The Bible (opened)
Sermon - Year B

1st Sunday of Lent

Agnes, Babet, Ciarán, Debi, Elin, Fergus, Gerrit, Henk, Isha, and Jocelyn; these are the names of nine storms that have affected the UK over the last five months. They just topped the overall challenging weather conditions last autumn and this winter. It feels like it’s been raining (or snowing) all the time, with only a day or two of respite between the spells of bad weather. It has resulted in the tragic death of several people, damaged infrastructure and properties, and flooding of various areas. Not to demean the pain, suffering and loss of those affected by the bad weather, it must be said that, despite having had one of the wettest periods on record, our country mostly remained afloat and far from being completely flooded. Could forty days of rainfall have caused a global flood of apocalyptic proportions as described in the story of Noah? Absolutely not! As humankind, we’ve been working hard for the last couple of centuries to raise sea levels by melting glaciers, and so far, we have only achieved a meagre 8-9 inches (21-24 centimetres) since 1880. It might come as a shocker, but there hasn’t been a universal flood in human history such as the one described in the Bible; however, the devastating experience of a flood is universal. The story of Noah and his ark has been so powerful and immersing (excuse the pun) because it invokes such a common, dramatic experience. When we go beyond its outdated language, it’s a multilayered tale, reflecting everyday dilemmas, challenges, choices and tragedies that most people can identify with. It deserves its own sermon, but not today. The story’s ending in today’s first reading and the reference to it in the second reading touch on a couple of meanings only for a reason: to cast some light on today’s gospel reading.

Its message appears plain and simple: “The time has come, and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.” But there’s more to it than there seems to be at first glance. There are three linked elements, and we are going to have a brief closer look at each of them.

“The time has come”. There are two words in Greek to describe time. Chronos means the natural flow of time, measured in seconds, minutes, hours and so on. When we say, “in chronological order,” we refer to such a sequential meaning. The other Greek word, kairos, used in today’s gospel, refers to an opportune or “right” moment for action. It’s about the idea of seizing the right moment or making the most of a particular moment in time. For example, shops’ opening hours are chronos, but their time-limited sales or offers are kairos. Postpone the decision, and the chance is gone. “The time has come” looks like a time-limited offer made by Jesus in today’s gospel. We heard something very similar on Ash Wednesday when St Paul urged us: “At the favourable time, I have listened to you; on the day of salvation, I came to your help. Well, now is the favourable time; this is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 6:2) The question is: “Why would Jesus time-limit his offer of salvation?” He doesn’t. It’s our lives that are time-limited; we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.

“The kingdom of God is close at hand.” In the first century’s Church, there was a common expectation of Jesus’ prompt return in glory and power to reward the righteous and punish sinners. Such anticipation was so prevalent that St Paul and St Peter, respectively, had to temper it to avoid widespread disappointment: “In the last days scoffers will come […] saying, “Where is the promise of his coming?[…]” Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” (2 Peter 3:3-8; see 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12) So, in those early Christians’ ears, the announcement of the forthcoming kingdom of God might have sounded like the final moment to make amendments before Judgment Day. The universal, apocalyptic end of the world hasn’t happened (yet). But we have learnt that our personal “end of the world” could be just around the corner. In fact, Jesus strongly hinted at that when he warned His followers: “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken, and the other left.” (Matthew 24:37-40) Every day, the mass media gives us many examples of that; so many that it’s easy to despair, lose faith in humanity, and hope that things will change for the better.

“Here is the sign of the Covenant I make between myself and you […] for all generations: I set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the Covenant between me and the earth. When I gather the clouds over the earth and the bow appears in the clouds, I will recall the Covenant between myself and you.” I don’t know about you, but each time I see a rainbow in the sky, it cheers me up without even referring to its biblical meaning. Perhaps because it usually happens after a storm, against a backdrop of clouds; the darker the clouds, the more distinctive the rainbow. One more crucially indispensable factor in producing a rainbow is the sun shining from behind you. You cannot see it in such a position. But when you see the rainbow, you can turn around and see the sun: “Repent and believe the Good News.” Like the sun, always bright and shining, God’s love for you never expires. It might be concealed by the stormy clouds of tragedies, adversities or hardships. It might be obscured by the dark clouds of our disordered, hectic, complicated or sinful lives. But when God’s love breaks through like a ray of sunshine, grasp the moment. “now is the favourable time; this is the day of salvation.”