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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Lent - March 5, 2006

Genesis 6:5-7

That is one of the more depressing passages in the Bible, especially as we consider that this assessment of humanity could have been written today.  But it wasn’t.  It’s the beginning of the Noah’s Ark story, much of which is quite familiar.  But it’s important to remember the beginning of the story where God has had it with the world he created, especially the human part, so he is ready to wipe them out, not out of anger, but out of grief, “for I am sorry that I have made them.”  The “very good” that ends the creation story has become “I will blot them out.”  It’s quite a change. 

This is another one of those fascinating OT glimpses at the heart of God.  But, can God do this?  Can God change his mind?  There have been those who say no.  In some of the early church discussions on the doctrine of  the nature of God there was considerable effort to portray God as unchanging and indifferent to anything that goes on; yet that is so contrary both to the way God is portrayed in Jesus and to the way God is presented here and in other parts of the OT.  In this story of Noah, not only can God change his mind, he does change his mind, more than once.

You know most of the story.  Following his decision to “blot them out”, God relents, slightly, with Noah “having found favor in the sight of the Lord.”  So Noah is instructed to build an ark and he and his family and all of the animals two by two are loaded into the ark.  It rained for 40 days and 40 nights; water covered the earth for 150 days, at which point “God remembered Noah” and caused the waters to begin to recede.

That eventually brings us to today’s first lesson which is the beginning of the end of the story. It is here that God establishes the covenant of the rainbow, a covenant by which he promises never to do this again.  What is interesting about this is that it is a unilateral, unconditional covenant on the part of God.  There are other covenants that God cuts with the people of Israel that are conditional, if, then:  if you do this, then I will do that.  But this one isn’t like that.  God does this on his own, and this is the amazing part, he does it on his own despite the fact that humanity hasn’t changed!

God has drawn two conclusions here.  The first is that human beings are hopeless.  The flood is over.  Noah and his family have left the ark.  Noah builds an altar to the Lord and offers the appropriate sacrifices, which sound like the right things to do, but in chapter 8, verse 21 which comes just before today’s lesson, God smells the pleasing odor of this sacrifice but still recognizes that “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.”  repeat 

I suppose what you could say is that the flood didn’t work.  The fundamental nature of humanity is still the same, but despite that, God reaches a second conclusion.  He decides that regardless of the sorry state of humanity, he is not going to give up on it.  He’s not going to give up on creation.  He’s been committed to creation from the beginning but what this story ends with is an intensified commitment on the part of God.  God has been touched by grief, but he will not abandon creation to the chaos of its disobedience.  Never again, he says, never again, and the only thing that has changed is God.

That’s where we begin on this first Sunday in Lent; we begin with the hopelessness of humanity and renewed, greater commitment on the part of God.  But…isn’t Lent supposed to be about change, on our part?  Return to the Lord, change in other words; we heard on AW and we hear it as part of the liturgy on every Sunday in Lent.  Today we get Jesus’ call to repent, which in its most literal sense means to turn and change direction.  Yet the Noah story seems to say that we are incapable of this change.  It starts with “every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil, continually,” and ends with “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.”  No change there.

Are we beyond hope for any meaningful change?  Is all this Lent repentance stuff ultimately an exercise in futility so at the end God just kind of hangs his head and cries in grief at the mess we’ve made of the gifts he’s given?  Can we really change?

The Lutheran answer to that question is no.  No we can’t.  On our own we are incapable of change, but….but by God’s grace we can be changed!   We can’t do it, but God can, in fact, by God’s grace we have been changed!  The Lutheran answer is that the evil inclination of our hearts is still there, we are still sinners, but by God’s grace, by what Jesus has done for us, God doesn’t see that evil.  We are declared righteous, still sinners, but also saints.  The Lutheran answer is that nothing we do, or don’t do changes this.  It’s already done.  Carrying this to its logical conclusion then, I guess we don’t need to change.  There’s no need for Lent!  We can bring back the sandwiches and bars on Wednesday nights!

Not so fast.  You could draw that conclusion, but that conclusion involves carrying Lutheran theology to a level of absurdity that I’m quite sure Luther did not intend.  Luther’s complaint with the Catholic church of his day was the idea that by performing the proper religious acts, like worship and prayer and fasting and adoration of relics and purchasing indulgences you were capable of earning your salvation.  He wasn’t saying that such acts of piety and financial support of the church were inherently bad, only that they were not connected to salvation.

Luther properly understood that salvation is a gift of God’s grace.  But he wouldn’t have questioned the fact that there were things that one could do to draw closer to God.  To put it another way, there were things that one could do to better appreciate the gift of grace that has been given.  Luther wouldn’t have questioned that because he did those things.  They were part of his devotional life.  It’s not a matter of changing who we are in God’s eyes; that has already been changed.  It’s more of a matter of changing who God is in our eyes. 

That’s really where Lent and the disciplines of Lent come in.  We are capable of changing the relationship we have with God.  We are called to accept and cooperate with the gift of grace we have received.  There are things that we can do to change and conform more closely with the walk through life that God would have us walk.  There are things we can do that better equip us to deal with the temptations that are out there, temptations which draw us away from God.

There is no magical Lenten formula that works for everyone.  The challenge is to find something you can do that makes this season different for you, something you can do in an effort to change and deepen your relationship with God, hopefully something that continues to be part of who you are after the forty days of Lent.  That something may be different for each of us but one inevitable conclusion we have to draw based on the stories of Jesus and based on the witness and example of those who have followed him throughout church history is that personal time, time alone with God in a quiet place ought to be part of that something that you do. 

It’s something that most of us aren’t real comfortable with because it doesn’t feel productive, it doesn’t feel like we’re accomplishing anything, but again there is a long history of witness to the benefit of such time and I don’t think we want to ignore 2000 years of such witness.  Such quiet, alone time is important.  It does come with a warning though.  I said a couple of weeks ago that the only problem Jesus faced in the first chapter of Mark was the inability to have any time to himself.  That wasn’t exactly true because in today’s gospel from the first chapter of Mark, he had 40 days of time to himself, sort of.  He wasn’t all by himself though, because Satan was out there too.

When we try to carve out a quiet time for ourselves we too can be pretty sure that Satan is going to show up, because he doesn’t want us to have that time alone with God.  He’s there with the temptation of all those other productive things we ought to be doing with this time; he’s there tempting us with everything we want and nothing that we need.  And he’s good at it.  Pretty soon we’re doing all those other things and our daily quiet time with God is gone or greatly diminished.

When we persist though, when we stake a claim on that time, Satan drifts into the shadows.  He’s still around but the Spirit and the angels take up a larger space.  They wait on us, and we do change.  We conform more closely to the image of God in which we were created and which has been returned to us by baptismal grace.  We change.  We draw closer to the God who has changed, the God who has promised to never give up on us.

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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