I have always loved the rhythm of the Church year. You’ve heard me say many times that I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, a tradition in which the liturgical year is a point of emphasis. We were members of a small country parish, where our priest did an excellent job of explaining what each part of Christian year means. We never missed a Sunday, unless either my brother or I was sick. And even then, only the sick kid stayed home with a parent, while the other parent took the healthy kid to mass.
So the Church year became, for me, a familiar and comfortable routine. Beginning with Advent, then Christmas, then Lent, then Easter, then Ordinary Time, before starting all over again. I grew up learning how the season of Advent precedes Christmas, and how the season of Lent precedes Easter. (If you know me at all, it will not surprise you that I preferred Advent to Lent, of course. Not only because Advent meant that Christmas was coming. But also because Lent involved giving up chocolate, and having to eat fish sticks on Fridays. And I hate fish sticks.) The older I’ve gotten, though, the more I’ve come to appreciate the season that began a few days ago on Ash Wednesday and will continue until Sunrise Service on Easter morning.
Now, if you’re new to the Church, the whole idea of Lent may be a little curious. A cross made of ashes on our foreheads to begin the season. A more somber tone in worship. Covered crosses. Removal of the word “alleluia” in our songs and prayers. What’s that all about, anyway?
So as this season of preparation for Easter begins, it’s good to start with a little background information, I think. From early on in its history, the Church established a practice of baptizing newcomers into the faith on Easter each year. For those converting to the faith and being baptized, there was a final, intensive period of preparation in the weeks leading up to Easter. Many scholars believe that Lent evolved from this period of preparation. Other scholars believe that Lent began as a post-Epiphany fast of forty days, modeled on Christ’s forty days in the wilderness before his ministry began. Nobody knows for certain if one or the other of these traditions directly evolved into the season we now know as Lent. Perhaps its roots are in both.
However it evolved, the Council of Nicea in 325 AD officially established the season of Lent as a period of preparation for Easter for all Christians, old and new. It’s a season of self-examination and reflection. A season to realign our will and our lives with God’s will for our lives. A season to remove the things that hinder our relationship with God. Hence the idea of giving something up for Lent, which is to say fasting from something, with the purpose of reminding ourselves of our dependence upon God. Lent is intended to be a time of spiritual renewal.
In worship throughout Lent this year, we’ll be focusing on one of the central concepts of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Our sermon series over the coming weeks is called “Covenant.” In scripture, a covenant is “a formal agreement or treaty between two parties with each assuming some obligation.” The Old Testament in particular is filled with examples of covenants, covenants made between two individuals, or between an individual and a group, or between tribes, or states, or other political entities.
Our focus throughout this season will be on the covenants that God has made with God’s people over the course of our salvation history. Because the way scripture describes these covenants tells us a lot. It tells us a lot about the nature of God. About the nature of our relationship with God. And about how we show up in our relationship with God. Today, we’re beginning our series with the oldest covenant in the Bible.
When I was in seminary, my New Testament professor was asked in class one day why she chose to study Greek and the New Testament, as opposed to Hebrew and the Old Testament. She’d obviously been asked this question before. Because without having to think about it, she said, “John 3:16 or Genesis 6:6? It’s a pretty easy choice.”
Now, we knew that she was pointing out the difference in tone between the New and Old Testaments. And we knew John 3:16. It’s the promise of our Christian faith, after all. Most of us could quote some version of it: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
But we were less familiar with Genesis 6:6. So she opened her Bible and read, actually beginning with the fifth verse of the sixth chapter: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” Yikes! A far cry from John 3:16!
That passage continues: “So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created — people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’
But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.” (Genesis 6:7-8)
Which brings us to our covenant for today. The very first covenant that God makes with humanity. The covenant with Noah.
Now, even if you were not raised in the Church, chances are that you know at least the basics of the story of Noah and the flood. Over the course of three chapters in Genesis, from Genesis 6:9-9:7, we read about God’s command to build the ark, a huge boat, in order to save Noah’s family — him, his wife, his three sons, and his sons’ wives — along with two of every animal. We read that Noah obeys God’s commands. We read the first mention of the word “covenant” in scripture, in Genesis 6:18, where God promises Noah, “I will establish my covenant with you…”
We read that a great flood occurs on the earth, lasting 40 days, with waters that remain for 150 days before receding. We read that when the waters have receded, Noah’s ark lands on dry ground at last. And that he builds an altar and worships God. And that, when God sees Noah worshipping, God promises never to do such a thing again: “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind…nor will I ever again destroy every living creature…” (Genesis 8:21).
We’ll pick up the story from there, reading the Old Testament lectionary text for the day…
[Read Genesis 9:8-17]
To understand the covenant with Noah, we need to return briefly to Genesis 6:6: “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” That’s not exactly John 3:16.
But it’s important to note that the author of Genesis does not say that God is angry. This is a crucially important point. According to Genesis, the flood is not about the wrath of God.
What the story tells us is that God is sad about the way God’s creation has turned out. From the perspective of the author of Genesis, anyway, “…the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth…every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” Just four chapters earlier, God had created the first human beings for relationship with God. Just a chapter after that, they disobeyed and got expelled from the Garden. Just a chapter after that, one of their sons murdered his brother. And just two chapters after that, barely into the sixth chapter of our salvation history — way early in the Bible — we hear that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.
From the perspective of the author of Genesis, anyway, things got real bad real quick. And astonishingly, God is not mad about it. God is sad about it. And God wants a do-over. God wants to start again. God wants to see if we can get it right with a second chance.
So the flood is not about punishment, at least from the perspective of the author of Genesis. It’s about a fresh start. And as part of this fresh start, God makes a covenant with Noah, the earliest covenant in the Bible between God and humanity. But unlike the covenants made between people, this one is unilateral. God makes a promise without imposing any requirements on Noah. In the passage we just read, God simply says, “I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you.”
God does not follow the offer of a relationship with a long list of laws or commandments or demands. We’ll get those later, in the covenant with Moses. But this first covenant in scripture is solely about God’s move towards us. The author of Genesis tells us that it’s “the everlasting covenant.” And not only that, it’s “the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Gen 9:16).
Now, that brings up some interesting questions, I think. The first covenant that God makes with the world is an everlasting covenant with every living creature. If we ever wonder what God thinks about non-human creatures, who we’ve been tasked to care for, as stewards of God’s creation.
If we ever wonder what God thinks of us before we find the church, or if we wander for a while.
If we ever wonder what God thinks of family and friends who may not yet have the abundant life offered by Christ, nurtured and sustained in the Church.
If we ever wonder what God thinks about people who believe different things than we do.
We can remember the very first covenant God makes in scripture. The covenant with Noah. “The everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Gen 9:16).
If God grieved the state of the world before the flood, the story of the covenant with Noah takes us from grief to another “g” word — grace. Grace meaning God’s unearned, un-earnable, and unending love for us. Grace meaning forgiveness and mercy when we stray. Grace meaning the unconditional offer of a relationship with the God who created us.
God’s do-over with humanity, God’s do-over with creation, is grounded in and built upon the foundation of grace.
By God’s grace, God established “the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Gen 9:16). By God’s grace, the sadness God felt at the state of the world was quickly overcome. By God’s grace, the bow in the sky is a reminder of God’s commitment to us. To all of us, without exception, and without condition.
Now, we’ll read in the coming weeks how this covenant will evolve through various intermediaries. We’ll read about Abraham next week. Moses the week after that. Of course we’ll talk about the new covenant in Christ. And we’ll hear from Jeremiah about how the covenant is actually written on our hearts.
My New Testament professor had a fair point. Genesis 6:6 or John 3:16? That’s not much of a choice. But from Genesis 9 on — from very early in the Bible on — God’s primary way of interacting with humanity has been through grace.
We had the joy of celebrating this morning three baptisms. And in the prayer of thanksgiving over the water, the story of Noah is referenced. “In the days of Noah you saved those on the ark through water. After the flood you set in the clouds a rainbow.” It’s fitting that our earliest covenant, a covenant all about God’s grace, is referenced in the baptismal liturgy, from the waters of the flood to the waters of baptism.
On our trip to Israel last month, we reaffirmed our baptism at the Yardenit baptismal site in the River Jordan. There were 33 of us, and we had reserved a little amphitheater-looking space on the river bank. Those of us who chose to reaffirm our baptisms through submersion rented and changed into the required white robes for the ceremony. As we sat down on the concrete seats and began to pray the baptismal liturgy, including those words about Noah, an Asian group noticed what we were doing. They quietly joined us, taking pictures and whispering to each other in a language that I did not understand.
And then, I waded out into the chilly water of the Jordan. One by one, those wishing to be submerged came out to join me. The first person waded out. I said, “Remember your baptism and be thankful.” Then I submerged them in the very same river where Jesus himself had been baptized. It was a pretty amazing moment. And then as I brought him back out of the water, this really cool thing happened.
The Asian group who had joined us burst out into applause.
And I thought to myself — and I think I may have said out loud — “Yeah, that’s right. This is applause-worthy.” Baptism reminds us of God’s covenant with us. Which is to say, God’s great love for us.
And the joy expressed by our new friends brought tears to my eyes. They repeated that celebration for every single one of us. Including me, when my wife Whitney submerged me and told me to remember my baptism and be thankful. And they hugged at least some of us as we came out of the water, as cold and wet as we were.
When the submersions were done, I stood in the shallow water by the bank with a hyssop branch. Those who had not been submerged came by one by one. I used that hyssop branch to put the water of the Jordan on their heads. And our new Asian friends came through the line as well. Remembering what God had done for them. Filled with an expression of gratitude and joy that’s fitting for the grace that God offers each one of us.
The only thing that could have made it any better was if a rainbow had been in the sky above us.
Friends, we’ll get to the covenant with Jesus in a few weeks. We obviously believe that in Jesus Christ, God did something new and spectacular and wonderful, for all of us. But the covenant that we believe was expressed finally and fully in Jesus has its roots in the grace that God offered to Noah so long ago. It’s not John 3:16, but Genesis 9:16 ain’t too shabby: “The everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”
Thanks be to God. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 HarperCollins Bible Dictionary Revised Edition, ed. Paul Achtemeier, p. 208.