Homily: February 22, 2015
FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT, YEAR B; Rev. Theo Park
Last Tuesday we left behind the season of Epiphany.
A season of light,
a season celebrating God’s manifestation to the world in the person of Jesus,
a season that shows him to us that he might show us to ourselves, our true nature,
a season that calls us to mission, to wholeness, to enlightenment
as children of God created in the image and likeness of God.
These are the themes we emphasize during Epiphany;
all of them telling the story of God’s Incarnation, God’s enfleshment, in Jesus
and its meaning for our lives.
Today we enter another season,
we hear another part of the story of God’s work in Jesus,
and the emphasis changes.
Notice that we jump back almost to the beginning.
The lectionary does not give us the story in a straight line
but rather doles it out season by season, thematic cluster by thematic cluster.
So after Epiphany we find ourselves in Lent.
After manifestation and revelation and glory
we find ourselves confronting doubt and hesitation and testing,
even, finally, rejection and persecution and death.
For the next six weeks these will be our themes.
This time the seasonal story will end,
not in a blaze of light on a mountaintop,
but in the darkness of a total eclipse over a killing-field.
Whatever were they thinking, the liturgists who shaped the seasons and the lectionary?
What was in their minds that they chose to tell the story this way?
Possibly, on the anthropological level, they thought
”Well, this is real. People will relate to this.
There’s real story-telling power in this arrangement:
from the heights to the depths,
and with a surprise twist ending.
Yeah, that’ll do.”
Or possibly, on the theological level, they thought
“Epiphany is too complex an idea for most people.
Jesus as God-on-the-mountaintop is too distant.
We want to show God as involved in the messiness of human existence,
as participating in our life and death struggle.
After all, Jesus is wholly human as well as wholly divine.
This will provide the right balance.”
Personally, whatever their reasoning in setting things up this way,
I think they were inspired to do so.
Because after Lent comes Easter.
After disillusionment and defeat and despair
come triumph and victory and joy.
This is the great beauty of our tradition and its seasonal recitation of the story.
What might sound piecemeal to the unobservant ear is instead
a brilliant arrangement of themes that engages as it instructs.
So after the great fifty days of Easter rejoicing comes the wind and fire of Pentecost,
when we learn what it means to be followers of Jesus in the world,
what it means to be empowered by the Holy Spirit,
what it means to be the Church.
And after that, Advent, with its focus on preparation
and renewal for God’s entry into our world.
And all along the way, over and over,
if we are truly paying attention we are pulled in by some new telling,
we gain some new insight of understanding,
until we reach the place where we started and begin again.
No single aspect of the story stands on its own,
no one theme conveys all the meaning.
And through it all, even in the darkest moments if we can trust it:
the presence of God, faithful to the ancient promise to see us through no matter what.
This presence of God, and God’s promises to creation and to humankind,
is what informs the lectionary readings from Hebrew scripture this season.
If the good news of God acting through Jesus is the central theme of the season,
the texts we will hear from the Torah and the Prophets remind us
that we have inherited an older storyline of blessing as well,
one that forms the ground on which the Jesus saga plays out.
For the followers of Jesus to claim that he is the New Covenant…
well, it makes no sense without what has gone before.
Remember that “covenant” is the term we use in our sacred texts
for a solemn agreement made between God and the people of God.
It is a central plot device across the Bible:
we fallible human beings continually foul up our relationship with God
and God as consistently offers us an out, a new working agreement,
a new promise—a covenant—of God’s fidelity even in the face of our infidelity.
And so this morning we get God’s covenant with Noah,
and, not incidentally, with all creation.
Never again will God threaten to wipe existence out of existence;
this is an everlasting promise.
And to show that the divine promise is good, God signs the deal,
as much to remind the divine self as to assure creation.
Next week we will get God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah,
those unlikely parents of nations.
The week after that will be God’s covenant with Moses and the people at Sinai.
And this cycle of covenant snapshots concludes on Lent 5 with the prophet Jeremiah,
who has God making vows yet again, still promising fidelity and unconditional love,
but also doing something new.
This time, God says, I won’t bother writing things down on in the heavens or on stone:
this time I’m going to write directly on their hearts.
Then they will be my people and I will be their God.
Poor God…always getting the short end of the stick in this relationship.
Perhaps the problem, at least as our texts tell the story,
is that God always seems to stick in a kind of condition.
I will be your God, but in return I expect…
give me a pleasing sacrifice, sign the agreement in blood, keep my commandments.
And of course we know how that plays out.
When it comes to relationships, expectations, even divine ones,
always trip us up, cause us heartache.
If we’re going to love someone, better to love them for who they are, as they are.
Which brings me back to the liturgical calendar and its purpose.
What did I say a minute ago?
“What might sound piecemeal to the unobservant ear is instead
a brilliant arrangement of themes that engages as it instructs.”
I suspect that’s what’s going on here.
As I listen to these stories…no, as I tune my ear to pay attention to these stories…
I am definitely engaged and ultimately instructed.
And the bottom line for me is that God does seem to learn from all these encounters,
to grow from them, until finally God tries something completely different:
God becomes human.
Instead of standing on the outside hoping repeatedly for a different outcome,
God decides to experience our side of the relationship from the inside.
And this time, the covenant God makes drops all those conditions.
God says, in effect, “This time I’m just going to love you all the way through to the end.
And beyond. I pledge to live and die as one of you,
so that I may fully understand and so that you may fully understand…if you want to.”
And so in the Jesus-event, in the incarnation, we have a new covenant.
Not, I am quick to say, a better covenant: I’m not talking “Jewish Law, Gospel Grace.”
I’m talking the arc of a storyline, of a love story across millennia.
And for all I know it’s still evolving;
there may be yet another covenant event just around the corner.
But what is never-changing about the story, no matter where we drop into it,
is God’s unconditional, never-failing love, God’s promise to us,
God’s call to us to share in that love and that promise...and to share it with others.
And that, to me, is worth telling—and listening to—again and again and again.