Weekly Seeds: Covenant: Signs of Promise

Sunday, February 21, 2021
First Sunday in Lent Year B

Focus Theme:
Covenant: Signs of Promise

Focus Prayer:
God of our salvation, your bow in the clouds proclaims your covenant with every living creature. Teach us your paths and lead us in your truth, that by your Holy Spirit, we may remember our baptismal vows and be keepers of your trust with earth and its inhabitants. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Genesis 9:8–17
8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 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. 16 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.” 17 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.” 
All readings for this Sunday:
Genesis 9:8–17
Psalm 25:1–10
1 Peter 3:18–22
Mark 1:9–15

Focus Questions:
1. Compassion means “to suffer with.” How do you experience God’s compassion?
2. How does remembering help you move toward compassion?
3. The covenant makes with Noah is a promise of God that makes no demand upon the recipients. What promises have you made without conditions demanded of the beneficiaries?
4. During the season of Lent, we engage in a period of remembrance, large through rituals. What Lenten rituals are most memorable for you?
5. What promises have you made to God, and have they been conditional based on God’s actions or unconditional?

By Cheryl Lindsay

God remembers.

Sometimes we need a reminder. A sign is a reminder that points to something specific and concrete. Unlike symbols, which can represent deeper and more nebulous meaning, a sign represents a more direct marker and identifier even if it also contains symbolic value.

The rainbow is both a symbol and a sign. As a symbol, it holds multiple meanings reflecting theological themes. As a symbol, it invites us to explore those meanings and the implications on our lives and faith journey. As a symbol, we might be tempted to consider it as only a theoretical proposition with no substance. But the rainbow is both symbol that reflects God’s commitment, abundant love, and grace and sign that points to the events of this portion of the Genesis narrative. The first eleven chapters of the Bible do not address a particular group of people. There is no need to universalize the concepts and the stories; it begins from a universal perspective. In fact, the tribalism that marks so much of the human condition comes into motion after these events. Noah does not usher in a new nation, he participates in the first movement toward a new creation. The promise God extends to humanity through him does not only apply to his progeny, it applies to the entire world that God has created.

The text this week comes after the waters have receded. The Creator had lost patience with creation and decided it was time to begin again. Rather than starting from scratch, God uses the best existing creation as a template. In examining the creation narratives, we sometimes emphasize the affirmation for human companionship with one another that we lose sight that we were also created for companionship with God. The Holy One who never leaves us isn’t just existing on standby in case we need God for our purposes. That’s not relational; that’s transactional. God is not the author of contracts, but the Creator of relationships. That’s what covenant is all about. It’s also what the Flood was about. Celia B. Sinclair explains the narrative in this way:
The flood story is read rightly when it is understood as the story of God’s grief. Too often, and wrongly, it has been told as a tale of punishment. But the narrative of Genesis 6:5–9:17 should never be used as a model for divine judgment. What is central in the story is the anguish in the heart of God, which moves God to a new reality in relationship to the entire earth.
I remember, as a child, hearing people say that thunderstorms came from God’s tears, and while that never rang entirely true to me, we might consider the relentless rain that floods the earth in this narrative as a sign of God’s profound grief over the human condition, especially in relationship to God. “The flood, which from the human side looks like judgment, is seen differently from God’s side. The movement from God’s side is always one of grief. It is forty days of outpouring before the grief subsides.” (Celia B. Sinclair) Imagine creating a world and being rejected by the most endowed, gifted, and favored creature. The story of the fall is not about failing to follow instruction; it is humanity rejecting God’s invitation to companionship. What if what can be viewed as God’s punishment could be considered God’s pain at our rejection?

God has acted, and the world awaits a rewrite, a renewal, and a restart. Noah and his family don’t know what happens next. They follow God’s commands at each step without inquiring about a long-term plan. Perhaps they responded from fear, gratitude, uncertainty, or their own grief. Whatever the case, they do not hesitate but follow each directive. They have been spared in order to participate in the next ordering of creation and respond as God speaks.

They owe their position to God’s remembering. Walter Brueggemann asks the question, “What is it that evokes God’s turn toward his creation?” In the midst of the despair over rejection, God decides to start over…but not from the beginning. The work of seven days of separating and bringing order to chaos is not undone. The Creator will begin anew with a remnant of the created order before God. Brueggeman discovers the answer to his query,
It is put this way: God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark (8:1). God remembered Noah. God remembered. (Cf. Ps. 105:5; Luke 1:54–55). This God is not timeless and immune to the flow of human events.
God is eternal, but not timeless. God is attuned to the progression of humanity and all of creation. It is worth noting that within the text, there is no indication that God was disappointed or aggrieved by the rest of creation. The land and the sea, the birds and the land creatures seem to be functioning as intended. Yet, they share in the consequences of human decisions. As Rodney S. Sadler, Jr. states:
The [human-focused] perspective of the author, who imagines that because of humanity’s faults, all of creation must be undone, should not be lost on us. The world at large suffers due to humanity’s wickedness. In the author’s view, as we go, so goes the whole world; this is a message we should heed in an age of widespread oppression, corporate greed, gross income inequality, and global climate change.
Neither the Creator nor the creation remains unaffected by human action. The interconnection is by God’s design and also in not undone in God’s attempt to make creation right.

When God first remembers Noah, it is his righteousness that distinguishes him from all others. His right relationship with God, in contrast to those who have rejected God, makes Noah the logical choice. But God also remembers Noah on the Ark when the transition to the new begins–after the waters recede. Noah then acts without God’s direct command by performing an established act of worship that honors God and reflects repentance, which means to turn. Revisiting Brueggeman’s question, we find that the One who turned toward creation chose the one who would lead creation in turning back to God.

In response, God makes a decision. Before even communicating it to Noah, the verses immediately preceding the focus text assert that God will not do this again. The covenant is established in response to Noah, who serves not as a symbol but as a sign. He does not symbolize humanity which has, at that point, proven to be willful, disobedient, and disengaged from the Sovereign One. But, Noah does point to what humanity can be, what we are called and created to be. Noah was a reminder for God, and that is all he needed to do for his part of the covenant. The rest is all on God.

God decides in that “never again” moment that, going forward, all of humanity will receive the Noah treatment, which begins with remembering. This is not a negotiated contract; it is a gift. There are no terms for humanity to fulfill to keep the covenant in good standing. This is a unilateral agreement which God keeps with Godself for the good of all humanity and all creation. The promise predates religion and other divisions within humanity. There was only relationship, and there are no conditions and no exclusions.

This is a gift, and God marks it with a bow. No, this is not the bow that accompanies wrapping paper. It’s the bow of a warrior laid down. “The act at the end of the flood account of the deity hanging the ‘rainbow’ in the sky (9:13–16) would have been understood as the act of a warrior who hangs up his…“war bow,” symbolizing the cessation of hostilities.” (Rodney S. Sadler, Jr.) The rainbow is a symbol of God’s peace, which represents so much more than a lack of conflict. The rainbow reflects God’s grace and mercy, God’s commitment to creation, and the turning of God’s grief into compassion. As Celia B. Sinclair notes:
Remembering is an act of committed compassion. God is not preoccupied with God, but with creation. The remembering of God makes new life possible….We cannot be ultimately forgotten, for with God we are eternally known. Before the flood, God remembered Noah (8:1). After the flood, God will remember the everlasting covenant (9:16). The sign of the rainbow is both a promise to all creation and a reminder to God of the vow, “Never again.” The newness is not in the created order. The new thing is in the heart of God. God has decided to put up with the world, and not just to put up with it but to stand with it. The bow, a weapon of war, is at rest. God’s creation is forever protected from God’s impatience. God is committed to finding another way to deal with unruly, hostile humanity.
The rainbow stands as a mutual call to remember. God remembers us, just as God remembered Noah. The covenant is made with people, not nameless and faceless entities. God sees, knows, and remembers God’s people. But, we too are invited to remember. The sign is also a gift.

Without the sign at the end of a storm, we might forget that we have a companion who weathers these moments with us. Without the sign, we might view those challenges that sharpen us as obstacles sent to destroy us. Without the sign, we might believe that acts of nature or our own collective doing are God’s vengeance and punishment inflicted upon us.

The season of Lent is infused with symbols, but they are also replete with signs. Those signs point to the promise and, most importantly, to the God of the promise. The ashes placed on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday are a symbolic reminder to us of the temporary nature of life, but they also serve as a visible sign of our identity in Christ. The palms that we may wave to begin Holy Week symbolize the sovereignty of Jesus, but they also remind us of the details of a specific event in the passion he experienced and invite our tangible participation in recreating those acts.

These signs of promise remember, most of all, (as the gospel reading from Mark indicates) that the Creator decided to break into the creation, to be identified through the waters of baptism and the Triune presence in that event, and to declare a new covenant: “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mark 1:14b-15)

God remembers. Let us remember. The covenant is still a gift God creates and is creating that we receive anew.

For further reflection:
“This is God’s universe and he is the master gardener of all. If we were to eliminate all colors in his garden, then what would be a rainbow with only one color? Or a garden with only one kind of flower? Why would the Creator create a vast assortment of plants, ethnicities, and animals, if only one beast or seed is to dominate all of existence?” — Suzy Kassem
“Diversity exist in colours.” — Lailah Gifty Akita
“Sometimes people don’t understand the promises they’re making when they make them.” — John Green
“Keep all your promises, don’t take what doesn’t belong to you, and always look after those less fortunate than yourself, and you’ll do well in the world.” — Rebecca Rupp

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (lindsayc@ucc.org), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.