February 24, 2009

The Awkward Pause

I am beginning to run into texts I've preached on before. Sometimes it reminds me of something I came across in research. Sometimes it makes me realize how much I've developed as a preacher. Sometimes it is just fun. The latter is the case this week as I got to re-read my favorite sermon that nobody got. Well, some people got it, I'm sure, but only the people who didn't get it said anything.

In researching for Lent 1B I came across an article by Robert Alter that told the story of awkward pauses in the Hebrew Bible. I found it fascinating, and I still think about it every time I read an Old Testament text with a conversation between the LORD and a human.

Here's the meat of that sermon from 3 years ago.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent; the first of seven awkward pauses in the season. As liturgical Christians we understand the idea of lent; it is a season of 40 days of penitence and self-reflection as we prepare ourselves for the recollection of God’s supreme act of love on Good Friday. What is interesting to me is that Sundays are not included in those 40 days. Sundays are an awkward pause. Our own Book of Common Prayer allows for this in the rubrics for Lent.

“The following days are observed by special acts of discipline and self-denial: Ash Wednesday and the other weekdays of Lent and of Holy Week, except the feast of the Annunciation.” (p. 17)

The six Sundays in Lent and the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25th mark a period of rejoicing within a season of penitence. As Elton put so well last week, a lot can be learned through acts of fasting or the addition of a spiritual discipline during Lent. Much can also be learned in the awkward pauses and that which immediately follows.

The Old Testament lesson this morning has within it two awkward pauses. Old Testament Scholar Robert Alter notes that in verse 12 we see for the first time what will become a common convention in biblical narrative. When a speaker, in this case God, addresses someone and the formula for introducing speech is repeated with no response from the listener it generally means that the pause is significant, albeit awkward. As God addresses a flood-weary Noah in verses 8-11 God says some things that are hard for Noah to grasp.

God said, “I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

awkward pause - count to 10

Noah is not convinced. Within the awkward pause there is much to discern. Noah recalls the days upon days that he had spent on the ark scared to death of what his fate and the fate of his family might be. God recalls the sweet aroma of the burnt offering that Noah prepared upon the newly dry land. Noah needs reassurance. God wants to reassure.

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”

awkward pause count to 15

Here again, Noah resists what God is telling him. God, who merely a year ago was set to destroy all flesh, is now ready to make a covenant between himself and all living creatures? This is at best an awesome word of God, and at worst a terrible trick. And even if Noah is able to comprehend God’s covenant, the sign God chooses would have surely tripped Noah up. “I have set my bow in the clouds.” In the ancient world the rainbow was viewed as a weapon of Divine wrath.[1] Noah no doubt saw a rainbow or two during the 40 continuous days of rain that flooded the whole Earth. He understood that it was through this rainbow that God shot lightening bolts of judgment to earth. God turns Noah’s understanding upside down by offering the rainbow as a “sign of God’s ongoing, deep commitment to the life of the creation…”[2] During the flood, God remembered Noah and his ark on the waters. God will, each time he sees a rainbow, remember his covenant with all living creatures. God is making a hefty promise while requiring no further action from his Creation. But Noah needs to hear it one more time.

And God said, "This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth."

This Lent God may turn you upside down. You may be struck by the power of God as you donate the money you would have spent at Starbucks to the Red Cross. You may come across a text of Scripture that you have never seen before and be challenged to learn more. God may pour down waters to flood your current five-year plan. Rest in the awkward pauses of Sunday, rejoice in the conversation with God Lent has afforded you, and reflect upon what God is saying. In the awkward pauses God will remember you, just as he remembered Noah and his companions on the ark. In the awkward pauses, God will remember the soothing scent of the offerings you have offered throughout Lent. Most importantly as you move from the awkward pause of Sunday back to penitential conversation of Lent, make sure you listen. Listen for what God is going to say next. Listen for the covenant of God. For God will reiterate, clear up, and move forward his covenant in conversation and in awkward silence.

[1] “Divine Approval” Synthesis (Lent 1, Year B, March 5, 2006).

[2] “Genesis” The New Interpreters Bible vol. 1, p. 400.

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