THE COVENANT-MAKING GOD
Sermon delivered on the First Sunday in Lent, the 18th February 2018 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands in the service of the Holy Eucharist.
Scriptures: Genesis 9: 8-17 1 Peter 3: 18-22 S. Mark 1: 9-15
Genesis 9:13 "I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and all the earth."
THE NOACHIAN COVENANT
From its mysterious beginnings, the Old Testament declares that the relationship between God and man is covenantal. The covenant made by God with Noah on behalf of mankind and every living creature should assuredly be regarded by us to be in continued operation. God's covenantal obligation is that He will never again destroy the earth by flood. And we can confirm that none of the judgments outlined in visionary form in the Book of Revelation point to a great flood, destroying the earth. At the end of the age the earth as we know it is no more, but in the Noachian covenant God has already declared that there will not again be an engulfing destruction of the earth before that final end is made.
This covenantal relationship, the Noachian covenant, has been explained as a marriage-covenant between God and the earth. And the symbolism is that of a single-ring wedding ceremony. The bow in the clouds is the marriage ring on the bride's finger, guaranteeing to the bride, in this case the earth inhabited by the descendants of Noah and his animals, a condition of stability; and our Old Testament lesson specifically says that that bow or marriage-ring is a reminder to the Groom, the Lord Himself, of the covenant He made. "This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth." Only at the death of one party - in this case when the "first heaven and the first earth" shall have "passed away" at the advent of the new heaven and the new earth - might the ending or perhaps, rather, the transformation of this marriage be declared.
PREFIGURING CHRISTIAN BAPTISM
Up until about 180 years ago, Western scholars of all sorts usually took it for granted that there was indeed a universal flood. This is no longer the case. Some scholars regard it as pure imagination while most say that it refers to some flood of a particular region. Yet the truth is that every people that has handed down its own ancient story to the present generation speaks of a universal destruction and the salvation of a remnant. Catastrophist schools of studies accept that there was indeed some destruction in which water affected virtually every region of the earth, which of course opens up for consideration questions about what caused it, the origin of the water, the presence of other spectacular but terrifying phenomena, and how such an event may have affected human consciousness ever since. The Prayer Book Baptism service, following Peter's teaching in our New Testament Lesson this morning, links Christian Baptism with the water and the Ark, speaking of God who in His mercy saved Noah and his family in the Ark from perishing by water, and who also safely led the children of Israel through the Red Sea. These events, it is taught in the Prayer Book, are pre-figurings of Christian Baptism, in which water is sanctified to the mystical washing away of sin. When someone is baptised, he becomes a member of Christ, who was baptised Himself in the Jordan, but he is also joined mystically to those Israelites who were led through the Red Sea, and to the pre-Israelite family of Noah that was rescued in the Ark. Most importantly the covenant in the Blood of Christ, into which someone's Baptism admits him, is also a renewal and restatement of the covenant that God made with Israel through Moses, as well as the covenant that God made with mankind and the earth through Noah. Our second lesson today from 1 Peter specifically teaches that the salvation of Noah and his family and his representative beasts is a prefiguring of the salvation of Christian baptism. We have been joined with those who down the ages have said "Yes!" to God, bringing with it a certain cost and a certain glory, and joined above all to our Lord Himself, who paid the full price of our rescue, and was fully vindicated and glorified.
BEING FAITHFUL TO THE "YES!"
The season of Lent is identified by the Church as a period in which we intentionally place ourselves in the way of growing in that "Yes!" to God, and most particularly in the context of preparation for Holy Baptism. Saying "Yes!" to God consistently through our lives necessitates saying "No" to anti-God suggestions, no matter how plausible they or their human sources might be. Jesus' "Yes!" to God at His Baptism brought to Him a fresh revelation that He was the beloved Son in whom the Father delighted, a phrase which taught that His calling would fulfil the figure of the Suffering Servant in the book of Isaiah. He was the one saying "Yes!" to God, while all around Him, as in Noah's case also, there were those of his own people, and particularly his fellow-teachers amongst his own people, saying "No!". Our Lord was baptised into a calling that set Him in opposition to most of His contemporaries, including sometimes His friends as well as His enemies. Indeed, He first of all even had to overcome the reluctance of John the Baptist himself to grant to Him participation in this important act to which He was called. The Synoptic Gospels record that immediately after His Baptism (by which He publicly said Yes to God), He was confirmed in the arts of saying "No!" to the Satanic but all too human suggestions discounting His standing as the Son of God. St. Mark's Gospel, which we read this morning, is content to record merely that after His Baptism the Spirit "thrust Him forth" or drove Him into the desert. His companions in His loneliness there were the wild beasts, and angels ministered to Him in His severe hardship, but Satan tempted Him with anti-God suggestions for forty days, and to these temptations in order to say "Yes!" to God He must say "No!" Our observance of the 40 days of Lent is linked in Christian tradition to our Lord's forty days of trial in the wilderness, as well as to the 40 years of the wanderings of the Israelites after their baptism, so to speak, in the Red Sea.
OUR "YES!" AFFIRMS OUR FILIAL RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD
It is important to us as we observe Lent to consider the Church’s covenant relationship with God as basic to His revelation to His people. Our Lord said "Yes!" to God by affirming His Sonship, or filial standing to God the Father. Saying "Yes!" to God affirms for us too our filial standing, our being God's sons and daughters, a standing to which our baptism sacramentally admits us. Saying "Yes!" to God is not just doing well in the eyes of our contemporaries. Saying "Yes!" to God affirms the new covenant to which He alone admits His people, because neither as individuals nor as a fellowship do we have an inherent right to it. That brings with it the necessity to say "No!" to all thoughts, words and actions that could prove us to be sons or daughters of a lesser god. Yet we are also reminded today that it is with all mankind that God declared His Noachian covenant. Our Christian Baptism admits us and says "Yes!" to that ancient covenant as well in a special and new way. We who are admitted are indeed called to maintain Christ's "quarrel" and conflict with the age, and we are equally called to be those who love this earth and its creatures until the end of time, because we are the special sons and daughters of Him who does so. We as Christ's members need to grow in the ways of saying "Yes!" to God, so that all mankind may understand, and so that the communities we affect may understand also, how to say "Yes!" to the covenant-making God, who from the first ages gave His wedding-ring to the earth until this first heaven and this first earth will have passed away.
BIBLE STUDY QUESTIONS
1. What are the chief characteristics of covenant? Compare these with the characteristics of other forms of human relationship.
2. In what ways can the Ark and the Exodus be shown to "pre-figure" Christian Baptism?
3. Show ways in which our assent to our Baptism, and our affirmation in life of our Baptism, demonstrate our filial relationship with God.