Lent 1 B: The Noah Covenant and the Pandemic

This Sunday’s readings:

Old Testament      Genesis 9:8–17

Psalm                    Psalm 25:1–10

New Testament     1 Peter 3:18–22

Gospel                   Mark 1:9–15

Last Sunday was Transfiguration, and we thought of that word of our time: “unprecedented.” The fire, the windstorm, and the cloud of unprecedented unknowing envelops us, but we find our way through it all listening to Christ.

And the week since, with record-breaking snow, ice, wind, and cold, has simply underlined how unprecedented these days really are. Or are they?

On top of it all, this week’s first two readings and the Psalm bring up the haunting possibility: “Will life on this planet survive?”

Most of us get our science filtered through the news media, so we should take it all with a grain of blood-pressure-elevating salt. But the science news is indeed bleak: We have encroached on and destroyed 90% of what used to be earth’s wilderness buffer between us and the wild animals that harbor untold numbers of dangerous viruses. We have caused carbon dioxide to shoot off the charts of global history; and so the jet streams are throwing heat at the arctic and the frigid polar vortex south to Texas. Social scientists will tell us all about the depression, addiction, and suicide epidemics, as well as the conspiracy theories and political warfare, that come because we have been thrown together so harshly on social media that the safety we felt, tucked into our traditions, has shattered, and we now use those same media to cling to the false security of our information silos.

Whew! I know that in my social isolation, as I struggle to plow the huge snow drifts, I am thinking, “Is that Chicken Little talking, or is the sky really ready to finally fall?”

The greatest part of the biblical story was edited and recorded during times of similar, and even worse, catastrophe and threat of global collapse. Most of the Old Testament, including today’s readings from Genesis and Psalms, were collected and written down when people were either living in exile, or trying to rebuild their lives among the rubble of a shattered Jerusalem and Judea. And the New Testament was written under the aegis of the Roman Empire when the success of her armies and the mad wealth of her global trading network, became one of Planet Earth’s first tastes of the Great Mixing Up that brought on the first pandemics. Of course, the bulldozing of political and cultural boundaries, and the shredding of traditional security blankets that the Babylonian, Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman armies caused were yet another force for disorientation and despair.

Out of this darkness light has shown. Our first reading from Genesis 9:8-17 tells us that before God chose Israel, and made a covenant with her, God made a Premier Covenant with the entire earth, and with all living things. Look for the rainbow, and remember that everlasting covenant!

And, out of that assurance and remembrance, the psalmist forms a prayer that should be on our lips every day now (Psalm 25:1-10). In it we hold God to the promise. In it we lift up our souls to trust in that promise. In it, we anchor ourselves in the earth—the very ground beneath our feet. In it we unite our own fate with that of all others. In it we remember the Premier Covenant with the Planet.

This First Sunday of Lent, in the midst of a pandemic, we reassure ourselves that, yes, we as a species seem to have taken a wrong turn, still

“All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness.”

Of course, there is no blank check here—no whitewashing of our faithlessness and carelessness with our end of the covenant. God is bound to the life of this planet.  But God’s paths are solid and true and trustworthy especially “for those who keep his covenant and decrees.” That’s where Ash Wednesday and Lent come in. We have our reason to be confident and optimistic about life on earth. But we also have every reason to put on ashes and to repent of ways we have betrayed that life. This is an essential part of our Christian witness.

Let’s make these 40 days of penance just a small down payment on lives of daily renewal through repentance.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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