Sermon on Genesis 9:8-17 and Mark 1:9-15 for February 18, 2017, Lent 1 B
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, 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.”
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.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
When you think about your life, several things are evident even before you try to get down to a deep level. Right away you know that your life is limited. For many of us here (most of us) there is far more of it that lies behind than ahead. We are mortal. One of the beautiful and powerfully liberating parts of our faith is that we are not in fear of death, nor are we in denial of death. We do not believe that death is the end of existence, only the end of one kind of existence.
But it is sobering to think that our lives on earth will come to an end. Nevertheless, we believe that our lives are meaningful and significant.
In other words, we believe that the limited nature of our lifespans does not undercut, or call in to question, the meaningfulness of our lives.
The Depth Dimension of Life
This is a direct consequence of our faith, but I believe most people, except the most extreme nihilists, come to this conclusion. This is because it is a quintessentially human experience that there is a depth dimension to life. There is a depth we experience in the beauty of music, and in art and in nature, to name just a few examples. There is a depth we experience in every case of awe and wonder.
There is also a depth dimension we experience in the mystery of being human. We can hardly comprehend ourselves, our various motivations, our desires, our sense of the quest that we are on, what drives us to think and act and speak as we do – much less do we comprehend the depth of other people – even people we love – even our own children. There is a depth dimension of life that we experience, and in that depth, we understand that our material lives have meaning and are significant far beyond the frail mortal surface.
When we think about our lives, besides our mortality and depth, we also experience the truth that life is difficult. Life involves suffering. I do not know of any exceptions to this rule. Being aware of our mortality is one obvious cause of suffering, but there are plenty others.
Storms rise up and batter us. Floods overwhelm us – we have all experienced disappointment, probably even betrayal. We have all experienced deception. Whether we experience loss of loved ones, or of relationships, or any other kind of overwhelming flood – illness- our own or a loved one’s, economic disaster, or mental, or psychological, or spiritual calamity – all of us experience suffering. Everyone is carrying a burden. We are all in the wilderness, not knowing what our future will be.
This is exactly where our faith comes in. In this first Sunday of Lent, the texts for today shine a bright light of good news into what otherwise could be a bleak picture.
The Flood and the Unexpected Aftermath
First, we heard from Genesis, a text from the end of the story of Noah and the flood. Unlike the rest of the people of his day, the story presents Noah as one who has oriented himself towards the good, such that his life is in order. In the words of the story, “Noah was righteous in his generation.” His rightly oriented life included his ability to pay attention, understand what was going on, and to prepare for the future. When the flood came, he was ready.
So we pick up the story after the flood waters have subsided. The flood that overwhelmed the world had come as a consequence of the evil choices that humans had made, repeatedly, until the level of corruption was intolerable. The story says that God’s heart was filled with pain and grief over it.
This is an undeniably fair assessment. Look around. We humans still accept war as a normal, including all the collateral damage that always goes with it. We seem content to let refugees wallow in horrible camps by the tens of thousands.
And here at home, we put up with school shootings again and again, as if there is nothing we could do to keep automatic assault rifles, and huge ammunition clips out of our society. God could be excused for washing God’s hands of this species of humans entirely.
But in a remarkable and unexpected way, God is pictured at the end of the flood story, seeming to have had second thoughts. Maybe the flood, that was deserved, was nonetheless an overreaction. The text leaves us to puzzle that mystery, but anyway, God concludes: “never again.” Repeatedly we hear God say,
“Never again will I destroy the earth with a flood.”
God Binds Godself to Humanity by Covenant
And here is where it becomes unexpected and remarkable. In spite of the evil in the human heart, nevertheless, humans, whom God has made in God’s image and likeness, matter to God. Not just a little. Humans, for all their weaknesses, are the most god-like thing God has made. They, in fact, are
“like God, knowing good and evil.”
So remarkably, God binds Godself to humans by entering into a covenant with them – and not only with them, but with all living creatures in the biosphere, without which humans could not live.
“As for me, 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.”
A Future With Hope
The prophet Jeremiah, writing a letter to the Jewish people who had just experienced the overwhelmingly devastating flood of the Babylonian army and who were now living in exile, speaking for God, says,
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jer 29:11)
So, in the story, God puts a sign of his binding covenant in the sky. It is in the shape of an arch, but it is not called a rain-arch. It is called a “rainbow.”
The shape is the shape of a weapon; a bow that is curved, drawn, ready to fire, pointing away from the earth. God has bound Godself with a promise, sealed in a covenant, to the material world and the beings who inhabit it, signed by an arrow aimed at his own heart, lest the covenant ever be broken.
Floods have come for you, I know. And more floods are coming. That is certain. At minimum, we will all experience the flood waters of our own decline and death, and probably, many other floods before we get to the final end. But God has not abandoned us. God has covenanted to be with us and for us, even in the context of the flood – especially in the context of the flood, willing and luring us toward a future with hope.
From Flood to Wilderness
We turn now to the gospel text. It begins with Jesus’ baptism. Jesus too went through the waters and emerged from them to see himself in a new light. He had a vision of the Spirit of God coming upon him, and the voice from heaven announcing to him,
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
What did it mean to be the child of God? That he would be safe from suffering? No, in fact, the opposite. The very first thing it meant was that he had to pass through a time in the wilderness. After his baptism, it says,
“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.…”
The flood story got its power from the very physically brutal situation – the floodgates of the deep were opened, and the floodgates of the sky were released, and it rained unceasingly for forty days and nights. The storm was massive and overwhelming.
The wilderness situation gets its power differently. It is the power of liminality and lostness. This scene is ominous, dark, and dangerous. Wilderness is a place without road signs, or even roads. It is a place that feels like no place; a place of abandonment.
Temptations of Wilderness
But it is not a place of aloneness entirely. There are beings there. Spiritual forces are present. The Satan character is there to tempt. To tempt, that is, to entice, to lure away from the good, away from trust, away from faithfulness. Mark does not describe the specific temptations as Matthew later will do. He just dangles out for us the fact that Satan is there, and his role is tempter.
We know that this story is true, because we have all been there. We have all been in situations of utter wilderness. We had no idea what to do, which direction to go, or who to call out to. We have all felt abandoned. We have all been tempted to listen to the satanic voice of despair.
Then Mark adds this cryptic, mysterious, eerie sentence:
“…and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
It is like a signal: if you are reading this just on the literal, surface level, you are missing it. Look deeper. In every experience of wilderness, two things are happening, not just one. Yes, the one is that wilderness is full of anxiety-producing uncertainty and unbelievably strong temptations.
But the wild beasts attacking us are not the only thing happening. Angels are there as well. They are “waiting” – the term means “serving,” or “ministering to” – like wait staff in restaurants, or like nurses in hospitals. Wilderness is not total abandonment – even though it feels like abandonment. The God who covenanted with us in the time of the flood ministers to us even in times of wilderness.
There is no escaping wilderness. We are always called, as Abraham and Sarah were called, to go into a land that we “know not” – a land of uncertainty in which we will be tempted. Like every hero journey, we set out away from the known into the unknowable future, and it is there that we encounter our own demons, our own limitations, and our own inadequacies.
God With Us in Wilderness
But it is there, in the tempting wilderness that we discover that we are not alone. That God has not abandoned us. So perhaps it is precisely the Spirit that needs to drive us into wilderness so that we can come out with the knowledge that God has a future for us; a future with hope.
Good news is never easy news. Fake news is easy – a box of chocolates for the terminally ill. Good news is real news. There are floods, there are times of wilderness – and they are as intense as it gets. Suffering is real. Jesus, from the cross, cried out,
“My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?”
But that was not the final word. In the end, he was able to say,
“Into your hands, I commend my spirit.”
There it all is: from flooded devastation and abandoned wilderness to covenantal trust, from one who knows that in his baptism he was named and claimed as God’s beloved – just as we also have been. This life is real. This life is significant. But this life is not the end. With the Iona Community we can affirm that:
We believe that God is present,
in the darkness before the dawn;
in the waiting and uncertainty
where fear and courage join hands,
conflict and caring link arms,
and the sun rises over barbed wire.
We believe in a with-us God
who sits down in our midst
to share our humanity.
We affirm a faith
that takes us beyond the safe place:
into action, into vulnerability
and in the streets.
[And so,] We commit ourselves to work for change
and put ourselves on the line;
to bear responsibility, take risks,
live powerfully and face humiliation
to stand with those on the edge
to choose life
and be used by the Spirit
for God’s new community of hope.