The Rev. Casey dunsworth

serves as Associate Campus Pastor to the Belfry, the Lutheran-Episcopal Campus Ministry to UC Davis

and as Program Director for LEVN, the Lutheran Episcopal Volunteer Network.

Promises, Promises—A Sermon on Noah, Jesus, and You

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

Texts like today’s can be tough. They’re “classics” but they’re also complicated. In Genesis, God tells Noah that there will over and over and over be a sign of the promises between God and God’s people—a rainbow in the sky. And in the Gospel According to Mark, the spirit of God descends on Jesus like a dove, and words echo through the sky: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." These are life-altering, world-altering moments in the history of the people of God, and we remember them together every year, to remind ourselves of the promises made to those who came before us. Those promises extend to us, as we continue to live out the story.

But when was the last time you needed to hear a word from God, and the weather immediately changed, or there was a loud pronouncement from the heavens, or anything remotely significant happened right then and there? These stories can make us feel like this is the only way God talks to us, the only way God shows love for us. If we don’t have magnificent religious experiences, we’re not doing it right.

I hope that that is not the lesson you have learned from these stories in the past; it is not the lesson I am intend to leave you with tonight. What I hope you are hearing in these words, instead, is that God has made everlasting promises to every creature in every time and every place. To Noah and his family, to Jesus, and to you.

A link in these stories is their feature of water. In Genesis there is a very big flood. Everyone and everything that is not on the ark is drowned. That is very serious. We turn this story into a cute “two by two” animal song for children, and we neglect the violence done to the earth and its inhabitants. We neglect the very clear message that God has sent. In recent years, our earth has seen several natural disasters, showing us just how out of sorts our planet can get. With harsh winters, raging wildfires, and hurricanes being perhaps the clearest analog, here, the climate has changed and is changing. We know that our lack of care for creation has exacerbated this problem for over a century. For the most part, we are not concerned unless disaster strikes close to home. But God wants us to see the whole earth—every creature on every inch of the earth—as part of our family.

Dr. Nicole L. Johnson wrote that “the implications of this covenant toward ecological justice are hard to miss; God’s promise to protect the entire creation calls the faith community to see its own existence and well-being tied together with the existence and well-being of the rest of the created order, so loved and protected by its creator. Humans are in covenant not only with one another and God but with the natural world as well.” [1]

We have work to do, in this regard. Not just climate action, but recognition of the multidimensional nature of this covenant, these promises. We are bound together with God, and we are bound together with one another, and we are bound together with the whole earth. In order to truly enact that type of connection, we have to begin by believing it’s true about us. That God loves us, created us to be exactly who we are, and wants to maintain that connectedness forever.

Some people may try to tell you that these promises from God are not for you. That you are not enough, or you are too much. That you are too queer, too brown, too poor, too rich, too young, too female, too conservative, too liberal, too smart, too stupid, too fat—whatever puny excuse gets you at your most vulnerable, that’s where they’ll exploit you. That’s where they’ll draw the line between who is loved by God and who isn’t. Maybe that’s already been done to you. Maybe that’s why you’re here. Maybe that’s why you’re not sure why you’re here.

Some things about our faith are very complicated, and some things are very simple. The simple truth is that there’s good news: you are beloved of God, and because of that belovedness—which you are walking around immersed in all day every day—you are free from all of the stuff that seeks to tear you down. Because of the promises of God, you are free from the false promises of this world.

In the Gospel story, immediately following Jesus’ epic baptism, where the Holy Spirit descends like a dove, the same Holy Spirit throws Jesus into the wilderness. Throws! That’s pretty intense. I am very excited to be using my several years of Greek study to tell you this, because the verb that is translated here as “‘drove’ into the wilderness” is ekballo, which means to throw out. It’s the same word used for exorcising demons, for ostracizing people from society, and for plucking out your own eye if it causes you to sin. Wild! This, just like the flood story, is not so tame as we have smoothed it over to be. Jesus himself has been baptized and then tossed into the desert, to be tempted by the devil. And you thought you were having a weird day.

Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness—symbolizing the Israelites’ 40 days in the desert and Noah’s 40 days in the ark. The Gospel According to Mark is always so quick and concise, and so we don’t really get the gory details of Jesus’ trials and tribulations in this version. We get one sentence: “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” That’s not a lot to go on, but it sure sounds tough.

The thing that’s so, so useful about this part of the story for us is that baptism and welcome into God’s family does not prevent us from suffering. It does not prevent us from temptation. It does not shield us from harm. We are beloved children of God, for sure, but we still have to go through an occasional wilderness. “Too many of us seek to use our relationship with God as a detour around the wilderness.” [2] Right? That sounds significantly easier. But it’s not realistic.

The world we live in is full of temptation, full of struggle, full of challenge, full of wilderness. God’s promises to be with us, though, are not limited by these things. God accompanies us through our temptation, our struggles, our challenges, our wilderness. When things are sailing smoothly, we may find it easy to say “thanks, God!” or maybe not even remember to thank God, because we’re so busy having everything go our way. But “faith is muscular, thickened more through trials than ease.” [3] God is with you on your best day, God is with you on your worst day, and God is with you on all of your very very average days. God is with you. I promise.

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[1] Nicole L. Johnson, “First Sunday in Lent” in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B, 129.

[2] Earle J. Fisher, “This Same Spirit” in Resipiscence: A Lenten Devotional for Dismantling White Supremacy, 12.

[3] Alicia Britt Chole, 40 Days of Decrease: A Different Kind of Hunger. A Different Kind of Fast, 22.

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