Sermon for February 21st, 2021
One of the stories in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is the Miller’s Tale. Now they may have had you read the prologue to the Canterbury Tales in high school, you may know the background story that this is a bunch of pilgrims on their way to the shrine at Canterbury and they are passing the time by telling stories, but I doubt that you read the Miller’s Tale.
I doubt that they had you read the Miller’s Tale, because the Miller told a pretty dirty story. It also happens to be a very funny story, but I just can’t go into all of the details in the pulpit on a Sunday morning. What I can tell you is that the Miller told a story about a carpenter who had a beautiful wife, and this beautiful woman had two young gentlemen chasing her that were desperate to be with her and it didn’t matter that she was married. Racy stuff in the year 1387 to be sure. Anyways, one of the plot twists in this bawdy story is that one of the young gentlemen convinces the carpenter, the beautiful woman’s husband, that he has had a vision from God and that God has told him that he is going to send a flood next Monday twice as big as the one he sent in Noah’s time. So the carpenter had better prepare.
Well this sets the carpenter into a panic, and he falls right into the young man’s trap, and hilarity ensues. But you see, the carpenter would not have fallen for the young man’s trick if he read his Bible more closely. What did the carpenter forget? He knew about Noah. He knew about the flood and the ark. What did the carpenter in the Miller’s story forget? He forgot about God’s promise. The young man had told him that God was going to send another flood, but what does God promise in Genesis? What is an important part of the end of the biblical story? That “the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.” You see if the carpenter had remembered that, he would have known that the young man was lying. He wouldn’t have fallen for his trick.
It is dangerous to forget God’s promises.
You know we spend a lot of time talking about what God expects from us. We talk about the commandments; we talk about Christ’s summary of the law; we talk about Jesus’s teachings; we talk about the things that we commit to when we recite the baptismal covenant, and that’s all well and good, we should be working on improving our own behaviour. But how much time do we spend thinking about, or talking about, or reflecting on God’s promises.
Yes, the Lord has given us commandments about how we are to behave but he has also given us promises about what he is going to do. In our Genesis story today, God makes a promise to Noah and all of his descendants. Now I want to make clear here that this is a promise, it is not a bargain, it is not a deal, it is not an agreement. When you have an agreement or a deal, you have two side coming together: if you agree to do this, then I will agree to do this. That is a deal. This is not a deal that God is making here, it is a promise. God promises that there will never be another flood to destroy all flesh. That promise isn’t contingent on Noah doing anything. This isn’t about two side agreeing on anything. It is a commitment that God has made to us.
We get so caught up sometimes in the promises that we make to God; promises that let’s face it, we aren’t good at keeping; we get so caught up in our promises that we forget God’s promises. It is so typical of us humans, we like the focus to be on us and on what we are doing, and on how industrious or how clever or how righteous we are; we are so obsessed with our own commitments to God that I think we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that this is an equal partnership between us and God. We think we have brought something to the negotiating table. We did not. This is no equal partnership.
Here we are at the beginning of Lent. And doubtless many of you have been thinking about what your Lenten disciplines will be this year. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the traditional Lenten disciplines and they are good traditions; I encourage them, but here is a question you need to ask yourself as you observe those disciplines: Am I spending more time thinking about what I am doing for God than I am thinking about what God has done for me? Am I spending more time thinking about my promises to God than I am God’s promises to me? Because that could be a problem. Human beings break their promises all the time, but not God. We need to focus on God’s promises more than we focus on our own. You won’t hear me talk a whole lot about the baptismal covenant in our prayer book, those questions we affirm as a part of the baptismal rite, you won’t hear me make a big deal out of all that, because the promises we make to God are never AS important as the promises he has made to us. What God is doing in baptism will always be way more important than whatever we think we are doing. I’m not saying that the commitments we make to God are not important, but they will never be AS important as the commitment that God has made to us. Forgetting God’s commitments to us, forgetting God’s promises is a very dangerous thing.
How many times did the Children of Israel forget God’s promise of leading them to the Promised Land and turn back?
How many times did their descendants forget God’s promises of providing for them and protecting them and turn to trusting in other gods or worldly alliances?
How many times did God promise in the scriptures that we would never leave us nor forsake us, and still we forgot?
And when Jesus is baptized and heads off into the wilderness for forty days, what is he tempted by Satan to do? He is tempted to forget God’s promises. With the hunger and the wild beasts and Satan taunting him, Jesus would have been tempted, tempted to give up on God, but he doesn’t and at the end of the story, God’s angels come to wait on him.
How many times in my life have I been tempted to forget God’s promises? How many times have I put more trust in the promises that I made to God than I do in the promises that God has made to me?
If you want a good Lenten discipline this year, as you read through scripture make a commitment to pay attention to the promises that God is making to his children. Pay attention to the promises that Christ is making to his disciples. Those promises are trustworthy and true. And we are so prone to forget them.
God said that he would put the rainbow in the cloud so that HE would remember his promise. Well I don’t know about God’s memory, but I do know about mine. I don’t know if God needs a reminder, but I know I sure do. I need to be reminded about God’s love and faithfulness. I need to be reminded that while men break their promises all the time, God never does.
So whatever commitments you decide to make to God this Lent, make sure you are paying more attention to the commitments that God has made to you. If the carpenter in the Miller’s Tale had remembered God’s promises, he wouldn’t have been so easily tricked by those devilish young men, but of course that wouldn’t have been nearly as funny.