On 22nd February 2015, the first Sunday of Lent, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 25:1-9, Genesis 9:8-17, and Mark 1:9-15.
When Jesus arrived to begin his ministry, God had been silent for a long time. It was easy to believe that he had given up on his covenants with his people. Jesus’ message was a call to repent of disbelieve and believe the very good news that God’s kingdom had drawn near. God was not distant but very present and calling his people into a renewed relationship with him.
The House of Bishops of the Church of England has recently released: “Who is my neighbour? A Letter from the House of Bishops to the People and Parishes of the Church of England for the General Election 2015.” There will be a General Election in the United Kingdom in May and the bishops are urging Christians to engage with the political process and to think about the sorts of policy we need to improve our country, bringing it more in line with Christian values.
The letter notes that many people feel detached from politics. Our voting system means that it can appear that many votes really don’t count. It also points out that the political parties tend to create policies to win votes from certain sections of society, regardless of the common good. In addition, politicians are not highly regarded by the public. Perhaps too often election campaign promises are not fulfilled when parties find themselves in power. It seems that politicians cannot be trusted. However, as the bishops note, “the great majority of politicians and candidates enter politics with a passion to improve the lives of their fellow men and women”. I doubt if this situation is only true in the United Kingdom.
Perhaps the recent situation in Greece illustrates what can happen in politics. The Syriza party won the election because they promised to end the austerity programme that had been imposed as part of the conditions for Greece being lent money. Already the party has had to abandon some of its promises to the Greek people as a result of talks with other European countries. Some in Greece will no doubt accept this as inevitable, but focus on the changes the party has been able to bring about. Others will be cynical and decide that politicians simply can’t be trusted to keep their promises. All that euphoria about a new government was just wasted. Nothing has changed.
When Jesus arrived and began his ministry in first century Israel, many of the people had taken an attitude to God similar to that which many take to politicians. Like politicians, God was prone to make promises, his being in the form of covenant agreements with his people. In the passage from Genesis God made a covenant with Noah that he would never again destroy the earth with a flood. Although God had felt regret that he had made people at all, he had found Noah to be a righteous man and committed himself to protecting all creation for all future generations. As a sign of the covenant, God sent the rainbow to remind himself (and people) of his promise.
The covenant with Noah was one of seven that God made either with the people of Israel or with all people or all creation. However, by the first century God appeared to have gone and left the people to their own devices. There had been no prophets to speak for God for hundreds of years. What evidence was there that God was keeping the promises he had made? Perhaps he no longer cared. Maybe Israel’s continuous disobedience had finally made God walk away.
Finally John arrived, reminding people of Elijah, that great prophet. He quoted Isaiah about the voice in the wilderness. Suddenly there was hope that the promises of God were not dead, that God’s chosen one would come to sit on David’s throne as had been promised in another of the covenants.
When Jesus began his ministry, Mark tells us that he was proclaiming ‘the good news of God’. Finally! A message from God, the God who had been silent for so long. And what did Jesus say? ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
Jesus was actually challenging people to turn their thinking around. Instead of consigning God’s covenants to history, they were to recognise that God’s kingdom was right there, not in the past or the far future but in the present, available. They were to believe the good news of God’s presence, to get rid of their hopelessness and cynicism. Not only were all the old covenants still valid as they had never been withdrawn, but Jesus had arrived to fulfil the new covenant promised by Jeremiah:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
Far from having God as some historical figure or distant deity, God was available to all. Everyone could know him, everyone could have their sins forgiven, everyone could belong to the people of God.
Jesus challenged the people to repent, to turn their thinking around. They had doubted God, his goodness and faithfulness, yet Jesus was able to declare that God was still good, still faithful, still loving, still compassionate. The issue was not with God but with his people. As the psalmist writes, ‘All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.’ A covenant has two parties to it and both have responsibilities. God always fulfils his part, but his people must fulfil theirs.
As you are aware, in this time of Lent we focus on our own shortcomings, our sins, and spend extra time in prayer and Bible study in order to draw closer to God. One of the most startling things I have ever read about sin is a quote from Oswald Chambers who said: ‘The root of sin is the suspicion that God is not good.’ If we believe that God is not good, we cannot trust him with our lives, we cannot turn to him in times of difficulty. So we go our own way, turning our back on God, becoming cynical about his apparently empty promises. A distance grows in our relationship with God and with other people. Anger, suspicion, lies, greed all take root when we don’t feel connected with God.
Jesus’ challenge still rings out from the Bible as it did when he began his ministry in Galilee. It’s for each of us as much as it was for his hearers then: ‘Repent and believe in the good news.’
Helene Milena (Lay Pastor)