As you were probably aware, a massive blanket of snow and ice still covers most of our country. And yet at the same time the latest NASA rover, Perseverance, has landed on Mars looking for snow, ice, or any form of water. I reckon one has to have it to live there. That’s because water is essential for life. Not enough of it and you die. Too much of it, you die. But with just the right amount you can thrive.
Water is also a powerful element in so many different ways. To think, the same thing that froze the power supply in Texas is being harnessed in Japan to generate power. From a simple pond to a wild flowing river water can give life, alter life, and even take life. Be it here on earth or on Mars.
This is the first Sunday in Lent, when the church historically remembers the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness following his baptism in the Jordan river - a body of water that played in important role in Israel’s story.
But today I want to go a little further back in time, to a different baptism of sorts, that I hope will inspire us as we set out on our Lenten journey. It’s probably the most well-known story of water in the Bible. A story of God, some sinful people, and a great flood.
There are many elements in the story of Noah that make me scratch my head and say, “What?” Like, the unlikeliness that the entire world was completely submerged underwater. Given the heights of the mountain range just around Los Angeles would mean the water level would have to be nearly two miles deep...upward! That’s a lot of water. I’m sure the shear weight of it alone would have knocked the planet off its axis.
I know for a fact it would take longer than 40 days for all that water to evaporate. I’ve watched lakes shrivel up in droughts, but never that quick. So where did the water go? Was there a drain somewhere in the earth with a plug that God pulled?
It’s also hard for me to fathom that every single human, sans Noah, did something so rotten that God felt justified to kill everyone. Heck, we still have a lot of bad people in our world, but we also have a lot of good people doing some really good stuff for others. So why would God kill them all? And why were the animals killed while the fish were allowed to live?
Whether or not this story is true, it’s an amazing allegory that offers our 21st century sensibility a few good things to ponder especially in Lent as we think about our relationship with our Creator and all of creation.
Read: Genesis 9:8-17
... 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.”
Just off the kitchen at my parent’s house is a small half bathroom. It's adorned with all sorts of Noah artwork (or should I say "ark" work). There are drawings, paintings and watercolors of the ark in various states. There are Noah hand towels, bathmats, soap dispenser, and a little statue with animals walking two-by-two up and down the mountain where a wooden ship perched like a nest. In each one, of course, there’s a rainbow in the sky.
Rumor has it that a small child exited this very bathroom one day and asked my mom if she had lived on Noah’s Ark. My mom was quick to reply, “Oh heavens, no.” Without missing a beat, the boy asked, “Then how did you survive the flood?”
It’s a great question, don’t you think? How did you survive the flood? In ancient times floods were often used as metaphors for chaos. So, as we look at this story, we need to keep that in the back of our heads. As we ask ourselves, “How do we survive the chaos in our lives?” I think the answer can be found in my mom’s Noah shrine.
On the wall opposite the toilet hangs a gigantic Noah-themed tapestry. Woven into the top and bottom are the words, “Promises kept.”
As we learned in our reading today, that promise is the one made not just to Noah, but to all of creation. As the story goes, God makes a covenant with us to never, ever let something like this happen again. Again and again, God has kept that promise.
As you move through the challenges of Lent, and struggle with your faith or lack thereof, this story reminds us to lean on God because we can count on God...even if God can’t count on us. God’s word is good, even if we are not. Think about that for a moment.
The flood shows God’s hurt. But the covenant shows God is willing to initiate an intervention. It’s as if God woke up and realized that punishing us isn’t the way to get us to change. Perhaps setting an example might be better. And so, it’s God who decides to change. Despite knowing we will continue to keep doing things that go against God’s will, a heavenly covenant is made.
Like William Allen said, it’s like “God places a restraining order against God’s self” and then sets a sign in the sky so God will always be held accountable the vow. Again and again, God continues to remain loyal to the disloyal. Promises kept.
Whether or not you believe the world was once a giant ball of water, God loves you. No matter what. As my old friend Tom Richard used to say, “No matter how far we stray from doing what God has called us to do, we are never beyond the boundaries of God’s love.” I can’t think of a better mantra to cling to as you move through the chaos of life, especially during Lent.
The story of this covenant also reveals something else about God. You see, God is more than our creator, God is also our protector, committed to never punish or destroy the world again. This tells me that God is inherently invested in our fate. God cannot simply sit back or check out. But must always be present and willing to act on our behalf.
“This investment introduces a new and distinct facet into the character of God. Along with power, justice, patience, and love, the ancient Hebrews also perceived that God was inherently self-giving, willing to enter into a relationship that puts limits on even God’s priorities.”
Again and again, Israel tested God’s covenant. And again and again God remained faithful. Promises kept.
To think God’s love for us was so great that God was willing to make a unilateral covenant - one that God was bound by it personally knowing humanity was not. That’s what makes this still relevant to us.
When this flood story was first written, God’s people yet again found themselves in a state of suffering. They had watched their powerful kingdom crumble, their beloved Temple pulverized, and their loved ones scattered like dust as they were sent into exile. When all seemed lost, they had hope. Because God’s promises are never broken. They knew that no matter what challenges they faced, they could rely on God because they knew God’s word is good.
We too can rely on God. No matter how much we put God to the test, promises kept. Today we face our own challenges – COVID, political turmoil, economic crisis that have left more people falling behind than lifted up. Yet, promises kept.
Maybe you are suffering a great loss from death, estrangement, or divorce. Maybe you are crumbling under the weight of resentment, anger, and pride. Maybe something has happened to you that has left you feeling hopeless.
Lent is a time to give in to our faith, to let go of fear knowing we can always rely on God, even if God cannot always rely on us. Promises kept.
As the ancient psalmist wrote, because God keeps his promise made to our ancestors, we can cry out in our pain and suffering, knowing God will hear our cries. When it feels like the world is ganging up us, we can turn to God knowing we will find refuge. When we find ourselves on shaky ground, we can stand on God, the rock of our foundation...knowing we are protected. Promises kept – no matter what.
As you struggle in the wilderness of faith, realizing what God is asking you to do, this passage reminds you of what God is willing to sacrifice for you, in order to save you from yourself. This is a divine act that will climax with Jesus on the cross. But as we will discover, death can’t stop God’s promise from being fulfilled.
Through Christ, God takes this risk because God's heart is touched by creation’s suffering. In him we see that God is willing to become one of us; fully embracing all of our human experiences, including death. Through the resurrection of Christ, we see just how much God wants to be in a relationship with us.
Christ is God’s greatest promise made and promised kept. He is proof that God’s unconditional love is faithful to the bitter end, and beyond to greater glory. This covenant of divine grace is the distinguishing mark of Christianity. It’s what Jesus was all about.
It requires nothing from us but our desire to be a recipient of this blessed gift. There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love or to cause God to withhold it. I guess that’s why they call it the Good News. Promises kept.
As Jesus himself demonstrated, we are given this gift so that we might live it – fully and faithfully – in a way that showcases God’s glory and the loving relationship between Creator and all of creation.
During this season of Lent, I hope that you will set your heart upon this covenant of God’s grace knowing that God will never deny you, never turn away, reject or hurt you. God only wants to love you, protect you, and redeem you back to your rightful place in God’s heart.
Like a rainbow in the heavens, God’s love is made visible to all who choose to move towards God’s open heart. Christ has shown us the way.
From the baptismal font to the cross of chaos. Promises kept.
But don’t take my word for it. You have God’s word.
A word of promise God made just for you. And a promise God has kept just for you.
*based on a sermon Promises Kept originally given on January 3, 2016. https://www.jesusnotjesus.org/be-kind/sermon-promises-kept
Bartlett, David L and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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