The First Sunday of Lent, Year B
God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”Genesis 9:8-17
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). Of the many words of wisdom Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, these are certainly the most relatable. Anyone who has struggled with a bad habit, an addiction, or a troubled relationship knows the awful feeling of being stuck in a cycle of bad choices. The struggle of knowing the right thing to do, but when the moment comes to break the cycle: failing. And because you failed again, the hope for meaningful change dwindles, and it becomes harder to succeed each time. With the accompanied self-loathing, the cycle continues. “Old habits die hard”.
We live in a world of habits and cycles. It seems that we are creatures of habit from the most personal to the international scale. In an ever-changing and seemingly chaotic world the human ability to create and maintain patterns has proven to be essential for our growth and survival. By creating reliable sources of necessities, social structure, and communication we have been freed from an existence of pure survival, and achieved great things collectively because of it. But there is a dark side that we are all too familiar with. Once we have made a habit, or begin a cycle, for good for ill our very nature makes it hard to break out of. How often do we find ourselves after repeated indulgence in just a little bit more food suddenly with a larger appetite? How often do we find ourselves going through the same motions in a conversation with an increasingly estranged love one, because we are too tired or too hurt to finally have an honest conversation? As a collective, we inadvertently design systems to reinforce the status quo; which for those who for whatever reason fall outside that, find it increasingly difficult to break out of the cycle. These tendencies of habits and cycles carry into our wider society, most notably the cycle of poverty and the cycle of violence.
From the smallest personal, to the international, to the cosmic scale, these destructive habits and cycles all stem from the same source: Sin. The cycle that holds all of humanity captive is that old enemy crouching at the door, turning our great strengths and gifts from God against us, and leading us away from God and our neighbor.
The season of Lent, though it has a reputation of being a season of penitence and self-sacrifice, is really a season of change. It is a time to imitate Christ’s forty days in the desert in preparation for ministry where we too look within and without at what needs to change in preparation for our ministry. It is not merely a practice of fasting and self-denial, unless of course that is what needs to change, it is a season to break free from the habits and cycles that hinder our ministry. Conventional wisdom tells us that it takes forty days to break a bad habit, and I am not convinced that the timeframe is merely coincidental. This is the time where as a community we look to change ourselves and our world for the better, breaking out of the cycles of sin by turning to God.
This may be all well and good, talk of change and breaking the destructive cycles of sin, but where to start? Sin abounds, and what happens when we try to change but none of the other people or circumstances do? It’s one thing to swear off sweets, but what to do when well-meaning friends bring cookies they made just for you? It is good to vow to mend a broken relationship, but how can you move forward if the other has lost their faith in you?
In the briefest practical terms, to break out of habits and cycles it takes practice, forgiveness, and faith. Practicing the change you wish to see, forgiving yourself or others when failures or sliding back into the cycle happen, and having faith that the change is possible and worth the trouble.
As with all things, God is the example to follow in this season of change. Our Old Testament reading is the story of Noah, more specifically God establishing the first Covenant with Noah. Being one of the most iconic stories in the Bible, the stuff prime for children’s books and friendly Sunday school lessons, it can be hard to break the habit of seeing this story as anything other than a familiar children’s story about God’s promise never to destroy the earth. Now we are all familiar with the basic story, God decides to wipe the slate clean and destroy creation to begin anew, but decides to rescue one faithful family, Noah’s, and representatives of the animal kingdom to restore creation after the cleansing flood. Noah builds the ark, it rains for forty days and forty nights, the world floods, and after it all dries up God promises Noah and all the earth that He will never destroy the earth again, and gives the sign of the rainbow as a symbol of the promise. While all those beats are likely quite familiar to you, let me ask you this: do you remember why God decided to flood the earth?
We find our answer in Genesis 6, where we learn that God is grieved to His heart that humanity had so thoroughly turned itself over to sin and evil, but more specifically, the cycle of violence humanity became trapped in. God, out of grief rather than anger, when explaining what He will do to Noah, says “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them…” (Genesis 6:13). God has made this decision to destroy, along with His plan to rescue, as a way to break the cycle of violence in the most dramatic way possible.
Now if this leaves you wondering, “How does it make sense that God would want to break the cycle of violence by essentially committing genocide? Wouldn’t flooding the earth just be more violence?” you are exactly right, that is what the story demands we ask. There are a few too many literary subtleties to go over in detail but a few things are worth noting. The first is that God’s motive is out of grief rather than anger, a key difference from other versions of the flood story found in Israel’s neighboring cultures, where the flood is created out of their gods’ anger or annoyance with humanity. Another literary point worth noting is that the language about the flood waters themselves frames them in the creation story. The waters of chaos that God separated to make creation are allowed to return, God is not so much violently killing everything but “unmaking”. Another layer of symbolism is the waters of chaos representing how chaos and evil consume themselves. In a way, God is merely hastening the inevitable, that violence will inevitably delve into chaos and consume all flesh. These cultural and literary points of course do not entirely excuse the flood wiping out the earth as being non-violent, but the focus of the story is more about how God changes His relationship with creation through Noah and the Covenant.
What really breaks the cycle of violence, and where God shows us how to break destructive cycles, is after the flood and the establishment of the Covenant. After the flood ends, Noah makes an offering to God, and we get a glimpse into God’s inner monolog: “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.” (Genesis 8:21). This is a rather odd vow to make, given what just happened. God wiped creation clean because of violence, arguably through violent means, and here He is recognizing that even in His chosen remnant, the problem of violence and the cycle of violence remains!
But here’s what’s different: God decides to break the cycle of violence. God forgives humanity when they fall into violence, and most importantly of all, God has faith that humanity will change for the better. This is what makes the Covenant.
We all too often forget in the beauty of the rainbow that it is God’s fearsome weapon of judgement. To the ancients it was the bow that God would unleash His lightening arrows from, smiting the wicked and the violent in righteous fury. But here with Noah, God hangs up His bow, never to take it up again. That symbol of great dread and violence is transformed into one of hope, of comfort, of a promise. Just before our passage God shows His forgiveness of Noah and humanity, fully entrusting humanity to take care of the earth, symbolically shown in the permission to eat even animals if desired, but still forbidding consuming blood and taking the life of another human, as both are seen as the essence of life that belong only to God. God recognizes that humanity is still inclined to a cycle of violence, but rather than wiping out creation again, God is providing temporary measures to curb that inclination until the day when creation is properly restored. But most impressive of all is the unconditional nature of the Covenant. No matter how stuck in the cycle of sin humanity becomes, God has enough faith in humanity’s potential to vow to never destroy us. God decided to break the cycle of sin and violence, and in this covenant, and all the covenants to follow that we will read this Lent, make it so that we have a chance to break out of our habits and cycles of sin.
Practice, forgiveness, faith. These are what it takes to break out of sin. God decides to break the cycle of violence by hanging up His bow, and vowing to not destroy the earth, though He has every right, and arguably reason, to do so. God forgives us when we fail, when we don’t take the chance to break the cycle of sin. And most importantly of all, God has faith in humanity, that despite are endless sins and failures, we and the earth are still worth saving, no matter what. In this season of Lent, we are invited to great change. This is the time to break the cycles that hold us back. This is the time to embody what we want to see in the world, responding to violence with kindness, isolation with community, despair with hope, insult with forgiveness. We live in a world that does not want to change for the better, and it is our task to be that change. Because we are so used to our old habits and cycles we will certainly fail at points along the way. But we will not lose hope. For we have been forgiven, and more importantly we have faith that we can change this world for the better. All that is left to do is to put it into practice. Amen.