Scripture: Genesis 9:8,17, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15
When our daughter Anastasia was little, her nursery was decorated using Noah’s Ark as the theme. It was full of animals and rainbows. From an early age, she has loved bright colours in general, and rainbows in particular. She draws rainbows and splashes of colour all the time.
Maybe her colour-love is because of the room decor. Or she might take after Julie, who often wears bright tie-dyed shirts that blend lots of colours in spectacular swirls.
Our Old Testament reading this morning is the beautiful conclusion of the story of Noah and the Great Flood. Previously, God brought Noah and his family and lots of animals through the waters, saving them from the death and destruction all around them.
Then God points to the rainbow as the sign of a new covenant. It is a covenant of New Creation. God brings life through the waters of chaos and death. After some initial wrong turns, God presses Reset and starts over with this new creation. But he did not scrap everything. God preserved the best of humanity, and a diverse array of animal species.
This new covenant is between God and all of creation. Every living creature. This new covenant involves more than a single individual, or family, or clan or nation, or even all humankind (all “people-kind” as our Prime Minister recently joked!). It involves all parts of this new act of creation.
Five times in these verses, God says the covenant is with “all living creatures.” Two more times, God is even more expansive. Once God refers to “all life on earth;” another time God says that the covenant is with “the earth.”
This is a solemn promise of God to all creatures, all life, to the whole earth! That should give us pause, I would argue, before we do things that contribute to the destruction of the environment on which all living creatures depend.
The rainbow is the sign of this new covenant of creation. God enlists physics to help remind us of the covenant. Sunlight strikes water droplets in the air and is refracted into a spectrum of colours in a circular arc. Or so the scientific explanation goes.
Beyond the physics, though, Rainbows are beautiful, common reminders of God’s acts of salvation in the past, and God’s promises for the future. They are an everyday sacrament, you might say, a reminder of the divine presence and promise.
Like the bread and wine of our Communion sacrament, with their physical reality and deeper spiritual significance, rainbows gain this significance through the new covenant God establishes in our Genesis reading.
As the clouds are heavy with rain, so the rainbow is now heavy with spiritual significance.
Rainbows are common reminders of a divine promise. They pop up after a rain, in the mists of Niagara Falls, in the spray of a water sprinkler. In Asta’s art. They are everyday reminders of God at work. Of God’s new covenant with humanity, with all living creatures, with the whole earth.
The lectionary’s New Testament reading from the first letter of Peter picks up on the story of Noah, and links it to Jesus Christ. Peter writes, “In [the ark] a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you … through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”
Peter leaves aside the sign of the rainbow, focusing instead on God’s saving action. He just mentions the people, not the part about ALL living creatures. But Peter wants his readers to understand that the life and work and death and resurrection of Jesus do for us what the ark did for its passengers.
In his death and resurrection, Jesus has flipped a switch. In Jesus we meet another new covenant of new creation. The process of making all things right, making all things new, has begun. The Old Testament prophets often anticipated a great final Day of the Lord, when all of creation will be restored to its intended ways, and God’s peace will reign. In Christ, it has started.
Isaiah chapter 11 expresses this so eloquently, anticipating God’s peace between wolf and lamb, between calf and lion, between child and snake. A peace extending to all creatures, to all God’s good creation.
Jeremiah chapter 31 also famously anticipates the day when God will bring a great new covenant. It will be a new covenant of forgiveness and reconciliation, when God will write, not on stone tablets like the Ten Commandments, but directly on our hearts.
Through Jesus, that time has come. The 1st Peter reading points to Christ; our Gospel reading from Mark announces the beginning of that time. The fulfillment of God’s ancient promises is at hand, in Jesus.
In rainbows, we have a common, everyday reminder of God’s covenant with all living creatures. The sign of the rainbow is all around us.
If only there was a sign or symbol that could remind us of God’s new covenant with us. If only something could remind us that the death and resurrection of Jesus has initiated this new state of living. Some simple, common thing that we could see, sometimes in surprising places, and be reminded of Christ, and of what God has done already and is doing still for us.
Wait. How about a cross! In historically Christian nations, they are almost everywhere as religious symbols. But they appear in lots of other places too. Like the letter t. Or a construction crane.
Or a crosswalk.
I especially like the crosswalk. It has a very functional name. Do you need to cross the street? On foot? We suggest you walk across at a cross-walk.
Yet, in this season of Lent, we want a different kind of Cross Walk. This is a time when we try and shape our lives according to the patterns set down by Jesus. We want to walk in his footsteps, to walk in the way of the cross.
This is the first Sunday of Lent. Traditionally, Lent is a time of self-examination, of denial, of preparation leading to the great celebration of Christ’s death and Resurrection. It is a period in which we examine our lives to identify wrongs for which we need to repent, and areas in which we need to grow, especially spiritually.
Sacrifice and self-denial, giving up something, these are common, traditional practices. In our liturgy, we put away our Alleluias during Lent. The pancake supper we enjoyed last Tuesday has its roots in the tradition of abstaining during Lent from eating foods that have fat or yeast. Maybe you gave up sweets or coffee or alcohol during Lent.
And yet, at the start of this time of sombre reflection, we have a reading filled with rainbows and life and promises. Our Genesis reading is brimming with hope and possibilities for the future, as all living things emerge as a new creation from the death and destruction of the great flood.
The reading from 1st Peter strikes a more serious tone, but even it has this upbeat sense that Jesus has won and all is right with the world, or at least it’s on its way.
Our Gospel reading from Mark has a mood of optimistic excitement. It is the kick-off, the launch of Christ’s public ministry. His vision statement includes a call to “repent and believe the good news,” which reminds us of the Lenten practices of self-examination. It also includes the announcement that the page has turned, and everything that God’s people have been waiting for is now starting to come true.
It’s festive, excited, open-ended. Where will this all lead us? I can’t wait to find out! That’s the feeling I get when I read the early chapters of Mark.
Like Julie’s tie-dyed shirts, we have these different moods all swirled together at the start of Lent. Death and new life. Sombre self-reflection and celebration. Self-denial and the start of something exciting and new.
I call on you to observe a holy Lent. I want to encourage and support you however I can in your time of self-reflection, repentance, prayer and fasting. These practices during Lent are ancient traditions in Christianity, and I recommend them.
During Lent, let’s also swirl in the rainbows and new beginnings. Let’s take on what my workplace calls a “stretch-goal,” something that pushes us beyond our everyday. In keeping with the new covenant in our Genesis reading, and the new life ushered in by Jesus, let’s start something new this Lent.
Maybe you want to start a pattern of greater giving, to your church or your favourite charity. Or by stopping rather than hurrying past someone looking for a handout. This New Thing swirls very nicely, I might add, with the idea of self-denial and sacrifice.
You might set a reading goal, starting with carving a little book-time into your daily routines. Something like a daily devotional (like the Lent journal some have already signed up for). Or maybe a weightier tome. Since my commute is no longer by transit, I’ve lost my bus and subway reading time and it’s tough to squeeze reading back in. So this is my stretch-goal: to read through the four Gospels this Lent.
You might draw inspiration from the Cub Scouts. In Canada, the official Cub Scout promise includes doing a good deed for someone every day. If you take this on, have fun looking around for so-called random acts of kindness. This would be a fun challenge, seeking opportunities to show God’s love to those around us at surprising times and in surprising ways.
Or you might start visiting friends or family or shut-ins, bringing them God’s love with quality time spent together. These are just a few ideas and possibilities, you may come up with others.
This season of Lent between now and Easter is a time to evaluate your life and habits. It’s a time of repentance and fasting, of drawing nearer to God. It is also a time to celebrate the new things that God is doing.
It is an opportunity to begin something new. In the spirit of the new covenant God made in Genesis with all living things. In the spirit of another New Covenant promised in Jeremiah. In the spirit of the new and exciting fulfillment of God’s promises announced by Jesus in his baptism and ministry, by his death and resurrection.
May your Lent be filled with both crosses and rainbows.