Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sermon - The First Sunday in Lent

Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
St Stephen Lutheran Church
The Rev. Maurice Frontz, STS

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

This era has known no lack of doomsday predictions.
Many of you will remember Hal Lindsey’s best-selling The Late Great Planet Earth,
and the billboards proclaiming the end of the world in May 2011,
or those who believed that since the calendar of the ancient Mayans
ended at the winter solstice of 2012,
there would be no more days after that.
But doomsday predictions are not confined to today,
and they are not just the province of the uneducated.

Consider the case of Dr. Johannes Stoeffler,
‘a German mathematician, astronomer,
astrologer, and professor at the world-famous University of Tuebingen.
In 1499 he calculated that 20 planetary ‘conjunctions,’
appearances of two or more planets in the same part of the sky,
would occur in the year 1524,
and sixteen of them would occur in the astrological sign of Pisces,’
the water sign.
‘Stoeffler therefore predicted that on February 20, 1524,
the world would be destroyed in a second Great Flood.’
Thanks to Gutenberg’s printing press,
the prediction was spread far and wide.
‘As the date drew near,
many people built boats and loaded them with provisions.
One wealthy German nobleman, Count von Iggleheim,
built a three-story ark.’

According to my unimpeachable source,
Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader,
‘the year 1524 began with much of central Europe in a drought,
which soothed fears…
until it began to drizzle on February 20, sparking a panic.
A terrified mob descended on Count von Iggleheim’s ark
and tried to force their way onto it.
In the riot that followed, von Iggleheim was stoned to death
and hundreds of people were crushed or trampled.
Then the skies cleared…
and the mob realized it had all been for nothing.’

If only they had read the Bible.
Martin Luther’s translation of the New Testament
had been circulating for two years,
but the Old Testament and the Apocrypha
weren’t published until 1534.
If Dr. Stoeffler and Count von Iggleheim
and the other people who bought the story
had read Genesis 9,
they would have known that the earth would never again be destroyed because of a flood,
that God had promised that it would not be so,
that he had made covenant with Noah 
and his descendants,
which, of course, according to the Bible,
means all of us.
Before it was able to be scientifically described
or became a symbol of diversity,
the rainbow was known the sign of the covenant
which God made with the people of the world.
God puts away his weapon,
he comes in peace,
to deal with mercy with us and not in wrath.

To make a covenant
is to bind oneself by one’s word.
By making this covenant with Noah and his descendants,
God declares his intention, his mind and heart –
and he does so without condition.
He does not make the covenant dependent upon our attitude or behavior,
so that our breaking of the covenant would invalidate his promise.
Instead, he speaks his Word,
and by his promise he determines the future.
Because of his promise,
we can live in confidence that day will follow night,
that sun will follow rain,
that order will follow chaos,
that mercy will follow wrath.

This covenant is the pattern 
for all of God’s covenants in the Bible.
These covenants culminate in the covenant
that the Father makes with the Son
and with all who are baptized into the Son’s name.
Baptismal immersion is not necessary for salvation,
and yet it is perhaps the most appropriate 
symbolic form for baptism,
for Baptism is at the same time flood 
and deliverance from the flood.
In Baptism the sin of the old Adam or the old Eve
is drowned in the blood of Christ.
And yet we ourselves are not annihilated,
but we are brought forth to the dry ground.

In the covenant of Baptism God binds himself to his Word.
‘You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
In that covenant Jesus is driven out into the wilderness,
to live by the words of that covenant,
and by that promise only.
In the wilderness forty days,
he is tempted to abandon the promise,
to live from his own strength and resources.
The tempter casts doubt on God’s Word,
just as the serpent cast doubt 
on God’s Word in the garden.
But Jesus binds himself to the Word
that binds his Father to him,
he remembers the promise of the Father.
Perhaps he even prays in the words of Psalm 25:
‘All the paths of the LORD are love and faithfulness
to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.’
All the paths, even in the wilderness of the world,
in the time of temptation by the devil,
when it seems as if chaos will overwhelm the world
and that we ourselves will perish along with it.

In Lent, in the time of waiting
in the wilderness,
when the songs of jubiliation are stilled
and the images of salvation covered over,
we remember the promise of God given us in baptism.
We bind ourselves to that promise by which God binds himself to us.
Despite our sin,
despite the evil that surrounds us,
even despite death that hems us in and threatens us,
God’s Word cannot be broken.
And so we need not be swayed by the tempting voices that say,

‘You have not trusted in the promise,
you have failed others and you cannot undo the past,
you have fallen away and cannot be restored.’

Or the voice that says,
‘There are times of drought, famine, and flood,
therefore God cannot be trusted.’
‘Evil is stronger than good in the world.’

Or the voice that says,
‘You will die and be forgotten,
and there is nothing to live for but the present.’

Instead, our trust is and may be in the promise of God.
When we see the rainbow we remember the covenant of peace
God made with Noah.
We believe the words of the apostle,
‘Christ also suffered for sins once for all,
the righteous for the unrighteous,
in order to bring you to God.’
And with every sign of the cross we recall the promise
made to Christ and to all who bear his name,
‘You are my Beloved, with you I am well pleased.’
We cling to the words of the Creed of the holy Church:
‘We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.