First Sunday in Lent

February 21, 2018
February 21, 2018 Julia Barker

The Dean’s Sermon
The kingdom of God: a tempting prospect

“God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’” (Gen. 9:17)

And thousands of years on from the earliest days of the Old Testament, a rainbow still entices people to look heavenward and wonder at its significance. It does more than remind us that Richard of York gave battle in vain; or of the order of colours in the electro-magnetic spectrum. It lifts the human spirit and leads some to dream of a better world, possibly even remembering Judy Garland as they do so.

“Somewhere over the rainbow way up high
There’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby”
– a land where dreams come true and troubles “melt like lemon drops”.

And surely, we cannot gaze upon a rainbow without thinking of racing to the end of it in search of the gold; tempted by the better life that riches could bring. One of my favourite greetings cards of Ripon Cathedral shows this magnificent building with a great rainbow arching over it, reaching down, it would seem, to Minster House, the Deanery. Well, let me assure you, there is not much gold to be found there. We’ve given up even dreaming of it!

Our Old Testament lesson from Genesis reminds us that in the long history of our faith, the rainbow has been a symbol of God’s faithfulness to his people, despite their (our) capacity to rebel and be disobedient. God has been faithful to his covenant following the great flood, despite the countless ways in which human beings have been tempted away from him. Noah, of course, resisted the temptation to follow the majority in an age of faithless disregard for the creator God. An inspiration in the 21st century perhaps? And so, God could say to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

“Look at the rainbow!” was heard by all of us who were taking part in a recent study tour of Israel. As we journeyed together in a coach, someone exclaimed, “Look at the rainbow!” And there it was, reaching out over the West Bank towards Palestinian Ramallah where we had spent the previous night. It spoke of the promise and faithfulness of God over a land which many Jews regard as still promised to them. We Christians were journeying along the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Jericho, where, in Jesus’s parable, the man helped by the Good Samaritan had been attacked by robbers. We were journeying towards the River Jordan in which our Lord was baptized by John. We were passing through the arid wilderness in which Jesus had been tempted for forty days and nights. The complexity and confusion of human frailty and rebellion was all too obvious as we looked at that rainbow.

Our Jewish guide, in describing the situation in Israel and Palestine, repeatedly said, “Its complicated! It’s a mess!” One can imagine God saying the same in relation to so much more in his world. Yet again there has been a shooting in an American school. We have been hearing sad reports from Oxfam and other aid organisations – righteous causes undermined by human sin. We know constantly from the news, and from our own lives, that rebellion against God’s rule – sin – spoils life.

Acknowledging human frailty and rebellion is where Lent begins. With the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, we heard the sobering words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return, turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.” Acknowledging the reality of human frailty and rebellion is where Jesus began, having survived unscathed the devil’s temptations to be a worldly sort of Messiah;

“Now after John was arrested, 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.” (Mark 1:14-15)

“The Kingdom of God has come near…”

Going back beyond Noah to Adam and Eve, and in every generation of human history, God’s creation has been tempted to turn away from him. We humans have been tempted by too many false dreams promising too many false hopes, like gold at the end of the rainbow. Too often we have concluded that we know better than God – even that there is no God. Yet God’s faithfulness held true – through all the ups and downs of the Old Testament. And now, in our Gospel reading, we hear the Son of God himself coming to tempt the world back to God by showing what heaven on earth can look like. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”

It is as if Jesus is saying, don’t look up into the sky and dream of a better world. Rather look down to this imperfect earth and see heaven already breaking in. Look down to this imperfect earth and follow me (Jesus) by acknowledging that God is king over his creation and by helping his world to become more like heaven.

In all that he did and said, Jesus was presenting a tempting vision of human flourishing. As he said when John the Baptist sent his disciples on a reconnaissance, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Mtt. 11:4-6) He could have used the words recorded in St. John’s Gospel, “I came that they may have life and have it in its fulness.” (John 10:10)

With the kingdom of God, when even just one person begins to acknowledge and respect the sovereignty of God, heaven begins to break in. And this transformation may start with just one faithful man, but it can grow and spread like a tiny mustard seed growing into a mighty tree. And this, my friends, is why Ripon Cathedral’s vision is called Growing God’s Kingdom. We believe that the kingdom of God was at the heart of everything Jesus was about and is central to his calling of the Church today.

Our worship and prayer; our telling of the good news of Christ through this magnificent building; our enriching of lives through culture and art; our service of the people and communities of this region and diocese through partnerships; our efforts in education and music outreach; our welcome of pilgrims and sightseers: all of these are ways in which we take seriously Jesus’s tempting invitation. We have fallen to the temptation to follow him in letting God be king of our lives. We have accepted his tempting invitation to help transform this world into something more like heaven than otherwise it would be. We try not to be tempted by false dreams and gold at the end of the world’s rainbows, but by the reign of the God who has been faithful – as the myth of Noah promised he would be; and who showed in Jesus what heaven on earth can look like.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near…” So, in our words and actions we seek to pray as Jesus taught us, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”