First Sunday in Lent
1 Peter 3:18-22
You probably the Noah story well enough to remember that the animals get on the ark two by two, but I really like the collective nouns that describe larger groups of animals—you know, a murder of crows, a gaggle of geese, a pride of lions, and—my favorite—an ostentation of peacocks. But this week I read a poem that introduced me to a new collective noun: a target of children.
Like many of you, I’ve spent a great deal of time this week grieving the death of 17 people in yet another school shooting in this country. I’m angry and sad and sickened by the whole routine, that takes place so often it’s almost liturgical—the shooting, the various sides crying out their usual refrains—insistence by some that this is not the time to talk about guns and by others that this is precisely the time—and then the inaction, and then repeat again at the beginning.
This week’s tragedy made me look again at God’s decision to send the flood in the Genesis story. Do you remember what the final straw was? This is what it says in Genesis Ch. 6, three chapters before today’s reading: “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.” (Gen. 6:11-13)
Violence was what drove God to the very edge of getting rid of the whole experiment called humanity and starting over. After another bloody week of child sacrifice, I have to say it feels like the only thing protecting us from God wanting to drown us again is the rainbow of God’s own promise not to. (The rainbow is a reminder not to us, but to God, never to flood the world again).
I don’t know what we need to do now, but I am absolutely certain we have to face this national crisis, interrupt this foul liturgy, and work through it. I freely admit I don’t really want to do the hard work of listening and compromising and everything else that goes into a genuine solution. I’d like to avoid heading into the wilderness, which in Scripture is almost always a place of learning and testing. I take comfort in the fact that Mark’s Gospel makes it clear that no one, not even Jesus, goes into the wilderness voluntarily. The Holy Spirit DRIVES Jesus to the wilderness.
Unlike the other Gospels, Mark tells us very little about what Jesus does while he is there, except to note that Jesus hangs out with the wild beasts. When his time of testing is over, he is tended to by angels. Wild beasts and angels. Sounds like the church to me!
We wild beasts and angels need to be reminded—even driven—to return to the Lord our God, to repent and believe the Good News. As we collectively confessed 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.”
We need to end our violent ways and begin again. Lent is an invitation to dive deeply into the Flood waters of our baptisms. If, like me, you grew up in a church that practiced infant baptism you may not remember your baptism, but whether or not we recall the event, as Christians it is still the touchstone of all 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 we aren’t even capable of imagining. 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.
Alas, baptism is not the end of all sinning. Like the failure of the first Flood to purge the earth of all violence, the mini-floods in which we were washed has not removed all evil from us. The world—and even the church—is still tormented by things we do and leave undone that cause damage.
But, as God promised Noah and his family, God is determined not to get rid of humans, but to work with us, flaws and all. The story always ends 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 succumbing to temptations that separate us from God, one another, and God’s creation, God does not let us go. There’s no point in being re-baptized, as some denominations practice, 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 the Scriptures–that this is something God will never do.
And because we can rely on that covenant promise, we can endure the time of testing we will experience in the wilderness. We will be challenged, we will encounter wild beasts, but we will also be strengthened in our efforts by angels. Angels are those who bear God’s messages to the world, and those messages pretty much always begin with some variation of the words, “Don’t be afraid.”
We all know what angels look like: they look like teachers and social workers, counselors and aids who look out for kids who need extra attention and help. Angels look like first responders who, knowing the danger, still do their part. Angels look like people who write letters, who make phone calls, who join protests, who pray, who will listen rather than have the last word, and who will work to help others understand. Angels give us courage in the wilderness to keep up the work we need to do. Angels accompany us when the Holy Spirit drives us into the wilderness. No matter how different our political leanings or our views or experiences of violence, we can and we must address the pain that violence causes God and God’s creation.
The Good News is this: we know that Jesus went into the wilderness and was tested, but we also know he came out again. And when he came out, having struggled with and defeated the power of Satan, he returned to his messy, confused, disciples and continued to love and teach them all the way to and through his death and out the other side.
Even when it looked like violence had defeated God once and for all on the cross, God still had the last word. That word was LIFE. With his resurrection, Jesus shattered the illusion that violence is stronger than love. So, even though we may not want to face the wilderness, when the Holy Spirit drives us there, we can be assured that Jesus is with us and for us, forever. And we can trust that God will send angels tend to us. In fact, God has already sent us all we need. My favorite new collective noun is this: ”A group of Christians is a congregation.”
~Pastor Susan Schneider