Stewardship – Lent 1 Year B 2018, Rev Mary Bowden
Genesis 9.8-17 and Mark 1.9-15
God 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.
Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
As the geeky amongst you will know, the church has a three year cycle of bible readings – imaginatively known as Years A,B and C. On the first Sunday in Lent we always think about Jesus being tempted by Satan in the wilderness, but in Year B this is linked with the first of a series of OT readings telling us about God’s covenant with his people. So six years ago in 2012 and 3 years ago in 2015 we spent time thinking about God’s covenant with his people, in terms of relationship and response. And guess what – we’re going to revisit this today, and look in particular at the second part – our response to God’s promises. You have or will have picked up your stewardship envelopes – full of words and numbers and graphs setting out hard facts about the church and money – where it comes form, how we spend it. I want to put another envelope around all that – the all embracing love and faithfulness of God, and the response of love and trust it calls out from us.
What is a covenant? There’s a difference between the legal understanding of covenant and the theological one. For lawyers a covenant is much the same thing as a contract, essentially transactional, I promise to do something and you promise to do something in return: I do, you do. If either of us doesn’t do, no deal. It’s a functional thing. But theologically covenant is different. It’s an agreement which brings about a relationship of commitment between God and his people. A covenant is a relationship initiated by God, to which a body of people responds in faith. Not a transaction: I scratch your back you scratch mine: but a relationship to which we respond in faith… a relationship initiated by God.
That relationship was initiated in the beginning, in creation…. It isn’t an equal partnership, it’s a promise from a loving creator to sustain and care for creation, which needs to elicit a response of love and service from that creation… from us. In the story of Noah God’s overarching goodwill towards his creation is expressed, shown, guaranteed by the rainbow. You may remember that although we think of it as a beautiful sign in the sky, in Hebrew the word rainbow means a warbow. So it’s a weapon of destruction, but God chooses to place it in the sky, symbolically out of reach… unable to be used for destruction and so gradually transforming into the beautiful and reassuring symbol we know today. God uses this symbol to show the nature of the partnership between himself and his people: we are held and given security by that containing, all-embracing arc, with God existing both within and beyond it. And our gospel passage shows us how that first covenant is both upheld and transformed when Jesus comes, sharing our human condition beneath the sky, in the wilderness and amongst the people, proclaiming that the kingdom has come near and calling for repentance and faith. Our repentance and what follows from it is our response to the new covenant that Jesus initiates.
There is help in the OT about what our response should be. Malcolm Anker used to argue, really quite passionately, that the 10 commandments are a wonderful gift from God: a gift that gives us the freedom and security to be ourselves – an over arching structure for our societies within which we can have the security to explore and develop our gifts and talents… I had never seen them in quite that light before, as a vehicle for our freedom. But on reflection I saw what Malcolm meant. We believe that God created us out of love, a love that we can see embodied and expressed in the detail and care of the Genesis accounts of creation. And then the story of the flood and its aftermath shows us that out of his love for us our God is prepared to accept a discipline, place a restriction on himself, symbolised by the rainbow. That is God’s promise for himself, his covenant with us. And for us to keep God’s law, embodied most clearly in the commandments, willingly to embrace them, mirrors that discipline of God: he keeps his promises and we keep ours. A relationship initiated by God, to which we respond in faith.
And then – now, always – we have Jesus. Jesus who chose to come to us as a man, willingly accepted a far greater discipline and restriction out of love. Today’s gospel reading reprises the story of his baptism, which we celebrated in January, and we hear again the words of the Father: this is my beloved son. God honours him for his discipline and sacrifice – and for the love from which it springs.
So these are the relationships God offers to us – today and always. A covenant commitment on his side, to which we need to respond in love, obedience and service, and a sacrificial love which shows us what it means to be human. It is for each one of us to live these out as far as we are able, turning to God for the strength and discipline we need, and supporting and encouraging each other in our efforts. Scripture calls us to love justice and walk humbly with God, to love our neighbours as ourselves, to remember the needs of the poor, the homeless and the stranger.….. We need to take account of this in making all our decisions, including the ones about how we use our own time, skills and money.
When the collection begins for the new temple David says to God “All things come from you, and of your own do we give you” – but those overarching words are set in a chapter which is all about the detail: who gave what and exactly how much of it for the building of the temple, and how it was brought to Jerusalem. Everything matters…. Our stewardship campaign this year focuses not only on how much we give, but also on how we give it (PGS). Many of us remember coming to church as children with threepence or sixpence tucked into in a glove to put in the plate. We have grown up – our scale of thinking has changed along with our resources –money in the plate is always welcome, but there are more efficient ways of sharing what we have – standing orders, tax efficient giving, index linking, the PGS – are just as valid as camels bearing gold and quinquiremes with cedar wood…. Let’s use whatever we can to maximise our work for God.
Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ It’s for us to proclaim that good news today, and to make it real in the world by showing that we believe it in everything we do – the prosaic, small things as well as the big decisions. So as we begin Lent together, as we consider the long faithfulness of God to his people, as we think about the sacrificial love that Jesus showed for us, let’s look for ways of responding to that faithfulness and love, and as part of that let’s commit ourselves to pray and reflect on the contents of those packs and the invitation they contain. Covenant, relationship, response – God’s love and generosity calling out our own….. God’s love and generosity enveloping all we do and are.
End with words from Isaiah, which are my prayer for all of us.
The Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail.