Sermon Sunday 22.2.2015

by the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair

This is the sign of the covenant that I have established

between me and all flesh that is on the earth.

 

On the first Sunday of Lent we traditionally think of Jesus being sent into the wilderness – ‘thrown’ into the wilderness would be nearer the mark.  It is a period of preparation and of revelation – as Lent is meant to be for us.  It’s a time when Jesus is forced to face his demons, the thoughts and ideas within him that will get in the way if they are not dealt with.  And Lent is meant to provide the same opportunities for us.

 

But the time in the wilderness, and the period of Lent, are not only times of trial – they are also times of blessing.  Jesus finds in the wilderness wild beasts, and demons, and angels.  Jesus finds himself in the wilderness; he finds the self that returns with a sense of what he is about, a sense of purpose, a sense of mission.  And so he will return with the proclamation that the kingdom of heaven is at hand – and that there is good news to be spoken and heard and believed.

 

The story of Noah has some of the same marks upon it.  Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness; and in Genesis we find: ‘at the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made and sent out the raven.’  At the end of forty days Noah looks for good news – and the first step is to open the window and send out one of the creatures held within the ark.

 

The number forty is a very common feature in the bible, whether it be a reference to forty days, or forty weeks, or forty years.  If you have the time or the inclination you can have a look for yourself, and there are various websites which will help you.  But the point is that all these periods come to an end.  And for Jesus and for Noah their periods of testing, forty days each, end with the summons of good news.

 

There have been times when the church has seen itself as something of an ark, gathering people from the dangers of the world, saving them from the floods of life – and suggesting that being gathered into the ark is itself the good news.  But that’s not it – that’s not it at all.  The good news comes when Noah and those with him can come out of the ark, can re-engage with the world, can see the sign of the bow in the heavens, and can hear the word that this sign is not just for them.

 

This is the sign of the covenant that I have established

between me and all flesh that is on the earth.

 

‘All flesh,’ is an expression that allows no get-out clauses, no ifs, no buts, no restrictions.  Right in the very earliest passages of the Hebrew scriptures there is an affirmation that God is the God of all flesh, an articulation by the writers of Genesis that there is one destiny for all creation, and that all creation is inextricably bound together.  And whenever, in later parts of the bible, we find talk of covenants that seem to be more specific, more restricted, more exclusive, we need always to remember that they exist beneath the bow of God’s love for ‘all flesh’.

 

For this reason it is important, on a day when we ordain and admit new elders to the Kirk Session of this congregation, that we understand what we are doing – and why.  It is important because there has been a temptation in past years to understand the Kirk Session as simply the shepherds of those who have signed up as members of the congregation – as those who would keep them safe, keep them in the fold, keep them in the ark.  It goes along with the thought that the church is a fellowship huddled against the storm – kind of like the emperor penguins in Antarctica all facing in, turning their backs on the cold wind, preserving themselves for the season to come.

 

And, while there is a pastoral role for the eldership within the congregation, that’s not all there is to it – not nearly all there is to it.  We ordain elders to bring a mix of skill, dedication, inspiration, and leadership to the Kirk Session; we ordain elders not to help the congregation huddle together to keep the chill blast of the world away, but to help turn us all out to face and to engage with the world.  We ordain elders to open the windows.

 

In our particular situation, where we find ourselves with a congregation that engages with a world which changes constantly, we ordain elders to help the congregation adapt constantly, react constantly, and itself change constantly.  We are moving into a time when those who are associated with, part of, the life and the work of the congregation are going to be associated in ever new ways.  Our work will be carried out with groups of people who belong to us and with us in ways that will challenge us to think of our membership in new ways too.

 

So we need to listen to Darcey Bussell!  Those of you who watch ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ will have heard her talk of the need for a ‘strong core’.  She is referring to the muscles of the midriff and of the stomach, muscles that have to support the body when it is attempting more and more ambitious moves, requiring a more and more flexible body.  And the stronger the core the more ambitious the moves can be.

 

So today we are strengthening our core – exactly because we want to become more daring, more ambitious, more flexible.  For us, the body of Christ in this place, the dream must be to be more flexible, more ambitious, more flowing – and the stronger the core the easier that will be.  We don’t want to be stuck with the basic moves, the pedantic choreography; we want to be able to express ourselves, to engage with others, in ways that engage them, and encourage them, and invigorate them.

 

If the core is strong the edges don’t need to be so distinct or patrolled or closely delineated.  And if we have the commitment and the imagination that we need at the centre, then our activity in reaching out to others, in engaging others in what we do, in involving ourselves in what others do, can flourish, and grow, and blossom all the more.

 

So today we are bringing people on to the Kirk Session who can help in that task – and others may well follow before too much longer.  Because the Session is not here simply for the congregation, just as the congregation is not here just for itself.  We exist as the church here in this place to help people meet Jesus of Nazareth, to encourage them to walk alongside him, to listen to him, to follow him – and it is the job of our leadership team to help us step out onto paths we may not yet have trodden.

 

This is the sign of the covenant that I have established

between me and all flesh that is on the earth.

 

Noah and his family did not find their new mission easy.  In some ways it was easier building the ark, and hiding from the storm.  This new covenant with all flesh was a challenge.  And it has been ever since.  Religious communities have always found it easier to exist over against the world than to exist for the world, easier to claim the blessing than to share it.  And all over the world, and certainly within the Church of Scotland, there are congregations whose mission is simply to maintain themselves, to stay in existence for the sake of staying in existence, to bring people in with the purpose of keeping going.  And that is not good enough – and it can’t be what we are about.

 

As we begin our walk through another period of Lent, we need to be aware of the temptations, the beasts, the demons that surround us, threaten us, even attract us.  But we also need to be aware of the blessing that is promised to us – that we can be a blessing for all the world, that the Lord of all being can guide us, and that we can be the expression of that covenant with all flesh that Noah saw in the sky above him – and that lived and walked and talked in Jesus of Nazareth.

 

 

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