Sunday, February 26, 2012

First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.

I’ve seen a lot of rainbows in my time. They were a rare treat growing up in Pennsylvania, due to the landscape and the buildings around where I lived, but other places have proven to be conducive for producing the beautiful phenomenon. In England they became so common that I stopped taking pictures. Every picture looked the same because the scenery around the rainbows never changed. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of seeing them, though. Rainbows are beautiful and surprising; you never know when one will appear.

There are three rainbows that will always be memorable to me. I recall driving down one of those tiny English roads shortly after a shower had passed through. The sun was shining on the other side and a rainbow appeared. It was so close to my car that it actually tinted the color of the house that was just behind it. I could see where it touched the ground, and I think that if I’d been able to park and walk across the field, I could have found the end of the rainbow. I doubt I would have found a pot of gold, but I was sure impressed by incredible nearness of God that day.

The second was in California. I don’t recall why we were driving, but we were out on one of those long straight roads in the middle of the state, surrounded by nothingness. A shower passed north of us and the sun was able to pierce through the rain. The rainbow that was created was extraordinary: a full double bow that was so bright it seemed solid. It lasted for a very long time, and though I knew it was far away, I was certain that we would drive right through it eventually.

The third was also in California. We were at church for a special event; I don’t even recall what it was. Everyone was outside on the lawn for some reason. It had just rained and a rainbow appeared over the church. I had my camera along to take pictures of the event, and I managed to get a picture of the rainbow with the cross on the top of the church. I’ve always loved that picture: a remembrance of the two great promises of God.

We are beginning a journey that will lead us to see the fulfillment of all God’s promises. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and lasts until Holy Week, Good Friday, and then Easter. Lent is a time of examination, to consider the reality of who we are and what we have done. It is a time of repentance and renewal. It is a time to look at God, to see Him from the reality of our imperfections and to realize just how magnificent He is. The Old Testament scriptures we will follow for the next few weeks focus on the great promises of God.

This week we recall the promise given to Noah that God will never again destroy the entire world with a flood. The story of Noah is so familiar that I wonder if we even listen to it anymore. We know the delightful children’s version, with cute animals on a charming little boat and old man Noah taking care of them.

The story was told in a modern way in “Evan Almighty” with Steve Carrell as the Noah-like character. In that story, the cute animals even helped build the ark. Despite its cuteness, the movie had a certain realism about it. Evan ran into all sorts of problems while building his ark. It wasn’t a sweet experience. It was hard work. He was ridiculed. The animals became annoying. In the end, the flood did not destroy everything, but the ark served to save many people who were in danger when a dam broke. Were Noah’s animals cute and cuddly, happily living together side by side, predator next to prey? I’m sure it wasn’t. While God would have interceded in this miraculous experience, Noah still had to deal with many animals in a small, enclosed space. The animals needed to eat. They had to be cleaned. They needed fresh hay and clean water. The people on board had to deal with the messiness of life.

Imagine what it must have been like on that boat. Some animals would have birthed young, so the cozy space would have quickly filled up with extra animals. The smell must have been suffocating. The work of caring for so many animals would have been exhausting. It rained without end for weeks. There was nothing to see but water. When the water disappeared, what would have been left? The only survivors were Noah, his wife, his sons, their wives and a boat load of animals. It would take time for the earth to be restored, for the trees to grow and for the flowers to bloom. I wonder if there was ever a time when Noah might have thought it would have been better to drown with everyone else.

Noah was blessed to be the first to see the rainbow and to hear the words of the promise. But Noah, who had a special relationship with God, failed to live rightly even after experiencing the hand of God in such a miraculous way. That’s why God had to keep making promises. Despite His grace, humankind continued to sin. But God did not stop loving His people, and repeatedly promised that He would be with them, that He would take care of them, and that He would bless them.

Our inability to live up to the expectations of our God is exactly why the fulfillment of the promises was dependant on Jesus. He was just like us, but He was different. He was human in every sense of the word, and yet He did not sin. On this first Sunday of Lent we hear the story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Mark doesn’t give us much detail; his report is so short about the wilderness journey that we include verses we’ve read, or will read, at other times this year. The scripture for today could be two short verses, Mark 1:12-13. “And straightway the Spirit driveth him forth into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days tempted of Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him.”

It is interesting that the word used here describing how Jesus ended up in the wilderness is the same word that is used when Jesus drives out the demons. This is not something Jesus chooses to do. He is forced into the wilderness. Mark does not show us how Jesus was tempted or how Jesus overcame. He simply says that Jesus was tempted by Satan. This was a time of testing for Jesus, a time of isolation from all human contact. In Mark’s version of the story, He was with the wild animals and angels waited on Him. When I picture the temptation story, I think of Jesus wandering around in the desert, with only rocks and dust around Him. Yet, Mark shows Him in the presence of animals and angels.

A commentary suggests that Jesus with the wild animals identifies Jesus with Adam, who was alone with all the animals before God created Eve. I wonder if we can also indentify Jesus with Noah, who was not alone with the wild animals, but who spent forty days with them in the rain. Of course, in the text we see Jesus coming through baptism, which Peter connects to the flood. We notice, too, that Jesus is waited on by the angels, who are there to provide for and protect Jesus. In Mark’s version, Jesus wasn’t alone, although we know that He wasn’t alone anyway because God was with Him.

Why would the Spirit drive Jesus into the wilderness the way Jesus drove demons from people? Why would God make Jesus spend forty days isolated and tempted? There are times God tests us. Jesus wasn't given a choice; this was a necessary part of His journey. Satan was given free rein to tempt Jesus, and according to the other versions of this story, Satan did try to get Jesus to turn from God. Was Noah tempted? Was he tempted to give up building the ark when he was persecuted and ridiculed? Was he tempted to open the doors and let his neighbors board the ark when the rain began to fall? Was he tempted to throw any of those animals overboard when they were annoying him? If he is anything like me, I’m sure he thought about all those things. God did not make disobedience a possibility for Noah, though. Jesus, like us, had free will and could have said yes to any of the temptations, but He stood firm. When Satan tempted Him, He remained true to God.

We are tempted daily, and Lent is a time for us to recognize this reality. Lent is a time for us to journey through our own wilderness. What does that look like for you? Do you see yourself isolated, perhaps more like my image of the temptation of Jesus from the other gospel writers? Or do you see yourself hanging with wild animals and angels? Do you know that even in the wilderness God is with you?

God had a plan from the beginning of time. There was no way for human life to redeem themselves, no sacrifice good enough to repay our debts. Human repentance would never be enough to restore our relationship with God after our sinfulness. There was only one way to fulfill all the promises of God: Jesus.

In today’s scripture we see the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus, the beloved Son of God, was sent to fulfill God’s promises, to restore the relationship between God and His creation. Jesus was baptized and tempted, fully identifying with the people to whom He came to save. During the wilderness journey, Jesus overcame the twisted expectations of Satan and the world, setting His feet on the road to overcoming even death and the grave. Peter wrote, “Because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” (1 Peter 3:18a)

God did not disregard those who had perished in the flood. Peter tells us that God waited patiently while Noah built the boat, but then He saved only the eight: Noah, his wife, sons and daughters-in-law. The others did not obey and were drowned, but they were not forgotten. When Jesus died in the flesh, He went to preach to those spirits imprisoned in death before the coming salvation that is found in Christ. Though Noah may have warned the people of the coming flood, the people repaid him with persecution and jokes. Yet, there was hope for them even as they were swallowed by the flood waters. Noah and his ark were not meant to save all people, but to prefigure that which was to come. The flood was followed by baptism.

We look at the rainbow and remember that God has promised that He will never destroy all the earth with a flood; when it seems like there will be no end to the rain we can live in the hope of that promise. I love rainbows, and I love what rainbows stand for, but in Christ we live with an even greater promise. It is the promise of salvation, of forgiveness, of wholeness and eternal life. Noah was righteous in the eyes of God; he walked with God in times when men were far from God. Yet, even Noah failed to live as God demanded. Even worse, he did not know salvation as we do in Christ. His hope lasted a lifetime, but our hope is eternal. God established a new world after the flood. He established a new Kingdom in Jesus. The cross is a sign that there is reason to have hope: our journey in the wilderness will end and we will forever dwell with Jesus in the presence of our God.

Jesus suffered for all; He suffered for Noah and for all those who were lost in the flood. He suffered for you and for your non-Christian neighbor. In this we see that there is hope in Jesus’ name and in His baptism for anyone. Even today as we look at those around us who seem to be disobedient to God’s Word, we can know that there is hope for them.

Peter writes, “…which also after a true likeness doth now save you, even baptism, not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the interrogation of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ; who is one the right hand of God, having gone into heaven; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him.” It isn’t the water that saves us. Water is yet another sign of God’s grace. Salvation comes to us because we have faith in the One who rejected the temptations of Satan and went forth to die on the cross. It is His blood that cleanses us from our sin.

God makes promises and He keeps them. I think it is interesting that though we see the rainbow and remember, the sign was put there for His sake. God says, “And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.” The rainbow reminds Him of His promise, and He has been faithful.

As we enter into the journey of Lent, let us remember that Jesus now sits at the right hand of God, forever a reminder of His promise to us in baptism. God is faithful. No matter what we face in our wilderness, God is with us. He may drive us out there to be tested, but He does not leave us alone. And at the end of the journey, when we have finally passed through death into eternal life, we’ll see what comes of those who humble themselves and follow, trusting in His grace every step of the way.

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