God is patient – First Sunday in Lent 2012

The first eleven chapters of Genesis set the scene against which the story of Israel and the Church unfolds. There are two linked plots, one about the human race, and the other about God. Starting in the innocence of Eden, we watch ourselves grow up, as the first act of disobedience leads out of paradise, into a hard world, where jealousy leads to murder, and further growth in wickedness leads to the Flood and beyond. On the way we observe the beginnings of clothes, culture, technology, city life, religion, meat-eating, peoples and languages, until we arrive in the real world in which we live.

In the story there is also a related development in God. One might even say that he also appears innocent in the beginning, embarking on his great experiment of creation, delighting in the new-formed world and pronouncing it good. Surely it was innocent, if not naive, to have told Adam and Eve not to eat the forbidden tree – what child would not instantly have reached out? Was it not a bit foolish to accept Abel’s offering and reject Cain’s? sure recipe for jealousy. God’s creatures have been given free-will, so creation takes on a life and direction of its own, not all to God’s liking. So as the generations mount up, “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” (Genesis 6:5-7)

But in fact he can’t quite bring himself to do it. At least he takes Noah and his family and the pairs of creatures and puts them in the ark as a kind of floating seed, so that when the great flood has subsided he may start again. And when the deluge is past, and Noah and his family come out into the new world – doubtless covered with the drowned corpses of the former inhabitants – God says, “Never again”.  “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done“. (Genesis 8:21) It is not that the human race are any better – the flood has not altered human nature – but God’s attachment to his creation is such that he cannot bear to risk destroying it. He will deal with the humans in another way. So he makes a covenant, a solemn sworn commitment, to men and beasts, that he will bear with them for the long haul, and sets the sign of the rainbow in the clouds to remind both them and him of his commitment. No matter how greatly he is provoked by his children, his love stands firm, and he will fulfil his plans for creation in a slower, more hidden, more costly way. And so the divine plan begins to unfold in the call of Abraham, and so on.

As we Christians understand it, this divine plan reaches its fulfillment when God enters his creation as a human being, to experience for himself what it is to be tempted to sin, to know what it is like to live, not in sheltered Eden, but in this real world of choices and confusions, of frailty, fear and death. In Jesus he has experienced it all, and shown us the right choices to make, and by struggling with evil and winning has made it possible for us to use our freedom as God intended, to live as God’s children made in his image and likeness.

Our readings today celebrate God’s everlasting commitment to his creation; his unending love for each one of us, his patience with us, his forbearance when we refuse him, when we are foolish, when we are careless, when we are downright wicked. During Lent we pay extra attention to our faults, examining ourselves – and that is good and necessary, because at every stage of our life we are assailed by different temptations, not least the temptation to think ourselves reasonably ok. We do need to take a serious look at ourselves and the direction of our lives. But we do so against this background of God’s everlasting covenant, commitment, patience, unending desire to see us made whole and holy. As one spiritual writer from the Orthodox tradition puts it, “The healing power of repentance can cultivate purity of heart, transforming a person into a bearer of Christ’s light…. It is all right for this to take a very long time. God is patient.” (Frederica Mathewes-Green, First-fruits of Prayer). At every stage of our lives we have further to go in becoming Christ-like; at every stage God is patiently waiting to assist our repentance and re-create our lives.

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