Making Our Offer
Just beneath the surface of the three readings you just heard there is a flowing stream, like a river running through underground passages. It is a stream of water that unites all of these little stories, these small glimpses into large and complicated narratives.
There is, of course, the water of the flood, the water that caused chaos and destruction across the face of the earth, and upon which only Noah, his family, and his menagerie were kept safe, bobbing on the top of it all in their what was, after all, a tiny vessel of hope in the midst of an ocean of despair. And the rainbow itself, we know, is what happens when water suspended in the air becomes illuminated by light.
And there is the water of the Jordan River, that place where Jesus comes to be baptized along with everyone else who is coming out in expectation, in hope, in acknowledgment that they need to do something to change their lives in a God-ward way.
Those two are pretty obvious. It’s the third one, the reading from the letter of Peter, that takes a little while to find the water in. That’s because the water isn’t so much part of the story as it is the context for it. What we have in our bible as the first letter of Peter is almost certainly not a letter; it’s one part sermon and one part pep talk to a small congregation of early Christians. And the sermon probably had a specific purpose, which is revealed in the short clipping from the letter that we heard this morning. The first Letter of Peter most likely was, in the first instance, a sermon given on the occasion of a baptism.
The language of this letter pulls no punches about the connections between Noah, and Jesus, and us. The claim is that there is something about the waters of the flood that is connected to the waters of our baptism. Saint Paul works on that same theme in his own baptismal theology; he says that water is dangerous, it’s chaos, it’s death-dealing—which is exactly what it was in Noah’s day.
And he says when we are baptized something about us dies so that something about us can be born. What dies is an idea of ourselves that lives only for ourselves. What is born is an idea of ourselves that is permanently, indelibly claimed by God.
What we’re meant to get out of this is the connection between the work of water and the making of promises. The rainbow signals the end of the flood, and it puts water to use for the purpose of promise rather than the purpose of destruction. Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan, and our baptism wherever it happens, puts water to use for the same purpose—to establish a relationship of promise between God and us.
The rainbow is the first covenant God makes with us; each new baptism is the next, most recent one. And both of them have water flowing through them.
I’ll leave aside here the conundrum of starting off Lent readings that connect to each other on the theme of baptism—a conundrum if only because by long tradition one of the things the church doesn’t do during Lent is baptize people, unless it’s an emergency.
Instead, what I want to get to is the deepest part of this water, the place where the covenant is made. Because what these readings make clear, if you read them prayerfully, is how it is that covenant gets made.
In both cases—the old covenant and the new covenant mediated by Jesus—God is putting something on the table as an offering. We know what that is in the old covenant; it’s the sign of the rainbow, the promise that no matter what God is in this with us and will not cut us off.
The letter of Peter makes very, very plain the offer that God makes in the new covenant. It is not just that Jesus enters into baptism with us. It is that Jesus enters into death with us, the death of the cross. And not just that. Jesus enters into shame with us. Jesus enters into our worst moments with us. Jesus enters into despair with us, into fear with us. “For Christ suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.”
But even that only makes up half a covenant. What God offers cannot make the whole promise. Something has to come from us, too.
When I have the privilege of sitting with couples who are going to be married, there comes a point at which we talk through the liturgy of the wedding service itself. I point out to them that what we understand to be happening in the midst of that service is something we in the church know as a sacrament.
And a sacrament has a few things that are true about it. There is someone who administers the sacrament. There is an outward and visible sign of the sacrament. And there is an inward and spiritual grace of the sacrament.
In baptism, that outward sign is—water. In the eucharist its—the bread and wine. And in a wedding its—what is it?
It’s three things. Two people getting married have to do to three things. They have to hold hands; they have to make promises; and they have to give each other a gift. Each of them has to make an offer to the other. That’s how a covenant works.
So what is the offer you are prepared to make to God as your half of the covenant of your baptism? What are you putting on the table?
What is the gift you are bringing into this covenant, the thing you are offering as a sign of thankfulness for the promise that God has claimed you as a holy one forever?
That is a Lenten question. It’s a Lenten question because this is the season in which we are taught to give up things.
We should not be giving up things that are bad for us already; you don’t need Lent to have a reason to do that. And it doesn’t really make for a very good offer to set before God. God doesn’t really need your chocolate.
What we are giving up are the things we are willing to give over to God—the things that we offer as the sign that we are in this covenant to stay.
They don’t have to be beautiful offers. They don’t have to be elegant or costly offers. But they have to be real and precious offers.
We could give the depth of our sorrow at the loss of someone we have loved. We could give the panic of our confusion over how to raise children in what seems to be a time of bewilderment and danger. We could give our joy in a craft that we love, or our delight in the promise of our young people, or our gratitude for the immense blessings that have been given beyond all deserving to us.
What Peter says in his baptismal sermon is that we offer to God a plea—a prayer to give us a good moral compass. He describes the offer we make to God as an “appeal to God for a good conscience.” There is a request in there, yes, but something more than a request—there is a willingness, and openness, to the possibility of God acting in us to make us the good people we are meant to be.
Whatever you are giving up, whatever you are ready to hand over, whatever it is—we need to make our offer. We need to start this Lent by thinking prayerfully about what it is we are willing to put on the table, what it is we are bringing into this covenant and asking God to transform.
Because just as the offer of the rainbow transforms us by giving us hope, and just as the offering of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus transforms us by reconciling us to a loving God, so it is that what we offer as our part of this covenant will be transformed by God’s love, and made into something holy, too.
So spend some time this Lent thinking about the offering you want to make—the thing most on your heart, maybe the thing you are most afraid of and therefore most afraid to share. Whatever it is, make an offer of it, here, in your prayers, to God. And through that offering God will know you are in this covenant, too. Amen.