Preaching: Genesis 9:8-17
Ours is a time of new covenants. The preacher might begin by noting the ongoing importance of political covenants that are currently part of the community's consciousness. Within recent months a new covenant has begun to emerge between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Nelson Mandela and F.W. De Klerk have just been awarded the Nobel Peace prize for their combined efforts to forge a new covenant and thus bring peace to their beautiful, apratheid-wracked land. President Clinton has proposed NAFTA as an attempt to bind closer together three of the largest countries in this hemisphere. Even the move toward health care reform could be understood as a covenantal agreement between the various groups involved. For our world to continue, there is an ongoing need for ties that bind. The preacher might compare and contrast any of these human attempts to covenant with the one presented in Genesis 9.
The universal character of the covenant with Noah holds special interest. This text reveals God's will that this covenant include all creation, not only Noah and his descendants but every living creature. Others have already pointed to the opportunity this text offers preachers to speak to the ecological issue so pertinent to our age. As of this writing a new film has just been released that might help to provide an experience of why God's covenant would extend to all of creation. Baraka is a 96 minute visual meditation embracing six continents and twenty-four countries, which mixes religious holy places, natural wonders, urban frenzy, and ecological destruction. It is a sermon in pictures, revealing the terrible beauty of both creation and destruction. Images from this cinematic text might be verbally recreated or inspire preachers to become more sensitive to the beauty around them.
The universality of this covenant also allows preachers to consider a biblical foundation for interreligious relations. Religious groups are called to recognize the face of God in the peoples who draw life from other faith traditions. Anti-semitism continues to flare in different parts of the world; political difficulties with certain fundamentalist countries can easily move toward a disparagement of Islam, a religion about which there is appalling ignorance on the part of most North Americans; not only verbal but even physical abuse has been the response to believers whose roots are in Eastern religions. Much that is not of God continues to be done to people "in the name of God." The covenant of Noah links us with all peoples of faith.
The story of the flood is the backdrop against which this covenant is uttered. Our memories of the flood in the midwest can serve as an area for reflection. In a recent editorial in The Christian Century (10/6/93), James L. Merrell made several perceptive comments about our ongoing arrogance when it comes to cooperating with nature. "We seek to control rather than to love and work with the river," Merrell observes. The attitudes and behaviors that led up to the biblical flood do not only reflect Old Testament characteristics. Most of the problems that Genesis charts as stemming from human pride, arrogance, greed, and self-centeredness, could also be pointed to as factors in the recent catastrophe. At the same time, the flood in the midwest served to bond people usually separated by economic and social distinctions. The longevity of this bond, however, remains to be seen; perhaps already it has faded, proving as insubstantial and short-lived as the rainbow that follows most storms.
The preacher is presented with an image of God that is worth attention. "Never again!", God proclaims. Walter Brueggemann notes that "God has made a decision about the grief and trouble of his own heart." God proclaims his commitment to this planet and calls for ours. This "Never again!" can be seen as the first in a number of decisive steps on God's part that will be revealed in the covenants considered in the coming weeks: The covenants mediated through Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, and culminating in the new covenant.1
The preacher might build to the symbol of the rainbow, an image that evokes both beauty and challenge. The rainbow spoke of a warrior god who took his weapon and turned it upside down in the sky, making it a symbol of peace for all to see. This undrawn bow signifies the victory of the creator over the forces of chaos and over the divine inclination to punish. "When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will recall the covenant I have made between me and you and all living beings, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all mortal beings." God will remember when God sees the bow.
The beauty of the rainbow as a sign in the sky is merely the prelude to a God who has begun to draw near once again. Today's gospel with its presentation of Jesus at the Jordan and in the desert also depicts both God's desire to draw near and a fitting response. The moment of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan depicts a God who rips the sky open to proclaim the identity of Jesus as beloved Son. The Spirit of God draws Jesus into the desert, the place of testing, and then to the first proclamation of good news, the arrival of the kingdom and the invitation to turn toward it.
The invitation to work toward greater unity with God and with all creation, and the necessary commitment this entails, can be seen as a most fitting note to be sounded at the beginning of the season of Lent. Lent, the Old English word for spring, speaks to us of new life blossoming forth. Lent calls us to move toward the celebration of the new covenant on Easter. In some traditions the Easter liturgy marks the occasion for a communal renewing of baptismal vows. The first Sunday of Lent begins the movement towards this solemn renewal by calling us to remember the God who vowed never again to harm creation and now invites us this day to remember the ancient covenant established with Noah and its universal embrace of all that is.
James A. Wallace
1. Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation Series (Louisville: John Knox, 1985), p. 84.