30 March 2009

Taking on the World

John 12: 20-33

Fifth Sunday in Lent/ 29th March 2009

Last Sunday I offered an unconventional (although, I believe, faithful) reading of John 3:16 & 17. You know the verses, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” And then, verse 17, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

What I didn’t touch upon last week, but will today in the context of this morning’s text from John, is the supreme theological significance of this word, “world.” It’s in John 3 and shows up again in John 12. Jesus says to Andrew and Philip, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” He then hears the voice of his Father, the crowd is amazed, and then Jesus says, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” The world is loved in John 3, but by John 12, life in the world is to be given up, hated, for the world is about to be judged. So what happened to all the love? Where did it go?

It’s still there, I would suggest. What was explicit in John 3 is now implicit in John 12. And the link between them is the use of this word, “the world.” In both places we find forms of the Greek word, kosmos, from which we get, well, cosmos. It literally means “world” or “creation.” And that’s how it’s often understood. We generally use the word to describe the vast expanses of space. “For God so loved the world…,” we think of creation, everybody. But through detailed analysis of how this word was used in the ancient world, particularly in New Testament theology, informed by Greek philosophy, kosmos meant more than just creation. This is critical: “’The world’ here is not synonymous with God’s creation,” on the contrary, “The World” refers to “the fallen realm [within creation] that exists in estrangement from God and is organized in opposition to God’s purposes.[1]

In Jesus’ time it was believed that one’s life was shaped primarily by external forces and circumstances over which one had little or no control, under which one was enslaved. It was the power of these external forces that hindered and destroyed and dehumanized God’s people that caused people to sin. In order for the people to be liberated the powers within creation at odds with God’s purposes of justice and love have to be judged, overcome, and defeated. The kosmos refers to everything within creation that is at odds with, at cross purposes with God’s intent for the liberation and salvation of God’s people, everything that struggles against God’s vision of justice and love and forgiveness, everything that seeks to destroy us or limit our freedom in Christ. In love, the kosmos would have to be defeated, or more correctly, redeemed. To redeem means to buy back.

Hear the profundity of John 3:16 & 17, hear – feel – the earth-shaking claim John is making when we think of kosmos in this light. “For God so loved the kosmos that he gave his Son…,” in other words, that God loved even that which was and is against God. And it’s even stronger in verse seventeen, “Indeed, for God did not send the Son into the kosmos to condemn the kosmos, but in order that the kosmos – remember, all that which is against God! – in order that the kosmos might be saved through him.” Take some time and meditate on this claim for a while. Amazing.

John says it so beautifully in chapter 13, “Having loved his own who were in the world (kosmos), he loved them to the end (13:1b).” Having loved all those bound by the destructive forces of the kosmos, seeing the pain inflicted upon God’s people, he loved them to the end.

This leads us to John 12 with the announcement that Jesus is about to be glorified on a cross. Jesus prays, “Father, glorify your name.” And God replies, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” Then Jesus interprets the meaning of the voice. “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” Twice we have the use of kosmos (literally, tou kosmou). What this means is that Jesus’ impending death upon the cross will entail judgment (literally, krisis), crisis, not for those, we might suspect, who do not believe, but for the world; the kosmos is being judge by God. The ruler of this kosmos will be driven out. How? When Jesus takes on the kosmos on the cross, both in the sense of bearing, enduring the kosmos, as well as fighting, battling with love.

The church’s earliest understanding of the cross, one that we have largely forgotten, was that it was a cosmic struggle with the powers that overwhelm our lives, it’s God’s defeat of all the powers in the world that hurt, abuse, dehumanize, and destroy God’s people.[2] Even though Jesus’ death was at the hands of the kosmos, the Son of Man lifted up on the tree was for the redemption of the kosmos, the very kosmos that put him there. This was precisely Paul’s point when he came to see that “In Christ God was reconciling the world (kosmos) to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19).” Salvation means being released from the destructive power of the kosmos. Jesus will then draw all people to himself. The ruler of the kosmos itself will be dethroned and allowed to live in new world – a New Creation – under the reign of the good shepherd who rules and guides his people in love. This early Christian self-understanding is reflected in Revelation, best known from G. F. Handel’s (1689-1759) “Hallelujah Chorus,” in Messiah, where John’s Revelation reads, “The kingdom of this world (kosmos), has now become the kingdom of Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever. (Rev. 11:15).”

Now, this biblical word-text study, this examination of an antiquarian view of reality might appear academic and abstract. You might think this has nothing to do with your life – but that’s what the kosmos what’s you think, in fact it would prefer we don’t think or talk about it at all, except that the power of the kosmos is all around us and in us. Even though we know at the culmination of time “all shall be well,” in the meantime, as we and the world live into our redemption, there are still plenty of forces in creation that are trying to subvert God’s intention for your life and for creation. New Testament scholar, Walter Wink, aptly describes “the world” as “a superhuman reality concretely embodied in structures and institutions that aggressively shapes human life and seeks to hold human beings captive to its ways.” He likes to translate “the world” as “the System.” And the System is driven by all kinds of forces whose ways are domination, violence, and death.[3] The kosmos is domination, violence, and death.

It’s everything in our hearts, our lives, our relationships, the work that we do, in institutions and corporations and nations that is at odds with God’s vision for the world, a vision given to us most concretely in the life of Jesus Christ. It’s everything in our political or economic systems, cultural and even religious systems that separate us from God, one another, and ourselves. It’s all the choices we make that separate us from God, one another, and ourselves. Just about all the –isms of the world are guilty of this, not one is free from the power of the kosmos. It’s most obvious in those places where life has become cheap or when we’re more worried about money (making it/keeping it) and fail to see the human factor. Look at the kosmos at work in the economic crisis on Wall St., a system of greed that wrecking havoc, inflict untold damage and destruction upon people’s lives. One hundred million people have crossed into poverty, worldwide, as a result of this greed.[4] To hear the disturbing news of what’s happening in Mexico and the United States in our struggle against the drug cartel is a vivid expression of what a far-reaching insidious system looks like, destroying lives and families, communities, even entire cities. Jesus takes on the System, these destructive forces, summed up symbolically in the word, death. And the Spirit of Christ continues to do this.

All of this speaks of the suffering that then comes when one chooses – in love – to take on the System. The kosmos never goes down without a fight. Perhaps this is what Jesus is getting at in the use of the grain of wheat metaphor. It’s really about the suffering Jesus was willing to endure – and the suffering he calls his disciples to take on – when he and we with him, take on the kosmos. He’s talking about his own death which he is willing to do in love because he “hates” what the kosmos has done and is doing to all God’s children. To claim the label “Christian” means we are called to do the same, through him, for him, for the love of the kosmos. There’s no easy way here. So that to die to the world is to remove ourselves out from under everything that oppresses us and tries to make us less than who we are. And this is never easy.

Contemporary writer, Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopalian, gets right to the heart of things. She writes, “What [Jesus] is telling us is that if we do everything in our power to protect our lives as they are – if we successfully prevent change, prevent conflict, prevent pain – then at the end we will find that we had no life at all. But if we hate our lives in this world, which as far as I am concerned can only mean if we hate all the ways we cheapen our lives by chasing comfort, safety, and superiority in this world – if we hate that enough to stop it and start chasing God instead – then there will be no end to the abundance of our lives.”[5]

Jesus had two choices: self-protection, being closed-off from suffering or loving something more than his life, which was his call to self-offering. The choice is either fear or love. Every day we have the same two choices: self-protection, closed-off from suffering (either our own or others) or loving something, someone more than life. It’s the way of suffering love. To choose self-offering inevitably means suffering – for him and for everyone else who chooses this way. There’s no way to get around this. Suffering love is Christ’s way, because it’s God’s way.

For the sake of the world he chased after God and chose to take on the System all the way to Jerusalem. “Having loved his own who were in the kosmos, he loved them to the end.” This is the difficult, painful, and yet exquisitely beautiful, life-giving truth anyone finds who still wishes to see Jesus.

[1] See in particular, Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 13-31, 51-59.

[2] This is known as the Christus Victor theory of the atonement. See Gustav Aulén (1879-1977), Christus Victor: A Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, published in 1931.

[3] Wink.

[4] Cited by the Swiss banker, Prabhu Guptara, on Speaking of Faith, from March 5, 2009: http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/2009/rv-wisevoices/transcript.shtml

[5] Barbara Brown Taylor, Preaching Sermons on Suffering: God in Pain (Abingdon, 1998), 62. Also, Kenneth E. Kovacs, “Sermon Reviews,” Lectionary Homiletics, Vol. XX; No.2 (February-March 2009), 77.

22 March 2009

More Than a Magic Formula or Mantra

John 3: 16 (1-21)
Fourth Sunday in Lent/ 22nd March 2009

The reformer, Martin Luther (1483-1546) called John 3:16, “the gospel in miniature.” He viewed this verse as a summary of the Christian message, a summing up the bold claims of Christ’s message. It’s probably the best-known verse in the Bible, even for people who know nothing about scripture or about Christ. Taking Luther’s cue, Christians turn to this verse as the container of our truth and then use it to get our message out the masses. But is this really appropriate?

You probably memorized this verse in church school, maybe with the language of King James. We find it everywhere. We see it emblazoned on banners at sporting events, especially televised ones. Wherever the camera pans the playing field, look out in the stands, in the bleachers and there’s bound to be a “John 3:16” there. We find it on tattoos, t-shirts, necklaces, key chains, every kind of Christian-kitsch. One of my favorite websites is flickr.com, a site dedicated to the art of photography. I typed “John :16” into their search engine and came up with fascinating images, from the tacky to the sublime. I found an image of Tim Tebow, quarterback for the Florida Gators, being interviewed after a game; he had “John” painted in white under his right eye and “3:16” painted under his left. Talking about football in front of the camera, he was trying to get another message out to viewers. John 3:16 is found on billboards, painted on the sides of old warehouses. There’s a photo of a large sign board that reads: STATE LINE STORE (I believe along the Georgia border), FIRST CHANCE LOTTERY. STOP. QUICK CASH. PLAY HERE. In the lower right hand corner of the sign, you can see it: John 3:16. Did you know that the In-N-Out Burger chain of drive-thru restaurants has John 3:16 in tiny red print on the inside rim of the bottom of their beverage cups? One of the more bizarre uses I found was a photo of the John 3:16 Photo Supplies Store in a mall in Singapore.

It’s laughable and sad, but also very serious – serious because focusing on this text alone and expecting it to carry the weight of the gospel is problematic. I think James Kay, professor of preaching at Princeton, is right in raising the alarm. He warns that we need to avoid making the Christian message into a cipher – a code, a secret number, a symbol – instead of a story. When we see the text on placards or banners or bumper stickers or tattoos, it’s as if this verse somehow exhausts the meaning of God’s good news in Jesus Christ, as it if were the “code number for the kingdom.” Knowing the code or knowing what it reads then implies “we’ve got the gospel.” It’s “here” contained in this verse. It sends the message – if you know what it says and believe this one verse and do what it says – simply “believe in Jesus” – then “Open Sesame” – you’re in, from the outer rings of hell straight to heaven, all because of what one does with this verse. “When the Christian story is reduced to a sentence, instead of heard as a story,” Kay argues, “it’s so easy for that sentence to become a magic formula or mesmerizing mantra.” [1]

He’s right. We’re told these days that all we can handle are sound-bites (which really isn’t true, we’ve just become accustomed to this and have become lazy) and so John 3:16 has become our sound-bite – we don’t even have to write out the text we know what it means – and that’s all we need to know and all people need to know, that’s all we can handle. It’s become gospel-lite, the mini-gospel.

But come with me, let us venture beyond this verse and see the wide, expansive reach of Christ’s story. Release your focus on this verse, zoom back and look at 3:15 and 3:17, 3:14 and 3:18. Zoom out. Pull back and see how this verse sits within the wider context of John 3, fits into the larger conversation with Nicodemus.

Nicodemus, a leader of the Pharisees, arrives at Jesus’ home under the cover at night. Our Nic at Night seeks Jesus out as a teacher. He and the Pharisees clearly respect Jesus’ authority. They know he comes from God. Nicodemus goes searching for something, inquiring in secret. We’re never really told what it is, but it’s implied in Jesus’ response with this confusing non sequitur, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” or as KJV puts it, “born-again.” Nic doesn’t get it because he’s being literal; Jesus is offering a metaphor.

Nic doesn’t get it because his frame of reference will not allow him to embrace the way of God. Nic doesn’t get it because he’s not willing to unlearn what he’s been taught, unwilling to be open God’s new way in the world, to God’s kingdom – to the purpose of the kingdom. Then Jesus proceeds with the spirit-wind analogy. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

And what does Nicodemus say? “How can these things be?” It’s that response, that attitude within Nic and within all of us that snuffs out the Spirit, squelches the Spirit, and eclipses and covers our ability to see with our eyes the work of God’s kingdom through Jesus Christ. “How can these things be?” closes off the possibility of change and transformation, hinders us from standing in awe and amazement before the power and love of God, prevents us from seeing all the marvelous ways God is at work in the world, now, for the world, now.

We ought to be always praying for new eyes to see God’s way. God’s way doesn’t come naturally. Nor is God’s way what we expect. So we have to be taught, by the Spirit. That’s what Jesus means by being born again, or more correctly born, literally in the Greek, “from above,” that is, with God’s aid. And it doesn’t happen just one time, but needs to happen again and again.

Sadly, we’ve come to view what Jesus’ is talking about here as a singular moment. For example, if you go up I-83 into Pennsylvania, east of York in Lancaster County, you’ll find the Ephrata Cloister, an 18th century German pietist religious community. Walk around the grave stones and you can see on the stones the individual’s birth date, the born-again date, and then date of death. We’ve come to see this moment as a singularity. I once was asked the exact time of day when I was born-again and because I couldn’t give an exact answer my salvation was held in question.

Instead, being born-again or born from above doesn’t happen once after some act of confessing “belief” in Jesus. When we link John 3:16 with its emphasis upon belief with the idea of being born-again or from above we distort the meaning of the whole chapter. In other words, we so often view this text to be about “me and my salvation” or “Nicodemus and his salvation.” What I must do. The fact that people tend to read the entire chapter this way says something about us, what we consider most important – namely, ourselves. But it’s not only about us.

When the Spirit blows through us we are being born again and again and again; being born from above again and again. And sometimes we are so closed-minded, so stuck in our ways, so stubborn in our worldviews and assumptions about how things are to be that we need to be shaken into reality. We need startling images, maybe even obscure, bizarre metaphors, like the story of snakes lifted up on a pole in Numbers 21:9. Jesus refers to the obscure story in Numbers about Moses and the people in the wilderness. They were being bitten by poisonous snakes. So, Yahweh told Moses to put an image of a snake up on a pole and every time someone was bit, they were to look at the snake and live. This is a direct inference to Jesus’ own death, of being “lifted up” on a cross for all to look and to live. Yet, isn’t it amazing how often we pass over John 3: 14 and 15? Maybe we need bizarre metaphors and stories of snakes to wake us up from what might be called our Nicodemean slumber.[2] We need “strange stories” instead of “safe slogans” to help us apprehend what God is doing in the lifting up of his Son upon a cross.

What do snakes and the cross have in common? “Just this: When the gospel of God’s love is lifted up among us, it draws out all of our venom and all that poisons the world. The glory of God’s eternal love for you, for me, and for the world only touches the earth through a cross – amid the vipers and the venom.”[3] Jesus invites Nicodemus to break free from his limiting frame of reference and understanding to look at the One who will be lifted up in order to draw us out of ourselves into the wider framework of God’s redemptive purpose and love for the world.

For the one who looks at him and sees in him the very love of God will live, will have “eternal life” – not only in the sense in the sense of life-ever-after, but life here and now touched by eternity, a life informed and shaped by the eternal, by God, a new life, a born-from-above-again-and-again-life. And the focus of this text should not be upon us, but upon him, upon the cross. That’s why we can’t skip over the snake story; it would mean to skip over the cross. John’s entire gospel is organized to focus our eyes upon the one lifted up (John 12:32), for the one lifted up will draw all people to himself.

The good news of this text is that it’s not all about us, about you and me and our salvation and whether we have enough belief or not. We’re included in it, of course, our salvation, that is. But it’s not about us at all, really; if we focus our attention only on John 3:16, then it’s easy to think it is all about us, about what we have to do, what we have to believe about Jesus in order to have eternal life. Instead, it’s all about the cross. Jesus being lifted up. Salvation. When we zoom out further we see it’s not really about us alone, but for the sake of the world.[4]

It speaks volumes about our self-preoccupations if we stop at 3:16 and forget 3:17. We use 3:16 as a kind of threat to people – believe or else! But that loses the point of the chapter, even the gospel. I’m inclined to think that there might be more good news in 3:17. Maybe we should start a campaign of putting “3:17” everywhere (of course we then run the risk of turning this verse into a slogan), but it would serve as a corrective of focus. What is 3:17? “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

It’s not about us, alone, but the world, for the love of the world that Jesus goes to a cross, to demonstrate to the world the wide reach of God’s amazing love and grace. For, as John wrote, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end (John 13:1b).” The light of his love extends a light to the world that no darkness can ever extinguish, bringing light even in the midst of our darkness. His love is the light of the world, a love that grows in intensity and shines brightest in the places of greatest human suffering.

When we focus on the cross suffered for the love of the world, the rest of the verses after 3:17 make more sense. Read them carefully and see they’re not talking about condemnation in some afterlife for those who don’t believe. The kind of judgment Jesus is talking about here – and it is judgment – is not in the flames of hell, but a state of living condemned already when we reject, deny, avoid, refuse to live and do the truth found through the One lifted up on a tree. When we refuse this, we condemn ourselves. Judgment was never the purpose of Christ’s mission, but the result of it. Either we turn to the light or turn away from it. To turn from the light has its own sufficient penalty, because “people loved darkness rather than the light.” This is judgment, not by God, but by us, not in some far-off future, but here and now. Those who do not see are sentenced already, not in some eternal sense, but that they live divorced from God’s love – and that’s a horrible way to live. To not know this is to live life under a terrible sentence. Theologian, Brian A. Gerrish, perhaps puts it best, “It is not God or Christ who sentences those who turn away; “we all judge ourselves by what we make of the cross.”[5] What do we make of the cross?

Whatever our response might be, the message of the cross still stands; whether we believe it or not, God’s love through Christ remains, the light of his love shines for all the world; it’s still there for all to see and embrace and believe, its power continues to shake and redeem our lives and our world, forever bringing us to life, again and again, born from above again and again.

It’s all there – for everyone – willing to look and see. How can these things be? May we have the eyes – the new eyes – to really see.

[1] James F. Kay, “John 3:16,” Seasons of Grace: Reflections from the Christian Year. Foreword by Thomas G. Long (Eeerdmans, 1994), 49.

[2] Cf. Kenneth E. Kovacs, Lectionary Homiletics (Vol. XX, No. 2), February-March 2009, 68.

[3] Kay, 51. Emphasis in the text.

[4] I am grateful to my friend, David A. Davis, for his reflection on this text. Lectionary Homiletics (Vol. XX, No. 2), February-March 2009, 70.

[5] Brian A. Gerrish, The Pilgrim Road: Sermons on Christian Life. Edited by Mary T. Stimming (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 111-112.

03 March 2009

A Change of Mind

A Change of Mind

Genesis 9: 8-17 & Mark 1: 9-14

First Sunday in Lent/ 1st March 2009

You were probably taught in Sunday School, like me, that God placed the rainbow in the sky to remind Noah that God would never again destroy the world with a flood. I grew up believing that's why we have rainbows, that they weren't part of the creation before then. We see rainbows as a reminder of the covenant God had made with Noah.

When we become adults we try (or should) to put away childish ways. As an adult, it came as quite a shock to see what the text really says. What matters most is the covenant, of course, as we'll see in a minute. But there's something else here we might find disturbing, an image of God here we might find surprising. God establishes the covenant with Noah and his sons, as well as with every living creature (did you notice that?).

A covenant is a pact, a commitment, and an agreement. Did you also notice, three times God makes this point, each time it becomes clearer? It's almost as if we're hearing God thinking aloud, talking himself into something, convincing himself of something he's not exactly sure he wants to commit to. This new covenant stands for all 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 the 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 will never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. I will see it and remember…."

Who is doing the remembering here? Not Noah, but God. Noah is noticing; but God is remembering. The bow is a reminder to God of the promise made to creation. It's a sign of the change in the "mind" of God. Remarkably, we see here the evolving consciousness of God who is learning, growing, and having a change of mind. If your image of God is All-knowing, and All-powerful, All-sufficient, then such an image comes up against what we find here in Genesis 9, and in so many other places in scripture. This might sound blasphemous, but it's there: God is discovering that a truly God-like response to human waywardness is not the threat of judgment, punishment, and annihilation. Human beings are not enticed to live faithfully with God or their neighbor under threat. Morality cannot be successfully legislated.

God takes a different approach now. "What has changed is not anything about humankind or creation or waters or flood. What has changed is God. God has made a decision about the grief and trouble of his own heart." The covenant gives us an insight, a window into the inner "thoughts" of God, of a God who changes.

The rainbow is a sign of the covenant that has been made and that even if God wished to destroy every living creature at some point in the future, the promise is that God would not. The rainbow checks the possible future wrath of God. Does this then mean God "forgets" in between rainbows? Does it mean that God needs to be reminded? Is this then humanity's role in the covenant, to remind God to be God in a new way? There is a tradition in Jewish spirituality that insists that human beings are called to remind God to be God. There are two parties in the covenant and we have to do our part. It's a provocative thought.

And what is this new way? The choice of the rainbow as the sign is no mistake. It's very intentional. We should really think of "bow," as in an archer's bow. The "rainbow," literally in the Old Testament is "the bow of war." Post-flood, the bow is no longer a symbol of war and death; the bow here is an undrawn bow, the bow relaxed. "The creator has won his victory, perhaps over the chaos and his own inclination to punish. God is no longer in pursuit of an enemy." The promise of God is that God will not again be provoked to use his weapon, no matter how provocative we become. The bow at rest thus forms a parallel to the entire creation at rest on the Sabbath, which is the goal of creation – to rest and trust and live confidently and joyfully in the goodness and faithfulness of God.

This covenantal faithfulness of God to creation does not need to be renewed. It stands forever, regardless of what humanity might do to provoke the anger of God. It's a promise. Therefore, humanity is invited to rest in the arms of this promise. We are invited to trust in the goodness of God, of God's love upholding creation and our lives within it. When we recall God's love, when we know God is on our side and not an enemy trying to pursue us or punish us or destroy us, we find that we can live more freely, more confidently, more generously, more gracefully. Knowing God's faithfulness to us is generative – it generates a change within us, it changes how we see ourselves and our neighbors, it changes how we live, it changes how we spend our time and our money, it changes everything. It releases something in us that was pent up in the anxiety and fear caused by worrying if God is really safe or good, if God can be trusted.

This way of being is beautifully illustrated in the opening words of Mark's gospel. Pay attention to the order of events in Mark 1: 15. Jesus arrives in Galilee, first, proclaiming the good news of God, saying "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near." The reign of God's justice has broken into the world with, through Jesus. Then, second, repent; third, believe the good news. You see, receiving the good news is not contingent upon repenting! Repentance is never the ground of forgiveness, as Calvin (1509-1564) reminded us. We're not called to first get our act together, repent, and change our lives, in order to somehow receive or enter the kingdom. The gospel, the good news of God, is always prior. This is the order of salvation. It is because the good news has already come in and through Jesus, that people are free to repent, want to repent, are eager to repent – and to repent means to change (metanoia), to change our minds and our ways, our attitudes and our beliefs, everything that hinders us from living fully in God's arms, everything that prevents us from receiving, trusting, and resting confidently in the goodness of God. God's covenant still stands, and in Jesus Christ is now embodied, enfleshed before our very eyes, so that there's no mistaking, no missing the point that God has always wanted us to know. Just in case you haven't noticed the rainbow lately, then look to the sign that Jesus' message and his life signify.

As we enter the season of Lent, it's easy to see all the soul-searching and navel-gazing and whatever sacrificial acts we might do as a way for us to curry favor with God. As if we have to identify every sin, clean up our lives, as it were, in order to receive God's forgiveness. It doesn't work that way. It's the other way around; turn it around. Because of God's faithfulness and forgiveness already given through Jesus Christ, we are free to see our sins, shadows, and demons, our brokenness and our waywardness as they are and to give them up and over to God with no fear of being abandoned or left outside the bounds of the covenant. We are free to repent – metanoia – to change. God doesn't ask us to change in order for us to be loved and accepted. In God's love, within the context of the covenant, we find ourselves changed and changing.

Because the covenant stands secure, God's goodness and good news have come in the flesh, we are free to move closer to God without fear; because the covenant stands secure, we are free to move closer toward one another without fear, reaching out in love; and because God's good news has already come, we are free to go down and in our hearts, without fear, to the deepest recesses of our soul that have never seen the light of day (or least in a long very long time) and welcome there the love of Christ. Because the covenant stands firm, we can face our fears and we can identify and name the things that hinder us from receiving, trusting, and resting confidently in the goodness of God. And when we do, we will find ourselves changed and being changed – for the glory and joy of God, the God of the rainbow.


1.God is also trying to convince Noah. Robert Alter notes that with v. 12, "this is the first instance of a common convenient of biblical narrative: when a speaker addressed someone and the formula for introducing speech is repeated with no intervening response from the interlocutor, it generally indicates some sort of significant silence – a failure to comprehend, a resistance to the speaker's words, and so forth (cf. Judges 8: 23-24). Here, God first flatly states His promise never to destroy the world again. The flood-battered Noah evidently needs further assurance, so God goes on, with a second formula for introducing speech, to offer the rainbow as an outward token of His covenant. The third occurrence of [this] formula, at the beginning of verse 17, introduces a confirming summary of the rainbow as the sign of the covenant." The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004), 51.

2.Walter Brueggemann, Genesis – Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 83-87.

3.This is particularly true in the mystical spirituality of the Kabbalah.

4.George Mendenhall, The Tenth Generation (1973), cited by Brueggemann, 84.

5.Cf. the quote from the worship bulletin: "Repentance is not placed first, as some ignorantly suppose; as if it were the ground of the forgiveness of sins, or as if it induced God to begin to be gracious to us; but [we] are commanded to repent, that [we] may receive the reconciliation which is offered to [us]. Institutes of the Christian Religion.