It’s Ash Wednesday as I write, so Lent has officially begun. Can’t say we did anything special for Shrove Tuesday, though I did listen to some New Orleans jazz. My church had a Zoom Ash Wednesday service this morning; I always have mixed emotions during that service: some sadness, some joy, but mostly just calm.
Genesis 9:8-17 I keep mentioning Sunday School. The church I went to as a kid had its Sunday School in the Parish Hall, a five-minute walk from the church. It was for kids in grades 1-6. Starting in grade 7, you went to the Family Service in the church itself at 9:30, and instead of a sermon, the Rector just talked with the kids—or over the heads of the kids to the adults?
So, the story of Noah was a big deal in Sunday School. I still have all the pictures strongly in mind, even seventy years later—the wind whipping up the waves and the Ark rocking—and then the calm as the water receded. And then the dove returning with an olive leaf in its beak. And then the rainbow.
This week’s reading is just a narrow slice of that story: the covenant with Noah and his family and descendants—and all of creation, for that matter. So, what is a covenant, anyway? It’s an agreement between two parties to do what’s necessary to keep peace—and once again, I’m using “peace” to mean ‘deep, fundamental wellbeing’. In order for a covenant to work, both parties have to be faithful to each other and to the agreement. There’s a strong sense of mutuality—both sides are committed—and obedience, obeying the terms of the agreement. That being said, the covenant in this story is a little strange. Who does all the talking here? It’s God alone. God says, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you ….” There’s no mutuality here—it’s one-sided—but then again, that’s the way our relationship with God goes; God is the initiator, and we receive the benefits. The best we can do is be thankful—and remember that “thankful” is as much what we do as what we feel. Use the gift, and respect it.
But I digress. A covenant often has a sign, something to remind us of the covenant. In this case, it’s something God gives: the rainbow. The rainbow is awesome, but it’s also very serious. It’s God’s sign that God will never destroy the world again. (I heard what you just said, “Hah, we’re doing a pretty good job of destroying it ourselves!” Maybe that’s something for a Lenten reflection?) At that time, a bow was a scary thing; it was not just a hunting tool, it was a weapon of war, and the Flood was war on Humanity—minus Noah and his family. Now God says, “I’ll never do that again, and as a sign of that, I’m hanging up my bow in the clouds for all to see.” I have to say that I find that very comforting. We all do things which must try God’s patience, things which certainly make mortals angry. For me, the comfort comes from the fact that God is the God of endless second chances.
Psalm 25:1-10 And the psalm fits right into the pattern we just noticed in the Noah story. “To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.” And why is that? Because I’m so happy, so joyful, so thankful. We just talked about relationship and how difficult/impossible it is to maintain a perfect one. Let me illustrate with Language. I had a friend who used to say, “There are two meanings to every utterance: what the speaker means by it, and what the hearer means by it.” Well, I get it that the speaker means something by it, but the hearer? Ah, I get it, what the hearer means by it is the hearer’s interpretation of it. How I interpret what you say to me isn’t just a function of the meanings of the individual words. That only scratches the surface. What the speaker means by it is conditioned by what s/he has experienced in life, what s/he thinks is right and proper, and so on. The same thing goes for the hearer; the hearer has experiences too. The psalmist seems to know that; just have a look at verses 2 and 3. It seems that the psalmist has enemies, people who think differently from the psalmist. If you stand back and look at things from the point of view of the “enemies”, you might find that they think of the psalmist as the “enemy”. The psalmist and the “enemies” each have their own take on life. Maybe that’s why the psalmist says, “Lead me in your truth, and teach me … ”? S/he knows that both s/he and the “enemies” have their own meaning of life, a different interpretation of what’s right and what’s wrong. But God is the “gold standard”; God is the ultimate objective reality. Maybe this is why the Lord’s Prayer says, “Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil”? The “time of trail” is the time when I’m tempted to do something that will hurt someone else? “Deliver us from evil” is deliver us from others hurting us? So, it’s, “Save us from hurting others, and save us from being hurt by them”? So, the next time I’m angry about what someone has done to me, maybe I need to step into the other person’s shoes? Handing all of this over to God is a huge relief: “Make me to know your ways … Lead me in your truth … Be mindful of your mercy.” The Lord “leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.” Humility. That’s it. Did you know that humility is from the same Indo-European root as humus? Humility is putting yourself in the same place as dirt? Well, not quite. Dirt is very important; it’s what we grow our food in. But it is a matter of knowing where you stand in the overall scheme of things. “I’m dirt” doesn’t mean you have no self-esteem. It just means you know your place. It means putting the other first. That’s sort of the punchline in today’s psalm reading: “All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.” That’s a different covenant; not the one God made with Noah. That’s the covenant we see over and over again in the Hebrew Scriptures: “You shall be my people, and I will be your God.” Keeping covenant is sort of like letting God drive—no backseat drivers!
Peter 3:18-22 And if you want to know how this works, look no further than Jesus Christ. God put him in our place, and as such, you need look only as far as him to see how all of this works. Jesus was unrelenting in doing the right thing, but that put him in a very difficult place. In our society, as well as society in the time of Jesus, being humble—like dirt—was countercultural. The rules of society/culture are simple: “After me, you come first.” So, when you say, whether by your words or your actions, “Put the other person first; that’s God’s way,” that’s a challenge to the powerful. Most powerful people didn’t get where they are by saying, “After you.” And when Jesus was executed for what he believed and did, the rich and powerful said, “Well, there you go. He got what he deserved. Now he’s gone, and his silly teaching with him.”
But they weren’t counting on one thing: Jesus lives. Jesus is vindicated. Jesus lives in the spirit, in the hearts of the humble, those who have humility, who are humus. And this dirt “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.” That’s the power of dirt.
Mark 1:9-15 You’ll remember that last week, we talked about a “mountaintop experience”.
Well, this week we’re talking about a “desert experience”, a “wilderness experience.” Mark the Evangelist is a man of few words. The other gospels give this story a lot more flesh, but we’ve got plenty to work with here. This is, at least partially, the same story we heard at the beginning of Epiphanytide: the Baptism of the Lord. And indeed, this is an epiphany, a revelation of who Jesus is: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” So, does this mean that Jesus gets a free ride? Is he the kind of guy who can score a hattrick with one hand tied behind his back? If you want my opinion, that would deny Jesus’ humanity. That would say that Jesus is only divine, not human. If he’s not human, he doesn’t have to struggle like a human. If he’s only divine, not also human, then it’s easy for him to say, “After you.” That’s not easy for those of us who are human. We who are human find it difficult to see anyone but ourselves as right, to admit that we could be wrong, to see only others as potentially evil. Oh my, that’s countercultural!
And this leads me to the question. “What was Jesus doing in the wilderness, anyway, if he could just depend on his divinity?” He was, after all, “my Son, the Beloved”. What does it mean, anyway, to be God’s beloved daughter/son? I have a suggestion for you: you are God’s beloved child. Does that mean you get a “get home free” card? I don’t think so. It means you’re stuck with all the same problems as everyone else, but as with any other child of a loving parent, God will cut you some slack. All you have to do is try—sincerely.
That may sound easy, but I don’t think it is. We’re human. It’s completely natural to say, “After me, you come first.” That’s simple survival of the fittest. But is that God’s way? How do we know? Well, we could ask. “What do you want me to do, Lord?” Is that what Jesus was doing in the wilderness? Was he seeking to know God’s will? As a human, was he subject to the same temptations as we are? Did he want to be famous? Did he want to be the captain of a Stanley Cup winning Toronto Maple Leafs team?
What was Jesus doing in the wilderness? I’ll bet he was praying—listening for the voice of God. The voice had already said, “You are my son, the beloved.” But what does that mean where the rubber hits the road? I’m guessing that for Jesus, the answer was, “Tell my story.” And that means we’re right back to where we were: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
The rest is just unpacking. What’s “fulfilled”? What is the “kingdom of God”? And what is “the good news”? You think I’m going to tell you? You think I can? You work it out. You ask God.