Genesis 9.8-17, Psalm 25.1-9 & Mark 1.9-15 (Year B)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We have two very different readings today. The Gospel reading from Mark’s records the baptism of Jesus followed by his temptation in the wilderness, which, of course, provides the pattern for the forty days of Lent.
Then there is the Genesis reading – the story of God’s covenant with Noah after the flood and the sign of that agreement, the rainbow. But the rainbow seems somehow out of place in this season of Lent – a season traditionally stark and austere. Look around – there are no flowers in church. The colours are dark and sombre, with purple on the altar. Lent began on Ash Wednesday with its reminder of our sinfulness and mortality and of our need to repent.
And yet, there in the first reading on the first Sunday in Lent, we find the bright colours of the rainbow, a symbol of hope and promise.
The rainbow reminds us that our spirituality cannot be disconnected from the world around us. It cannot be the kind that is so heavenly minded that it is of no earthly good. God’s covenant with Noah was one that was centred on the earth. It was a promise that God made that never again would He destroy the earth with a flood. And did you notice that it was made not only with humans, but also with the animals and, in fact, with the earth itself. I’ll read that bit again:
“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.” (Gen 9.12-13)
God is making an agreement with the badgers and the foxes, the pheasants and the ducks, the frogs and butterflies, the polar bears and the pandas. God makes a solemn promise that never again would He send such thorough destruction upon the earth.
Whatever Lent or our Christian faith may mean to us, it must be rooted in the world in which we live. We live an incarnational faith. The Son of God came and dwelt among us, the Incarnation. The very stuff of life, matter, matters.
So our faith must be concerned with others, with other people and with other living creatures and with the earth in which we live. We are called to be stewards of this beautiful planet. How are we doing with that, do you think?
Back to the rainbow – did you know that the rainbow in other ancient cultures was seen as an ominous sign? It represented to them a bow, a weapon, used by the gods. Even in Hebrew the word for the war bow and the rainbow is the same word, ‘Qeshet’. But the Hebrews saw the rainbow as a weapon that had been disarmed. It points harmlessly upward. The rainbow, for them, was a sign of hope and promise, a symbol of peace.
As Christians we understand how a negative symbol can become positive. The symbol of the Christian faith is a cross. A cruel instrument designed for nothing but the infliction of pain. A means of capital punishment, though not one made for causing death swiftly, but rather for prolonging death. Yet it has become the sign and symbol of the Christian faith, because it speaks to us of new life, forgiveness, and a new creation.
So today, at the start of these 40 days of Lent as we practice the disciplines which root us in God and also care for the world, that of prayer, fasting and alms-giving, I offer you the symbol of the rainbow. If you would like to delve deeper into the Rainbow and its theological significance, then do join me on Saturday for our first Zoom Lent discussion.
The rainbow – colourful, bright, a sign of hope and promise, of a new beginning with a closer relationship with God, and a symbol that takes our spirituality and our prayer life and roots it firmly in the world in which we live, a world full of people and other creatures.
The rainbow – a perfect symbol for Lent. Amen.
(Artwork: ‘Noah’s Thank Offering’ by Joseph Anton Koch)