Sermon delivered by Jennifer Copeland yesterday, Sunday, February 18 at Millford Hills United Methodist Church in Salisbury, NC. The lectionary texts were Genesis 9:8-17 and Mark 1:9-15.
Noah and rainbows; Jesus and temptation.
40 is an important number in our faith tradition. There were 40 years in the wilderness for Moses and the Hebrew slaves who fled Egypt and 40 years of exile in Babylon for the people of Judah. Today, of course, we’re talking days and not years. What can happen in only 40 days? Six and a half weeks. What can happen in six and a half weeks that really makes a difference in our lives?
That’s not much time, you know, as fast as time moves. My daughter—my baby—last born is about to graduate from college. I remember leaving her on campus the fall of her freshman year. Why, I remember dropping her off for the first day of First Grade!
That was just six and a half weeks ago right? Not really sixteen and a half years ago. Time moves so fast!
Here we are on the cusp of these very fast moving 40 days of Lent, 4 already gone, by the way. What can we do with these days? How much difference can 40 days make in the course of our lives? How will our lives make a difference in the course of the world?
In my work at the North Carolina Council of Churches, I ask this question a lot: How will we make a difference in the course of the world? With life moving past like a parade set on fast forward, how can we begin to keep up with all the other things happening in our schools, our communities, our country? Even when the issues affect us personally or we care about them passionately, sometimes the best we can do is shake our heads and think: “That’s a shame.”
. . . There was another school shooting this past week—same story, different details. And the details matter. Parkland, Florida. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. 17 killed. More than a dozen wounded, physically that is. Hundreds, if not thousands, wounded spiritually and mentally. This makes 18 school shootings THIS year, each with its own details. Same story though; same semi-automatic style gun used in Las Vegas, Aurora, Colorado, San Bernardino, California, the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Sutherland Springs, Texas, and Sandy Hook Elementary School—still the deadliest school shooting on record, now 5 years ago. And 5 years ago, right after Sandy Hook, an assault weapons ban was introduced in Congress. The vote failed 40-60. How many people might still be alive if the vote had passed?
These school shootings and mass shootings stop us in our tracks. We all know where we were when we heard the news on Wednesday. Many of us attended vigils over the past few days and most faith communities will mention Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in their morning prayers today. All of that is important, but, generally, we don’t feel there is anything else to be done. How can WE influence policy at the federal level so changes are made about who can have guns and who can’t? Who can WE ask about why anybody not deployed in a branch of the military needs a military style weapon in the coat closet?
Even if we think something should change, we rarely see ourselves as the change agent. We don’t have time to mobilize a grassroots movement and create a media storm demanding our elected representatives in Washington do something besides cash the campaign contributions sent to them by the NRA. And so we wait nervously for the next report of another shooting. Because there will be another shooting, maybe even before these 40 days of Lent have passed us by.
How much difference will these 40 days make in the course of our lives? How can our lives possibly make a difference in the course of the world? The time-frame of 40 is used 146 times in the Bible, so clearly 40 makes a difference. Typically 40, whether years or days, has to do with a test or trial. But it’s not a test we can fail or a trial with a verdict. It’s more like going into the space of 40 with one identity, letting go of that identity, and coming out with a new identity.
Consider the Hebrews wandering around in the desert for 40 years on a trip that should take about 40 days. 380 miles walking a straight line from Egypt to Canaan, averaging 10 miles a day, which is a leisurely pace, would take about 40 days. But it took them 40 years and in those 40 years they went from being slaves to being a united nation, they went from being no people to being God’s people. That kind of new identity takes longer than a 380 mile walk along a straight line.
Or consider today’s story of Noah. Noah and his family, along with their pairs of pets, wait on the ark while God uses 40 days and 40 nights of rain to dissolve creation; to take it back to that first day when a “wind from God swept across the face of the waters”; just before God said, “Let there be light . . .” The rain needs 40 days to accomplish this erasure of creation, but let the record show, Noah and the family were ark residents for over a year. The 40 is not about them; the 40 is about creation. And on the other side of these 40 days, creation has a new covenant with the creator. Now creation knows that it is forever bound to God—”never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth”—and we are forever bound with each other—”my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature.” We didn’t have that before the flood.
And, of course, we can’t preach about Lent, talk about 40, and not turn [our] eyes upon Jesus. Mark doesn’t say much about what happened with Jesus out there in the wilderness and we often rush to fill in the details with what we know from reading Matthew and Luke—who don’t agree, by the way, on the number of temptations. The details are a distraction—those stones into bread and jumping off of mountain tops—distractions. The point of the story is the 40 days in the wilderness. When 40 shows up in the Bible, things happen, people change. Jesus goes into the wilderness with the echo of God’s voice ringing in his ears, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And Jesus comes out of the wilderness saying, “the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” In other words, Jesus goes in listening to God and he comes out proclaiming God’s truth. In 40 days.
How much difference can 40 days make in the course of our lives? How will our lives make a difference in the course of the world? Jesus said, “the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” What if we turned our lives toward that truth—the good news—for the next 40 days? Make that 36.
What is the good news we need to hear? Each person’s good news is unique to that person.
- Maybe we need good news about a loved one, a child struggling in school who finally makes the honor roll, a sibling battling cancer who is finally in remission, a parent recovering from surgery who is finally home from the hospital.
- Maybe we need good news about a job prospect or a retirement option.
- Maybe we need good news about a college acceptance or graduate school plans.
- Maybe we need to know our drinking water is safe, our public schools are fully funded.
- Maybe we need to know we will have food on the table tonight, enough for everyone to have enough to eat.
I cannot know what the good news is that you need to hear, but Jesus tells you and me to believe it. For these 40 days, maybe the most important thing we can do is work on believing God’s Good News.
These 40 days are not a fad for us, a way to lose weight, practice yoga, read more books, or take more walks, though all of those things and more are worthy goals. 40 is not an arbitrary number. Remember, the Bible gives us 146 examples of when 40 matters in the lives of the People of God. But for the skeptics among us, it’s worth noting that our modern day behavior theorists also put great stock in the number 40. They have documented through an array of studies about a host of habits that it takes 20 days to break old habits and 20 days to form new ones.
Anyone who’s made the proverbial New Year’s resolution knows how hard it is to get through the first week, the second even harder, but if we can make it through the third week, we might actually keep our resolution. By the end of the third week we’ve gone from breaking a habit to forming a habit. The scientists have shown and God knows, we can change our lives in 40 days.
Our bodies already do this for us on a regular basis:
- Skin cells are renewed every 40 days.
- Red blood cells start dying after 40 days.
Our bodies are changing on the outside and the inside on a 40-day rotating basis. We can change our lives in the same length of time it takes to lose a late summer tan.
For Christians, we recognize that the world can change in 40 days because we can change. We can repent, we can believe the good news. What does believing the good news look like in our lives? More importantly, what do our lives look like in this world when we believe the good news?
I have a list of things that I think the world could look like if we really believe the good news by the end of these 40 days instead of only believing the nightly news.
- We could pay our public school teachers more than we pay our bank presidents, or at least as much. If we believe the good news, then we know that storing up treasures on earth is not the point and bank presidents are not as important as dedicated school teachers.
- Industries wouldn’t pollute the air and water because making money for stockholders wouldn’t be their primary objective. Creating useful items and paying fair wages would be the main goal. And that can be done without polluting the environment if companies are willing to let go of some profit margins.
- More money and time could be spent on food distribution around the world than on weapons deals. Hungry people have to fight to survive, but would people fight if they aren’t hungry? Bomb them with bread—it’s worth considering, especially when you consider what we’re doing now isn’t working to stop violence around the world.
- Basic healthcare could be free for everybody and those who want specialized care could pay for that instead of paying exorbitant insurance premiums. Think of all the money we could spend differently on health care if we didn’t have high premiums, high drug costs, and high medical expenses. And every person could get an annual physical and regular dental checkups.
- We could make sale and possession of very dangerous weapons illegal. We don’t let citizens own hand grenades; why should they own assault rifles? Maybe we could use these 40 days to develop the habit of paying more attention to the 2nd Commandment than the 2nd Amendment. They’re both important, but when the Amendment is more important than the Commandment, maybe we’ve got things backward. It’s a habit worth considering.
This is just my personal Lent List. It reflects some of the values we try to privilege at the North Carolina Council of Churches, but I hope it’s also true that the values we privilege are none other than the prophetic teaching of the Old Testament and the Gospel message of the New Testament.
You should have your own list, a list that reflects the hopes of Millford Hills United Methodist Church and the hopes of Salisbury, NC. Maybe some of my good news will overlap your good news as refracted through the lens of the prophetic teaching of the Old Testament and the Gospel message of the New Testament. You know the places right here in your midst that are waiting for that Good News.
It’s only 40 days. Let’s move into Lent, let go of these selves, and come out believing. Believe in the Good News. It will change our lives. With God’s help we will change the world. Thanks be to God, who gives us the power of the Spirit and the Witness of Christ. Amen.