The more you read the scriptures, the more you pay attention to the pronouncements made by God.
God has something to say to this world. That is the overarching message of the scriptures.
When God speaks, (in whatever form that may be) God is also in the habit of making the pronouncement in a clear, public, and accessible manner, often tying that announcement to a specific action or sign that remains after the pronouncement as a reminder of the spoken promise and God’s intent.
This is the language of “covenant.”
A covenant is a promise that is made between God and humanity that is marked by that physical sign, something to be pointed to as kind of a “see there! I told you, I promised! And as long as that sign is there you will know that the promise stands!”
“I have set my bow in the clouds. It shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” God says in the Hebrew Scripture reading for this day right after Noah and the great flood.
This is God putting away the War bow, promising never again to try to cleanse the earth through genocide and disaster of flood, never again seeking to cleanse through utter destruction and re-creation.
God will make war on humankind no more! That’s what God is saying in this story by hanging up God’s bow on the clouds.
See the bow remains in the clouds even after the most horrific of storms to this day as a reminder that God has not and will not take up that kind of total devastation or destruction ever again!
Covenant depends upon the trustworthiness of the speaker of course. When God makes such a pronouncement and sets the sign, God is holding God’s own self accountable to the promise.
Covenant depends and is dependent upon this trust and accountability, of which the sign becomes the reminder to all the parties involved.
It reminds God, “Hey, I promised not to do that again!”
It reminds humanity, “Hey, God promised! As bad as this storm is, it is not the end of the world!”
We’re going to spend a little time in this season of Lent talking about and lifting up covenant for a couple reasons.
One reason is that it is always timely to be reminded that words are supposed to stand for something, and that when words no longer operate in an environment of trust, the world becomes an unsteady and untenable place.
You know this to be true.
If someone tells you that they will meet you at such and such a place at 1 p.m., you take them at their word.
You arrive at 1 p.m., and when 1 p.m. becomes 1:05 p.m., you check your watch to see if it is operating properly.
Maybe that is the problem, my timing is off, because.. well.. they promised to meet me here at 1 p.m.!
Then as 1:05 becomes 1:15 you begin to search your memory and you check yourself. “Did they really say 1 p.m., or was it 1:30?” Did I get the time wrong? Is this the right place or did we talk about somewhere else and I forgot?
You begin to question your own words and your own memories.
As 1:15 becomes 1:20, you begin to search your notes or consult your calendar, or maybe you reach for your phone to make a call in a reminder to that person or check up on them, and when it rings without answer you become more annoyed and worried.
Your world is slowly unraveling as you now cannot be sure of either time or place or if they are even around.
By the time 1:30 p.m. rolls around you are imagining your friend is in some dire circumstance. Maybe an automobile accident, or a robbery, or a sudden illness.
“They said they would be here….what could have happened?”
When that person finally walks in unapologetically at 1:35, telling you that they just lost track of time, your concern turns to aggravation and annoyance and maybe there is a little hint of anger and there might be a little edge to your voice as you say.
“It’s all right.”
It is NOT all right at all, of course.
In your mind the covenant is now broken and whatever productive might have taken place in this meeting is now pretty much done. With covenant broken, you do not know if you can take this person at their word! How can you move forward with any kind of trust?
Covenants matter, and covenant language is important because it forms the basis for a reliable and trustworthy world.
Why do I belabor this point?
Because it is into an unsteady and unreliable world that Jesus first appears.
He comes to a people who are no longer sure of God’s promises.
The people of Israel knew the covenants made by God. Covenants made to Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebekah, to Jacob, Rachel and Leah, and to Moses and Miriam, to Joshua and to David.
They knew that they were promised to become a great nation, to have a land of their own, to have descendants as the stars of the heavens and in particular God had promised that there would always be a descendent of David upon the throne of the Kingdom.
They knew that God had promised those things! It was God’s covenant!
And right now, as Jesus walks the land, so many of those promises, these covenants made by God seem to be in shambles.
Roman armies occupy the land and call the shots.
Herod is no descendent of David.
And worst of all, God seems to be silent– absent, like the guy who promised to show up at 1 p.m. and is much delayed and unapologetic about it!
This is the situation when John begins to baptize in the wilderness, calling for repentance.
John is an anomaly, a curiosity out there precisely because for Israel, the time of prophecy had been considered closed.
At the time of Ezra, with the return from Babylon, Israel understood that God had said everything that God was going to say to them and it was now found in the written scriptures.
God was not going to be talking to people directly anymore, you can read about what God promised.
Which is what makes John such a curiosity. He sure sounds like a prophet, out there by the river Jordan. Is God talking to us again?
And John makes no prophetic claim, but does point to Jesus, and this is where the covenant language and action becomes important again, because God speaks!
“You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” God says to Jesus and to all within earshot. God rends the heavens at the start of Mark’s Gospel and is silent no more!
This tearing open is the sign of a new covenant. Something has been opened up that even God cannot shut back up or mended over ever again if God wanted to.
In Jesus, the veil between the heavens and the earth is torn open, and the Spirit that resides with God is now poured out and into Jesus.
That Spirit drives Jesus from this point forward in the story.
The Spirit drives him out into the wilderness to be tested.
The Spirit accompanies Jesus through the Galilee region as he goes about his ministry casting out demons, healing, and forgiving and teaching.
It is all done with the power of the Spirit, a spirit that he shares with his disciples.
That Spirit empowers Jesus to feed the hungry and to engage the powers of this world.
It is that Spirit that Jesus will breathe into his followers, sending them as promises to the ends of the earth.
God is making pronouncements again, in the words of Jesus, in the parables, in the teachings and the sayings, and in the examples and that living.
God is making a pronouncement in you and in me as we are baptized and receive this same Spirit that drives, empowers, teachs and transforms.
It begins with God’s pronouncement of Jesus as son, as beloved, and the sign is that the heavens have been torn open.
That which once separated God from God’s people has been rent asunder.
The boundaries between God’s Kingdom in Heaven and the kingdom of God come to earth are now gone.
This rending of the heavens in the beginning of the gospel of Mark will be mirrored and lifted up again in the events at the crucifixion, when Mark tells us that all creation was in mourning and that the curtain in the temple – the one that separated the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant used to reside — where God sat — and the outer courts where the people assembled was torn in two.
That which separated the Holy of Holies in the Tempe from the outer courts where the people are is ripped to shreds.
Symbolically and in actuality, God is now loose in the world.
The Spirit that resided with and in Jesus is now released and is able to move freely in all of God’s people.
This is the promise, the new covenant.
God is silent no longer, but God’s spirit inhabits this world and that Spirit does so through now your words and actions.
Which is of course, what makes your words and actions so much more important!
They are covenantal!
If your words and actions as covenantal people are not reliable and honorable, if your words and actions do not instill trust —
If your words and actions do not speak of the promises of God kept,
If your words and actions are not in keeping with the words and actions of Jesus, whom you share the Spirit with –
Then the world becomes an untenable place!
See what God has done here!
God has something to say to this world, and the sign set is that God has torn open the heavens and poured God’s spirit out into you to say it!
It is an awesome responsibility.
It is an awful burden at times as well, to have to presume to speak for God!
But it is one that we have been trained for by Jesus as we mirror his actions and repeat his words with grace, humility and love.
So be careful the words you speak and choose well the moment to speak them.
God has something to say to this world, and God has self-limited God’s own self, by this sign.
What God chooses to say to this world, God chooses to say through God’s spirit as it has been poured into you.