Sunday, March 5, 2006

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

Remember, O Jehovah, thy tender mercies and thy lovingkindness; For they have been ever of old.

Do you know a collector? A collector is someone who has a bunch of items that are similar in some way. Some people like to collect crosses. Others collect angels. Yet others collect cows. These collectors are fed in their hobby by willing manufacturers who create all sorts of wonderful pictures, statues and books. It does not take very long for something to become a collection – only a few items are needed for something to appear to be a hobby.

When we were getting ready to move to Texas, I saw a really cute picture of a rooster in a store. I wanted this picture, but since the packers were already behind in their work, I did not want to make it worse for them. I knew that the store had locations in Texas, so I decided to wait. Unfortunately, our local store had none of the rooster pictures. Finding a cute rooster for our house became a quest. Eventually we added a funny chicken recipe holder and another funny bank. There is also a small rooster area rug and a picture hanging on my wall. One day my sister noticed the numerous chickens and roosters around my kitchen. Knowing of my quest, she decided to help. She gave me a rooster trinket box. I didn't want a collection.

Neither does my sister, but when she bought me the rooster, I had to return the favor. So, I found her something in her favorite theme, "Noah's Ark." Now we battle over who can find the most creative collectible. Our collections are growing to the point where we almost feel buried.

Our collections are nothing like a friend of mine. She likes cows. She likes cows so much that she had a house full of them. When she turned fifty several years ago, her husband gave her a party with many friends and family members. It seemed like just about everyone gave her something relating to cows. A short time later our church had a garage sale. While straightening the tables I noticed some cow related items. I pointed them out to my friend who said, "They were mine." She had become overwhelmed by the collection and realized that she really did not need so many in her home.

The same thing had happened to my sister, which is why she cringes every time I find her a new Noah's Ark piece for her collection. She has realized that she does not want or need so many things. It is hard to resist however. The image is so precious – the hardworking Noah surrounded by peaceful looking beasts. The animals chosen for these items are usually animals that could never survive together on such a small, enclosed space like a boat – lions and lambs, cats with birds. It is a sign of hope and peace, especially since we know the story so well. At the end of the story we hear a promise, the promise found in today's Old Testament lesson.

Yet, was Noah's Ark really the 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?

If that's not bad enough, imagine what it must have been like on that boat. We don't know how many animals that Noah had, just that he had two of every kind. Some animals would have quickly borne new young, so the cozy space would have quickly filled up with extra animals. The smell from the animal waste must have been suffocating. The work of caring for so many animals must have been exhausting. It rained without end for days, even weeks. There was nothing to see but water. Even when the water disappeared, what would be left of the earth? Only Noah, his wife, sons and daughters-in-law 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.

I think the most difficult time would have been at the very beginning. Once all the animals were on board and everything was ready, just as the first raindrops began to fall, God told Noah to go on to the ark with his family. Then God shut them in. It is important to note that God shut the door. There was no escape at this point. Now, Noah was righteous and obedient to God's command. Yet, what would happen if you were on a boat as the waters of a flood began rise around you and you heard the screams of your family and friends.

The story does not give us details about the time Noah was building the ark. It probably took awhile, perhaps months or years for Noah to do everything God commanded. In that time Noah still had relationships with the people in the world in which he lived. His sons married women who had families. His neighbors passed by every day, wondering about this boat. Even as they made fun of him, righteous Noah probably spoke to them about the God of his faith. They did not listen or change their ways. Would God have changed His mind if they had? He often had mercy on those who turned to Him.

So, as the flood waters rose, the people of Noah's world realized that their world was coming to an end. Perhaps at that moment they even remembered Noah and went to the ark seeking salvation. Those close to God, like Noah, reflect the heart and the character of the One they love. How could Noah ignore their screams and the desperate knocking on the sides of the ark even while knowing this was God's will? God knew Noah and the other seven would never have the strength to let the people drown, so He shut them in the ark. Noah had faith and God knew his righteousness, but there was no room for free will in this story. It was not the time to test Noah's faith and commitment.

There are times God tests us. We see that in today's Gospel story. Though this is a rather brief account of the testing in the wilderness, it offers us a look at how different Jesus is than other men of faith. Mark does not give the details found in the other Gospel narratives. In this passage, Jesus is baptized and then immediately the Spirit drives Him into the wilderness. Jesus wasn't given a choice; this was a necessary part of His journey. Unlike Noah, this was a time of testing. Satan was given free reign to tempt Jesus. We hear in the other stories that Satan tried to get Jesus to turn away from God's will.

Noah had no control over whether or not to save the people when he heard their screams. God shut him away in the ark because helping his friends and neighbors would have not only been against God's will, but it would have been harmful to those on the ark. An open door would have meant failure. Yet, there are times when God leaves the door open, as a test of faith or to test obedience. The first moment of the flood was no time to test Noah's faith.

It was different for Jesus immediately following His baptism. The Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. Was it a test of faith? Was it a test of obedience? It seems impossible that Jesus might have failed. Yet, the test does more than prove one's faith or obedience. Testing brings strength, courage, knowledge and the promise of hope for something better beyond the suffering. In this case, the wilderness also provides Satan his greatest challenge.

This reminds me of a joke. Satan was wandering around, bored out of his gills. The LORD said to Satan, "Go, do your job! Tempt people and make them sin." Satan answered, "But that's why I'm so bored. They sin without me and there's nothing left for me to do!" We don't need to be tempted from the outside. Our human flesh is quite capable of failing without having people – or Satan – throw temptations our way. Yet, we are faced by those outside temptations on a daily basis.

Satan's temptations for Jesus were not the every day type of things we face. He might tempt us with a chocolate bar or cause us to lust in our hearts for a pretty body. No, for Jesus the temptations were far more difficult. Satan reached into Jesus' heart and tempted Him to take His ministry in a different direction. He offered Jesus the chance to feed the world, to be known by the whole world and to rule the world. These were noble goals to seek, but to do them would have meant rejecting the reason He was sent into the world. Jesus answered with the Word. "Man does not live by bread alone." "Do not tempt the Lord your God." "Worship only God."

Much like Noah, Jesus was in the wilderness with the wild beast, hearing the temptations that come from all around. Unlike Noah, Jesus had a choice. He chose to stand firm, to go to the cross. He may have accomplished great things under Satan's guidance, but in the end everyone would have perished. As with Noah, he might have accomplished great things by opening the door to allow some to escape, but in the end everyone would have perished. Besides, God had a plan for those who drowned.

We hear in the first letter of Peter that 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 would never save the people.

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." If water could save, then Jesus could have fed the world, been heard by the world and ruled the world. Instead, salvation comes only because Jesus rejected the temptations of Satan and went forth to die on the cross and it is His blood cleanses us from our sin.

The Noah's Ark collectibles in my sister's collection might be beautiful. The children's story books tell a most wonderful story. Even our lesson today reminds us of the hope given in the promises of God to Noah after the flood was gone. Yet, we should not forget that the story of Noah is a horrific experience. There are those who refuse to believe that the God of love would do such a thing. It seems so out of character. Yet, God did not leave them to perish, but saved them from themselves. The people were destroying themselves with their sinfulness. In death they found life.

Peter writes, "Because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God." Jesus suffered both for Noah and for those who perished in the flood. In this we see that there is hope for all people. 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.

It is also hard to believe that the God we love would ever test a person. Why should the Spirit drive Jesus into the wilderness for forty days? Why do any of us experience a time of wilderness? Why do we suffer? Sometimes it is just a consequence of living in an imperfect world. There is one – Satan, the devil, the adversary – whose job it is to tempt us and lead us into sin. Sometimes we suffer the consequences of the sin in our own lives. And sometimes, yes sometimes, we are driven into the wilderness by God's Spirit to be tested.

God does not test us to make us fail or for the purpose of making us suffer as punishment or revenge. We don't face times of temptation just so God can see if we will be faithful or obedient. Testing is like tempering. It makes us stronger, gives us courage, and causes us to look to the One who is our salvation and our refuge. When there is testing there is always hope. Hope is seeing beyond the moment into the promises. To Noah, the promise came after the waters receded. God promised that He would never again destroy the world by flood. Noah lived in that promise and we still live in that promise.

In Christ, however, we live with an even greater promise. It is the promise of salvation, of forgiveness, of wholeness and eternal life. It is a life that is lived in faith and obedience to God in response to that which Christ has done on the cross. Noah was righteous in the eyes of God; he walked with God in times when men were far from God. Yet, even Noah did not know salvation as we do in Christ. Our hope is eternal and it is personal.

Our hope is indeed personal, our salvation is individual. Yet, our salvation does not give us the authority or the knowledge to judge the salvation of another. Do you think Noah though himself better because he lived while the rest of the world perished in the flood waters? Why should we think that we are better because we have heard God's promise and live in His kingdom while others are perishing all around us? Instead, we are called to live in this world as beacons, pointing to the light of Christ. Noah probably tried to tell the people of God's love and mercy, but they would not obey. We will also speak God's words to unhearing ears, but that does not mean there is no hope.

There is always hope. Even when we see the unrighteous around us and suffer from their sin, there is hope for those who fall to the temptations of this world, Satan and their own hearts. God's promises are greater than our sin. God's covenant reaches beyond that day so long ago when God showed Noah the rainbow. We can't know the eternal destination of any other human being. But we can have hope. As we live in hope, we will share the Gospel with all whether they are righteous or unrighteous, our friends or our enemies. As we share the Gospel, a seed will be planted and God's grace will work in their hearts. We may never see faith in their lives, but we can still have hope. For God is able to do that which no man or ark can do. He can bring us through the flood, through the wilderness, into something better. Thanks be to God.

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