20th February 2024

The First Sunday of Lent, a Sermon by The Revd Canon Edward Probert

Sunday 18 February 2024, The First Sunday of Lent, 10.30am Eucharist

The Revd Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor and Interim Dean of Salisbury

Genesis 9:8-17

Mark 1:9-15

Noah’s flood is one of the most famous stories in the Bible.  In fact versions of this story were famous long before its inclusion in the Hebrew text of Genesis.  It echoes a very old story from the region we now describe as Iraq – the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, from where it’s come down to us, and can still be read, as part of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

I won’t patronise you by rehearsing  story of Noah and the flood, which occupies chapters 6, 7, 8 and 9 of Genesis, which has many familiar elements.  Today’s Old Testament gave us the conclusion of the narrative of God bringing a catastrophe on the world, wiping out the whole order of living things which he had created, and sparing only Noah, his family, and a starter kit of life-forms for the future.   Now in chapter 9 God promises never to do this again – a commitment between him and ‘all flesh’ – everything that lives.

We are familiar with the idea of Noah as a uniquely righteous man, whose obedience to God enables a remnant to be saved and then to repopulate the creation.

But you might gain a new perspective on Noah by having a look at the medieval frieze in our Chapter House here, where his story is squeezed into a brief sequence of images; of which two sculptures seem to cover chapters 6, 7 and 8 – the flood, and so on; and then another two images give equal billing to what in our day gets vastly less attention – the few verses at the end of chapter 9, in which Noah plants a vineyard, gets drunk, and makes a spectacle of himself in front of his sons.

Why such prominence for this little story of Noah’s shame?  How on earth did our forebears in this place, 8 centuries ago, reckon that these few verses merited equal billing with the age-old and universal drama of the flood?

Here’s my theory.  Christian theologians have always looked for things in the Jewish scriptures which prefigure Christ, and it has been customary to see in particular people and stories things which point to Jesus, God’s actions and purposes which came to be completed by him.  So the medieval mind could see Noah (the one who saves a remnant of creation in his boat) as anticipating the work of Christ, the one who brings salvation through the ark of his Church.  But, then again, Noah was no Christ, so our 13th century predecessors here used his drunken shame as a way to highlight that contrast between a faithful but flawed servant of God, and the unique saviour, God’s own son.

In contrast with the generous coverage given to Noah in Genesis, the evangelist Mark’s book compresses extraordinary moments in the early ministry of Jesus into a mere 7 verses, and this morning we heard: his baptism, the heavenly announcement that he is God’s son, his isolation and temptation, and his dramatic return to his neighbourhood, proclaiming the critical nature of this moment.

At the moment it’s commonplace to remark on how bad the news is: domestic politics seemingly flailing about, unfocussed, fractious, and short on hope; risks everywhere; terrorism, wars, violence; a world hurtling toward destruction caused by us humans.

In contrast, the book of Mark points us to Jesus, who calls us to ‘believe in the good news’.  This is the moment; the rule of God has come near.  And, the word I have not yet quoted: which is translated in almost all English versions as ‘repent’.  One exception is the Good News Bible, which renders one Greek word by the rather long phrase ‘turn away from your sins’; that is a bit clumsy, but it does convey a sense of the original’s meaning of physically turning around, going in another direction.  Hang onto that.

The emergence of Jesus is a turning point; the moment when believing is infused with hope – whatever the darkness of the past, the present, or even of times to come.  God is present, God will reign.

Everything created carries the seeds of its own destruction.  We, like Noah, still give ample evidence of this aspect of our nature.  But God is faithful to what he has made – he made it out of love, and he wants us to live.  It’s simple really: repent and believe in the good news.