(Transcript of Rev. Seth Nelson's sermon on Sunday, February 18, 2018)
When I was a little kid, I let my curiosity get the best of me. After my dad had just finished mowing our lawn in the Twin Cities, and parked the riding mower in the garage, I got the bright idea in my head that I should touch the exhaust pipe right after he shut it off. I was probably only 4 years old at this point, so I cannot say for sure what I was thinking. My only guess is that I saw the last of the exhaust smoke floating out of it, found it interesting, and grabbed it in my effort to explore this new phenomenon. The clear memory that I do have of this event is how painful it was immediately afterwards. As my fingers touched the metal that was still smoking hot, the pain shot up my arm while screams shot out my mouth and tears poured out of my eyes. That day, I very clearly learned that whenever I see an engine’s exhaust pipe, I should NOT reach out and grab it! All these years later, I have that lesson down pat! I didn’t need to go to college to learn that one! When I see an exhaust pipe, I do not touch it.
By a show of hands, who was taught that God put rainbows in the sky to remind us that God would never again flood the world like he did in Noah’s day? Go ahead, put ‘em up. If you were taught that the rainbow is a reminder for us that God will never again deal with evil in the world by wiping it, raise your hand? My hand is up for a reason, that is how I remembered the story. I was taught that rainbows are a sign to us of God’s love, reminding us that our world will not be flooded by divine decree ever again.
However, that is not what our reading from Genesis for today actually says. Similar to how exhaust pipes now remind me not to touch them, especially when they are smoking, God says in verse 16 of our passage, “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between me and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said that the rainbow is not a reminder to us of God’s covenant, but a reminder to God that the world should not be destroyed by flood ever again. If you had your hand raised with me, I am sad to say that we have been duped my friends. Though I believe that God formed this covenant out of love for Noah, his family, and all of those darn mosquitoes they saved for no apparent reason, the rainbow serves as a reminder to God that evil in the world should not be dealt with by killing everyone and everything, ever again. It is kind of heavy to think about the fact that God needs to be reminded not to destroy the earth, but that is the way the promise comes to us in scripture.
But then, there are weeks like this one when yet again the innocent are massacred. In a world where a kid like Nikolas Cruz is permitted to walk into his former high school in Florida and kill 17 students with an AR-15, it makes sense that God would need a reminder not to think about another flood. God did not make this world evil, we did. We have promoted violence as a way for dealing with our problems for too long. Is there a bad guy in your neighborhood? Take him out. Any enemies out there in the world? Nuke ‘em. Anybody oppose you at work? Yell at them until they back down. Anybody mean to you on the playground? Fight back until you win. There are very clear and loud voices in this country which say that violence is the answer. This messaging fills the heads of our anxious, teenagers who have no community or friends to talk through their issues with in constructive ways, while at the same time they are told through advertising that they can buy assault weapons to fulfill their desires and deal with their problems – and, lo and behold, massive assaults result. And then we sit around and argue wondering, “How did our praise of violence result in sociopaths resorting to violence?” We gave him a reason to be violent, and then we gave him a gun; we did this instead of helping him and so many others deal with their issues in non-violent ways.
Thankfully God has put up a rainbow as a reminder not to flood our world again, because we are doing a pretty horrid job of proving that we are worth keeping around.
It seems like there is little good news on weeks like this, but we hear some hidden in our Gospel lesson for today. After Jesus was baptized by John, he headed out into the wilderness for forty days as preparation for his ministry career that was about to begin. Throughout Lent, we are walking with Jesus through his sojourn in the wilderness, when he fasted, lived with the wild beasts and was tempted by the devil. Instead of succumbing to the temptations of his evil foe, Jesus held firm and proved that he would die for the world to save it instead of killing to conquer it. And, after he emerged from the desert with a belly empty of food, but a heart full of purpose, he headed into Galilee to start preaching there. What did he preach to them? “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come. Repent and believe in the Good News.”
“The time is fulfilled…repent…and believe.”
“The time is fulfilled…repent…and believe.”
Jesus did not give them a word like God gave to Noah. He did not tell them to build arks, or bunkers, or to arm up and defend themselves. He told them to repent and believe. Though their world faced even more terrors than ours, constantly threatened by invaders and empires, he did not call the Galileans to respond to violence with violence. He told them to repent and believe.
The Greek words for repent and believe are metanoia and pisteuo. The word for believe, pisteuo, means pretty much what our English word believe does, in this instance it means to believe or have trust in the Good News. The word for repentance, metanoia, is a little bit more nuanced than its English counterpart. The verb metaneuo is a combination of the two words ‘meta’ and ‘nous’ meaning change and mind which literally translates into the phrase ‘change one’s mind’. But, in the Ancient Mediterranean mindset, the ‘nous’ or mind was believed to be located in our hearts instead of our heads. So, the word for repent, metanoia, can also be thought of as a command that we change our hearts and trust in the Good News.
The Good News here is that Jesus stared down the devil for us, and then called us to turn, change our hearts and, ultimately, to believe in and look toward the cross. In his life on this earth, death on the cross, and resurrection to new life, our Savior gave us a powerful symbol as a daily reminder of God’s love for us. Though I see exhaust pipes everywhere, I only occasionally think of the pain that one brought to my childhood self so long ago. When I see rainbows anymore, I only think of the covenant that God made with Noah every once in a while. When I look to the cross, I always recognize the symbol of our salvation. In its heyday, the cross was a symbol of vicious horror and tragedy. But this ancient symbol of execution and political oppression was transformed by our Lord’s redemptive suffering upon one. Now, we can look to the cross and be reassured of life that overcomes tragedy, love that drives out hate, and power that cannot be overwhelmed by any force of evil that tries to break down its door. The cross is a reminder of God’s redemptive love that cannot be undone, despite our best efforts. Though we have made the world evil, the cross reassures us that the world and everyone in it will be remade into something better than we can ever imagine. Something better than what we lived through this week.
Rev. Seth Nelson is the author of The Church Unknown: Reflections of a Millennial Pastor. He serves as a pastor in Ronan, Montana, where he lives with his wife and two children.
Rev. Seth Nelson, author of The Church Unknown: Reflections of a Millennial Pastor, writes this blog. The blog focuses on the future of the church as well as how God loves and cares for us in the present. He is a pastor in Ronan, Montana.