Based on Genesis 9:8-17, 1Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15
Those of you who have gone through a few years of “adulting” have, like me, signed a lot of contracts. You’ve signed contracts to buy houses, cars, or real estate; rental agreements, credit cards, telephone, utility, internet and streaming services; loans, tax preparation, employment, life insurance, and lawyer services, to just mention a few. Suffice it to say that there is hardly a business dealing that you have entered into as an adult, that you haven’t signed a legal and binding contract. Contracts are good, they lay out expectations of both parties and they have enforcement parameters if one party does not hold up its end of the deal. Contracts are always transactional in nature and scope – they are created to enact some kind of finite relationship between people or businesses. We also enter into oral contracts multiple times a week (more often if you are a parent of minor children). For example: you can use the car if you fill it with gas when you are done or clean up your room and we’ll get pizza for dinner.
Today, however, we are going to spend our time thinking about the term covenant. A covenant on the one hand is a contract, but instead of being a legal document it is a spiritual one. Covenants are written or verbal pledges to do or not do something. The most common form of this is the marriage vows that people take in a church setting in front of witnesses. Each participant in a marriage promises the other that they will be true, love, honor and cherish, forsaking all others, until death they do part. Though there is a marriage license that is obtained and signed, the real force of the marriage covenant is written in the minds and hearts of those two persons as they make their pledges to each other.
There is a lot in our scripture readings today about covenant. The covenant between God, Noah and all Noah’s descendants and the baptismal covenant between God, Jesus and all of us baptized members of the Body of Christ, including Paul’s take on the relationship between the two. Before we go any further, let us thank God for the unconditional loving pledges that have lasted across time…
The waters of the great flood had finally receded. Noah and his family and all the animals were able to disembark a little over a year after they entered. The first thing Noah did was to build an altar and make a sacrifice to the LORD for all that the LORD had done to save his family and two of every living creature. God smelled the sacrifice and said, “…I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done….” In our reading for today, we hear God making a covenant with Noah and all his descendants that never again would God destroy all creation with a flood. God then put a rainbow in the clouds to remind God of God’s covenant with all creation.
The author of 1Peter is writing in the style of the Apostle Paul. In our reading for today, the author brings together the covenant with Noah and the covenant of baptism in Jesus. The premise is that just like God waited as long as 80 years for the Ark to be built, suffering the evil of humanity all the time, so the suffering of Jesus saves us. The water of our baptism is a pledge from us (or on our behalf) to God to live a life that will be pleasing to God – like God’s request for Noah’s descendants to be fruitful and multiply and fill all the earth. The covenant through baptism gives us life now and in the life to come.
We return to the Markan baptism story about a month after we celebrated Jesus’ baptism. We do so because it is important, as we just mentioned, to connect the covenant through the flood waters of Noah to the covenant waters of baptism. In the flood waters all life died except for a chosen few and in the waters of baptism we die to our old lives and rise out of the waters knowing that we are beloved children who are pleasing to God. Like Jesus, we are driven out into the world/wilderness to proclaim the good news that God’s kingdom has begun and it is time for the world to repent and believe in a life lived in and for Jesus.
We are in the season of Lent now, having begun on Ash Wednesday by getting in touch with the earth from which we are made and to which we will one day return. This 40-day season of Lent is one in which we should spend some of our time discerning who we are in God and just what these covenants with God mean to us in our daily lives. The Lenten journey focus on our baptismal covenant helps us review the long journey of God’s faithful commitment to remake us – from creatures living in the death-dealing image of our own violence to beloved sons and daughters redeemed into the life-giving image of God’s creative compassion. We can assess how far we’ve come and where we might have gotten off the path. By spending time with the liturgy of baptism, which is only 6.5 pages long and begins on page 32 of your UM Hymnal, you will remind yourself of the important pledges that you have made to God and God to you. Because it is a covenant with God, it never expires.
This lack of covenantal expiration is important for us, especially when we are in a place where we feel the God is far away from us. Case-in-point, in Mark, we are given the impression that Jesus’ tempting by Satan is ongoing throughout the 40-day period. This is important for us because many of our life-challenges are not of a short duration, illnesses can last a long time, exile due to COVID has lasted almost a year, Noah and crew were on the boat for more than a year, Mother Teresa went 50 years not feeling the presence of God in her life in the darkness of the slums of Kolkata. The question posed to us from the baptismal covenant is whether we can still trust that God is with us even in the trials of life. Can we trust that we are beloved of God when we see that our struggle with temptation isn’t one moment or season, but of long duration? Can we trust that God will send in the angels, those fellow believers who surround us, to wait on us and accompany us during our times of trial? Can we trust like Jesus, that God gives us the Holy Spirit whose power sustains us?
Our baptismal covenant with God is not just between us and God, however, because baptisms always happen in community – in the gathered congregation. Pastors commend the newly baptized to the assembled Body of Christ saying, “…Members of the household of God, I commend the baptized to your love and care. Do all in your power to increase their faith, confirm their hope, and perfect them in love….” The assembled Body then pledges, “We give thanks for all that God has already given you and we welcome you in Christian love. As members together with you in the Body of Christ and in this congregation of The United Methodist Church, we renew our covenant faithfully to participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus the Christ….”
In short, our baptismal covenant is an ongoing relationship for the sake of getting to know who God truly is, of becoming a beloved child of God. Christ came to fulfill the covenant that began with Noah. The God revealed by baptism in the death and resurrection of Christ offers a startling alternative to the gods of the world. The gods of the world teach that the human answer to violence is to inflict more violence (e.g., the Roman edict of peace through war). God’s answer to this is to suffer violence on the cross – showing violence to be impotent compared to God’s life-giving power of love on Easter and through enacting the healing power of forgiveness in the giving of the Holy Spirit. In the cross and resurrection, God saves us from the flood of human violence that threatens to destroy us and all of creation.
Here at the beginning of Lent, it is right that we spend time considering all that God has promised and upheld through covenant – especially the covenant with Noah which became finalized through the Resurrection. God has made pledges to us and kept them…and so I wonder, how are you doing with your pledges to God? During this Lenten season, may God lead you back to your covenant pledges to God in Jesus and thereby transform you. Amen and amen!