Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The First Sunday of Lent, 21st of February 2021
According to the first creation story in Genesis, when God created the world it was covered in water and darkness. Then God’s Spirit swept over the face of the waters and creation began. But a mere ten generations later the watery chaos returned. The wickedness of humankind was so great in the earth, and every thought in the hearts of humanity so evil, that the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind. He was grieved to his heart, the author of Genesis says. So the Lord allowed the primordial chaos to return and flooded the earth.
Many ancient Near Eastern cultures told stories of a flood at the beginning of time. The version that has been preserved for us in Genesis was, scholars think, finalised when the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon. They were living in chaos, and it is out of that experience of chaos that they wrote the creation story in which God speaks the cosmos into being. Earlier this year I spoke about the exiles, who had been ripped from their country and their Temple and were wondering how they could sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, looking up to the sky and finding a sign of God bringing order out of chaos in the simple division of day from night. When everything else around them was strange, the exiles saw God’s providence each morning when the night’s darkness gave way to the day’s light. In the same way, living in Babylon far from their home, the exiles wrote not only of the return of chaos but of the covenant that followed it.
The Lord decides not to wipe out all of humanity, because Noah had found favour in the sight of the Lord. He and his family were warned; were able to build an ark; survived the flood. And after the waters recede, the Lord makes a covenant with Noah and through him with every human being and all of Creation. A few weeks ago we heard the Prophet Jonah’s complaint that the Lord was ‘a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing’. In the story of this first covenant between God and humanity we see the extent of the Lord’s readiness to relent from punishment. God’s creative purpose is to bring to birth a peaceful cosmos. Humanity refuses to live in peace. Human beings misuse God’s good gifts of land and water, plants and animals. We even misuse each other, treating other human beings, those made, like us, in the image of God, as objects. And yet despite this, the Lord promises Noah that he will never give up on us. No matter the evil humanity might do, God will not punish humanity as it deserves. Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth. The ancient world believed that the God who created all things had the right to judge all things, and to undo the very act of creation. And yet they also knew that God would not do this. With this covenant God becomes not only humanity’s creator, but humanity’s protector.
Astonishingly, in this covenant between God and Noah the Lord is the only party to promise anything. Noah and his descendants, including us, do not have to promise to live as God wants. God created a world of peace, but he does not now demand that humanity live peaceably. Instead, the Lord places limits on himself, and sets boundaries around his own actions. This is symbolised by the Lord placing his bow in the clouds as a sign of the covenant. God lays down God’s weapons against humanity. Every time we see a rainbow we are invited to remember that God, who alone has the power and the right to despair of creation, has given up that right. God has limited God’s freedom. God will never give us up.
The covenant binds the Lord not to destroy. Humanity, however, continues to do evil. The Lord has found that punishment has not softened the hard hearts of human beings, so the Lord seeks to remove humanity’s hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of flesh in a new way. Rather than punishing humanity, the Lord is now committed to showing humanity grace, mercy, and abounding love. And this is why we hear this story today, on the first Sunday of Lent, because it is through the death of Jesus that God most clearly demonstrates this grace, mercy, and abounding love.
It was only a few weeks ago that we heard the beginning of today’s reading from the Gospel according to Mark when we celebrated Jesus’ baptism. Now we hear what happened next and, of course, since Mark is writing, everything happens immediately. After the baptismal story of chaotic, deathly, water Mark tells us that ‘the Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness’. The wilderness was the place in which the people of Israel had wandered for forty years after the liberation from Egypt. Jesus is now sent there by the Spirit, to be tempted by Satan, in the presence of wild beasts. Jesus obeys God, is baptised, is claimed as God’s beloved son, and told that God is well pleased with him – and the very next thing that happens is that God sends him to be tested in a place full of forces hostile to God, including wild and dangerous animals. Being God’s beloved Son is no sinecure.
When we celebrated Jesus’ baptism, I said that I believe Jesus was baptised in solidarity with humanity. In the same way, I believe that he is being tested in further solidarity with us. Jesus, God’s beloved Son, experiences danger and isolation. We do not know whether the wild beasts are hostile. They may simply be indifferent, as so much of nature is indifferent to humanity. We can assume that Satan is hostile, since Satan is tempting him. Jesus in solidarity with us, first faces the chaos and threat of a watery death in his baptism. Then in solidarity with us he faces his demons. But he also experiences the presence of the love of God. It is the Spirit who drives Jesus out to the wilderness, and while there he is not only with Satan and wild beasts but with angels who wait on him. He is bereft of human comfort and exposed to demonic power, but Jesus is also attended by divine care.
That divine care surrounds us, too, even in our times in the wilderness, even when we are surrounded by wild beasts. We see this divine care in Jesus, Emmanuel, God-With-Us, willingly facing temptations, demons, and wild animals in solidarity with us. We see it in Jesus’ journey to the cross. We will see it in his readiness to die on a cross to demonstrate the depths of God’s love for all creation. And we will see it most joyfully when God raises Jesus from the dead to show us that love is stronger than hate and life stronger than death. Whenever we are lost and alone, whenever we feel isolated in a wilderness, whenever we are tempted or surrounded by danger, we can remember that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we have seen the love of the God who refuses to give up on humanity. Just as the rainbow is a reminder to the Lord never to discard humanity, the cross is a reminder to us that God will never reject us.
We all have times in the wilderness, when we feel at our most isolated. Today’s story reminds us that this is true for Christians as for everyone else; our baptismal identity as beloved children of God does not mean that we will live lives free of suffering and loneliness. But today’s story also reminds us that the wilderness, however we may experience it, is not just a place of danger and isolation. It is also a place of divine love. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Whenever we feel at our most alone, we can have faith that God is with us, because Jesus entered the wilderness ahead of us. Thanks be to God. Amen.