Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-9, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-13
What are you giving up for Lent? Are you doing any fasting? Any self-imposed deprivation? The deprivation of the Lord Jesus was imposed on him by the Holy Spirit. Now St. Mark does not say that Our Lord fasted for those forty days, as does St. Matthew, but there’s deprivation just in his isolation in the desert.
Except for animals and angels. St. Mark is the only gospel to mention the wild beasts, which makes us think of Noah, who was with the wild beasts in the ark for forty days of rain. As deprivation the Flood was a colossal one, with very tight rations for man and beast.
The forty days of rain upon the ark and the forty days of Jesus in the wilderness are behind the tradition of the season of Lent, as is the forty years of the Children of Israel wandering in the desert on their way to the Promised Land, eating only manna. Lent is deprivation, and deprivation on the way somewhere. Like the hobbits Frodo and Sam slogging through the desert wastes of Mordor, eating only morsels of elven bread, their Middle-Earth version of the Eucharist. The season of Lent puts the church on a journey of deprivation, a journey to Good Friday, to the cross, to Golgotha, to our Biblical “Mount Doom.”
To guide us on our journey God makes signs for us, signs to keep us on the path that God is on. So my sermon series for Lent is called “The Signs of God.” This is a reworking of a series from six years ago. Each week we’ll look for the signs in the lessons, and go where those signs direct us.
It’s worth noting that the Bible offers us signs of God but never proofs of God. The Bible never bothers to prove the being of God. The Bible assumes the being of God to be so obvious and reasonable that only a fool would say there is no God. What the Bible does address is which God, whose God, and where is this God going. Therefore signs, not proofs.
Proofs conclude and signs direct. Proofs settle and signs are for movement. For proofs you can sit and analyze and judge and be done with it. For signs you have to get up and get moving to where the signs are pointing you. The Bible offers signs of a God who is on the way somewhere.
The sign of the rainbow is the sign of the covenant that God makes with Noah and the animals and all the earth. The sign of the rainbow is the sign of the covenant that God makes with Noah and the animals and all the earth. The sign is given to Noah as the high priest of the creatures of the earth, to Noah as the pastor of the congregation of the animals.
Yes, the animals are in this covenant too. Nobody asked them if they wanted in, nobody asked Noah either. This covenant is totally gratuitous, it’s all God’s idea, it’s God’s commitment to the future, it’s God’s gratuitous benefit to Noah’s descendants and to the animals and to all the earth.
For the sign God selected a natural phenomenon, visible to animals as well, to give it new symbolic meaning. The meaning of the rainbow is not in the colors but the shape. What God says is clear: “I set my bow in the clouds.” That means a bow-and-arrow bow, a bow stretched back into a curve by pulling an arrow against the string. The curve of the bow is directed upwards toward the target, and the bull’s-eye is Godself.
Do you get it? God pledges God’s own life and death as the guarantee of God’s faithfulness to animals and humankind. God is saying, “Cross my heart and hope to die, if I don’t keep my promise to the earth.”
How far can we go with this? Can we shoot the arrow all the way to Good Friday and the target of God’s Son hanging on the cross? Did God shoot the arrow at the dearest person of the three-personned God, God’s Son, Godself? The arrow shoots across the seven weeks of Lent, over the imaginary road of our annual pilgrimage. This is the road that takes us to the Emerald City, the wonderful city of God, but before the city is the Cracks of Doom, the yawning chasm of the death of God.
God pledges God’s life and death with the sign of the rainbow, God commits Godself. God says, “I’m in.” Before the rainbow, God let the world have its way, God kept distant, and when things got very bad, God just wrote it off, God ordered the Flood to clean it all away. But with the rainbow God says, “I’m in, I’m personally invested in this now, I will see this through.” So the sign of the rainbow means that God will start taking personal responsibility for all the sin and suffering and misery of the world.
Not that God is the one who is guilty or at fault, but, just as our next president will have to take responsibility for our dangerous national debt, so God accepts responsibility for the evil that we human beings have let loose in the world, God submits to taking blame. The rainbow tells us that God will pay the price for all the wrongness we have caused within the world. Which seems like a very self-sacrificial and self-depriving thing for God to offer.
On this path of God’s humility God invites us too, which for us means self-examination. So let me add here that for the Bible to try to prove the being of God would let humanity off the hook, as if we were neutral and fair and had the right to be the objective judge and jury. From the Bible’s perspective, we are the ones on trial. Only when we make the self-examining journey through our failures and our grief and anger and loss, does the being of God begin to make sense. For your mind to reason out God’s being, in front of your mind you need the ashes on your forehead.
Or on that same spot on your forehead, the water of baptism. The sign of baptism informs your mind behind it, and your conscience too. First Peter calls baptism “an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Because if it were only ashes, if you just stayed with your failures and your grief and anger and loss, if your journey through the desert ended only at the chasm of the death of God, your guilty conscience would lead you to despair or else to reject the whole idea of God. But because of the resurrection of Jesus, which nobody asked for, God negates your guilt, gratuitously, just as gratuitously as God benefited Noah and the animals. God washes off the ashes from your mind and gives you a clean conscience, as a gift.
But the water of baptism evaporates, as a rainbow disappears, so what good is a sign you cannot see? The meaning of the sign is not the substance of water but the action of applying it, an action remaining in the memories of the witnesses of your baptism like they remember that rainbow they saw that summer day. The action of your baptism was attested in a certificate and recorded in a book.
These all testify that the sign was applied, and the sign means that the Holy Spirit applies to you the self-sacrifice of God in Christ upon the cross, as well as all the prior self-sacrificing of God on behalf of Israel in the desert, all the way back to Noah and the ark. All that self-sacrifice of God is applied to you by the Holy Spirit invisibly, as the water gets invisible in the application of baptism. You are given the right to the all the benefits of God’s gratuitous commitments, a clean conscience, and the right of resurrection.
Is your conscience ever guilty? I hope so! Do you have regrets about things that you have said or done? I hope so some time! So think of yourself as an unclean animal and of God as Noah, who herds you into his ark without your having asked for it, and saves you. Or believe that you are gathered along the road by God, that God is on the way somewhere, and taking you along. God is on the way with you. That this faithful God is on the way with you is how you can put your conscience to rest.
The sign of the rainbow points forward to the cross and the sign of your baptism points backward to the cross. They both are signs of God binding Godself to us. They both point us to God committing Godself to us. Not just God’s teachings or God’s laws, but God’s own self. God says, “Here I am. I’m not just God, I am your God. I’m with you and you’re with me.”
That kind of personal commitment is what we call love, especially when it’s self-sacrificial. These two signs are the signs of God’s great love for us. I invite you to believe that the most important thing that you can know about your own conscience is that God absolutely loves you, cross God’s heart and hope to die.
Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.