Somewhere over The Rainbow

Sunday 22nd February 2015
Year B, The First Sunday of Lent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Genesis 9:8-17
Mark 1:9-15

Recently, the supposed national treasure, Stephen Fry, who is in danger of becoming best known for being Stephen Fry, and who knows as much, or, I should say, as little, about religion as Russell Brand knows about politics, opined that it was a wicked God who, among other things, would allow so much injustice in the world and would allow children to die of cancer. Fry's view of the right kind of God is clearly one who makes a flawless world in which we creatures frolic until what, I ask myself? If we are to live in a perfect world, what's the point of it? And what's the difference between living here in a perfect world and enjoying eternal life?

Having had my bit of fun at the expense of Fry, who is clearly well out of his depth, let us settle down to think of the process described in today's readings.

Our Genesis reading speaks not of a perfect world but of a world almost completely destroyed by water with eight human beings left in the post deluvian mud. God, angered by the mess humanity made of his gift of creation, addresses the bewildered and bedraggled Noah and says that no matter how bad it gets in the future, he will refrain himself from destroying the human race; he will make a covenant, he will strike a deal, between himself and his people. Unlike later deals between God and Abraham or Moses which require assent on the creature's side, the creator simply lays down a unilateral deal: He will not destroy the earth and its creatures but will preserve them, in witness of which he will cause the rainbow to shine, literally the rainbow of warfare, the glistening product of ceasing rain.

Our Gospel Reading then describes the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Gospel of Mark. In the Middle Ages when the Bible was interpreted much more symbolically and much less literally than it is now, the flood was supposed to be a pre-figuration of Baptism; just as God has washed clean the tarnished earth at the time of Noah so he, through baptism, washed clean every individual brought to the immersion pool and, later, the font.

As with most critical theological issues, we get into deep waters - forgive the whimsy - when we try to work out the mechanics of Sacraments rather than confining ourselves to the paradox of their clarity of action and mystery of impact. We know that the Sacrament of Baptism admits us to the Church which is Christ's gift to the world where we undertake his Mission of proclaiming the good news and where we build up each other in worship. In the Middle Ages people were clear that this initiation wiped away what Saint Augustine had called "Original sin" with which we had all been born following the 'fall' of Adam and Eve; but they were very worried about what happened thereafter so that many of the most pious and learned people of that era delayed their Sacrament of the Last Rites until the last possible moment before death so that they would not die in sin; in other words, their reverence for Baptism was complicated by their confusion over the Sacrament of Penance or, what we would call, Confession. If Baptism wiped away Original sin, they argued, it could not be repeated, and only a final settlement on the death bed would guarantee salvation.

Much later in history, the traditional Christian view that Baptism was God's lifelong commitment to us, through the Spirit, in union with Christ, was turned on its head by Christians who believed that Baptism was a conscious commitment by human beings to God which explains the dispute over infant Baptism.

But what is at the core of these theological stresses and strains is the issue of the nature of the Covenant between God and his people; and I believe that about this we can be absolutely clear. The history of the Chosen People is one of alternating faithfulness and unfaithfulness, of turning away in pride and turning back in sorrow and repentance; and that, too, is our condition, enshrined concretely in the Season of Lent when we steel ourselves to turn back. Unlike the Chosen People we are not confined to the promise of the rainbow after the flood, we have the blood of Jesus as our promise that God will be faithful to his Covenant if we try to be faithful to him.

And there is the answer to Stephen Fry. God Created a world where we, as creatures, may love 'Him' freely, where we may choose to establish his Kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven, or where, conversely, we might elevate ourselves in pride above his purposes thus bringing about the injustice Fry resents and, more often than not, bringing about many other ills. There are, of course, cases such as child cancers, or the cruel and unpredictable eruption of volcanos and the murderous tides of tsunamis, which test our fortitude and our faithfulness; but if we think carefully we will know that most of what is wrong with this world is not God's creation but creaturely tampering. Fry may want an infantile God, more like an angel, but I don't.

Lent is the proper season for turning back to God not in a state of ritual piety but with a determination to examine our individual and collective role in the world, to see where we have fallen short, to see where we have stayed quiet when we should have spoken, to see where we have ranked our little comforts above the very existence of others.

Improbably as it may seem, Porter, Arlen and Harburg's promise, given timeless voice by Judy Garland that happiness lies "somewhere over the rainbow" is correct, relying upon our being as faithful as we can, in God's Grace, to the Covenant first proclaimed to Moses and sealed with the blood of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.