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First Sunday in lent

Saint Margaret’s

Anglican Church Budapest, Hungary

I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.

I do not know about you, but I think there is something almost charming about the thought of God setting a rainbow in the sky, much as we might tie a string around our finger, in order to remind himself of his pledge or covenant to “every living creature” never again to destroy the world by flood. Poor, old, absent-minded God, we might be tempted to think: If it was not for the rainbow, he might well forget his promise and every living creature; and the world and humankind might long ago have been again deluged and destroyed by worldwide flood waters, just as it was in the time of Noah as described in our first reading this morning from the Book of Genesis.

This passage is by the way the first time a rainbow is mentioned in Scripture and very nearly the last time as well; a rainbow is mentioned only one other time in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, and perhaps only once in the New Testament, as best I can determine. Which seems a bit strange, given its importance here in Genesis where it serves as a sort of turning point in the narrative of creation and generation, the narrative of salvation history, as it is called. Scholars of a more traditionalist or fundamentalist bent also point out that this rainbow in Genesis must also be the very first rainbow ever. Well, maybe.....

In any case and for my part, I might have wished for God’s memory to be jogged and preserved by something with a bit more heft or staying power to it than, say, the ephemeral refracted light and water particles which apparently make up a rainbow; especially if my Covenant with God, and so my life, depended upon it. Perhaps a mountain range, say. Still, it may be that from his vantage point in heaven, the good Lord sees a lot more rainbows than we do down here on the ground in mid-winter in Budapest.

In any case, if this passage records the first, and nearly only, rainbow of Scripture, it also records, again as best I can recall, the first mention of covenant in Scripture, a term and concept which perhaps does not so much resonate in life today but one which was very important in ancient times. For, covenant represented a deep and abiding relationship or partnership in the Middle East at the time these words of Genesis were first written, a binding relationship much stronger than a simple promise or even a legal contract in today’s terms.

And while promises and legal contracts generally imply some sort of tit-for-tat, money, say, in return for land or property, this first of all biblical covenants demands nothing. It is freely given by God. There is no exchange of goods or money; and no expectation expressed of action or performance on the part of humankind or for that matter “all living creatures.” On the other hand, I suppose we could also argue that it is not much of a covenant. Having second thoughts about his own actions in flooding the world, the good Lord after all only promises never to do it again, never again to flood all

the earth. And that is about it. So I suppose, if we are not careful, it could be fire or a climate catastrophe next time. Neither one of which options is that far-fetched, as scientists today remind us.

Humankind’s evil and sin alas have consequences for all living things. The flood was pretty indiscriminate in its destructive power. According to the biblical narrative, it destroyed very nearly all the earth; everything except presumably those people and creatures with Noah in his famous ark. And so, it seems, God now finds it right to make the very first of his covenants not only with “Noah and his sons,” and thus all humankind, but with all the living creatures of the earth. With pretty much everything from virus to whale. Never again shall they all be destroyed, no matter how annoyed God may become with his most obnoxious creation of all, namely you and me. Well, after perhaps mosquitos.

And I suppose there is a great deal of reassurance for us humans in that. For, the covenant between God and all living creatures, including us, just is. And we can safely assume, it still is. Nowhere has it been revoked. That, it seems to me, is the ultimate meaning of the covenant with Noah. No matter how dire things may become, God is still with us. No matter our failings and faults, God does not abandon us. The Lord does not ever forget his covenant with “all flesh that is on the earth.” God remembers. As should we.

In fact, this Lenten season began just days ago with that very word: Remember. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” proclaimed our ordinand, Dan, to each of us, as he imposed a smudge of ash on our foreheads. The season of Lent has sometimes been called the season of remembrance and covenant; a season for us to reflect once again on God’s abiding grace and our too frequent unfaithfulness to God’s covenant with us. For us Christians, what began with primeval flood waters and a rainbow in the story of Noah ultimately finds its fulfillment in the living waters of our Lord’s Baptism, as rainbow is replaced by spirit and word, “You are my Son, the Beloved.”

We now, the sons and daughters of Noah, many generations removed, are reunited in a covenant beyond all rainbows; reunited with the Father in the Son, the Father’s Beloved. "The time is fulfilled,” says our Lord as his Baptism is accomplished, “and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news." “The kingdom of God has come near.”

Remember that, my friends, the next time you see a rainbow. Amen.The Revd Canon Dr Frank Hegedűs

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