Journeying through Lent

Gen 9: 8-17 and Mark 1: 9-15. Lent 1B 2021

This is the first Sunday of Lent – we’re at the beginning of a journey. Well, not quite the beginning. Lent began on Ash Wednesday, and in one of the readings set down for that day, Paul wrote to the divided Corinthian congregations: ‘So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making God’s appeal through us’, and:  ‘We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry.’ If we’re looking for a mission statement for the Body of Christ, then surely that’s a good place to start. Our job is to be Christ’s representatives for anyone we happen to meet – and not to make it hard for others to come to that meeting. It’s a bit like the first principle of medicine. Do no harm. And it makes no difference whether we’re first century Corinthians or twenty-first century Cantabrians,

or whether we’re young in years or in the last years of a long life, we’re still called to mission. So why not make this our personal starting point for the journey of Lent? We won’t put obstacles to relationship with God in anyone’s way. We’ll live as Christ’s ambassadors– Christ’s representatives – in our daily lives. That’s enough and more than enough to keep anyone going for the forty days, and a whole lot harder than giving the chocolates the go-by.

And now for today’s readings.  On the face of it, they make an odd pair: Noah’s rainbow and Jesus’ baptism and sojourn in the wilderness and with the journey towards Jerusalem and the passion? I’m not going to second-guess the compilers of the Lectionary, but I think there are some threads that both connect and challenge. Whatever we may make of the story of Noah, it’s important that we recognize that it’s a story. In spite of a perennial interest in the historicity of the flood – and recurring claims that Noah’s Ark has been found, (by what my brother calls arkeologists) – the biblical story is not about a particular historical event. The ancient Hebrews didn’t think of their holy books as histories – they had a much more important function than that.) There are flood stories in many ancient cultures, and no doubt there were many floods that evoked the stories, but none can claim to be ‘the flood’. Walter Bruggemann, one of the greatest of contemporary Hebrew scholars, says that we are to read the Bible with imagination. I suggest that we hold that in our minds when we read the biblical stories. Read with imagination. If we make the mistake of taking the stories literally, then we’re laying ourselves open to the risk of worshipping a pagan god. The sort of god that ancient peoples thought you had to propitiate, and ask favours from. And especially the sort of god that had favourites, and enemies – and would destroy those enemies in a flash if the mood took him or her – or it. Our Bible holds a record of the journey towards understanding God and our relationship with God, and it’s not the last word or the last stage on the journey. Remember – Jesus said on more than once occasion: ‘the scripture says…. but I say……’

Noah’s neighbours probably weren’t especially bad people as people go. Noah was faithful to Israel’s God but he wasn’t an especially good man – read on in the chapter. Let’s focus on the intentions of the interpreters who used the flood stories to voice Israel’s understanding of faith. The story carries the memory of truths that the Hebrew people were learning about their relationship with God, and somehow, the rainbow gave them a powerful symbol of promise and renewal.

And although Noah is a significant person in this narrative, it’s God who is the decisive and most interesting character. Right at the beginning, in chapter 8 v 1, we find the statement ‘and God remembered Noah’ – and it’s this divine remembering that shifts the narrative from the destructive power of the waters towards restoration and renewed fidelity on God’s part.

God’s creation had fallen from perfection, or failed to work towards perfection, and in the story, God initially resolved to blot out all creation and make an end of all flesh. Well this should run a red flag up the mast for us because we live in a time when humankind is making pretty determined efforts to destroy the world without divine intervention. It’s true that there’s also a great deal of non man-made destruction in the world – including in this city – but whether on the global on the national  scale it doesn’t match the slow attrition of our planet’s resources, and the devastation caused by greed- and power-fuelled wars. But in the Genesis account God ‘remembers Noah’ and turns from God’s original purpose of destruction to re-establish well-being in the earth.  The most arresting part of the whole story is that God does this without any indication at all that humankind has repented or even resolved to repent. Creation is still not ‘good’; the human heart remains evil – and Noah celebrates the first post-flood harvest by going on a drunken spree. But God will not abandon God’s flawed creation, and the rainbow is a sign that God will remember creation.

A rainbow is still a promise of renewal for us. Oh – we know now what makes a rainbow, and we know why it has those colours. It’s not the same sort of mystery to us as it was to our ancestors. But the beauty of a rainbow still moves us. It still signals for us an end to storm – or at least a respite from storm. It symbolizes hope. A rainbow carries its own mystery in the way it seems to move ahead of us as we move towards it, or melts from sight. We can still feel that it is a metaphor of the promise of a new thing. And that’s why it’s there in Noah’s story. God was signalling a new thing: a new relationship with God’s creation. Even though that creation was far from perfect, and Noah was far from perfect and would go on being a flawed person, as we all are. God made a covenant with this imperfect people, and the covenant showed that God cared about the creation, and had hope for the creation. It wasn’t the last covenant God made with God’s creation of course, but all of them have the same stamp. God cares, and God is in relationship with the creation and will go on being in relationship no matter what some parts of creation might do.

There’s a catch – there’s usually a catch. Remember: ‘As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.’ The caveat is ‘as long as the earth endures’ – and that puts the responsibility back onto us as co-creators in this enterprise! I ask myself – if we humans go on destroying the world around us, why should we assume that the covenant God made with humankind overrides all covenants made between God and creation.  Covenant is a two-way relationship and what happens if one party slams the door and will not relate.

The gospel reading also moves in a realm of new beginnings. As often happens with Mark these three short paragraphs leave us with the sense that there’s a lot going on here that we simply don’t understand – and Mark doesn’t provide any answers or even any theories. Mark wasn’t writing a biography of Jesus, let alone a spiritual biography. His primary agenda was to set out the truth about Jesus as he understood it after the Easter event.  For Mark, the baptism was the revelation of Jesus’ identity as son of God. By the time he wrote his gospel, the Christian community had already linked the imagery of baptism with death. In baptism, the new Christian went through the waters of death to take on the new life in Christ, and it was a hugely significant rite. The early Christians, at least in some of the written records, spent at two years or more preparing for baptism.  Our Methodist and Reformed traditions have developed a different theology of infant baptism in which the faith community makes a commitment (or should make a commitment) to a child, that he or she will walk the journey in the company, and with the support of, the community. It doesn’t mean that one form of baptism is more authentic in intention than the other – both mean a commitment to a new journey and a restored and renewed life.

Our reading continues with Mark’s account of the temptation and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry – and again, Mark wastes no time on details. He makes no record of which temptations Jesus wrestled with, other than to say that it was a confrontation between Jesus and the forces of evil that stalk the world.  We can’t know what Jesus struggled with, any more than we can know – really – what some of our dearest friends may struggle with. What we do get from Mark is a sense that whatever happened to Jesus in the wilderness, he came out of it ready and willing to begin the journey of his earthly ministry. And it certainly wasn’t a smooth journey, and perhaps that can stand as an encouragement to us to keep going when the going gets tough, and the wilderness takes us over!

Whatever has happened to each one of us in this past year will always be a part of us. Some of us may have indeed been wandering in desert places. Sometimes an oasis turns out to be a mirage, and we start off all over again. I’m sure some of us have been tempted at times to give up, or to run away, or to look for someone to blame. Deserts aren’t comfortable places. Nor are they safe places. But they can offer us time and space to hear God’s voice and God’s call.

The Christian life is never static. Like the rainbow, the end is always just beyond our reach, but we’re called to keep moving towards our goal. It happens for communities as well as for individuals. The city is on a (rather long) journey to overcome Covid19. Every year this parish begins the journey through Lent, and engages on a journey towards new ways of being God’s people in this place. Part of the mission during Lent is to pray for discernment. But please remember that the congregation is on a journey together. No one is exempt from mission. You are all ambassadors for God in Christ.  Go well in these days to come. Amen.