Sunday, March 1, 2009

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

Because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God; being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit…

I put together a gift basket for a silent auction recently. It was filled with devotional items: some books, prayer beads, a candle and a bible bookmark. I found the most adorable box at a local store that was perfect for this gift basket. It had a picture of Noah’s Ark, with cute animals and a cartoon representation of Noah and his wife. It was bright and delightful with smiling faces and happy animals. The lions are next to the lambs are next to the elephants are next to the pigs. This is the image we see in children’s bible stories and it always ends in a beautiful picture of a rainbow.

This is the story we know, but I wonder if it is the reality of what Noah and his family experienced. Were those 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 waste removal.

Imagine what it must have been like on that boat. Some animals would have quickly borne new young, so the cozy space would have quickly filled up with extra animals. The smell from the animals must have been suffocating. The work of caring for so many animals must have been exhausting. It rained without end for weeks. There was nothing to see but water. Even when the water disappeared, what would be left of the earth? 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's Ark was not really a sweet story for those who lived it. God called Noah to build a very large boat, to fill it with enough food, water and supplies to feed many animals for a long time. Noah was most certainly persecuted while he was building the ark, to the point that he may have even questioned the whole thing. Wouldn't it have been better to enjoy life with his neighbors that go on with this ridiculous quest?

We don’t hear much about Noah’s wife, sons and their wives. Did they join in helping Noah build the ark and collect the animals? Were they tempted to stay with those outside the ark? After all, they would have other family and friends. This whole experience was ridiculous. We aren’t told about their faith. The bible only says that Noah was righteous. We know that soon after they settle on dry land, Noah gets drunk and Ham begins to gossip, so even though these were saved by God they were not perfect. The flood was not the final answer to the failure of human nature.

Noah couldn’t do it alone, and he didn’t do it alone. His sons, however imperfect, climbed on to the ark with Noah and all those animals. They must have helped keep them fed, clean and healthy. They must have stood by Noah’s side when he sent out the ravens and the dove, hoping beyond hope that the end was near. They probably argued with their wives, who probably wept in grief over their sudden and remarkable loss. All eight probably got tired of eating the same food and doing the same things day after day after day. I wonder how many times they wished they had ignored God’s call and died with the rest of the world.

Yet, they also had one another. When one person was down, another was able to pick up the slack. They could encourage one another, keeping each other accountable. When one began to doubt, another could remind them of God’s faithfulness. When someone was ready to jump over the side into the endless waters, the others could hold on to them with love.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, we join this story at the end. The water has receded and the ark has landed on the top of a mountain. The time has finally come for the animals and the people to be set free. Just as God sealed the door when it began to rain, God invited Noah and his companions both human and animal to leave the ark to begin anew. Noah built an altar and sacrificed a burnt offering in thanksgiving for God’s mercy. Then God made a covenant with Noah.

A covenant is not just a contract, it is a promise. Defined as “a usually formal, solemn and binding agreement,” a covenant happens between two parties, and yet one party is fully responsible for the keeping of the covenant. This is especially true when it comes to biblical covenants. In the next few weeks, we’ll hear about several of those biblical covenants, promises that God made to His people. This week we hear about the rainbow.

We are in the midst of an extreme drought, well below the normal average of rainfall even for Texas. Though we are generally a desert environment, we do get rain, especially during the winter. The grass is brown and many people are reporting that the plants in their landscaping are dying. We have to conserve water and there is an imminent threat of rationing. The few days of foggy, drizzly weather we’ve had has done nothing to help the situation. We really want it to rain. The strange thing is, it was less than two years ago that we were dealing with too much rain.

When it is rains like that, all we want is a day of sunshine. We moan about the weather, frustrated by our cancelled plans and our unfinished work outside. Wet weather brings with it an array of health issues, including depression. Mothers go crazy trying to find things for the children to do while trapped inside for long periods of time. Sometimes the wet weather brings along worse weather problems like severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. Property damage is an unfortunate part of the rainy season as hail, wind and flooding destroys cars, homes and even lives. It is no wonder when it has been raining for a long time that we search for some sign that it will end.

Covenants often come with some sort of sign. In the case of Noah and his ark, God gave a rainbow. A rainbow can not form on a fully sunny or fully rainy day. It takes both the sun and the rain to make a rainbow. So, after a long rain, it is such a joy to see the clouds begin to thin because the sun can shine through the rain to give us the sign that God remembers His promises. Though it still floods locally when the rain falls too hard or long, we see the sign of the covenant that God will not let it rain so much that everything will be destroyed. We are given a moment of hope even in the midst of our problems. God is faithful, and the rainbow reminds us that there will be an end to the rain.

Unfortunately, a localized flood can destroy someone’s whole world—home, family and livelihood. In the midst of such misfortune, it is hard to realize that God is keeping His promises. Our faith rests not in a promise that everything will be perfect, but in God’s promise that there is always hope beyond our troubles. We still get sick and die; we still suffer financial difficulties and persecution. It is then that we look for the signs of God’s covenants, remembering that there is an end to the rain. And we get through it with a little help from our friends.

They say no man is an island. No matter how much we think we can survive alone, the reality is that we are dependent on one another. We might be able to handle a great deal by ourselves, but we will find blessing in the community created between people. In the beginning, God created Adam and quickly realized that though there were a huge number of animals in creation, it was not good that Adam was alone. He needed a help-mate, as we all need people on whom we can rely. Jesus Himself found a wonderful group of people to travel with Him, to learn about God and to share God’s message with the world. Besides the twelve, there were women that traveled with the group and homes where they were always welcome. Jesus did not do the three years of ministry by Himself.

But began and ended those three years alone. The responsibility for the salvation of humankind had to rest on His shoulders. No one could help Him. No one could share the weight of that burden. So there, in the wilderness, Jesus faced His temptations alone.

Our Gospel lesson for today is seven short verses, but in this passage Mark shows Jesus going through a discernment process. First Jesus hears the voice of God who defines His identity. He says, “You are my son” as Jesus is baptized. Jesus is immediately sent into the wilderness to reflect upon this identity. For forty days He is tempted. Though Mark does not give us the details, we know from the other gospel writers that Jesus is faced with the possibilities of where to take His ministry. Satan offered Him a different path, but Jesus knew who He was and what He had to do. Finally, we see Jesus leaving the wilderness and going into action. He recognized His identity, reflected on His purpose and put it to work.

Perhaps, as we begin this Lenten season, it is a good time for us to discover who we are and reflect upon our identity. We tend to jump into action without really knowing who we are or what we are meant to do. How much easier it would be if we followed this process, like Jesus, listening for God’s voice and taking time to face the temptations that keep us from being all that we can be. Then we can go out and do the work we have been called to do.

What would the world have been like if God had not sent the flood in the days of Noah? The book of Genesis tells us that “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence.” God saw man’s wickedness and realized that He could not ‘contend with’ man any longer. God’s greatest creation had turned so completely away from His intent and purpose that they needed to be destroyed. There was one man, Noah, who was righteous—in a right relationship with God. God saved Noah and His family so that they might start again and in the process God changed the relationship between man and creation and between man and his God. Did this stop us from making bad decisions? No, humankind continued to turn from God. But Noah was just a foreshadowing of the promise to come. The promise which began with Adam and continued throughout the history of God’s people until Jesus came to fulfill it.

God did not destroy the people who had been wicked in the days of Noah, but He stopped them from destroying the world which He had created. Peter tells us that Jesus shared the Good News with them, and all those who perished before God’s promise was fulfilled. Noah and his family were saved from the Great Flood, but God did not forget the souls that were lost. And now, we are blessed by the gift of a similar pass through death by water in baptism so that we too might be restored to a right relationship with our God.

God has selective memory, also, but His memory is exactly the opposite of ours. While we tend to hold on to the sins of our neighbors, God forgets our sin. God forgives; of this we are certain because He has promised us His forgiveness through Jesus Christ. But God also forgets. Our past sins do not come back to bite us over and over again. Forgiveness from God is permanent, it is final. When God remembers us, He sees a beloved child whom He created ‘good.’ He sees us with love and grace, remembering all the good things about our lives and how we have been a blessing to others. He remembers those important moments in our life, like when we were born, when we were baptized and when we showed Him how much we love Him. Most of all, He remembers His promises and is faithful, even when we are not. He remembers all this because He sees us through the eyes of Jesus, whose sole purpose was to make us right with our God.

Perhaps, as we begin this Lenten season, it is a good time for us to discover who we are and reflect upon our identity, not only as individuals but also as people of God. We tend to jump into action without really knowing who we are or what we are meant to do. How much easier it would be if we followed the process Jesus followed in the beginning, listening for God’s voice and taking time to face the temptations that keep us from being all that we can be. Then we can go out and do the work we have been called to do.

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