February 22, 2015
1 Peter 3:18–22
There is an episode of the TV cartoon The Simpsons, when the Marge is sitting in the dark, singing a lullaby to baby Maggie. As Marge gets to the last line of Rockabye Baby–“when the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down with come baby, cradle and all“–the only thing we see on the black screen are baby Maggie’s eyes, wide open in terror.
That’s kind of how I feel when I see the story of Noah’s art depicted in children’s nurseries–including ours here at Trinity. The gist of the Biblical story (quite different from the recent blockbuster, but no less sensational) is that the same God who gently crafted the world, stopping every so often to say, “It is good”—becomes so infuriated with rampant sin in creation that God decides to obliterate the whole thing and start over from scratch. God doesn’t just wipe out human beings–certainly the species causing all the trouble—but everything except Noah’s family and the animals aboard the ark.
Today’s first reading is the conclusion of the flood portion of Noah’s story. Noah and his family will worship God, and God puts a rainbow in the sky, promising never to flood the world again. And that is the end of what goes on nursery walls. Unfortunately that is now how the story ends. What makes the Noah story particularly sad is that the Flood doesn’t fix the problem of sin in the world, or even in the few survivors of it. The last time we see Noah in the book of Genesis he’s completely drunk, and has shamed his sons and cursed his grandson. Apparently God missed a few spots when cleaning up the universe. Can you have that much rain and not expect some mud?
This is all very disheartening, and definitely ranks up there as a story for keeping babies AND adults up at night. On the other hand, even if we could agree that it’s just a story, it is an important story in our collective family history as the people of God, so we can’t just ignore it. What do we do with it?
A few years ago, Mitch Albom wrote a novel called The Five People You Meet in Heaven. The first chapter is entitled “The End” because Eddy, the main character, dies in the first few pages. This is not the way a book usually starts, but throughout the book Albom reminds us repeatedly that all endings are beginnings. We just may not recognize them at the time. The Flood may have been the end of the world for an awful lot of creation, but it was also a new beginning. When God tells Noah to disembark on dry land after the Flood, the language is similar to the story of creation from the beginning of Genesis: “Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh–birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth–so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.”
Perhaps the fact that Noah and his family did not emerge from the ark as angels, but as flawed sinners is part of what draws us to the story. If God saves Noah, then maybe we aren’t lost causes either. This flood story with its flawed hero takes us back to our own Flood stories, our baptisms. If you grew up in a church that practices infant baptism you may not remember your baptism, just as Selma and Mila–who will be baptized in a few minutes–will not remember theirs. But as Christians it is a major moment in our stories.
The Church calls this mini-flood experience a Sacrament. In what is sometimes just a few tablespoons of water, we re-enact a drowning, a death. We say that in the waters of baptism all that is sinful and broken and ugly about humanity is drowned. We say that in this sacrament, the power of God obliterates from the record any sin that ever has or ever might ever separate us from God–including sins babies aren’t even capable of imagining yet. Our accounts are prepaid. There is no limit to the forgiveness that will be rained down upon us in our lifetimes. When we emerge from the waters, we are new creations. The End is the Beginning. The Beginning is the End. This is a story to tell your children, again and again.
I’d like to promise that baptism is the end of all sinning, all evil, but I can’t. Most of us have done our share of traipsing around in the mud since we were baptized. Why? Did our baptisms not “take”? Should our church adopt the method of rebaptism that is practiced in many churches–that each time we repent, we must return to the waters to be washed anew?
Or maybe we need to consider how baptism is like Albom’s story about Eddy. Start at the end, with our sinful selves drowned at the font, rising to new life in Christ. From there the rest of our story unfolds. Nothing that comes after Chapter One could ever erase the way the story began. Eddy is just as dead at the end of Albom’s novel as he is in the first chapter. Similarly, human beings continue to blot God’s creation with ugliness that we cannot curb, no matter how hard we try or how often we repent. Still, the story always ends where it began–with boundless forgiveness, with grace, with a chance at newness. God has drawn us up out of destruction of sinfulness and up onto the life-raft–the ark, if you will–of God’s mercy. We are continually spared. This is God’s covenant promise.
A covenant promise is unlike a contractual promise, which involves one party saying, “I’ll do this and you do that.” In a covenant promise one party says, “I’ll do this.” Period. End of story. In the floods of our baptisms, God claims us as God’s own, embraces us forever, and calls us by name. Even when we wander in the wilderness, tempted and often succumbing to temptations that separate us from God, God does not let us go. There’s no point in being re-baptized, because God’s promise is always in effect, no matter how hard or how often we try to sever it. A covenant promise can only be broken by the one who has made it. And God says at the end of the Flood story–and then over and over throughout Scriptures–that this is something God will never do.
God’s promise to never again destroy the earth does not give us license to do whatever we want, however. In Genesis 1 and 2, humans are instructed to care for the earth and to serve it, and this is something we are still called to do. When Jesus came among mortals, he demonstrated exactly what such service would look like. Understanding that the world is in desperate need of care, Jesus uses his baptism as a springboard for reaching out to all in need.
Notice that in today’s Gospel he hangs out with the wild beasts and the angels. Still does, it seems. But we wild beasts and angels need to be reminded to return to the Lord our God, to repent and believe the Good News. We need to end and begin again, over and over, repeatedly drowning all those things that destroy life in order to embrace new beginnings. Lent is an invitation to dive into those Flood waters again. As we heard on Ash Wednesday: “We are created to experience joy in communion with God, to love one another, and to live in harmony with creation. But our sinful rebellion separates us from God, our neighbors, and creation, so that we do not enjoy the life our creator intended.”
I’m so glad Andrea and Kyle chose today for Mila and Selma’s baptisms, because this is a perfect invitation to all of us to return to the beginning of the story as we embark on the journey of Lent. Let us remember and celebrate the covenant promise God poured over us in our baptisms. Let’s return to the font again to find refreshment and renewal, thankful that we do not need to drown in it ever again. God’s promises are for life eternal, and God’s promises are forever. The end of the story is the beginning, the beginning of the story the end, every time.