24 March 2003

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In the name of God Father Son and Holy Spirit Amen

The Old Testament reading from the book of Genesis – it may be helpful to appreciate that many of the Old Testament Stories were originally passed on in an oral tradition. They weren’t stories that were written down, so they hadn’t yet been tested – so that you could sit and read them.

Invariably what would happen was that these stories would be told and the idea was that as you heard this story you would remember parts of it, so the word would pass on by word of mouth. It may have meant that we had to be more attentive to the word of God, and that may have lead to the people being more God focused and God centred. But the difficulty with reading the word of God from a book is that when it gets hard, when you get tired, when it gets boring, you can shut the book and put it on the shelf. But if you are in a room with candles, you want to hear the story and just the energy of the group might hold you there a bit longer.

It also means that the stories themselves were formed differently. If we are writing – if I was writing the word of God on a word processor and there were certain things I wanted to emphasize, that would mean I might increase the font size or put it into italics, so that it stands out. I remember the other day I got a letter from someone - it was the most colourful letter I’ve ever had – they’re absolutely word process beserk – different words in different colours to emphasize them, different sizes and different fonts, the lot. But when we’ve only got the spoken story to pass on we’ve got to do the emphasis in different ways.

The part of the story we got this morning from Genesis was ten verses long. Seven of those verses contained the same thing, one word was repeated in those ten verses five times. That to me is a clue that there is something important to get. At the end of the day, what I want you to do when you leave this story telling group is that I want you to go away with the word Covenant ringing in your ears. That was the purpose of the teller of the story.

I’m establishing my covenant with you and with your descendents after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you for all future generations, the covenant between me and the earth, my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh, the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth, the covenant that I have established with all flesh that is on the earth.

We’ve got all of that within that little grab of ten verses. It’s obviously important. We’ve now  - this reading has been selected as the reading at the beginning of Lent. It’s probably therefore important that we at least get some idea, some shape of an idea of covenant in our minds. Covenant is not a transaction between God and God’s people. There’s a lot of the Old Testament that is conceptually written as if it’s transactional. And out of that we get that notion of sacrifice and later on we develop things like atonement – Christ died for me. He paid the price for my sins. That idea of transaction.

Covenant is not yet using that language, it’s a step before it.

The closest I think that we in the modern world come to covenant is when we enter into a committed relationship. Now as we move post-modern, we get things called pre-nuptial agreements. They’re not covenant, that’s moving more into that transactional understanding. I’m talking about a tacit understanding of either marriage, or that wonderful thing that usually proceeds marriage, and that is when you covenant to another, in other words the moment that you realise this relationship is actually going to… we are going to step into commitment with it. I actually think that the marriage bit then continues – that comes a bit further down – the point when the relationship shifts from being a loving and lovely and beautiful relationship to one that has got the notion of covenant, in other words, there is something committed that draws the two to be together in something that is creative of something new, all that born of some of the past stuff.

That’s the sort of shape that we could begin to think about covenant.

If we then re-read the short ten verses that we have this morning, you begin to wonder how the Church has distorted it so much. Because that relationship between Creator and created somehow these days looks like a relationship between God and the Church. It is fantastically clear in the five repetitions that we have heard that the covenant is with the whole of creation and with all people.

The covenant that we engage with God when we choose to commit is not one that is at all exclusive, it is totally inclusive. We actually step into alignment with creation and it is with all other people and all other creatures. We don’t recognise our set-apartness, rather we recognise ourselves as a part of the whole and seeking to be fully committed to the whole.

The story of covenanting is actually repeated now for part of the Old Testament. Just in case we don’t – we may miss that ground – it may be that in the ancient days when storytelling was on that night, they went down to McDonalds instead to celebrate one of the kids’ birthdays and missed it. So the story is told again.

The first telling of it is with Adam and Eve. The covenant there was about blessings, being fruitful and multiplying. Today we had the story of covenant told through the figure of Noah. The Flood is a new creation story. So you read the first part of Genesis, and if you don’t quite get it, the ‘out of nothing’, that breath created everything, there is another version, that is, that all was covered with the waters of chaos and new life came out of that.

We then move on to the story of Abraham, the covenant story is re-told, again “I will make you exceedingly fruitful, as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sand that is on the seashore.” And we are now moving from – when we are looking at Adam and Eve and Noah, we are in the sort of pre-history figures. Now that we come to Abraham we are actually starting to get geographically and historically located. Abraham passed the story down to Isaac: “I will bless you and make your offspring numerous.” Isaac – the story of covenant is handed to Jacob “The dew of heaven and the fatness of the earth, blessed be everyone who blesses you, know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” Jacob passes the story onto Joseph. Joseph is blessed with the twelve tribes and the whole land of Egypt, for by the time we get down to Moses we are then shifting from that covenant relationship to an outworking of what that means, and for Moses what that meant was deliverance from slavery, to a land of milk and honey and a grounding of that covenant in the ten commandments.

It is a hugely important concept, which is why when it was told in ancient days it is repeated as we heard it this morning.

Covenant covenant covenant covenant covenant. For all. About creation, about fullness of life.

The reading from Peter today links Noah to Christ, links flood to baptism and by implication links covenant to salvation. So salvation, again, rather than some kind of distorted view that we have, of salvation from ourselves and salvation from our sins, salvation is picking up the idea of fullness of life, which is the covenant promised.

And in the reading from Peter at the beginning of Lent we receive a connection that orientates us to fullness of life. The gospel reading then picks up the theme of baptism which links us back to Noah, to the Flood, which also links us to covenant.

 And we also in the reading today get an introduction to Lent, the forty days, and it’s as if what we are told in this reading, that Jesus came from Nazareth to Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan - there’s the flood story, Jesus has now been baptised, his orientation is towards a covenant relationship with God and fullness of life.

And what happens immediately: the Spirit draws him out into the wilderness.

It suggests in the reading from Mark that, as we really do seek to make this commitment, we will have to struggle. If we go back to the Old Covenant stories they were all, all of them had that notion of struggle. We struggle with our shadow, which is the temptations of Satan in the wilderness.

The great thing is that we have in this - and this is the shortest telling of the Lent story in Mark’s gospel, the other Gospels expand on it, Mark keeps it very simple, he says you will be tempted by Satan and waited on by angels. What a delightful way to approach Lent! See, to establish, to re-establish your covenant relationship with God, anticipate being tempted by Satan, becoming aware and re-aware of the darkness within, but also anticipating being waited on by angels, the fullness of life, the constantly being of them. We are constantly being waited on by angels.

Now some will never take that journey of forty days and so some will never come to that place of fullness of life in which re-creation is promised and experienced. Some will chose rather to avoid it, perhaps because they’ve heard about this temptation of Satan stuff and that doesn’t quite stack up enough against the waiting on by angels. So the choice that’s made is perhaps to stay where I am. It is the one thing that we have discovered since the days that these stories were first told, that we can survive without God. That’s the discovery of the modern world. It is fantastically not true, but to us it looks true. That we can survive without God. In Medieval times they almost went the other way – they were so frightened of being damned for eternity, that was the fear. That was their discovery. We’ve discovered no, no, we can do it without God. We can survive. And so many will seek to stay and leave things as they are.

But some will choose and orientate themselves towards a covenant with God that will lead to fullness of God that will lead to fullness of life.

Last week at EFM we had a reflection that took us to – the reflection we had took us to the question – are we prepared to walk the talk of being a Christian? We could almost, in the light of these readings, almost frame the same question. Are we actually prepared to walk the talk of fullness of life, to see creation in all of its fullness?

One of the things that we might contemplate during Lent is that we actually do have the opportunity to choose. Probably two thirds of the world don’t have that opportunity because they are still seeking to feed themselves and until you’ve done that, these choices make no sense at all.

My thinking is that if we don’t choose then we will always deny them the choice, because if we have the opportunity to choose life, and instead we choose survival, then those that are still trying to choose survival don’t stand a chance.

So it really is a responsibility on us to choose life, and to choose it in all its fullness, knowing that when that choice is made, we will be waited on by angels as we are tempted by Satan.

The Lord be with you.