What God has given up for Lent

A sermon on Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22 & Mark 1:9-15 by Nathan Nettleton, 5 March 2006
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Message

Violence must be a constant temptation for God, but in absolute love, God has vowed never to resort to it.

Sermon

One of the questions that pops up a lot at this time of year is, "Are you giving up anything for Lent?" All the usual suspects are trotted out: chocolate, smoking, junk food, soap operas. Some people even suggest giving up beer, but I've always thought that was crossing the line into fanaticism, so I've never taken it seriously! In our Ash Wednesday service the other night, we heard God thundering through the prophet Isaiah, "You think I want you giving up chocolate and ice cream to prove your piety? Give me a break! Try giving up ripping off your workers and exploiting the poor, and then get back to me."

A number of people wisely suggest that instead of thinking about what to give up for Lent, think about what to take up for Lent. And indeed Isaiah's message went along those lines too. "Open your tables to the hungry; open your hearts and your homes to the refugees; open your wardrobes to those without clothes." A number of you are taking on additional spiritual disciplines for this season, with a more rigourous than usual regime of prayer and sacred reading. But one of the goals of our School of Discipleship is to be discerning what God is calling you to take up over the next year, not just over the next forty days, and included in that you are encouraged to think along the lines that Isaiah calls for, "what can I begin doing that responds to the needs of the poor and broken and outcast?"

Now I think that that is an important question, and one we would all do well to seek God on, but there is a danger that it can be only a small step removed from some of the more tokenistic "giving-ups". Promising to give some money to World Vision or to reach for some loose change each time you see someone rattling a can for a good cause can easily be just shallow charity that makes us feel a bit smug, but which have little impact on our hip pocket and even less on our fundamental character. We can go further by asking questions about what we can do that will not only benefit other, but will stretch, challenge and change us from the inside out. That's supposed to be the point anyway. Fasting is not a way of saying food is evil, or that it is especially virtuous to do without chocolate for forty days. Fasting is a way of learning to say no by practising on little things, so that when I am in one of those positions where I am tempted to further my own interests by treading on someone else's toes, or to humiliate someone who really gets up my nose, I will have developed a capacity to recognise the power of my own appetites and say no to them when I need to. It is about changing the world, but it recognises that real change always has to start with changing myself so that I can be increasingly part of the reconciliation and no part of the problem. So the most crucial question is not what little things we can give up for Lent, but what are the patterns of being and acting and relating that we need to learn to give up for good?

Our pattern in this comes directly from God. I don't know whether you ever thought about God giving something up for Lent. Okay, we're not really talking about Lent, but what about the idea of God giving something up; making a change to the way he deals with the world?

We are probably a bit more used to the idea of God giving. God so loved the world that he gave his only son. But the Church has often spoken on God's self-sacrifice, and self-sacrifice certainly involves giving something up, even giving up one's life itself.

Our reading from Genesis, though, threw up another possibility. It paints a picture of God giving up the use of destructive violence against the world and swearing never to take it up again. What we heard was the conclusion to the story of Noah and the Great Flood. Our usual focus in the story of the flood is on God's action to save Noah and his family and a whole shipload of animals, but the story does not only attribute the salvation to God. It attributes the destruction to God as well. It says that the world's population has become so corrupt and violent that God resorts to the use of a massive act of violence to wipe it out and start again. And then at the end of the story, in the bit we heard tonight, God enters into a covenant, vowing never to attempt to destroy the world again. Now if you were to try to read this purely as history, even as a history of God, you would get yourself tied up in all sorts of unnecessary knots. The point of this story is not about establishing what God used to be like or used to do, but what God is like now and how God acts towards us now. Whether God changed is not the point. The story may have emerged from a change in the people's understanding of God. "We used to think that floods meant God was punishing us, but now we realise that God wouldn't resort to such acts of violence. God is a God of mercy and love, and natural disasters must have some other explanation."

Whatever the history (and it can't be proved and it wouldn't make any difference to anything much if it could), the fact that the story takes seriously the possibility that God did change on this issue is a valuable recognition of how tempting it must be for God to resort to massive acts of violent force. If God is powerful enough to be technically capable of manipulating the weather and seismic activity and the like — and the biblical traditions mostly operate on the assumption that he is —then the corruption and atrocities of the world must make a massive strike to wipe the slate clean and start again look very tempting indeed.

We heard Mark's version of Jesus spending forty days in the outback being tempted by the Satan tonight. Mark doesn't detail any content to the temptations the way Matthew and Luke do, although it is fair to say that we see Jesus dealing with the same temptations right through the gospel. And again and again, the big temptations Jesus faces are to put things right by force; to employ violent means against violent oppressors, to drive them out and liberate the people. But time and again, Jesus refuses that option. As we see him portrayed in our reading from Peter's first letter, he deals with violence only as a sufferer of it, never as a perpetrator of it. Rather than destroy us for our sins, he suffers for our sins, even to the point of allowing us to kill him in our sin.

We live in a world where violence rules. We employ military forces and police forces and security services and judiciaries to measure out violence on our behalf in order to ensure that our natural human tendency to violence does not escalate out of control and destroy us all. The old cold war policy of mutually assured destruction is written, on much smaller scales, into the fabric of our society. The widespread public support for capital punishment is but one expression of our belief that only the threat of retaliatory violence can contain the violence that otherwise waits to consume the whole world in an apocalyptic frenzy.

But what we have seen clearly in Jesus, and what was being hinted at all the way back in the days of Noah, is that God does not endorse our violence, even our measured, sanctioned, and even sanctified violence. God has given up such violence, not just for Lent, but for eternity. God will willingly suffer our violence in order to expose it, and will rise up as the dying yet ever-living victim of our violence and continue to offer reckless mercy. "Father, forgive them. They've got no idea what they are doing."

That is the sort of "giving-up" that will change the world, and that's the sort of giving up we are all being called to in this season, and in the ongoing project of the Christianising of our lives. But in a world that knows no other way than violence, controlled or out-of-control, that is a tough and extremely counter-cultural undertaking. In a few minutes, we will be bringing our new catechumens forward again, and marking them with the sign of the cross. The journey through Lent is, for the rest of us, a rejoining of the catechumenate, so this signing with the cross is about the ongoing bringing of all our lives under the sign of the cross. For it is the cross, the sign of Jesus' ultimate refusal to repay violence and hatred with violence and vengefulness, that is now to become the sign under which we live our lives, the sign of what we, like Christ, have to give up if the world is to be healed of its grievous wounds and set free for resurrection life.