Before we get into our texts this morning, I want to recap or highlight a couple things from our Ash Wednesday service.
1) We are now in Lent, which is a solemn time in the church year. Thus, many see it as a gloomy, depressing, or sad time. However, I love Lent and find it renewing and life-giving.
2) I shared in the past year a couple people have referred to me as a unicorn. BUT, if
I am a mythical creature I do not want to be a unicorn, I would want to be a
phoenix. The phoenix rises out of the ashes stronger than they were before.
The gospel of Mark, during this season of Lent, focuses on covenant agreement between God and people.
Human history repeats itself, be it in scripture or outside of scripture. In scripture, we see patterns of God creating a covenant with people, WE break the covenant, and God continues to reach out despite being upset, angry, and/or frustrated to establish yet another covenant with us.
We think of a covenant as a binding mutual agreement, usually associated with our conduct and being in relationship with one another. However, in the ancient world it was their legal contract which carried more weight and consequences than we tend to think of today.
The covenant that we hear this morning in our scriptures revolve around baptism, its water, and what that means for us.
Our first story comes from Genesis and is beloved. We decorate nurseries with Noah’s Ark, which seems odd since it was the genocide of all creation minus 8 people (Noah, his wife, their three sons, and their three daughters-in-laws) and two of each kind of animal.
After the flooding, for one reason or another unknown to us, God decides “I am NOT doing that again”. In fact, this covenant that God made in Genesis is NOT with Noah, his sons, or their descendants. This covenant is NOT conditional because there are no “if” statements. This covenant has NO time limits. This covenant is literally a covenant between God and ALL people, ALL flesh (animals), and ALL creation for ALL time. That is INCLUSIVE.
The rainbow, a sign of this covenant, is NOT a reminder to Noah, his descendants, or us but it is a reminder to God of God’s covenant and promise to us.
The waters of the flood are destructive and chaotic, which leads to our 1 Peter text. This letter, similar to the others, are to a community that is suffering; perhaps persecution, although we do not know the extent or frequency. The community is facing challenges and are reminded of their own baptisms and therefore they have died to their old selves, their old ways, and their own lives in order to be resurrected with Christ in his ministry and his mission.
1 Peter further builds on water and washing as an act of purification. Our baptisms purify us.
I find it interesting that when the Israelites would return with the spoils of war to be brought into the community, it had to be purified first. The first and preferred method, if possible, was to pass the item through fire. If it could not pass through fire, then it would be passed through water to cleanse it. We, human beings, pass through the waters of baptism because we do not do well with passing through fire.
But, 1 Peter claims that Christ’s mission did not end which his death because he descended to Sheol (the Pit) or the dead. This is not the fire and brimstone hell depicted in modern culture, but instead a place of separation from God where all people went after their earthly death while awaiting the final judgment.
In Christian Iconography (art), there are icons (imagines) of Jesus with one foot literally in the land of the dead and the other outside. Jesus is depicted helping Moses, Abraham, and beloved ancestors of faith out of Sheol. The covenant in Genesis (linked through water) is not limited or confined by death; that is a powerful covenant.
Then, we have Mark which is a fast-paced gospel. In these few verses, we have the baptism of Jesus when he heard the words “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased”.
Then, immediately afterwards the Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. I love that verse, especially on a Daytona 500 Sunday. The Holy Spirit drives him into the wilderness. The Holy Spirit does not lead him into the wilderness. The Holy Spirit does not suggest he goes into the wilderness. The Holy Spirit DRIVES him into a wilderness. It was a physical wilderness, but it was also an emotional and spiritual wilderness. He had to discern those words heard at his baptism and the future of his ministry. (There are debates about how much Christ knew about his own future at that moment, which we do not have an answer.)
We do know from Mark’s account that Jesus was tempted by satan. Satan is an adversary and a force that defies God but not necessarily a little red man with horns, a tail, and a pitchfork (that is Sparky from Arizona State University). Jesus was tempted for 40 days.
The number 40 is significant in scripture including the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years. (Lent is also 40 days minus Sundays).
Afterwards, Jesus emerges to learn that John the Baptist has been arrested.
What does Jesus do?
Jesus continues to preach essentially the same message that John the Baptist was preaching:
TURN from your old ways.
TURN towards new life.
The kingdom of God has come, it is near, and it is not yet fulfilled.
Our Lenten journey is about that.
It is about new life.
It is about being restored and being a new creation.
A couple of years ago, I was asked if I had led a charmed life. I thought it was an odd and oddly worded question. In fact, I remained silent because I was not sure what was being asked when another person replied “no, she has had some struggles and challenges”. Then the intention of the question dawned on me.
A charmed life, by definition “charmed” is something that protects and is usually associated with supernatural or magical properties used to protect the item and its carrier.
There are people who believe that by coming into faith, coming to the waters of baptism, and if they live into their baptismal promises that their lives will be ‘charmed’ and they will be sheltered, guarded, and protected against the broken, messy, and sinful world that we live.
This idea is reinforced in a variety of phrases, including one of my favorite to hate: “God won’t give you more than you can handle”. I HATE that phrase, for me it invokes an image of God as a bully in heaven with a magnifying glass we are the ants. BUT, I came a sign one day that read: “God does not give us what we can handle. God helps us handle what we are given.” Often the difficult situations we find ourselves in, those burdens we carry, and the challenges we deal with are the result of our own brokenness, poor choices, and sin or that of another.
Our lives are not protected from that brokenness, poor choices, or sin. We do NOT have a magical charm, which can be a challenge for us to accept.
BUT, we do have covenants. We do have promises. We do have reassurance that no matter how dark it gets God is ever-present (and if you watch the news you know our world is dark). Similar to how the Holy Spirit was ever-present with Christ in his own wilderness and temptation.
So, we are beginning our Lenten journey.
It is a calling into new life whether we are emerging from the waters of baptism or the ashes of our own pervious lives, but that does not mean it is free from temptation, sin, or suffering. However, as our Psalm reminds us, God is faithful and steadfast in God’s love continually establishing and re-establishing those covenants with ALL flesh, ALL creation for ALL time.
That is the good news. May that be where our hope lies. Amen.