God Loves Us

Sunday, February 18, 2018
First Sunday in Lent Year B

Focus Theme:
God Loves Us

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

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 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. 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.”

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: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 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. 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.” 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. What does this story tell us about our ancient ancestors and their view of the world? Their view of God?
  2. How does this text relate to our call to care for the earth?
  3. What vision of healing and reconciliation does this text offer?
  4. How would you define (or describe) hope?
  5. How might this story shape our response to those affected by natural disasters in, for example, Puerto Rico?

by Kate Matthews

One might think that our theme for this First Sunday in Lent would be something like “We Keep Sinning,” or “Why We Need to Repent,” instead of the tender claim that “God Loves Us.” At least, that’s what I thought, at first, as I reflected on the Lenten journey once again ahead of us: a time we consider to be all about penance, denial, emptiness, and remorse for our brokenness and sin. “God Loves Us” sounds like a good theme for Christmas, perhaps, but it works very well for Lent, too, as we explore and live in these texts before us, on our way to Holy Week.

Yes, we know that the story of Noah has a lot to do with God judging humankind and finding it wanting–very, very wanting, so much so that God decides on a do-over (would our technological culture say a “reboot”?) of creation itself, back when water and land had been separated and new life brought forth. In the larger story of Noah (scholars say it combines narratives from both the older J/E and the Priestly traditions that drew on familiar ancient stories of cataclysmic flooding in the area of Mesopotamia), God chooses one man and his family, establishing a new Adam and a fresh start for humanity (and, once again, telling humanity to “be fruitful and multiply”). God begins the story again, with this offer, this gift, of the very first covenant between God and humankind, with the sign of the rainbow as a reminder for God of the promise made so long ago not only to Noah but to all generations to follow, and to all of creation itself.

Nevertheless, sin and violence

Alas, as Martin Copenhaver observes, we know that sin nevertheless boarded the ark along with Noah’s family and all those animals on their way to a new beginning, that “something was smuggled on board with them, tucked away in their hearts, and that is the seed of violence.” He suggests–and we know he’s right–that the sin grew “like a weed” and even today “is in us, even in the good guys”; sin and violence are “nestled in the genes.”

And yet, and yet…we are especially prone, in the church, to concentrate on what we are doing or failing to do (right) in our relationship with God or, for that matter, what we are doing (or not doing) in the world. We don’t focus so much on the primary actor in the long story of faith: God. (Perhaps this is because we, deep down, think that everything really is up to us?) This one episode in that story is a dramatic example of God at the center of things: God is the One who speaks, acts and, one might even say, feels. God is actually the one who “turns away” from a path (the thing we’re supposed to do during Lent when we “repent”) and makes a promise never again to destroy humankind and the earth with a flood.

Of course, we need to remember that it’s not all about us, but about God. It’s about what God is doing and has done not only here and now, but in times long ago and in a future we cannot even dimly see. And always, we learn and re-learn in these stories, the ancient truth that God loves us.

A story about God

It’s true that the Noah story of destruction is a difficult one for preachers as well as church school teachers, unless they domesticate it with cute pictures of the animals riding in the boat, without mentioning the death and destruction that necessitated the ride; oddly, Noah and his boat are a popular theme for toys and nursery decorations! These early chapters of Genesis have marvelously diverse images of a God who on the one hand tenderly makes clothing for Adam and Eve and takes walks in the garden at evening time, and yet on the other hand orders the destruction of all living things in the wake of sin and wickedness.

Scholars may struggle with this idea of God destroying all but a small remnant of humanity, but David J. Lose, for example, reminds us that our ancient ancestors in faith understood God as a God of both power and justice: “The One who created all things also stands as judge over all things and is entitled to destroy all things when they prove so disappointing.” And that’s what makes this story turn, why it suggests the theme “God Loves Us” more powerfully than something like “God Punishes Us” or even “We Get What We Deserve.” According to Lose, God’s promise never to repeat this kind of destruction is “an unheard-of surrendering of divine power,” and it introduces a new dimension of the ancient Hebrews’ understanding of God as “inherently self-giving, willing to enter into a relationship that puts limits on even God’s prerogatives.”

Remembering, reminding, relationship

Indeed, this week’s text is about remembering and reminding, and about relationship. It is about a covenant, a promise. Apparently, even God needs to be reminded, in this case by a beautiful bow (ironically, an ancient weapon) in the sky, of a promise God makes, out of tenderness and compassion for creation.

This is not Noah’s idea, the text indicates. God initiates the whole plan, the promise and the bow and the reassurance it offers. Yes, Noah has offered a fragrant offering after landing on dry ground, but God is the one who comes up with the idea of a promise, along with a reminder in the rainbow.

So what do we learn about God–and what God is about–in this story? William Loyd Allen describes a God who is “adaptable, touched to the heart by creation, and willing to accept hurt to keep hope alive.” God refuses to give up on us, Allen says, because “God’s heart is touched by creation’s suffering. The God declaring this covenant is not an objective judge meting out a just sentence, but a lover grieved to the heart at the beloved’s violence, yet still seeking reconciliation (6:6, 8:21). Readers will find divine regret throught this covenant, but will look in vain for anger.” Thus, our theme: God Loves Us.

A people in chaos, needing hope

The people of ancient Israel needed to hear this gracious promise during the time of their exile, Dianne Bergant tells us, for they “would have been comforted by these tangible signs of their relationship with God and the promise of an everlasting covenant bond.” With all the structures and practices of their shared life back home wrecked, with their reality in shambles, they were undoubtedly inspired by the story of a new beginning, a story of hope and the promise of God’s presence with them, always.

And, according to Valerie Bridgeman Davis, the breadth of the promise–a universal one not just to Noah and his family but to all the generations following them, and to all of the earth itself–reflects that exilic setting of the text, when “ancient Israel had to reckon with the notion that their God was the God of the whole creation, and the only God.”

Vindicating God’s power and holiness

Sibley Towner notes that the massive flood of the story comes from traditions the people of Israel would have heard from their neighbors (“there is no evidence of ancient flooding in Israel’s own land,” he writes), but when the Israelite community borrowed the memory of such a “deluge,” they put their “own distinct literary and moral stamp on the story and used it as a way both to vindicate the power and holiness of God and the obedience of one in whom God was pleased and through whom God purposed to save the human community.” By the way, Towner also notes: “The word tebah, ‘ark,’ is used of a craft only in these chapters and in Exodus 2:3-5, where it describes the box in which the infant Moses was set adrift in the Nile. The coincidence is not accidental.”

Our Lenten readings will say much about the relationship of humans and God. What does this story tell us about our ancient ancestors and their view of the world? Their view of God? The first thought that occurs to God after Noah’s offering is a resolution never again to “curse the ground because of humankind…nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.” Do you believe that God needs to be reminded of that promise, or of any promise God makes?

A moment of reconciliation and peace

Readings in future weeks will speak of covenant in terms of Israel, but this first covenant, this beautiful moment of reconciliation and peace, is a universal one with all peoples and with nature itself, all living creatures. The blessing is for all, too, a renewal of the blessing at creation, along with the command to exercise dominion. How does this text speak to us about our relationship with God today? How does it call us to remember our relationship with the earth and with all living creatures?

William H. Willimon also connects this text with our Lenten journey ahead: “Thus surely we Christians are justified in hearing in this primal story a kind of echo of another story that we shall again enact at the end of the forty days of Lent….What we well assumed to be the last chapter in God’s gracious dealings with humanity turned out to be the first chapter in a whole new story of promise.”

A story of redemption

Jane Anne Ferguson has written a beautiful reflection on this text and its story of God’s promise: “To see and know God as the ‘One Who Remembers’ us, corporately and individually, with love and forgiveness in the midst of life’s chaos, with all its pain and suffering, is to discover redemption.” And in that experience is a way of living for the church, to be “a place where people [are] willing to let their hearts be remade in the image of God’s heart; a place where people [will] let their hearts be broken open, with grief over their own hard-heartedness and the hard-heartedness of the world and its chaos.” In such a community of faith, “when their hearts were broken open the people would be moved to partner with their Creator through patient, forgiving, loving, and prophetic action for the renewal of all creation.”

This connection, between the promises of God about creation, and our care (or lack of care) for the earth, is an important part of responding to this text. Valerie Bridgeman Davis writes that we may not accept the idea that God would destroy the earth, but “we may not reject culpability and consequences of behavior on others, including on creation.”

The Noah story is one of power and the checking of power. More than ever before in human history, we’re aware that we have tremendous power ourselves to harm nature, and that we have often used and misused that power. We need to be reminded of our limits as humans–in wisdom and in right choices–in order to be in right relationship with God, with the earth, and with all peoples. What vision of reconciliation might we hold out to the world, as people of faith?

A symbol of hope

The rainbow, Nicole L. Johnson writes, symbolizes not only peace (no more destruction) but hope as well, and that is how the community of faith must live: in hope. “Hope, the expectation that things will get better, not only gets us through the difficult times but also gives us strength to work proactively in the interest of a just and peaceful world. Hope helps communities to rebuild after a deathly and devastating natural disaster…..Hope encourages the faith community to seek justice for all now, while waiting expectantly for the reign of Christ that will usher in pure justice. In a world that sometimes seems so lacking in hope, the Christian community is called to live that hope for others.” What is the message of hope that we preach, within our community and to the world beyond our walls?

As we set out on our Lenten journey, what lesson, and what comfort and strength, do we draw from this story? How do we see ourselves as creatures dependent on God’s goodness and grace? How will we allow ourselves to be changed by the promises of God, unfolding in our lives and in the life of all creation?

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) along with reflections on the other lectionary texts, at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For Further Reflection:

Marcus Borg, 21st century
“God wills, comprehensively, our well-being–not just my well-being as an individual but the well-being of all of us and of the whole of creation. In short, God wills our salvation, our healing, here on earth. The Christian life is about participating in the salvation of God.”

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, 20th century
“Things are always better in the morning.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 20th century
“God can make a new beginning with people whenever God pleases, but not people with God. Therefore, people cannot make a new beginning at all; they can only pray for one. Where people are on their own and live by their own devices, there is only the old, the past.”

Aberjhani, 21st century
“Rainbows introduce us to reflections
of different beautiful possibilities
so we never forget that pain and grief  
are not the final options in life.”

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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Faith Formation Ministry Team 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. The Revised Common Lectionary is ⌐ 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.