenant is an agreement. Dictionary.com defines a covenant as, “an agreement, usually formal, between two or more persons to do or not do something specified.” A few covenants that we might familiar with include a marriage covenant, baptismal covenant, and sometimes when we sign a note when borrowing money, it is said that we sign a covenant agreement.
Covenants are often accompanied by a visible sign. A wedding covenant is often accompanied by the exchanging of rings; baptismal covenant is accompanied by baptism in water. And the covenant that we want to look at today is also accompanied by a sign, a rainbow.
Our text for today is the giving of the Noahic Covenant. I’ll be honest, I don’t really like the story of Noah. I got in a little trouble for saying this about three years ago, and I guess that I haven’t learned my lesson yet, because I am going to say it again. I just don’t get why we make this story into a children’s story. We decorate nurseries with pictures of the ark and every Children’s Bible that we own includes this story.
This is the story of how humanity had gotten so sinful and forgotten where they came from that God decided to start over again. As our drama said, “Clean slate.” People mocked and jeered Noah for building a big boat right in the middle of the dry land. The rains came down and the floods came up, and Noah says, “Who’s laughing now?” No, I can’t imagine that it was pleasant for Noah to hear the screams of his neighbors and all of the animals as they drown right outside of his boat. And after they died, they might have floated around for a period of time. Men, women, children, and animals rotting, smelly, putrid. Yeah, a good children’s story, isn’t it? I probably won’t be putting this story in Paxton’s reading queue with Elmo Saves the Day, I Love you Through and Through, and Goodnight Moon.
I don’t like the story of Noah’s Ark because of the death and destruction, but I really don’t like it because I know that I wouldn’t be one of the ones on the boat. I am not righteous, at least not by my own doing. I fail to live up to the perfection of Jesus daily. No, I fail to live up to the perfection of Jesus many times throughout the day. This realization, this realization that we are all sinners and in need of grace is what Lent is about.
But here is the good news. The story of Noah doesn’t stop on that big boat. When the waters had dried and the boat had settled, Noah, his family, and all of the animals got off that boat and they began a new life. Something had changed. I believe that all of those years that Noah worked at building the ark he was probably scared. He didn’t really know what was going to happen; he had never seen a flood before. He was probably so scared that he might slip up, make a mistake, and reach the same demise as the rest of humanity. Even after he got off the boat, he probably felt like he really needed to watch his step because if God did this once, who is to say that God couldn’t do it again?
The good news is that God made the decision that he wasn’t going to do it again. God made a covenant, an agreement with Noah, his sons, and all of their descendants, that he would never destroy the earth by water again. And I love that this passage emphasizes that this covenant is also with the animals. No less than four times God mentions that this covenant to never destroy the earth through flooding includes a covenant with every living creature.
Not only was Noah surely afraid that he might slip up and that the world might be destroyed, but can you imagine being an animal having lived through this time on the ark? What would you think when the storm clouds roll in and the drops start to fall? Here we go again!
As a sign of the covenant that God made with Noah, his descendants, and all creatures of the earth, God put a rainbow in the sky. This is God’s way of saying, “I remember my promise to you.” God may have dealt with sin in one way in the days of Noah, but he has a better plan for the future. This is what Lent is about.
I love the imagery of the rainbow. The word used here in this passage that we translate as “bow” is the same word that is used to describe an archer’s bow. In those days, the bow and arrow would have been one of the most dangerous weapons available. It was deadly from a long distance away.
I have heard it said that in the day of the bow and arrow, if a tribe or an army wanted to have peace talks with another warring tribe, they would invite them to come into their camp. But how would the visiting tribe know that this wasn’t an ambush? The home tribe would place their bows in the trees, out of immediate reach. It was a way to reassure them that they were not going to be attacked.
This reminds me of another method of assuring others that we do not seek to do them harm and it is also a sign of a covenant. I am thinking of the handshake. I have heard that we great people with a handshake as a way to show them that we are not carrying any weapons. If I extend my right hand to you, you will see if I am holding a sword, gun, or knife. And when we agree on something, we often seal a deal, or a covenant, with a handshake.
While I can’t say for sure that this is what God intended, I like the imagery of God placing his bow in the sky. The violence that was used to deal with the sinfulness of the people will not be used again. God has a better plan in mind, and we will look at that in the weeks to come. As a sign of this new covenant to never deal with sin in this way again, God hangs his bow in the air, out of reach. And every time it rains and people begin to question if God will keep his promise, the bow is seen and it reminds us that God is faithful. This is what Lent is about.