This Lent’s Old Testament readings are about covenants – this week Noah, then Abraham, then Moses and the Ten Commandments. There are divine covenants and human covenants. Some of us may live in property covered by deed covenants restricting what we can do including who we can sell to.
This came up in 1986 when William Rehnquist was nominated to be Chief Justice. Rehnquist was born October 1, 1924 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a grandson of Swedish immigrants. He and died September 3, 2005 as Chief Justice. In 1961 he bought a house in Phoenix, Arizona, with a 1929 deed covenant that it could be sold only to persons of the white race. The US Supreme Court in a 1948 case from St. Louis, Shelley vs Kraemer, had ruled that such deed covenants could not be enforced at law. Rehnquist moved to Washington in 1969 and bought a summer house in Vermont which had a 1933 deed covenant forbidding sale to anyone of “the Hebrew race.” Justice Rehnquist successfully argued that he did not know of these property covenants and had never agreed to them.
From 1912 on Asheville had a city ordinance restricting where what were then called “colored people” could live. Such deed covenant and other restrictions are fear-based, intended to preserve our neighbors’ property values at the cost of our liberty.
The Bible has a number of covenants between God and man. God’s covenants seek to restrict human behavior, but not for reasons of fear, rather for reasons of love. God who made us loves us; he sent his son Jesus to set us free from sin and death, to give us a new and abundant life, a life in which we are free to love God and love our neighbors, and love ourselves.
The story of Noah in Genesis chapters 6 to 9 combines accounts written down over a period of 500 years from about 1000 BC (David) until after the return from exile in Babylon. Today’s reading includes God’s promise, “the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.” The covenant with Noah repeats God’s command recorded in Genesis 1:28, “be fruitful and multiply.” In Genesis 1:29 God gives vegetables and fruit for man to eat. Noah’s covenant adds animal flesh, but human life is sacred. We are all made in God’s image, and God calls us to protect and support one another. The sign of this covenant with Noah, and “with every living creature” is the rainbow.
Many cultures have flood stories. A large asteroid seems to have struck in the Indian Ocean between India and Arabia about 2900 B.C. - about the time we find writing worldwide. The stories have in common the flood as a supernatural punishment for wrongdoing, the saving of a few people, and a fresh start for human culture. Our flood story includes God’s promise, God’s agreement, God’s covenant with us.
Today’s Epistle tells us the terms of our new covenant in the blood of Jesus shed on the cross. As Noah was saved by the flood, so baptism in water saves us by joining our lives to the life of Jesus. We are drowned in water and raised to new life in Jesus. Jesus makes us part of his resurrected body. He guides and directs our conscience by his Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth and power.
In his 40 days of temptation after his baptism, Jesus relied on the truth and the power of the Holy Spirit. I pray that this Lent – and in all our lives – we also may rely on that same truth and power given us in God’s new covenant in Jesus.
The covenant on land was restrictive, based on fear. God’s new covenant is with God’s own people and gives new life in Jesus. Thanks be to God!