God never deserts us

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- We begin our readings for Lent not with gloom and sorrow but with God’s assurance of his continual presence with us. This was something well known to the Jews of the Old Testament and was given and ratified by Covenants; agreements between God and his people. Here in our first reading we meet the very first covenant, (Genesis 9:8-15), God made with Noah after the flood, which as we see, includes not just people but the entire creation, God’s steadfast promise and concern for what he has made. Thereafter every great event in their lives would be marked by a renewal of the covenant relationship, as we see at Sinai; after the exodus and so on. The point is that God never deserts his chosen however grim things seem at certain moments in our history.

In the New Testament we see that God finally defines that covenant relationship in a much more material way, enfleshing it in the person of Jesus his son, (Mark 1:12-15), who proclaims not just in word, but also in his healing acts that the ‘kingdom of God is close at hand’. In his very presence he calls upon people to turn their lives about, to quite literally face and engage with God through him and through him alone as He is God’s unique and definitive revelation of himself to creation. Something new has happened; it appears that the relationship between God and humanity has become even closer than before; God has become man, for the renewal of fallen creation.  To make this ever clearer we see that when Jesus is tempted by the devil it is the rest of the created order, angels and beasts which surround and protect him. Animals of course, because they do not have reason, do not choose to sin and are therefore ‘pure’. They are, like the entire creation caught up in the Fall, but through no fault of their own, and its restoration is primarily God’s initiative and action.

Our reading from 1 Peter (3:18-22), indeed the whole of the work, can be seen as a meditation on the human condition. It was probably written in the late first century AD to Christians undergoing persecution in what is now western and northern Turkey. We know of their persecution from contemporary letters from Pliny the Younger, who was Roman Governor of Bithynia and who wrote for guidance to Trajan his emperor during this period. Our passage speaks of the sufferers’ solidarity with Christ, who, like them was innocent but victimised; and of the meaning of his death and suffering and its promise of restoration in God: “In the body he was put to death, in the spirit he was raised to life, and, in the spirit, he went to preach to the spirits in prison”. It speaks then of God’s unbreakable solidarity with his chosen, those he has ‘covenanted with’, through the person of Jesus his son – here, both literally ‘in prison’ and metaphorically imprisoned by their sins, and of how Christ’s resurrected power can hold them firm to stand fast through the most appalling situations. Indeed, we know from Pliny’s letters that some were tortured for the faith and others killed. The Letter then goes on to speak of baptism and its saving power for believers, a continual reminder of God’s promise and presence with his people. The waters of baptism are both a death – to sin, and a resurrection, a life giving force for the Christians. Jews often feared the waters and saw them as a place of fear, as we see in the flood and in the Jonah story. For the Christian, baptismal immersion became a symbolic dying to the past and its sins and a rebirth through the purifying waters of baptism; a washing and a making one with Christ, and the promise of his victory over death and evil, as shown in Christ’s triumph over the “Angels and Dominations and Powers”. Ancient peoples believed the world alive with malign spirits which needed to be placated, and some of them might take highly visible form in the person of anti-Christian rulers like Nero or Domitian. For the Christian, the death and resurrection of Christ meant that those powers too were ultimately under God’s control. The author of Peter writes to encourage those under threat of persecution to take heart from their covenant with God ratified in the blood of Jesus which guaranteed them, through their baptisms, a place at God’s side in heaven.

We too live through baptism in this continual ‘covenant’ relationship with God through Christ and Lent is the time for us to play our part in making this relationship a renewed reality, a real co-operation with God and a deepening of our friendship with him during the coming weeks. The Petrine letters speak continually of an exploration of past and future in God for it is only when we make room for this living, developing experience of God that the power of the resurrection can come to its fruition in us and his image and likeness in us can grow.

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