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First Reading = 1 Peter 3:18-22
18For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.
21And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
We are starting a new series looking at covenants in the Bible as we enter the season of Lent.
Now, I just dropped a whole bunch of church lingo words in one sentence. So let me unpack that.
What is Lent? Lent is a season of about 40 days before Easter where we prepare our hearts, minds, and souls for Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection on Easter. Advent is the season before Christmas where we prepare for Jesus’ birth. Lent is the season before Easter when we prepare for his death.
Advent is like the last trimester of a pregnancy – that baby is on the way! Get ready!
And Lent is like the last season of life when a loved one is in hospice and only receiving minimal care. The end is close. Get ready.
We often talk about giving up something for Lent, but since we’ve already given up hugs, pot lucks, and seeing people’s faces below the eyes, maybe we don’t need to give up anything else this year.
But I digress. We’re in Lent, which means we’re preparing for Jesus’ death on our behalf. So that’s one of the church lingo words defined.
What about covenant? If you’ve been in churches most of your life, you probably already knew what Lent was. But what about covenant? If I asked you to define covenant, what would you say? And are you confident that your definition reflects the rich meaning present in the Bible when it says covenant?
Covenant is a hard one for us no matter if you’ve been following Jesus for decades or you’re still unsure about him. Because covenant isn’t a word we use anymore.
It’s part contract, part promise, part solemn oath, part marriage, and part mind-blowing act of the Living God! This is a big time word in the Bible!
There’s a scene in the movie Jerry Maguire. Jerry is a sports agent, and he loses almost all of his clients. He shows up to his top client’s house to try to bring him back. And the dad, Matt Cushman, says, “You know I don’t do contracts, but what you do have is my word, and it’s stronger than oak!” That’s inspiring, right? My word is stronger than oak! That’s the kind of firmness that’s implied by covenant.
But…and this is a big but…later in the movie there’s another scene. Right before his client is going to be drafted number one overall, Jerry realizes that another agent named Bob Sugar has been trying to steal his client. And Jerry says to Matt, “You didn’t sign anything with Sugar, right? Tell me you didn’t sign! Because I’m still sort of moved by your ‘my word is stronger than oak’ thing.” And Matt says, “We signed with Sugar…an hour ago.”
So that demonstrates the problem with every human example we can find when we try to figure out what the Bible means by “covenant.” Every human who makes an oath can break it. Every human who says “my word is stronger than oak” can be swayed. Every human who signs a contract can violate the terms. Every human marriage can fall apart. We, and by we I mean humans, we are unreliable.
And that’s why Biblical covenants are different. Our text today is the first formal Biblical covenant, and it begins with God saying, “I am establishing my covenant with you.” Biblical covenants aren’t based on the unreliable commitment of humans. Biblical covenants are based on the character and commitment of God. There are sometimes terms to the covenant. There are sometimes consequences for the people who don’t live up to what God expects. But the covenants themselves are based on God’s word, not ours. Based on God’s character, not ours. Based on God’s promises, not ours.
In many respects, a Biblical covenant is like us waving a white flag of unconditional surrender. We don’t have a seat at the bargaining table. We don’t have any leverage. We don’t get to dictate any terms. God just chooses to establish a covenant with us. And luckily for us, God loves us and chooses to make these covenants as a source of blessing rather than curse.
Taking all of this in, I would define Biblical covenant is an unshakable promise that God makes to people. God chooses the terms of the promise. God chooses what he expects of us. God chooses every aspect of the covenant. A Biblical covenant is an unshakable promise that God makes to people.
So let’s put these two concepts together. We’re in Lent, preparing for the death of Jesus on our behalf. And just like a family reminding themselves of the key stories of a loved one’s life when they’re about to die, we’re preparing for Jesus’ death by reminding ourselves about some of the most important things that God said – God’s covenants.
Let’s hear about the first covenant.
Sermon Reading = Genesis 9:8-17
8Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9“As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
12God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
I Will Not Destroy You
I vividly remember one particular evening when I was in high school. I was chatting online with one of my friends, and I was pretty depressed. I don’t remember why I was so depressed. It was probably dating relationship trouble or something else transient that I nevertheless thought was earth-shattering and permanent. But whatever the reason, I was extremely depressed and I was chatting online with my friend.
And I typed to him that if I were God, and if I knew ahead of time how humans (like me) would mess things up so badly, I never would have created us in the first place. I don’t remember what my friend replied. I think he got tired of dealing with this depressed version of me and he signed off or something.
Now, in the story of Noah, we actually get a little insight into God’s thought process. Noah’s story starts off with this observation in Genesis 6: “5 The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. 6 The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. 7 So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord…Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God.”
I actually have a hard time relating to the people in this story. On one hand we have the mass of humanity where “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” That’s like saying everyone on the earth was a super-villain in a Marvel movie. Only evil thoughts – all the time. That’s intense! Even on my worst day, I don’t think I went the whole day with only evil thoughts all the time. I can’t relate to that.
And on the other side we have Noah, who is righteous, blameless, and faithful. That’s like the superhero Captain America, right? Even on my best day, I don’t think I went the whole day only being righteous, faithful, and blameless. I can’t relate to that.
But that’s how our story starts. It’s like God’s looking down, and he sees a teeming mass of super-villains all over the earth. So he says, “I’m gonna wipe them out with a flood.” But, look here! It’s Captain America! So God says, “I’m gonna save Captain America Noah, his family, and a bunch of animals on a boat.”
OK, kinda weird story, but the superhero Noah wins at the end of the day. And he gets to snuggle with kittens and puppies and lambs on a boat, so that’s a heartwarming final shot in the movie to send you out with all the good feels.
If that were the whole movie, if that were the whole story here in the Bible, then the lesson would be simple – be good or God will drown you and your pets, too.
But that’s not the end of the story here in the Bible. That’s not the end of the movie. In fact, the whole super-villains versus Captain America bit, the whole catastrophic flood and animals on the boat bit, that’s all just setting the stage for the actual, important part of this story. You see, the story of the flood isn’t actually a story about a flood. It’s a story about a promise. It’s a story about a covenant. There’s a flood in the opening chapters of the story, but the story isn’t about the flood. The story’s about the promise, the oath, the covenant from the Living God that comes after the flood.
To keep it simple, the promise goes like this. God says, “I promise not to destroy you.” That’s really it. “I promise not to destroy you.” Why does that matter?
It matters because of what God doesn’t say. God doesn’t say, “I promise not to destroy the righteous, blameless people who are like Captain America Noah.” God doesn’t say, “I promise not to destroy you as long as you don’t become as bad as those people.” There isn’t a condition for this promise. God chooses not to destroy us – even if we deserve it.
And this is fascinating. Right after our text today, our Captain America, Noah, gets drunk and passes out naked. Not so blameless, now, eh? But he isn’t condemned. He isn’t destroyed. He isn’t written off. The drunken Noah story shows us that a major shift has taken place. A huge, tectonic shift has taken place.
God has chosen not to give up on us. Even when we deserve it. Especially when we deserve it. God has chosen not to give up on us. Even if you’re more like the super-villains than Captain America, God hasn’t given up on you. Not because you deserve it! Not because any of us deserve it! God’s promise is God’s choice. That’s it. God has chosen to not give up on you!
If you’re feeling as depressed as I was that day back in high school, God hasn’t given up on you!
If you’re feeling hopeless, God hasn’t given up on you!
If you’re feeling like you’ve done something unforgivable, God hasn’t given up on you!
If you’re feeling like you’re not worthy of God’s attention, God hasn’t given up on you!
If you’re feeling like you’re standing on top of a house of cards that’s about to collapse, God hasn’t given up on you!
If you’re feeling like nothing you do matters, it’s pointless, God hasn’t given up on you!
No matter how you’re feeling, no matter what you have done or not done, God has NOT given up on you!
And this is why I believe that’s important to remember.
On that day when I was deeply depressed in high school, what eventually sustained me? My connection to Jesus, even though I couldn’t understand why God would make such failed creatures as me.
On that day in the children’s hospital emergency room when we learned our son was having dozens of seizures a day, what sustained me? My connection to Jesus, even though I couldn’t understand why God would allow children to suffer in this way.
On those days when I have made poor choices, on those days when I haven’t been upright and blameless as Noah, on those days when I would give up on me for failing again and again and again, what sustains me? My connection to Jesus, even though I wouldn’t choose to die for someone like me.
So I encourage you, I encourage me, I encourage all of us to take God up on his promise. He promises not to destroy you. He promises not to give up on you. Take him up on that.
Don’t try to hide. Bring your failures to God and receive his forgiveness and love.
Don’t try to hide. Bring that part of your life you’d rather hide and not talk about, bring that to God and receive his forgiveness and love.
Don’t try to hide. Even if you feel like you’re one of those super villains in our text today and you have to bring every part of your life to God, go ahead and receive his forgiveness and love.
The first step to prepare our hearts this Lenten season is to admit that we are not upright and blameless. That might be really obvious to everyone who knows us. That might be something hidden even from the people who know us best. But God knows.
And even knowing what God knows, he made you. He doesn’t give up on you. He loves you.
If you’re listening to this and you want to experience the kind of love and forgiveness that I’m talking about, but you don’t know where to start, send me an email, or send the church a Facebook Message and I’d be honored to walk with you through discovering that process.
One of my son’s favorite songs says that there’s one thing that remains, one thing is stronger than everything else in life, higher than every challenge, stronger than the power of the grave…
“One thing remains: Your love never fails, and never gives up, and never runs out on me.”
“On and on and on and on it goes. It overwhelms and satisfies my soul. And I never ever have to be afraid. Because your love never fails, it never gives up, and never runs out on me.”
That never-ending love comes from a promise that started with Noah and was finally fulfilled in Jesus.
So I encourage you to take even that part of your life that no one knows about and bring it to God in prayer. Accept his forgiveness. Experience his love that never fails, never gives up, and never runs out on you. Amen.