Church of England Diocese in Europe

Sermon in Ankara for the First Sunday of Lent (21st February 2021) - The Revd Patrick Irwin

Today’s first reading reminds us of the story of Noah and the flood. When we think of this story we probably think either of its lighter or its darker aspect. We may think of the animals entering the ark two by two, the elephant and the kangaroo, and of the rainbow as a sign of God’s love, the silver lining, as it were, to every storm. Alternatively we may think of the story as an account of how human rebellion so disturbs God that he causes a flood to wipe out nearly everyone on earth. Flood Light and Flood Dark may sound rather like brands of beer, but they are only aspects of the story, and neither is the whole truth.

The story of the flood in Genesis is the culmination of a story of increasing human sinfulness that begins with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and continues with Cain’s murder of his brother Abel. God’s reaction to this wickedness is not anger or desire for revenge, but sorrow. He is grieved to his heart. He sends the flood not in anger but in sorrow. The destruction in the flood is not total. Those humans and animals in the ark with Noah survive and have a new opportunity to live on earth when the flood subsides. The flood is in fact the means of re-creation. God washes the earth clean and the earth begins again. There are several parallels between the story of the flood and the creation narrative, such as God’s command to be fruitful and multiply and the repetition that man are created in the image of God. This new beginning is also a continuation. God does not create new beings but begins again with the survivors of the first creation.

God now enters into an eternal covenant with his creation. He chooses to do so without requiring anything in return. God knows that “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth”. The flood has not cleansed the human heart of sin, as the continuation of the Book of Genesis will make abundantly clear. Yet God promises never again to destroy all creation with a flood.

The symbol of this covenant, God’s bow in the clouds, is precisely the bow of battle. In the ancient world gods are often depicted with bow and arrow. To hang up one’s bow is to retire from battle. That bow in the clouds is the sign of God’s promise that he will never again destroy his creation. He will however try to restore us by other means. He will search for us, despite or indeed perhaps because of his knowledge of our inmost hearts, of how sin veils and blurs our vision of God and of ourselves as his creatures. The rainbow that delights us after storms of rain is a reminder not only that God will not send another flood but that we are his people and he cares for our well-being, indeed longs for us to turn to him in repentance like the Prodigal Son so that he can welcome us to our only true home.

In our Gospel readings this year we are looking at the Gospel according to Mark. This is the shortest Gospel, taking only about an hour to read from beginning to end, and on some Sundays we turn to John’s account as Mark’s account does not have enough text to go around! In today’s Gospel passage, for example Mark takes us from Jesus’ arrival from Nazareth through his baptism and temptations to his first preaching in Galilee…in precisely six verses. On the first Sunday in Lent we traditionally look at Jesus’ temptations, but they are covered by Mark in two verses, which would make a rather short Gospel reading! 

This brevity is deliberate. Mark is an accomplished story-teller, which is why the unvarnished reading of his Gospel in theatres has held audiences spellbound. With a few strokes of the pen Mark sets the stage for all that is to come. Our attention is focussed on Jesus and the message that he brings. Extraneous detail is cleared away, so that we are forced to concentrate on Jesus. Jesus is proclaiming the Gospel, which simply means the Good news, and it is the Good news of God. “The time if fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come hear; repent, and believe in the good news.” So says Jesus. It is not a long speech, but it is remarkably powerful, and is indeed an excellent summons to us as we prepare ourselves in Lent for the coming Passion and Resurrection of Our Lord.

Mark is brief because his message is urgent. His chapters are punctuated with the word “ευθυς” (immediately) that keeps up the pace and tension throughout his narrative. His words, though few, are rich and weighty. In the six verses of today’s reading he constantly alludes to the writings of the prophet Isaiah, familiar to him and to Jesus. Isaiah describes God placing his Spirit on his chosen one to bring justice to the nations. Isaiah also connects the one who brings good news, who announces salvation, with the proclamation, “Your God reigns”. Immediately after Jesus’ Baptism the Spirit drives him into the wilderness. There, in the wilderness that was home to prophets of Israel and to the people of Israel in their years of wandering, Jesus encounters temptation. Then he returns to proclaim the Good News to a world where such proclamation is dangerous, as Mark’s mention of John’s arrest has subtly reminded us.

So we begin our journey through Lent with two images to sustain and encourage us. The rainbow set in the sky reminds us that we are people for whom God cares and for whom his compassion will never fail, and the words of Jesus remind us that we are called to believe in the Good News. God’s ways of showing his love for us are as various as the colours of the rainbow, but his greatest demonstration of his love is in the sending of his Son Jesus. As we make our way through Lent, reflecting on Jesus’ suffering and death, and on the human sinfulness which caused his death, we know that the Good News of Resurrection awaits. There is indeed a rainbow to enjoy after the storm, and that promise of new life is the Good News that Jesus desires us both to believe and to proclaim.