Sunday, March 01, 2015

It's Not Just For Us

This is the first Sunday in Lent. You know of course that the season of Lent is a time of preparation for celebrating Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, just as Advent is a time of preparation for celebrating Christmas.

Often people give up something for Lent. I have a cousin who decided to give up fast food, which has been a particular problem for her. I applaud her choice, but I must add that we should understand what we are doing. This is not an opportunity to move towards a better lifestyle (although it’s good when we do so), but to get ready for Easter. You remember the words from Malachi 3, sung in Handel’s Messiah: “And he shall purify the sons of Levi … that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.” In Lent we purify ourselves so as to receive within ourselves God’s righteousness and to offer it back to the Lord.

I wrote to my cousin to thank her and encourage her. I added that whenever she craves fast food, she can take that craving as a spur to prayer. Purifying our hearts is even more important than purifying our bodies, so that as we gather to celebrate at Easter we are ready to offer ourselves to God. So you give something up for Lent as part of releasing God’s grace within.

We are looking at passages over the next six or seven weeks that help us in this process of preparation. We look today at God’s covenant with Noah and ask how it helps us get ready. The sermon title asks: What if it’s not just for us? The answer of course is that it—God’s covenant and God’s purifying of our hearts—is not just for our sake, but for the sake of the whole world.

Some Observations on the Passage
·         Verse 8: God renews the covenant with Noah and his sons. In the social context of Genesis God spoke with the father and sons, representing the family as a whole. In our social context God makes the covenant with each one of us. This covenant follows the covenant made with Adam and Eve (Gen 1 and 2) and is followed by the covenant with Abraham and Sarah (Gen 12, 15, and 17) and finally with Moses and the whole Children of Israel (Ex 19 and 20).
·         Verse 9: God’s covenant with Noah and his family continues with their descendants. Thus it includes us today as well, although we are also under the new covenant with Christ (cf Jer 31). Jesus tells us that the new covenant fulfills rather than abolishes (Mt 5)—so the concerns of the covenant with Noah are contained and met within the new covenant.
·         Verse 10: “and with every living creature on the earth.” This covenant involves the whole of creation. Paul draws on this understanding in Romans 8:
19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
Clearly then the covenant is not just about us, nor is it just for us; the whole of creation is drawn into this covenant made between God and Noah.
·         Verse 11: The covenant begins with God’s grace. God has judged, and now God redeems. So great is God’s grace that we receive this incredible promise—that in spite of all the human sin and rebellion that will follow, God will not again destroy all life, but rather will take our sin and death into himself in Christ on the cross.
A side note: The story of Noah and the ark and the great flood is one that we often think of as a children’s story. I can think of few stories less calculated for children (unless we think of some of the grimmer of Grimm’s fairy tales). We can tell it to our children, for they learn quickly enough that this world is filled with evil, and they need to know that God hates evil. But the focus should be on God’s saving power in great trouble—the eight people and many animals saved, not on the destruction of those who died. We sang “Noah he built an arky, arky” with our sons, but we must be careful not to trivialize the great and terrible truth that God hates sin and acts with an unrelenting love to remove evil from the God’s people. The reality of God’s judgment is true and we must never forget it, but neither should we approach this account as a simple children’s story.
·         Verses 12-17: The rainbow is a constant reminder of God’s saving grace. When we see sun dogs on a bright cold morning, we can remember God’s wonderful saving grace. When we see the rainbow after a powerful storm full of destruction, we can remember God’s wonderful saving grace. In the storms of life that threaten us, we know that God is present and active, showing us love and tenderness and grace, bringing us hope and life for the future.

·         Finally I want to go just outside the verses we read to verse 7: “As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.” Here we see the actual content of the covenant God made with Noah. The same is stated in verse 1, followed by the difficult idea that plants and animals, indeed the whole earth, will live in fear and dread of the human race. Noah is told that they should not eat anything with its life blood still in it, nor should they kill any other human beings.
All of this echoes the covenant that God made with Adam in Genesis 1:
26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” 27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Genesis 9 echoes Genesis 1, and the following basic ideas apply in both passages:
·         That we are God’s image is part of the covenant. I will return to this point shortly.
·         Adam and his family, and Noah and his family, and all of us together, are put in charge of the earth. Let me reflect on this point first.

We are put in charge of the earth. I know a Christian brother who thinks that “being put in charge” means that we can do whatever we want with the earth. When I said to him that Lois and I try to minimize our ecological footprint (whether or not we succeed), he said, “Good! Then I can drive my gas guzzler twice as much!” You may have heard of diesel trucks called “coal rollers”, which store up diesel and release it in a big cloud of smoke when the driver passes a Prius. I don’t care what vehicle you drive, but I’m really getting at the underlying attitude that says, “God gave me this world to do whatever I want!” Think for a moment what it means to be put in charge. We are given the world in trust. At the end of all things God will take the world back from us and demand an accounting. You remember in the parables what happens to the servant who did not take care of his master’s property? He was thrown into outer darkness.

What do you call someone who is put in charge of the physical facility? At SMC we call them “trustees”. What if the trustees said, “Wonderful! Now we’re in charge!” And then they would start to go around and trash the building. I guarantee they wouldn’t remain trustees for long. In fact we have been well served by our trustees, because they know that they are put in charge for the benefit of all the other people who use the church building.

God’s covenant with Adam, and with Noah, and with all of us, is for us to take care of God’s world for the sake of all the people in the world, indeed for the sake of Creation itself. We have often failed, so that the words, “They will live in fear and dread of you,” have become reality. God forgive us.

Back to the idea of God’s image. You know of course why the Ten Commandments begin the way they do:
2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 3 You shall have no other gods before me. 4 You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.”
The reason that we make no graven images or representations of God is that we are God’s images. We represent God in this world. Paul says that we are Christ’s Ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5). We speak and act so that people can hear and see God at work. You see, then, that both parts of the covenant are for the sake of the world around us, not just for our benefit. God has called you and me to live for the benefit of the whole world.

But Wait! There’s More!
All of this, of course is in the end really for God’s glory. Why did God bring the judgment of the flood in the first place? Human sin rebelled against God’s goodness and glory. Human rebellion cannot live in the presence of God’s glory. So God cleansed and restored and prepared the earth for God’s glory. That is why, in the New Testament, Jesus came and died for us—to make us able to live in the presence of God’s glory (2 Cor 4:1-7).

We heard this note in the sermons from Daniel. Remember Daniel 9?
17 “Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. For your sake, Lord, look with favor on your desolate sanctuary. 18 Give ear, our God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. 19 Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act! For your sake, my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.”
We regularly say the same thing when we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.” In the end God’s covenant with Noah, and with us, brings glory to God.

Back to Lent
This brings us back to the idea of the Lenten Season. I said that we are preparing ourselves to celebrate Easter, and we are preparing ourselves to offer ourselves in righteousness, purified for God’s glory.

We often set our goals for life too low. We have become reasonably good, certainly better than we once were, and we think, “That’s enough. I don’t want to be too radical.” Consider instead what God wants you to be. That will be for your benefit certainly, but it will also be for the benefit of all whom you come in contact with, and the change will be for God’s glory.

C.S. Lewis put it this way in a book called Mere Christianity, “Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth ‘thrown in’: aim at Earth and you will get neither.” A Musical called “For Heaven’s Sake” turned this quote into song:
Aim for Heaven and earth will be thrown in./ Aim out beyond the Now and Near.
Aim for Forever and there will come a day/ When you’ll find Forever is here.
If you would save your life,/ Then you must choose
To give away your life,/ For what you lose
Out at end of time is what you win!

Oh aim for heaven, aim for heaven, aim for heaven,/ And earth will be thrown in.”

A Closing Thought
We have entered the season in which we purify ourselves as we draw closer to the cross. We are also facing questions and issues as a congregation that challenge us and scare us, as well as present us with opportunities to find God in new and powerful ways.

I encourage all of us to remember that God called you and me to life in Christ and in this community for the sake of the whole church and for the sake of the world around us. Embrace God’s covenant and live for God, and for God’s people, and for God’s world.

I think of a friend at Providence, a friend and a brother in the Lord. H teaches philosophy, and sometimes we talk about the meaning of the Christian life. I am a pacifist. In 1968 I was drafted to serve in Vietnam. I did not go to Vietnam because I am a CO. H served in the Canadian military. During his service he became a pacifist so he left the military. But since his service days he has come to the conclusion that God has a place for the use of military force.

He and I have talked about this issue many times, as he describes how he believes that Christians may find themselves compelled to use fatal force in the act of loving God and as an act of love for the world around us. I reply that I seek to follow Jesus, and Jesus tells us not to fight. We disagree, but I know that my covenant with God is for Hendrik’s sake as well as my own, so our disagreement does not separate us. He knows the same, because his covenant with Christ is also for my sake, so our disagreement does not drive us apart. We disagree in love. God's love within us turns us towards each other and towards the world around us. In the words of a simple song by Steve Bell, "Whoever loves God loves all that God loves ... Think about that."
We follow Christ for the sake of the world and for the glory of God. I challenge us today to do so in all of our conversations and the issues that we face together—to live for Christ, and for each other. God’s work in your life is not just for you. God’s work in my life is not just for me. God’s covenant with us is for all of us, and for the whole church, and for the whole world. In the end, it is most of all for God himself. “For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever, Amen.”
Steinbach Mennonite Church
22 February 2015
It’s Not Just For Us
Text: Genesis 9: 8-17


KGMom said...

The concept of giving up something for Lent comes out of a different tradition than the one in which we grew up. As I learned about the practice, I was struck with how often people decided to give up some indulgence--and how often those things being given up were food.
Certainly, the concept of self-denial is far deeper than mere cravings.

Climenheise said...

True. As I said, to prepare oneself for Holy Week. The idea of self-preparation is one that reminds us again that the spiritual life is not simply for/about us.