9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. 14 Now after John was arrested, 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.”
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.”
Well, friends, on Wednesday, at our Ash Wednesday service, we entered into that holy and sacred time known as Lent. I don’t know how you feel about Lent, but Lent always has this feeling of being both a blessing and at the same time, a curse. A blessing in that it is this marked time – 40 days – that seems to hold within it so much potential. Potential for reflection. For growing in faith. For self-sacrifice in a way that feels meaningful and freeing, rather self-loathing and burdening. It feels like a chance to cleanse myself of all the spiritual toxins, like busyness, or prayer-less-ness, or worst of all, indifference – not caring. So, Lent feels like this gift of time that we are invited to utilize.
But then at the same time, Lent can feel like a curse because it holds so much potential and I’m almost certain I will never live up to it. That I won’t really take any time to slow down. That I won’t really reflect, or pray more, or change my life for the better at all. And so it feels like this time when the pressure is on, the clock is ticking, Easter is getting closer and closer, and there is almost certainly disappointment in the future.
So, why Lent? Why this time of 40 days?
Peter Rollins, one of my favorite theologians, tells a story about a minister that maybe answers the question. It is Sunday evening and she is sitting in her house, reading a book. One of her parishioners knocks on the door. She opens the door. He is a big guy. He is sweating. It is obvious that he ran all the way to the house. He is in tears. He says, “Listen there is a family that lives just down the road. The guy lost his job in the recession, she is looking after three kids, their mother stays with them. But they don’t have enough money for their rent. They’ve got no money at the moment. And their gonna get kicked out of the house. Even if they are one day late on their rent, they are just going to get kicked out on the street. It’s the middle of winter. We’ve got to do something. Please, let’s do something.” So the minister says, “Yes, we will go and we will get some money.” Just in passing she says, “Oh and how do you know them?” And he says, “Oh, well, I’m their landlord.”
What is so shocking about this story is that this man’s regular life and his faith life are out of sync. This man, this landlord, is bringing about death – putting people on a cross – in his professional life by kicking this family out of their house. But then in his faith life, he is wanting to bring about life by rescuing them from being evicted. He’s out of sync with himself.
Maybe that is why we have Lent. Maybe Lent is a time to reflect on how our regular life and our faith life have become out of sync. Lent is the 40 days, which relates to Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness that we just heard about. And Lent is the time that leads us up to Jesus’ death on the cross on Good Friday. Maybe Lent is when we reflect on what are the things we are doing and saying that bring about death in the world, like the cross, instead of bringing about life, like the resurrection. And then how are we together called to repentance. To change those things about our life so as to change the world.
Those are the words Jesus said to us today – the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe in the good news.
Now, some of you have heard me say this before, but repentance is not feeling bad. It is not feeling sorry and asking for forgiveness. To repent means to change. It is not about feeling bad about the things you wish you never did, it is about changing those things. And the fact that Jesus tells us to repent, to change, implies that we can change. And there is hope in that. That we actually can live differently than we are. So maybe that is what Lent is about – looking at our regular life and our faith life and seeing where they are out of sync. And then repenting of that. Changing that.
Here is what I find incredible about this call to repentance, this call to change. Most of us know how hard change is. That’s why we don’t like it. But what I noticed from our readings today is that God does not ask us to do anything that God has not already done within God’s self. And it all happens in our Old Testament story for today – Noah and the flood.
Most of us remember this story from our childhood. Story of Noah and the Ark and the animals. In fact, it is a pretty popular nursery theme for children. But when we sit and really think about the story, it is actually a pretty terrible and frightening story. We forget about how much death there is in the story. It’s actually not appropriate for children at all.
You see the story starts out with God looking upon the earth and seeing how violent and evil humanity has become. It grieved God to God’s heart. So much so that God regretted making humankind at all. Think about that. That God was so hurt and so pained to see what had become of humanity, that God regretted even making us.
The closest thing that I can link this too is comments made by Susan Klebold. Susan is the mother of Dylan Klebold. Dylan was one of the shooters in the Columbine School shooting that happened 15 years ago. In an essay that she wrote, Dylan’s mom, Susan, said, “In the weeks and months that followed the killings, I was nearly insane with sorrow for the suffering my son had caused…It was impossible to believe that someone I had raised could cause so much suffering.”
That’s close to how God felt, I think. That it was impossible to believe that God’s good creation could cause so much suffering. And so, in God’s heartache, God made a decision – to start over. To wipe out all of creation, to kill everything that breathed – except, of course, for Noah and his family, and two of every kind of animal.
So God uses violence to wipe out violence. And it was awful. In fact, it was so devastating, that God decided to never do that ever again. If you have ever done something out of anger that you later regretted doing, then you have just a taste of what God experienced. God regretted what God did. God repents! God’s actions were out of sync with who God wanted to be. So God repents. God changes, vowing never to do that again! And that is our Scripture for today from Genesis 9. It is God making a covenant, a promise to Noah and all the earth to never, ever destroy them like that again. God is making a covenant of peace with humanity and all of creation. And in fact, God gives them a sign of the promise – God hangs God’s bow in the sky. Now, most of us were taught that this is a rainbow. No, it is a bow. As in, the weapon. God makes a promise of peace with humanity to never destroy them again, by hanging up God’s bow. It is like a boxer hanging up his gloves. Or a hunter hanging her gun on the wall. God says that God will never respond to violence through violence. God lays down God’s arms and declares peace with God’s people.
And this is why I think this is such an important text for us at this time of Lent. Lent is a time when we are invited to reflect on where our regular life and our faith life are out of sync. But we cannot do that until we know that God has laid down God’s arms against us. That God has promised to not respond violently towards us. Or in other words, it is only until we can accept that God will respond to us graciously, regardless of whether we deserve it or not…only then can we really begin to reflect on the parts of our life that need changing.
This is different from how most of us have been taught in the past. Most of us have been taught that we need to change our lives, we need to be good people so that God will love us and save us. Be good and you go to heaven; be bad and you go to hell. But God says no. God has decided to respond graciously to human caught by sin, rather than to destroy humanity for their sin. God has made peace with you. God loves us and accepts us as we are.
Before we can really look at our life and change what needs changing, we have to know that we are accepted unconditionally. And I am willing to bet that most of us already know this, instinctively. I’m willing to bet that if there has ever been a time in your life that you really regretted something or knew that you needed to make a change in your life, I bet that it wasn’t until you were in the presence of someone who would love you unconditionally and not judge you that you could actually see the places where you needed change in your life. If we don’t feel safe and loved, we will only be defensive and we will never change.
Notice, that that is exactly what happens with Jesus. Jesus’ ministry begins after God has told him, “You are my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” No matter what you do and who you are, Jesus, you are my beloved. I love you. God blesses Jesus with peace and acceptance before he sends Jesus into the wilderness to face his own demons. The only way we can face the demons in our life, the only way we can change, is to know we have been blessed and loved beforehand.
So, to repent. To change. What needs changing? A lot of things, I suspect. I’m sure we can come up with a very long list both within our own lives and the world around us that we think needs to change so as to bring about more life and less death. But here’s what happening for me these days.
I’ve been learning how hard it is to write a sermon and then half way through, to see that ISIS has released another atrocious video. Suddenly “God loves you” or “God loves all people” rings a bit hollow. Such simple and feel good phrases sound a bit tone deaf with ISIS in the background killing more and more innocent people. I keep thinking about this whole thing with ISIS. And I cannot help but feel utterly helpless. And on one side it is so easy, too easy, to just simply forget about them, because they are on that side of the world. But then on the other hand, I find myself glad that other countries are joining the fight to destroy them. To just wipe them off the face of the earth like God did with the flood. But then I remember that God regretted that move. And so perhaps so should we. When I want to wipe ISIS off the face of this earth, my faith and my regular life are no longer in sync.
And so here is what I am thinking about these days. And it is hard to even say, but just hear me out. What if that simple and somewhat tired sermon of “God loves you” and “God loves all people” is exactly what is needed. You see, I don’t know that ISIS will ever change until they know that they are first and foremost beloved. Remember, we as people can’t even begin to reflect on our life and what we need to repent of and change unless we know that God has accepted us as we are. Is this to say that God is okay with what ISIS is doing? Of course not. Neither was Susan Klebold with her son Dylan, but it doesn’t mean she didn’t love him.
One example of how this might work. For the past 50 years, there has been a civil war going on in Columbia. It is the longest existing civil war. And the government has been trying to end this war and one of the most effective ways they got soldiers to lay down their guns is this: in 2013, they asked mother’s of the soldiers to make posters with pictures of these soldiers when they were a child. Beneath the picture were the words, “Before you were a guerrilla soldier, you were my child. Come home. I’m waiting for you.” And then in 2014, during the World Cup soccer tournament, Columbia ran an ad campaign, with footage of people, like a woman at a bar sitting next to empty bar stool. She taps the stool and looks at the camera and says, “There’s a space for you. Come home.” Soccer players tapping the empty spot on the bench – “There’s a space for you. Come home.” Thousands of campaign ads with people tapping empty seats telling the soldiers that there is a space for them and to come home. And during that short period, 5% of the soldiers laid down their weapons and came home. 
I think I am going to spend Lent praying for ISIS. Saying to them, “God loves you. Put down your weapons and return home.” For we as people can’t even begin to reflect on our life and what we need to repent of and change unless we know that God has accepted us as we are. Amen.
 I am indebted to Alan Storey and his Christmas Sermon for these stories. http://cmm.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/2014-12-25.mp3