1st Sunday in Lent
If we were to say one word that encapsulates the Old Testament what would that word be ... hmmm? Surely it might be salvation; or creation; or even presence or faithfulness. For me one word covers it all more than any other when it comes to God with God‘s people: covenant. From Adam to Noah to Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Moses, David, the prophets and on down the line, God keeps His promises to his people. A covenant, least we forget, is a promise or a commitment and, in the case of God‘s covenant with his people, it is a promise on steroids, right? Today as Noah and his family disembark from the ark, God makes a covenant with them. Making certain we don’t miss what God is doing, God uses the word covenant no less than seven times over the course of this relatively small passage. God will establish a covenant with not only Noah but with all living things; God will give us a sign for this covenant which, in this instance, will be a rainbow; and God will remember this covenant which is not just a covenant: it is “an everlasting covenant.” And for God – throughout the course of history with His people – there is a promise which will never be broken by God. Humans may violate the tenants of this covenant that binds them to God but God never will.
Covenant is also a word that we could use with the New Testament, too. Perhaps covenant is not used quite as frequently in the New Testament as in the Old but it will become very clear that in and with Christ we find the embodiment of God‘s promise to all humanity. Through the body and blood of Jesus, shed for all, we have become recipients of the everlasting Covenant God promised to Noah. The difference is that now Christ has destroyed every barrier to the covenant that humans could ever create. Christ has overturned darkness and death, has gone down into hell itself and freed the prisoners there, as Peter Proclaims in his letter today, and in baptism we understand that Christ has sealed this covenantal promise forever: we are saved, God heals our wounded hearts, and we belong eternally to God.
Lent is not about us improving ourselves nor is it even about us sacrificing in solidarity with Jesus. Rowan Williams, my favorite former Archbishop of Canterbury, writes “Lent is not about feeling gloomy for 40 days, nor about self–improvement but rather Lent is, at its root, about us making a new life. Lent reminds and calls us into what a “Christ–shaped life” might look like.” Lent is about us praying and discovering what it might mean for us if Christ was at the very center of our lives and in all that we do or hope to do in this life. So, Lent is about us grabbing hold of our baptismal promises, which affirms the covenant between us and God. Through our Covenant of Baptism, we discover how God’s promises – and ours – not only connects us to Jesus but helps us to bring Jesus more fully into the life that we are living.
I came across a story that is probably new to pretty much everybody, I know it was to me. The story is about a very unassuming farmer who would become beatified by the church under Pope Benedict. His story was a book that was made into a film called A Hidden life. A Hidden Life tells the story of Franz Jaggerstatter who became a conscientious objector in Austria in the midst of World War II. Franz came from a fairly non–religious background as he was raised by his mother and stepfather (his father was killed in the Great War when Franz was only 7). Franz’s stepfather adopted him and when he died Franz inherited his farm and became a farmer. Now, in Franz’s youth, he was a little bit what we might call “wild”. He did a lot of drinking and carousing, fathered a child out of wedlock, and did some things out of step with late 1920 early 1930 Austrian norms. But when he was in his late 20s he meet the woman who would become his wife and with whom he would have three daughters.
The Nazis invaded and occupied Austria 1938; in 1940 Franz was called up for military service. He got his training and went back home as a conscientious objector. After receiving multiple deferments, he eventually was sent to his garrison in 1943. But something had happened with Franz since his early days; he had married a woman who was deeply religious and profoundly connected to God through her Catholic faith. Through her influence, Franz had begun to read the Bible and had developed his own deeply held convictions and beliefs in God. He also had come to believe that the war that the Nazis were waging was unjust and unholy and wasn’t shy about saying so. So, when he arrived at his garrison for military service in 1943, Franz declared himself a conscientious objector meaning he refused to bear arms in the ongoing military conflict. He did volunteer to be a medic which the Nazis ignored. He was charged with sedition, as all conscientious objectors were by that time in the war, and was sentenced to death and moved to Tegel prison in Berlin.
The priest from his local town traveled to Berlin and tried to talk Franz out of what he was doing. The priest implored the young man to think about his wife and his children, the oldest of which was only six. If he served and survived the conflict he could go back home, raise his daughters, and tend to his farm. If he refused to do that then the outcome was certain and he had no chance of survival. But Franz refused saying that the life that he had come to know in Christ, by virtue of his Baptism, would not allow him to take up arms in an unholy and unjust war. Franz was ultimately moved to Brandenburg concentration camp where he was executed in late 1943.
I shared the story with you because I think it is a compelling lesson in what our lives begin to look like when they take the shape of Christ. Franz Jaggerstatter had been transformed by his understanding of who God in Christ was in his life. Yes, it caused him to take action that had consequences for himself and his family but proclaimed that his allegiance and the central focus of his life was Christ.
Lent isn’t going to ask any of us to make the kind of choices that Franz Jaggerstatter made but it does remind us of the covenant that we have made with God and even more that God has made with us. Our covenantal life with God has not only been shaped by Christ but it is founded on our understanding of who God is to us because of the sacrifice and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We don’t make our promises in a vacuum or by ourselves. God‘s covenant isn’t an individual covenant, rather it is made to and in community and it is in community that we should understand those promises. When we receive Holy Communion, which I know is very difficult for us during this time of COVID–19, we take it together, in solidarity, acknowledging not only that Christ died for us all but that God extends His promise of everlasting covenant – his never–ending love, grace, and mercy, poured out to us in the shape and form of Christ – to us all.
No, Lent is not primarily about sacrifice; rather it is about the shape that we believe or begin to understand that God is calling our life to take: the shape of the one who died for us and in doing so sealed the everlasting covenant between God and God’s children. Amen.