Have you had the experience of being admitted to a meeting on ‘Zoom’?
It’s a little startling. Suddenly you have sight of a multiple rooms, from many places – maybe many places in different continents – and multiple faces, each in their own square. As I was told: it’s like finding yourself in the opening credits of The Brady Bunch.
And somehow these physically distanced places must come together to form one gathering.
Reading the Bible we are admitted to a gathering of voices and views from different places: one window opens from an Egyptian village, another from the riverside in Babylon, another from a fortress in the hills of Edom, or the shrine of Bethel in Samaria. All these are gathered around the host, whom we might place in Jerusalem, and all looking straight ahead in something like parallel visions which converge in infinity.
Our readings today admit three such windows.
One, with a lofty survey of a whole landscape, is from the top of Mount Ararat. Last Sunday we heard in the reading at Mattins of the journey there of the Ark, with Noah and his family and other animals.
Today the reading at Mattins picked up the story from the moment Noah and all with him went out of the ark. If you are joining us from your home and weren’t here for Mattins, you might like to look up the account – it’s given in Genesis 8:20-9:17. It’s not a passage we can assume we know.
The ark itself doesn’t appear. What we hear is what God says to Noah, and what God says in God’s own heart.
Noah’s first instinct – the first action of this new world – is to build an altar and … to sacrifice on it one of all the clean animals which Noah has tended through the flood. It is a good job there were more than two of each by then!
And God makes a covenant, the first covenant.
It is striking to hear this now, in the 21st century, Covid-19 window in which we join the conversation.
Because this covenant is not one of election, of selection, of some not others. The covenant God chooses to make is with “every living creature of all flesh”.
We have suddenly and starkly been reminded that we are all flesh – all of the same substance – however much we may have found ourselves taking to different boats in the current disaster.
It has reminded us that we are not kings of creation, as perhaps we thought we were, but that we are, nevertheless, integral to it. We are all flesh. We too belong.
And this ancient story assures us that God safeguards creation: –
As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night,
shall not cease.
This week we mark Rogation – thanksgiving and prayer for the fruitfulness of God’s earth.
Maybe we need to hear that message again today: God safeguards God’s creation. The natural world to which we belong is not inherently unstable. It is guaranteed.
This is not a promise of safety for any person, but it is a promise of the goodness of life.
It is a promise God makes in solemn covenant without condition – God does not demand any like promise from Noah.
And it is a promise God makes knowing now what we are like. This is no return to Eden. God knows we will kill, we shall eat flesh, and so shall the animals.
And knowing this, God commits Godself to us all.
Hear the prophet Isaiah’s take on this covenant with Noah:
I have sworn that I will not be angry with you and will not rebuke you.
With everlasting love I will have compassion on you.
My steadfast love will not depart from you.
God sees God’s own image in us.
God intends us to be fruitful.
And God remembers, and will remember.
This gratuitous promise, restoring life – it fits well with the message of Easter.
And it is a promise we perhaps need to hold in our hearts this Eastertide.
It is not that we have no responsibility or nothing to do, far from it.
But it is a promise that is made to us as we are – a one-sided promise: ‘never again’ – and that includes now.
And this promise releases us to do with confidence all that is good to do,
reminding us that we are all flesh, all encompassed by the same covenant.
Let’s mute Genesis and unmute the other two windows momentarily.
Moving from the top of the world to Athens, top spot for philosophy, we welcome Paul to the gathering.
He is in the middle of a discourse against polytheism and he agrees that it is God who gives “to all mortals life and breath and all things.”
And in the middle of the confusion of nations, and world history and human thinking, Paul suggests that we are groping for the God who underwrites our nature. Further – he asserts that God is not far from us.
Turning now from there to another world city – our host, John, in Jerusalem.
But he’s not streaming from the Temple but from community lockdown in an Upper Room and he’s relaying to us words of Jesus:
“Because I live, you also will live … you in me and I in you.”
What we’re witnessing is more than God underwriting our nature, God hidden in clouds of wisdom.
The God who made the irreversible covenant with all flesh is here God with us.
God suffering with us suffering. God suffering for us.
God without PPE.
God to whom we have passed on symptoms of Covid-19.
Jesus says, “I am in my Father” – Noah receiving the covenant could not have gone that far, but we can.
Jesus is our Advocate.
On Thursday we celebrate his ascension to the Father, the authority over all flesh given to our Advocate, the one who knows our nature from the inside, the one truly fragrant sacrifice, the one who fulfils God’s saving role for us.
And more: Jesus is promising another Advocate – an Advocate, a Comforter who will live in us moment by moment
so that our hearts, the violent human hearts which God embraced on Ararat,
will be made tender from within.
Pentecost and Trinity Sunday follow soon.
Those who heard these words in the Upper Room were few in number, a tiny selection of all the life God holds in God’s covenant, as were the family coming out of the ark, but they found they were not orphaned, not left without a Father.
Unmuting Ararat again, we hear that the promise of the covenant is marked by a sign – it’s a sign that God remembers his Covenant.
As ben Sirach puts it: Look at the rainbow and praise him who made it;
it is exceedingly beautiful in its brightness.
It encircles the sky with its glorious arc;
the hands of the Most High have stretched it out.
If this Eastertide is marked by infection and the fear of infection, and the fear of other human beings and by social distancing, by sorrow and by the fear of recession, then scripture invites us to recognise that
the rainbow we put in our windows
is also the rainbow that reminds God of God’s covenant with all flesh.
George Matheson, the blind theologian and hymn writer meditated on it beautifully in his hymn, O Love that will not let me go, written at a time of great mental stress: –
O Joy, that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.
Tracing “the rainbow through the rain”.
With that I’ll mute and return us to the view from the host of this gathering.