Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent

Sermon preached by Danny Payne for the First Sunday of Lent, Sunday 21st February 2021, via Zoom. 

Genesis 9:8-17 and Mark 1:9-15

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“…believe in the good news.”

Today’s readings caused me to reflect on the significance of rainbows.

When I was a child in the 1980s, Rainbow was a children’s TV show featuring the characters Bungle, George and Zippy – a bear, a small pink hippopotamus and… whatever Zippy was supposed to be. I don’t really remember what it was about, but I do recall the feeling of happiness I enjoyed when I watched it. A rainbow made me experience joy.

As a teenager and a twenty-something around the turn of the century, the rainbow of the Peace flag, also known as the Pride flag, became a symbol of hope, acceptance and inclusion. That particular rainbow has a few more colours some twenty years on, representing now not only the gay community but also the transgender and black and ethnic minority communities, too. The rainbow has been adopted as a symbol of hope for freedom from oppression and persecution, of a drive towards equality, of a desire for a brighter future for all people. A rainbow brings hope and encouragement to many.

And in our first reading today, we heard about God’s gift of the rainbow – the bow seen in the clouds – God’s gift to Noah and to all the living creatures of the Earth. The rainbow is a sign of God’s covenant, his promise to never again seek to destroy his creation, not to punish fallen humanity, and the innocent creatures of the world with us. A rainbow brings hope to all of creation.

I wonder whether you, like me, have a sense of wonder when a rainbow cuts across a cloudy sky… What does a rainbow represent for you? Do you experience a sense of hope, joy, expectation, or something else…?

In normal times, at the start of Lent we would likely have attended a service on Wednesday to have a cross of ashes drawn on our foreheads and we would see that our churches would have been stripped of their colour and adorned in either sackcloth or a solemn purple to encourage us to reflect and prepare during these forty days which lead up to Holy Week. As we look ahead to Holy Week, we anticipate the promise of Jesus – his new covenant through which God’s love and Jesus’ sacrifice have redeemed creation, remembering his promise not to destroy, punish or hate us, but to bring us, with all creation, into his kingdom. This is our great hope. This is the ‘good news’ Jesus exhorts those listening to him to believe.

Typically for a passage from Mark’s Gospel, we learn a lot in a handful of lines; today we heard that Jesus was baptised in the River Jordan and saw the Holy Spirit descend on him like a dove, affirming God’s love for his son before driving him into the wilderness for forty days. Jesus was preparing for the work he was going to do, to bring about our reconciliation with God, to redeem us from our sins, to make us ready for everlasting life with his Father. The church has traditionally used the season of Lent as a period of forty days for us to prepare ourselves, too. We might reflect on how we can make ourselves ready for the good news of Holy Week and Easter.

“…believe in the good news.”

Lent is often thought of as a time of repentance and penitence: identifying aspects of our sinful natures and asking God’s forgiveness – for him to help us to do better, to be more Christ-like even. In today’s Gospel, Jesus says to “…repent and believe in the good news.’ At least, according to many of our translations. The Greek verb metanoeite, often translated as ‘repent’, has a wider definition, however, which might offer a wider perspective. Indeed, the word means to transform one’s perception, change one’s mind or open one’s eyes to a new perspective or purpose. So, whilst Jesus might have been recommending repentance, he might equally have been encouraging his listeners to look afresh at the world around them in order to observe God’s kingdom: to gain a new perspective. God’s kingdom, unlike the nations of the Earth, is not a geographically-definable, boundaried space, but a reality of living in God’s presence, in his love. I wonder how we might perceive God’s kingdom in the world around us if only we could see creation the way Jesus sees it…

But before his proclamation of the kingdom of God drawing near, Jesus was sent into the wilderness. For Jesus, these forty days were a time of trial. Mark’s account lacks the detail offered by Matthew and Luke, but he reports that Jesus was tempted by Satan – he was tested. And like last year, we again find ourselves in a time of trial during Lent. We continue to suffer under the burden of a global pandemic – a virus spread unwittingly through human interaction, which has led to social isolation, to anxiety, to painful, lonely deaths.

I would like to return to the second of my rainbows. Every February, Channel 4 marks the UK’s LGBT History Month, and this year the season’s highlight is a new series called It’s A Sin. The programme follows the story of a group of young people who converged on early 1980s London where they began to experience the horror of an unknown, untreatable, certainly incurable, virus which swept through their community, spread unwittingly through human interaction, which led to social isolation, to anxiety, to painful, lonely deaths. The HIV/AIDS pandemic continues, responsible for an estimated 32 million deaths – so far; in the West, anti-viral medication can render the virus ‘undetectable’ and effectively harmless – preventative medication can even stop people catching the virus. For much of the rest of the world, however, where such medications are not available, AIDS continues to kill at alarming rates. HIV/AIDS is no longer thought of as a ‘gay plague’, but haunts the continent of Africa causing death and destroying families. We can trust God’s promise: he doesn’t use viruses to punish us or to destroy his creation. Like Jesus, supported in his time of trial in the wilderness by the angels who waited on him, we have hope. This hope manifests itself in the wonder of medical science which has produced effective vaccines against Covid-19; we can have hope through the tremendous efforts of our NHS to deliver a vaccination programme which will, in time, protect us and bring to an end this time of trial. We can have hope through the work of scientists over forty years who have produced drugs which can prevent an HIV diagnosis from being a death sentence. If only Western governments could see the world as Jesus does – one great family of creation – these medical marvels could be shared, enabling more lives to be protected and saved, bringing to an end not only these two great pandemics of our time, but much of the suffering of the world’s people.

God can indeed achieve great things through times of trial. Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near…” The time for action is here, now: Jesus wants us to open our eyes to the work God is doing, to change our perspectives, to transform our purposes away from self-interest, materialism and boundary fences so that we can see God’s kingdom and experience God’s love.  

As we look ahead to Holy Week and Easter, we know that God’s love, through the person of Jesus Christ, underwent an unimaginable trial. There are many theories about how Jesus’ death and resurrection brought about our salvation, but I suspect that none can fully explain the process – and neither, I think, do they need to. God’s love, his faithfulness to his promise to creation – represented by that rainbow in the sky – is a great, wonderful, joyful mystery. The rainbow proclaims our hope in God. Jesus calls us today to trust him, to trust in God, and to “believe in the good news.”