First Sunday in Lent
First Presbyterian Church of Hightstown
Genesis 9: 8-17 and Mark 1: 9-15
I regret bringing a child into this world. It may not be everyday, but some days I am just not certain where even a glimmer of hope resides. The only thing I can do to make it through those days is to go through the motions until I wake up the next day, yearning to feel differently.
It’s the reality that people feel compelled to flee their homelands and everything that is familiar for an uncertain future; individuals or families who travel miles over land and sea toward a place that they have never seen because that place is better than what they know day to day.
As the child of an immigrant, I carry worry on my shoulders for all of the families that may be torn apart as their homes are raided and loved ones taken away as they watch. Or for all the people who look like me, who will perpetually look like foreigners in our own homeland…asked, “No, where are you really from?” or given the compliment, “You speak English so well.”
I listen to the radio and watch television only to bathe in the fear and divisiveness taking over our nation…and that’s just the stories that make it to the news. We fear those who look different than us. Our differences have become liabilities rather than strengths within our communities. And if we are really honest with ourselves, all of this division is inside of our church walls as much as it is outside of them.
And then, on Ash Wednesday, another school shooting. The most captivating photograph for me was a woman with dark, black ashes on her forehead in the figure of a cross holding an inconsolable teenager in her arms. Marked by the ashen cross that said, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” she walked right t the doorway of death. Stories of teens who captured the chaos on video with their phones and Sarah Crescitelli who text messaged her parents while sitting in a bathroom for two hours in the school, saying, “If I don’t make it I love you and I appreciated everything you did for me.”
I drop off my son at his elementary school each day and worry, if even just for a brief moment, that he might not be safe. I worry that my phone will ring, alerting me that a shooter has made their way into the school. Did Jonathan duck fast enough? Did his teacher make it to the door to lock it? What will he have witnessed? What will he have felt? Will he even be alive so that I can ask him these questions?
I’ve brought Jonathan into a world that makes me question if we can live as a beloved, diverse body of Christ where there is no “other”…an actual place where we can live together.
Honestly, I want to start over. And that’s exactly what we get in today’s reading from Genesis. Don’t forget today’s reading was the result of divine anger and desire for justice. The world had become so sinful and broken that God saw no other way but to flood it with death. The cheery nursery wallpaper or up-beat tunes from children’s choirs proclaiming animals entering the ark two by two. But it was forty days surrounding by the rushing waters of death for Noah and his family. They were the only human beings left; one family to reclaim the vision for Creation once the vessel hit dry land. We know how the story ended, with a dove delivering a sprig of olive branch that illustrated a world reborn, but at that time, the encouragement to build an ark because of a holy foreshadowing of death followed by forty days on it must have been a terror-filled nightmare for Noah and his family; I don’t doubt that at least one night included dreams death rather than the unappealing smelly cabin of an tightly packed, animal filled ark surrounded by choppy waters.
The flood was death and resurrection for so that God’s justice could reign. Perhaps we are so forgone that we need this kind of life and death scenario so that Creation can be reborn again.
And yet, verses 13-16 of Genesis tell us of a different story this morning: “I have set my bow in the clouds and it shall be a sign 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…”
Right here, in this very first covenant in all of Scripture, God gives up divine power and commits to the flesh of all Creation. This was as radical a theological claim for the Hebrews as it is for us today. God surrenders any ability to allow anger to demand justice, replacing these inclinations with mercy and love. And, unlike any of the other covenants in Scripture, this is one sided. God promises not to flood the earth despite whatever humankind or any living being does to destroy the heavenly potential of what has been created. Look in the text again and you will see that the bow reminds God of the covenant. The arch of the bow points away from the earth in a testimony that violence will not offer a solution, no matter how far we have strayed from God’s vision.
God commits to a different answer to sin than violence.
The covenant to be on the side of flesh and blood deepens from the moment that Christ takes his first breath as a baby and now here he is, depicted by Mark’s gospel at the beginning of his ministry. The temptation story is always the reading for the first Sunday in Lent but we don’t get much from this narrative. There certainly isn’t a list of the specifics of what unfolding while he was there. Instead we just know that Jesus was baptized, claimed by God as a son and beloved, before the Spirit “drives him out into the wilderness.” (v. 12)
But a few things stand out for me in this passage. First, the word in the original Greek that we translate as “wild beasts” is actually more accurately read as “dangerous beings.” Implied in here is the confrontation that Jesus must face during his time on earth; the danger and conflict begins here, soon to escalate as he challenges the assumptions of what it means to be a person of faith. Secondly, the verb from “the angels waited on him” is better understood as “the angels served him.” Nine chapters from now, Jesus will say that he came to serve, not to be served (10:45). Service in the midst of fear, threats, and wilderness moments is all exactly what will shape his ministry. Finally, in the midst of this whole wilderness struggle, Jesus is sent out with everything that he needs. The waters of baptism claim and prepare him to be sent into the wilderness for forty days on his own. Once the torrential waters of the flood in Genesis, the same element becomes the covenant that bathed over Christ so that he might fulfill his mission.
From the beginning of Mark’s gospel we see that Jesus cannot escape his incarnation, the flesh and blood that God embodied for even this brief time on earth. And if he cannot escape his incarnation, neither can we flee from our existence or distance ourselves from what is happening “out there,” no matter how broken the world is before us.
Mark’s gospel doesn’t give Jesus time to recover from his forty days in the wilderness because he emerges to learn that John the Baptist was arrested. His cousin who proclaimed the way ahead was taken in shackles and left with an uncertain future (though we know what happened).
But here’s the thing: the narrative ends, “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.’” (v. 14-15)
The good news still exists in a world that arrests people who testify to Christ’s salvation through repentance and new life.
The good news lives through the actions of our youth like Hannah who see the divisiveness of their school cafeteria and demand a safe space for all students.
It lives in the work of our Mission Committee who desires this church to be a place where all visitors are welcomed into the body of Christ, not left to feel unknown and unnamed on a Sunday morning.
It’s in the work of the deacons who prepared this past Ash Wednesday service and, through Scripture, prayer and song, reminded those present that our lives mark us for service even if we are here for the briefest of times.
The good news is in the rainbow flag that hangs on the door of this church as a testimony to the LGBTQAI community that they are a part of our community too, that no danger or judgment will come to them if they worship here in this place.
It’s in the countless children, families, and individuals who walk through our doors during the week to be fed physically and spiritually.
The good news is within each one of you here today. You are a living testimony to God’s covenant of mercy and love.
Often Lent becomes a season of self-reflection on the sin and brokenness that keeps us from God. But recently I can’t stop myself from thinking that this year could be different. If we give something up for Lent (chocolate, social media, television, or any number of things), we get to put them right back into our lives after this forty day journey. We take the opportunity to pick right back up where we left off at the beginning of Lent…and we base them on these small stumbling blocks rather than the wilderness experience of living in a world that is violent, divided, and broken in ways that seem irreparable.
But what if we hung our temptations up in the same way that God placed the bow in the sky, as a reminder that we would not fall captive to the pressures and sinfulness of this world again; because if we did this, our feelings at the end of this Lenten journey are not relief that we made it but, instead, a proclamation of what we believe now more deeply than we ever did before. We would testify that, even in this wilderness that we can life, God can still proclaim the good news in and through each one of us.
As this Lenten journey commences, may you deeply explore the love of God that transforms mere life and death into resurrection hope.