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First Sunday of Lent

I wonder if you have ever heard a child…or have been the child…who did something wrong and in an attempt to avoid punishment told the parents, “I will be good from now on, I promise, I won’t do it ever again.” Or, in an attempt to get something you really wanted, have you ever promised to do all your parents’ or your siblings’ chores, only to realize later that it was NOT worth it?
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The words, “I promise,” are really easy to say. From what I’ve observed, those words come out of kids’ mouths a lot more frequently than they come out of the mouths of adults. Maybe that is because we learn, as life goes on, how difficult promises are to keep and how important it is to our relationships, to our loved ones that we keep the promises we make to them…how detrimental it can be to those loved ones when we break those promises. Crossing our fingers behind our backs doesn’t cut it anymore.
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But there are some times in our lives when we do have to make promises. We make promises when we get married. We make promises when children are baptized…parents and sponsors make promises to teach their child about God, we as the congregation promise to take an active role in teaching the faith as well. Pastors make promises when we are ordained. Public leaders make promises when they take office.
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Sometimes promises are formalized by signing a contract. When we sign a contract, we agree with another party to certain terms and guidelines. We often hear about professional athletes or actors and actresses signing contracts. We typically sign contracts when taking out loans, having work done on our homes, agreeing to compensation guidelines at work, merging companies together. Although we make promises and promises are meant to be kept, we’ve seen more than enough examples of broken promises to know that sometimes our promises are not trustworthy. Contracts, on the other hand, carry more weight, possibly because they are put in writing and signed by all involved parties.
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What we have here in the reading from Genesis is a promise from God. It is a formalized promise, not a contract but a covenant. In a contract, two or more parties enter into an agreement. But in this covenant, God’s promise is made on God’s behalf and no one but God has a responsibility here. There are multiple covenants made by God throughout Israel’s history. We will hear about 3 of theseover these first 3 weeks of Lent. Today’s is the first covenant, the first promise God makes. The first thing for you to notice about this covenant…it is completely one-sided.
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This first covenant comes right after the story of Noah and the great flood. This is probably one of the best-known stories of the Bible, especially thanks to some recent dramatizations of the story, beginning with the movie Evan Almighty and ending more recently with the movie Noah…or maybe some of you remember Bill Cosby’s version of the conversation between God and Noah. The story begins with sin and wickedness running rampant in the hearts of humanity. The humans God created were causing strife and destruction amongst themselves and with the whole creation. The story has strayed a long way from what God originally deemed “good.”
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When God sees all that is unraveling before God, when God realizes how the creation is spiraling out of control, God was grieved…upset…distressed. God saw that this was NOT good, not at all what God intended. We often look at the flood as God’s revenge against evil and wickedness. But the flood was an act of regret…God was sorry that all of this brokenness and destruction was happening among God’s creation, and God decided to wipe it all out. All, of course, except for Noah and his family, from whom God wanted to rebuild and start over.
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The surprising thing about this story is what we get, here at the end…God’s covenant. After wiping out all of God’s creation except Noah’s family, God decides to NEVER do that again. This first covenant is God’s promise that God will NEVER destroy all flesh, all of creation by flood ever again. This first covenant is also very broad in scope…God makes this covenant, not just with Noah or Noah’s family but with the earth, , every living creature of all flesh, every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth. Those phrases reoccur throughout this covenant, and they remind us that God is making a really broad pronouncement…NEVER again…a flood to destroy all flesh…everlasting covenant with every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.
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This covenant has no time limit. God says NEVER again. Even though God has witnessed the way in which the sin and wickedness can destroy God’s creation and pull it away from God’s intention for it, God makes this covenant that God willNEVER again destroy it all and start over again. Apparently God decided that wiping out creation was not the answer to the sin and wickedness of humanity so God made this covenant to NEVER do it again. God even establishes a reminder…the bow in the sky. We automatically think of a rainbow, all bright and colorful, but the bow was also an instrument used in battle. God hung up God’s bow, deciding never to use force against God creation.
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This covenant was also made with ALL flesh. It is not only a covenant with Noah and his family, it is a covenant with the creatures that roam the earth, a covenant with all flesh that will come to live on the earth in the future. God has seen what humanity is capable of, but God has also watched as humanity and creation was wiped away, and apparently it was something God never wanted to repeat, no matter what humanity does in the future.
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In this covenant, the only promise made was God’s promise never to destroy the earth by flood. This is not a contract, entered into by more than one party. The only party is God and with no expectation placed on humanity, God made this covenant never to wipe them out ever again. Noah doesn’t promise anything, hisfamily, his sons, their families don’t promise anything. The rest of humanity doesn’t have a chance to promise anything; it is God’s character, standing alone, making this broad, sweeping promise for all of humanity and creation, for all of time.
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This story and this covenant reveal something about God that can be difficult for us to accept… God learns, God adjusts, God changes God’s mind based on God’s interactions with humanity. That doesn’t mean that God’s character changes; in fact, it reveals that God’s character allows for God to be in relationship, to truly care about all that God has created, including us. God is engaged with the creation, seeking to be in relationship, regardless of how difficult that is. And we know, as the story went on after the flood, humanity didn’t get any better.
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But God made the covenant, God stuck to the covenant. God was determined to relate to all flesh in ways besides wiping them off the face of the earth. God decided that violence and destruction was not a solution to violence and destruction. God found that this complete annihilation of everything and everyone was not a guarantee that everything would be better afterward. So God’s covenant was a step toward a better relationship with humanity, a different approach to God’s creation. As I said earlier, this was not the last covenant that God makes, but it lays the foundation for future covenants. First and foremost, God promises NEVER to destroy God’s creatures, both human and animal by wiping them off the face of the earth.

This is a constant battle we have within ourselves and in this world…whether to use the power of violence and destruction to wipe out violence and destruction. Through this covenant God decides that peace wins out, and God seeks other ways in the future to deal with humanity’s sinfulness. When we are uncertain, it would do us well to remember this covenant, remember the God of hopeful peace and pray that God will lead all of humanity to discover this peace among us. Amen.

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