First Sunday of Lent

Collect

Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness, and was tempted as we are, yet without sin: give us grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit; and, as you know our weakness, so may we know your power to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

(or)

Heavenly Father, your Son battled with the powers of darkness, and grew closer to you in the desert: help us to use these days to grow in wisdom and prayer that we may witness to your saving love in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’

Genesis 9:8–17

Psalm

1  To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul;

      O my God, in you I trust; •

   let me not be put to shame;

      let not my enemies triumph over me.

2  Let none who look to you be put to shame, •

   but let the treacherous be shamed and frustrated.

3  Make me to know your ways, O Lord, •

   and teach me your paths.

4  Lead me in your truth and teach me, •

   for you are the God of my salvation;

      for you have I hoped all the day long.

5  Remember, Lord, your compassion and love, •

   for they are from everlasting.

6  Remember not the sins of my youth

      or my transgressions, •

   but think on me in your goodness, O Lord,

      according to your steadfast love.

7  Gracious and upright is the Lord; •

   therefore shall he teach sinners in the way.

8  He will guide the humble in doing right •

   and teach his way to the lowly.

9  All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth •

   to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.

Psalm 25

Epistle

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, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

1 Peter 3:18-22

Gospel

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

Mark 1:9–15


Sermon on First Sunday Lent

How many times have we seen a rainbow? What are our thoughts when we see it?

Pots of gold? Leprechauns?

How many times do we think of this story of Noah when we see a rainbow? Do we ever consider the covenant when we see a rainbow? Actually, how often do we think of this awesome covenant which we, the people of God, have with the Almighty?

Imagine Noah looking into the distance at the dark clouds after that great storm and its flood disappearing – what are his thoughts? He has carried out the instructions from God – he has saved all of creation in its two by two’s, hasn’t he? And now he realises why he has done so. – So that God should not utterly destroy his own creation. Noah now sees a bright rainbow, perhaps a double rainbow, in the sky, bright against the dark clouds as they dissipate into the sunshine of the new day, that day when the dove returned with that branch of new hope for the future.

How many times when we look at a rainbow are we reminded of this story of Noah? Do we consider the delicate balance in which the world stands when we see the rainbow?

God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’

The covenant is what the rainbow signifies, a promise that if the covenant is kept, all things will stand on earth. But do we keep the covenant made on that day? Do we act as the guardians of a trust which allows the promise to be kept?

One of the hardest things I had to understand at college was this notion of Covenant. The Hebrew people started the Covenant with God when they walked out of Egypt. They began to understand it as they wandered for forty years in the desert. The Jews at Jerusalem took up the Covenant again at the temple, with its ritual sacrifices. The early christians believed in the covenant as the chosen people of God. We have inherited that belief, haven’t we? We know that we have been part of a tremendous transaction with God in the life of Jesus, that cross of Christ, something far more miraculous than a rainbow!

All of us “chosen ones” have acted – let us say – not as humbly as we should have. In our pride we have forgotten that we have a part to play in this Covenant. Like in what they call the “social contract”, we have obligations which undoubtedly we have not held up as our part of the bargain. In the “social contract” I would simply say that our part is honesty and helpfulness. – But have we behaved honestly and helpfully at all times? – I wonder if anyone watch the television drama, Collateral. There we could see everyone breaking the terms of the social contract. Everyone was not totally honest, and no one was very helpful. So everything was falling apart. Can’t we see this in our contract, our covenant, with God? We are not keeping up our side of the bargain, are we? Our leaders behave as though morality has nothing to do with our lives together. So, should we be surprised that the climate is shifting? that society is nothing stable? that people are terrified? I don’t think so. I don’t think many act under the terms of the social contract, let alone the covenant we have accepted from God, that contract we have to keep the commandments, the law which are the terms humanity has accepted, the terms of the contract God has made and sealed with the rainbow.

Whenever the Law is discussed in the OT, we are told time and again that if we keep the covenant we shall benefit. The land will flow with milk and honey, water and wine, like the gardens of paradise. But have we kept the covenant? – Scientists question our keeping of the environment, our leaders have come under scrutiny in their keeping of the most basic parts of the social contract, honesty and helpfulness – we ourselves have been tasked in this period of Lent to examine ourselves – to consider how we have kept the law Jesus gave to his disciples, to us, that we love one another. I imagine we all have fallen short of that mark Jesus has set before us.

This is particularly poignant language during the Olympics, isn’t it? All those athletes striving for perfection in their disciplines, and only tiny errors have taken the medals away – a slight mis-step or a wobble because of the wind might cause an attempt to fail, but just by less than half a second or a point out of three hundred.

As Paul says, we are all athletes attempting to win the race. We are all doing our best to equip ourselves for the contest, practising and pummelling our bodies into submission to achieve the highest reward, that laurel wreath of a champion, that gold medal of today’s Olympics. But as christians we are in training for something greater! – The prize we long for is not of this world, a kingdom beyond all things, to be with God. The prize symbolised by that rainbow of promise Noah first saw. – No worldly prize could come close to those aspirations, could it? The kingdom we wish to win has a peace the world cannot give, a justice no earthly court can dispense, mercy with which not even a mother’s care can compare. We know all of this because of the rainbow, that promise of God to creation, a creation worthy of preservation. If the creation, which is so unlike our aspiration for the kingdom of God, is worthy of protection, what of that covenant we have with God? Surely the terms of that agreement exceed all earthly expectations, just like that rainbow.

Don’t we marvel at the beauty of those colours in the sky after the terror of a storm? What can we offer to God to keep the covenant? Well, I think it is those two commandments Jesus gave. They transcend all worldly behaviour and should be immanent in all our behaviour. Loving God and our neighbour are activities the sinful human being fails to fulfill. But this is Lent, when sinful humanity repents of its failure to fulfill the Law. Lent is when we look around us at the evidence of our failure, isn’t it? This is Lent when we should be examining ourselves so that we may accomplish the Law in our lives. But we also need to look into the sky when the storm breaks and see the rainbow. We need to come to Easter renewed in energy and purpose so that we might grasp life in all its fullness. Lent is our olympic training for the great prize. We will walk the walk Jesus taught. We will stride on that narrow road to salvation in the footsteps of Christ, won’t we? But we have to come through the Lenten discipline, don’t we? Let us, like Noah, look to the horizon’s rainbow in order to e the promise of life given to us, and let us keep the great covenant by fulfilling the Law Christ gave us.

Amen