Wilderness, Lent 1 – February 18, 2018

[RCL] Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

John was good at his job. John was very good at his job. If you needed someone to be a messenger and prepare a people to turn their hearts, repent, and get right with God, John was the one to call. The voice crying out in the wilderness, the messenger, the baptizer. No matter what you called John, he was the one to go to for a fresh start. Crowds gathered. Scribes were curious. Pharisees plotted. “Prepare the way of the Lord” was the cry of the ancient prophet Isaiah. John embodied that cry. Repent! Be baptized and your sins will be forgiven. The people came from all across the Judean countryside and Jerusalem just to get a glimpse of the would-be messenger in camel hair and leather.

They weren’t coming for the locust and honey diet, they were coming to confess. They came into the wilderness to see, to seek repentance. Who doesn’t long for forgiveness? Who doesn’t want to leave the burdens of the past, the failures, the disappointments, the hurts, and start anew? So, to the wilderness and to the water they came to find John the Baptizer, looking to leave the past behind. A prophet? Maybe Elijah? The Messiah? They had not seen a prophet in a long time. Thus, they tried to label him, to name him, to categorize him. But John knew who he was and whose he was. He was a messenger, a baptizer, and he was good at his job.

“‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’” – Mark 1:7-8

John was not the “One”.

And yet people came. They came to the water and to the wilderness. Longing. Hoping. Expecting. Seeking. Preparing for the “One”. Then he appeared. Jesus of Nazareth. Can anything good come from Nazareth? From nowhere? The whispers started as John saw him coming, along with the recognition that today was the day the messenger would greet the message. Into the water Jesus came. No words were needed because he was the Word. Into the water. Under.

Dripping wet he came up from the water and in the silence, the promised Holy Spirit descended like a dove. Then the voice, like thunder and snowfall, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Still wet, still dripping, he is driven into the wilderness. Jesus the One, the Word, doesn’t even get to bask in being beloved. The silence is broken by the urgency of the wilderness. No polite invitation, but rather an urgent driving, almost violent force, compels him into the wilderness.  The Tempter was waiting.

“Prove yourself,” is the temptation. The Tempter knows that things happen in the wilderness. The wilderness is the mirror, the temptation is to look away. Jesus looks, with the voice of creation still ringing in his ear. “You are my Son, the Beloved.” The days turn to night. Night turns to day. Longing, hoping, praying. Forty days. And then the flutter of wings. The wilderness behind, the work ahead.

If we are honest with ourselves, we try our best to avoid the wilderness. Things happen in the wilderness and we would rather not have things change. The wilderness is where we are forced to see ourselves as we are, without filter or finery. It is there we wander and wait to encounter the holy. Like Jesus, we are sometimes driven against our will, by the Holy Spirit, to the wild places we would rather not go. But the wilderness is where we as individuals and as community must go, because out of the wild comes new life.

During this Lenten season of fasting and focus, of praying and preparing, we are tempted to simply go through the motions. We are tempted to skirt the wilderness, to turn away from encountering the wild places in our lives and in our world. We are tempted to turn away from the mirror of the Tempter. But if we are to follow Jesus, if we are to be renewed for new possibilities and prepared to hope once more, we must face the wild.

Throughout the history of God, we see our spiritual ancestors spending their time wrestling with the barren places. From the call of Abraham and Sarah to the wandering of the people of Israel for forty years, the wilderness has become a place of refining and self-discovery.

But our forbearers never faced the desert alone. For forty years, God journeyed with Israel. For forty days, God watched over Noah. For forty days, God stood with Jesus. And for our time, God will stand with us.

If we are honest with ourselves, we know deep down inside that we need the wilderness. We know in our bones and deep within our souls that the desert calls, cajoles, and compels us even when we resist. Our church, our community, our world—now more than ever—needs the wilderness. We need to spend the time looking at ourselves in order to find new life, new ministry, and new ways of being the people of God.

We long for things to stay the same, for things to be frozen in time. We long for the way things were in the past, but God is calling us, like the people of Israel, to a new future. We cannot get to God’s future if we are not able to let go of the past.

God has work for us to do and that work begins, like it did with Jesus, when we are driven to the wild places of discovery.

We go to the wilderness to discover anew the joy of being beloved.

We go to learn once more what it means to be and live as beloved.

We go to listen for the voice of God calling us again.

We go to see Christ more clearly in the world around us.

We go because that is where we encounter God.

We go to the wilderness because we can no longer be as we have always been.

Till all the jails are empty and all the bellies filled;
till no one hurts or steals or lies, and no more blood is spilled;
till age and race and gender no longer separate;
till pulpit, press, and politics are free of greed and hate:
God has work for us to do.[1]

God’s work begins with a pesky Holy Spirit sometimes dragging, driving, and drawing us out into the wilderness. Jesus has been there. The angels are there. His footsteps can still be found. Out in the wilderness, we are faced with many temptations. But the biggest temptation is to not enter the wilderness at all.

The wilderness is calling. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Amen.

Written by the Rev. Deon Johnson. Rev. Johnson serves as Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brighton, Mich. A Liturgical Consultant, Deon specializes in helping communities revision their worship spaces to better reflect both their needs and the theology of welcome found in the Eucharist. In his spare time, Deon enjoys working on websites and is an avid photographer.

[1] Carl P. Daw, Jr.  Words © 1996 Hope Publishing Company

Download the sermon for Lent 1 (B).

Defeating the beasts in our personal wilderness, 1 Lent (B) – 2015

February 22, 2015

Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

The gospel writer Mark uses his initial words to move the reader very quickly into the story of Jesus. In 11 brief verses, we see Jesus in three critical settings. First, his baptism, revealing him as the anointed one of God, is the starting point of all. The third setting is the beginning of the rest of the story – Jesus emerging among the people to begin his ministry of proclaiming the Good News, living out and bringing to human kind the salvation of God.

But between these, Mark describes a second setting, one that flowed from the first and provided empowerment for the third. Immediately after his baptism, “the spirit drove him into the wilderness” – a separate place, far away from the hungry crowds that would follow him in the months ahead. This was the only place and the only sustained time he would have to wrestle with the forces that work against the will of God.

It wasn’t a choice for him to go there; it was a godly necessity. The Spirit drove him into the wilderness, not like a chauffeur in a limousine, but drove him like a cowboy prodding a steer. Before he could begin work as God’s beloved, Jesus had to face hard realities – he had to prepare for the test that would eventually ensure his obedience to God, even unto death.

The test involved beating down temptations to follow the ways of the world instead of the pathway to God, temptations to give in to the seductive powers that work against love and grace. Though alone, Jesus was comforted, in the form of angels, by the same Spirit that announced him as God’s beloved and that required his 40-day test in a dark place of ultimate danger.

And then there is this passage in today’s reading from Mark: “He was with the wild beasts.” This amplifies the difficulty of Jesus’ time in the wilderness and serves as a symbol of the strength of the temptations that confronted him. The Greek word used for “beasts” refers to animals with a brutal nature – not Isaiah’s image of lambs lying down with lions. Being tempted by Satan was as demanding as wild animals threatening to devour him.

St. Mark reveals a vivid scene, but with briefest description, leaving us to flesh out the details. Perhaps the image of the beasts can help us understand the lonely ordeal of Jesus’ experience. He had to face down the powers that would seek to prevent him from doing God’s will in his coming ministry.

Proof that Jesus defeated those powers – totally, completely and decisively – is found in the way he conducted himself after he left the place of temptation. Afterward, Jesus moved out among God’s people, loving them as God loves, teaching them about God, and finally proving that we are loved by God without condition, by his making us all worth dying for.

In responding to that gracious love, we find ourselves once more in Lent. As today’s collect reminds us, we, too, are “assaulted by many temptations.” We are called to dedicate ourselves in our “weaknesses” to face the same tests that Jesus confronted in his wilderness – but not alone, for we each can find God “mighty to save” us.

In our various kinds of wilderness experiences, we, too, struggle against the wild beasts of our times and our lives. When doing so, we can learn from Jesus. In the wilderness, he encountered all the evil that there is – because he found it in himself, in his own humanity. For in every human being lies the best of God and the worst of evil.

In the wilderness, the aim of the tempter was to move Jesus from faith in God to doubt. The forces that work against God also press us toward selfishness and away from love. Jesus resisted temptation by keeping himself connected to God. And that is exactly how we can resist the beasts of our lives, how we can overcome the evil that lurks within us and the sin that is a part of us, all that lingers in the midst of our humanity.

We resist, as Jesus did, by staying connected to God through the power of the scriptures and prayer and the sacraments, and through regular self-examination and confession, through repenting of our sin, accepting God’s forgiveness and leading renewed lives. By these means we defeat evil and overcome temptation.

Yes, we can defeat these beasts, as Jesus did, by staying connected to God. And we don’t do it alone. As the angels waited on Jesus in his wilderness experience, we are sustained by the Holy Spirit of God and through the aid of God’s beloved disciples in our midst, our brothers and sisters in Christ, who minister to us and help us face down the beasts of our lives as they face down theirs.

Just as Jesus’ time in the wilderness came after his baptism, so does ours, as our Christian formation continues to flow from that foundation.

Self-examination during Lent comes as essential reappraisal in the midst of our journeys in faith and takes form in our baptismal renunciations. As we promise at baptism, we commit to turning away from “all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God” that “corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.”

The beasts that we encounter in our wilderness reflect the power of evil that is real and active in our lives. If we dare become self-aware, we see it, hear it, feel it. It is a power that gets inside us and an influence that comes from outside of us – a force that draws us toward what is wrong. It is personal, because it deals with each of us as a person; deals with each of us individually in our darkest and most trying moments.

Evil can enter our lives when hard decisions need to be made, and we encounter it most strongly in those areas where we are weakest, in our desire to serve ourselves first, through greed, excessive pride, divisiveness and prejudice, gluttony of food and material possessions, the desire to control others, cowardice, faithlessness and many other forms of selfishness that draw us from the way of God.

Above all, the temptations we fight are destructive. Satan’s beasts find a way to poison and harm what is good and loving in the world and in our lives. The evil that works in us is our enemy, seeking to grab hold of us to work against God and against our brothers and sisters whom we hurt when we give in to such powers. The evil also works against us individually, eating us from the inside out, like a cancer.

The temptations that Jesus met in the wilderness are also our temptations, drawing us to a selfishness that prevents us from showing love and respect to others, pressing us to manipulate the world into the form that we want rather than that which God intends.

But the power of God’s love can help us resist the temptations and defeat the beasts that dwell among us. From our baptism, we gain the sign that marks us Christ’s own forever. Our success in resisting evil, turning from our sins into lives renewed in love, moves us beyond our time in the wilderness. And as recipients of the Good News Jesus proclaims, we are empowered by the reality of God’s kingdom that has come near, and can become a people, who, with God’s love, can transform the world.

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of ”John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

Baptism is bigger than a simple ceremony, 1 Lent (B) – 2012

February 26, 2012

Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

A long-running and popular show in musical theater is “Joseph and the Amazing Technical Color Dream Coat” by Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber. This musical is based on the Biblical life of Joseph, son of Jacob, in the beginning parts of Genesis. Joseph was a man who could interpret dreams, and this made him a man who was envied by his eleven brothers. Through a series of tragic events, he is sold to be an Egyptian slave, and then ends up in prison, where he meets up with a couple of Pharaoh’s servants. When Joseph interprets the servants’ dreams for them, word quickly spreads that Joseph is a seer, and Pharaoh requests an audience with Joseph because he is having some troubling dreams that he is unable to understand. And it is toward the middle of this show that Joseph is taken to Pharaoh to interpret the Pharaoh’s dream, and as Joseph comes into his presence he sings, “My service to Pharaoh has begun. … Tell me your problems … mighty one.”

Baptism is the time when you are brought before God and you utter the words “My service to God has begun.” And so, baptism is an extremely important event in anybody’s life, because that is when your service to God began.

This morning, we heard Saint Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by John. Buy why did Jesus do this? It was not to cleanse the stain of sin off his soul, but rather He did it for four very specific reasons. First, Jesus’ baptism marked the official start of His ministry here on earth. Second, He did it to show His, and God’s, support for John’s ministry. In a sense, this was God’s way of endorsing this type of ministry. Third, by being baptized in this way, Jesus is able to identify fully with our humanity. And finally, it was to give a lasting example to His followers.

Not only was Jesus’ baptism a turning point in His life, it marked the beginning of His ministry. And just like our Lord and Savior, our baptisms too are much more significant than simply having someone pour water over our heads while uttering the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

So what happens to us, the followers of Christ, when we follow in His footsteps? What happens at our baptism? You see, baptism is bigger than a simple ceremony that your family and friends come into a church to witness. And it is much bigger than the huge celebration afterward. At the moment of baptism, there are a number of things that take place, things that are beyond our sight.

First, you are adopted by God as one of His children. It is through this adoption that you become an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven. This is the moment when you become a citizen of heaven, when the gift of salvation offered through Jesus Christ is bestowed upon you.

The second thing that happens at baptism is that you are titled. A person can go to a university and spend upward of twelve years studying in a particular field. At graduation, when they are presented their diploma, they are titled. No longer are they John Smith, they are now Dr. John Smith. The same thing happens at baptism. Before your baptism, you were simply John Doe, human being; but as soon as you were baptized, you became John Doe, Christian, son or daughter of God.

The third thing that happens at baptism is that you are made a priest. Yes, you heard me correctly. You become a priest of God. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of priests, and you joined these ranks the moment you were baptized. You are charged with spreading the Good News of God’s love to all people, to live your life in accordance with the example given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ, and to be a beacon of light in the darkness of the world.

The fourth thing that happens at baptism is that you join Christ in His death. At the moment of baptism, you partake in Jesus Christ’s death. You join Him on that cross and you die. Your death is not a physical one, but rather a spiritual death. You were born alive to sin, and at baptism, you died to sin.

The fifth thing that happens at baptism is that you are resurrected with Christ. After your spiritual death, you are resurrected as a new person, with a perfect soul. The power of sin no longer has control over your life, and death can no longer contain you.

A popular form of baptism among some denominations is full immersion. This kind of baptism takes place within a body of water; some churches have pools that are just a few feet deep, some use streams or rivers, and some use lakes or oceans. The congregation meets at the edge of the water while the person who performs the baptism, the vicar or another ordained person, stands out in the water, close to waist deep. The person being baptized walks out in the water to the baptizer, and after affirming his or her desire to be baptized, the one receiving baptism covers his nose and mouth, while the baptizer puts one hand at the base of his neck, and the one being baptized leans backward into the water. The one being baptized is fully immersed in the water three times as the baptizer says, “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

That kind of baptism really illustrates the fourth and fifth things we were just talking about: death and resurrection. You are submerged into the water as a symbol of your death, and you surface as a symbol of your resurrection. You are buried in death, and raised in life.

The final thing that happens at baptism is that your service to God begins. Just as Joseph is brought before Pharaoh, we too are brought before God to begin our service. As Christians, we are servants not just of God, but of God’s people. We are called to serve the needs of our communities, to help the poor, to heal the sick, to comfort the grieving, and to save the lost. In essence, your baptism is the day when you were officially hired by God to work in His household.

Baptism is not the end-all-be-all of Christianity; it is only the first step. As Christians, it is our responsibility to learn from our Lord, it is our responsibility to create a firm relationship with Christ. If you were baptized as an adult, the full responsibilities to learn and grow would be on you; but when baptized as an infant, the responsibilities lie with all of those who stood witness to it. The parents and godparents shoulder the bulk of the responsibility and accountability; however, everybody who witnesses also shares in that responsibility and accountability. The newly baptized Christian needs to be raised to know Christ, to learn His teachings, and to serve the needs of all people.

Attending weekly worship is important for all Christians, as it allows us to refresh our weary souls, replenish our ammunition against the forces of darkness, and to bask in the Love of God and hear His word. Sunday school is a great way for young Christians to learn about the Glory of God and to know His Son, Jesus Christ. Summer youth camps are designed to help young Christians learn how to apply their faith to their daily lives and the camps offer a collaborative community of like-minded people.

Reciting daily prayers is extremely important, as this is the cornerstone of our relationship with Christ. It is communication, and as we all know, communication is the foundation on which all relationships are built. As Christians grow, their prayers, their conversations with God, also grow. Many of us started with a very simple “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer, then we slowly progress to a free-form, no-holds-barred prayer that we recite daily – and very often many times a day. As we grow, so does our ability to converse with God.

But Jesus did not identify with our humanity just by being baptized. He did it also by His willingness to enter the desert and face temptations. In His forty days, he was tempted and He overcame the challenges that often trip us up on our journey. Jesus knows from firsthand experience how difficult these temptations can be, and it is through this shared experience that we have found some common ground for our conversations with God. He has “been there, done that,” and so we don’t need to spend much time explaining to Him how it feels when we are challenged. Instead, this allows us to spend the bulk of our time talking about our specific challenges and how to overcome them.

So as we embark upon our Lenten journey this year, let us all take stock in what God has provided for us. Let us take on the yoke of Christ, let us face our temptations, and let us focus our eyes on the promise of what is to come. In order to prepare our hearts, minds, and bodies for the promise of the resurrection, let us take stock of the gifts that He has given us, and use our gifts to support one another, our church, and our communities. Our service to God has begun, and we are now officially “on the clock.”

 

— Christopher Zampaloni is a postulant seeking Holy Orders through the Diocese of Western New York. He currently serves three churches: Church of the Good Shepherd, a Native American mission in Irving, New York; St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Silver Creek, New York; and the Cristo Rey Hispanic congregation in Dunkirk, New York. He and his wife Carolyn live within a Native American community on Lake Erie.

Discernment is not a singular thing, 1 Lent (B) – 2009

March 1, 2009

Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

“Discernment” is a word we throw around a lot in the church, most often in regard to ordained ministry. As in “She is in the discernment process” or “I have agreed to be on his discernment committee.” But it is also an essential part of each of our spiritual journeys and our lives as human beings.

In calling ourselves Christians, Children of God, we acknowledge that God has called us, we acknowledge the pulling at our cores: to be more, to be God’s, to live into our calling. And discernment is how we figure out what that looks like. It is the way we ask ourselves, “How do I live as a child of God?”

In today’s gospel we hear a three-part story of Jesus’ call and his response. For Mark, this is the beginning of the story of Jesus.

Part One: he came from Nazareth. We are told that this is where most of Jesus’ life has been lived to this point. His family is there; he has grown up there, been educated in the scriptures there, and has learned his trade there. He probably has gotten sick there, been cared for, been loved, and learned the cruelty of children there. Given our current understanding of developmental psychology and our faith in his full humanity, we can assume that it is there where Jesus gained a sense of self, both as independent and in community.

Jesus is, in this moment, leaving all that behind and coming to John, the baptizer, at the river Jordan. There are a lot of questions left unanswered in Mark’s brevity: What is he seeking there? Why does Jesus need John’s baptism? What drives him so powerfully that he would be willing to leave behind all he had ever known?

We don’t know. Did Jesus know? Or did he just feel the faintest of stirrings, deep within himself and head out to see what God might be doing?

A lot of young people make their way to cities after college. Many don’t know what exactly they will do, or how they will make a living, but they strike out, in hopes that, once there, they will figure it out. On arrival they these cities bustling places, and they scurry about frantically piecing together lives from jobs, relationships, chance encounters, art, food, and folly. Many can’t say exactly why they come except that it has something to do with a search for purpose, for calling. The city is somehow a place for discernment.

For those who have at one time or another taken this leap of faith, the idea of “figuring it out” is an amusing one. As though it were something one did once, and then having “figured it out,” one could spend the rest of life living happily into that.

Instead, there is this constant process of figuring it out, of discerning purpose, calling, vocation, of losing sight, changing, shipwreck, gladness, and discerning again. God doesn’t always make it easy on us, but we follow along, listening for the faint stirrings and inching our way closer to God and to God’s perfect vision for us.

And even when the whisper is a shout and the calling is clear, the means are not always quite so clear. As Jesus is being baptized, he sees the heavens open and the spirit descends like a dove upon him while a voice speaks, “Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Now, doesn’t that sound great?

Knowing where this story leads: the healings, the miracles, the teachings and transforming love – as well as eventually the cross and Calvary – it is tempting to assume that suddenly, in this moment, Jesus knows what to do. It is easy to assume that the Spirit has given him “God vision,” and that he can see clearly his Messianic calling.

But was this calling any clearer than the calling for us to be God’s children today? There are countless would-be Episcopalians in this world, let alone would-be Christians. When we hear the message, “You are my beloved. In you I am well pleased,” how often do we sit self-satisfied, doing nothing? Sometimes we need a little push to do anything about it. And sometimes, it’s a push we have to give ourselves and each other.

Then we get to Part Two of today’s reading from Mark: “The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.”

As Kermit might say, “Sheesh.”

Unlike other gospel accounts, in which the Spirit leads Jesus into the desert, where Jesus is given agency, Mark picks up the drama. Like a master, this gentle descending dove-like spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. No time for idle self-satisfaction is allowed. God is at work.

As part of a liturgical church, we too are driven into the wilderness with Jesus this Lent. By association we are brought into a time of reflection and discernment, every year for forty days.

Lent is a powerful season in the church year. Some will mock the New Year’s-like resolutions we make and attempts to make ourselves better – things like abstaining from small and large indulgences, or committing acts of repentance. And yet, there is something powerful about a season that calls people to make the connection between lived lives and the calling of God. There is something that makes us want to bridge the false divide between faith and the “real world.”

Discernment is not a singular thing, or something we do all at once; it is a daily calling, a daily wrestling, in much the same way that cutting back on caffeine is done one cup of coffee at a time, or building a stronger family means taking meals as opportunities for real conversation. Discernment is something we do in the midst of life, messily and with countless challenges.

Unlike other gospel accounts, Mark is short on details of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, but all the vital elements are here: the duration, the temptation, the threat of violence, and the sustaining care God provides. Forty days is Biblical shorthand for “a long time.” But even so, forty days is a long time.

For many of us, this kind of retreat into isolation is at least somewhat appealing. Forty days of alone time? Forty days to work on figuring things out? Discerning God’s call in my life? If only I had that kind of time, money, and discipline.

Our wilderness often has a different terrain. Having felt God’s calling, we have to figure it out amidst our over-booked, over-worked modern lives. Our isolation occurs within communities, families, and workplaces. Our temptations are many; we are surrounded by the gods of self and materialism, of exclusivity and pride, of despair and prejudice. The wild beasts wear different masks, but the ministering and sustaining presence of God is no less with us. How will we make use of this time, where we are, to discern how we are to respond to God’s call?

Part Three of today’s gospel reading: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’”

For many of us, floundering in the wilderness is a familiar feeling. We are not comfortable with preaching the Kingdom, but this is exactly what we’re called to do as the children of God. We are the bearers of good news, the good news. God’s kingdom is here. No more waiting. The time is fulfilled.

This Lent we are invited to join Jesus in the wilderness for a period of discernment. Take these forty days to listen for God’s calling. Acknowledge your own isolation, name your individual temptations, and challenge the wild beasts. But also, may you see the hand of God sustaining you, and may you recall faithfully that calling of baptism that brought you here in the first place. So when Easter arrives, you may be all the more ready to proclaim with a loud voice the good news of salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ.

So that we may come to Easter having discerned more clearly God’s calling and live more perfectly into his kingdom, consider these words from the Book of Common Prayer: “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”

 

— Jason Sierra is the Associate Program Officer for Young Adult and Campus Ministries at the Seattle Regional Office of the Episcopal Church Center. He holds a BA in American Studies from Stanford University and is a priest’s kid (PK) and a visual artist.

Christ’s own forever, 1 Lent (B) – 2006

March 5, 2006

Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

Who hasn’t been impressed by the beauty of a rainbow? Rainbows have the quality of wonder: yes, there is a scientific explanation for how light is refracted in a certain way, but really they seem more like magic. After a rain, a colorful bow appears in the sky, a pure gift, a delight to the eyes and heart, beauty and hope after the rain.

In our first lesson today we hear how our forebears in faith, the ancient Hebrews, saw in the rainbow a sign of God’s covenant with Noah, and through Noah, with all humanity. Our lesson comes from the end of the story of the great flood. It’s a story of God’s willingness to lose in love. It may not seem like a story about losing. After all, it ends with God’s promise that God will never again destroy the earth in such a way. But what if we imagine looking at the story from God’s point of view?

Reading the creation story in Genesis Chapter One, you’ll notice at the end of each day God looks at everything he has made and says, “It is good.” Over and over again, God looks at what he has made in the world and says, “It is good.” When we come to the sixth day, God creates humans, and on this day God says, “It is very good.” God looks at humans and sees the crowning achievement of creation: us. And God says, “This is very good.”

But before too long, things start to go wrong. God has given humans a great gift: the gift of freedom. God has made humankind in God’s image. That is, according to The Book of Common Prayer, God has made us free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, to live in harmony with creation and with God. But too often humans choose the other possibilities granted in their freedom: to hate, to destroy, to be thoughtless, to break their relationship with creation and with God.

When we come to Noah and the ark, God, who had seen humanity as the very best act of creation, is heartbroken. The divine heart is so broken, so disappointed, so upset, that God decides there is no way out of all the pain and destruction humans are causing except to wipe the slate clean and start all over.

In the story of the flood, God is the big loser. God’s beloved humanity, God’s precious children, God’s best day of creation had all gone terribly wrong. So God chose Noah, who alone of all the people on the earth had not forgotten about God, to build an ark, and to be protected from the waters, so there would be a way to start over again. The rain started, and it is as if the tears of our brokenhearted God flowed down from heaven, tears of sadness, tears of disappointment and anger flowed from the very heart of God and filled the earth.

When the waters subsided, Noah, his family, and the animals came out of the ark onto dry ground, and God said some important words. God was not lulled into thinking that this experience changed humans, that somehow we wouldn’t sin anymore, or that we would always use our freedom to choose rightly. No, God said, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever destroy every living creature as I have done” (Genesis 8:21).

This is the meaning of original sin: everyone of us, if left to our own devices, will do wrong. No human ever avoids the inclination to sin, even from the time we are small children. But God decided he won’t let that fact lead to our destruction. And so, when we come to today’s reading, we see God hang his bow in the sky. Here, think “bow” as in “bow and arrow,” but now not as a weapon of anger, not an archer’s bow taut and pointing down on people to destroy them, but hung up in the sky, unstrung, disarmed, and colorful. God hangs the bow in the clouds as a reminder of God’s promise, to remind God never again to destroy the earth.

This promise God makes to Noah is called a covenant. A covenant is a solemn agreement made between two parties. People have been making covenants for a very long time, thousands and thousands of years. Party A agrees to do something for Party B if some conditions are met. Covenants usually come with strings attached. “If you pay me tribute, I will protect you.” “If you keep this law, things will go well for you.” Usually the agreement made between them is sealed with some sign. Here the sign is the rainbow. But what is amazing is that God’s covenant with Noah has no conditions. It’s a covenant without any “if” clauses, such as, “if you love me,” or “if you obey me,” or “if you worship me,” or “if you are kind to others, then I will be good to you.”

No, the covenant God makes with Noah is an unconditional covenant, a covenant of love in which God promises to remember us even if we forget God. And the covenant God makes with Noah is really made with all humanity and all creation. God will never destroy all humankind, despite all we do to turn our backs on God, to choose hate instead of love, to destroy rather than create, to act thoughtlessly instead of using reason, to break our relationships with others instead of living in harmony. Despite our wrongdoing, God will remember his promise to us. God is willing to be heartbroken for us before he will break his covenant with us.

It’s not that God has been willing to tolerate our sin, but rather than send another flood, he sent his own beloved child, Jesus Christ, to deal with our sin. Rather than kill, God sent Jesus, who was willing to die. Rather than punish, God is willing to forgive. God added to the sign of the rainbow the sign of the cross. And in the sign of the cross, we see God’s willingness to love us unconditionally, to be brokenhearted for us. In the sign of the cross we see a sign of victory through the death of Jesus that means that someday all tears will be dried – the floods of tears cried because of the evil humans do to one another will be dried and gone. The deluge of tears we cry because of our injustice, prejudice, and indifference will be wiped away. In the place of destructive waters of a flood, there will be only the water of life, and in the place of the tears, a rainbow.

In our Epistle lesson today we hear that the waters of the flood prefigure the waters of baptism. In the waters of baptism, we are joined to Jesus Christ, to his death and resurrection, in order that we might know new life now. In the waters of baptism, we are marked as Christ’s own forever.

For many Christians, our Lenten journey now underway will end at the baptismal font, where we will once again renew our baptismal promises, where water may be sprinkled on us as a reminder of God’s love, not God’s wrath, and where Jesus’ triumph over the power of sin and death will be celebrated. As we journey through Lent, may we be people who look for the signs of God’s love and actions in the world, signs like the rainbow and the cross, and celebrate that God keeps his promises. May we be people who carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world, accepting and sharing God’s love and forgiveness for us and for all humanity. The covenant made with Noah has never been overturned. God still promises to be gracious to all people, including people who have known loss, people who have caused loss, and people whose loss seems meaningless. God still promises to love all humanity and all creation. As followers of Christ, may we be people who also reflect God’s love and graciousness to all humanity, to people of every creed and color and class, and to all creation.

— The Rev. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and is also a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament at Marquette University in Milwaukee.