Lent 1 — 5 March 2006
Trinity, Muscatine — 8:00 & 10:00
Gen 9:8-17 Ps 25:3-8 1Peter 3:18-22 Mark 1:9-13
“I establish my covenant with you, that ... never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
I remember many years ago seeing an advertisement in some religious magazine for Sunday School curriculum, and in the ad this bright-eyed little boy was running up to his mommy with his crayoned pictures in hand, proudly announcing, “Today in Sunday School we learned how to kill a giant with a slingshot like David did!” I think the point that the curriculum publishers were trying to make in this advertisement was that this is not what we want to be up to in Sunday School, and they were reminding us that it is very naïve to think that “Bible Stories” in the raw automatically make a good syllabus for children’s religious education.
Another story which we seem to think is eminently suitable for children is Noah and the Ark. Clearly because of the animals. Children love animals. They’re so cute. Here, kids. Watch the Discovery Channel, it’s educational. See the zebra. See the zebra run. See the lion. See the lion chase the zebra. See the lion seize the zebra by the throat and throw it to the ground. Listen to the zebra squeal while the lion chews on its haunch. If it has animals, it must be okay for children, and so we tell them about Noah and sing about how Noah he builded, he builded him an arky, arky.
Somewhere along in here we lose sight of the fact that the story of Noah is one of the very darkest stories in the whole of the Bible. It is not rated G, or even PG. It’s basically a story about how the people whom God had created really ticked God off, so God wiped them all off the face of the earth, man woman and child, except for eight. (And if you read on in the story, it’s not in the least bit clear why those eight were really all that much better than anyone else.)
Now if you believe in the literal verbal inerrancy of the Bible, this story presents you with a problem. (Although if you believe in the literal verbal inerrancy of the Bible, understanding this story is the least of your problems — making any sense out of the Bible at all is a far greater difficulty.) (There are, of course, people who really do make very good sense out of the Bible even though they claim to take it all “literally”; but in actual practice they have to ignore or fudge a lot of passages in order to really carry it off.)
I believe in the divine inspiration of Scripture. But I think the God who inspires the Scriptures is a good bit more subtle, and certainly a much greater poet and storyteller, than some narrow and unimaginative folks seem to want to give their narrow and unimaginative God credit for. And in the case of the story of Noah, the inspiration, I think, was the spin which the Hebrews put on this old widespread middle-eastern reminiscence of a millennial flood in the Tigris-Euphrates valleys. (That’s Iraq, by the way.)
The overarching question which the people of Israel had to face, just as we have to face it, is: “Why is there so much evil in the world?” Not just the hurricanes and floods and earthquakes and disease and all that stuff, the so-called “natural evils”; that’s a problem, but not the hardest problem. But “Why are so many people so bad? Adults who do unspeakable things to little children. People who blow themselves up in an effort to blow up a bunch of their political adversaries with them. Why are even we so bad so often? What went wrong with the creation? And why doesn’t God do something about it?”
We’ve all had projects go wrong. What do we do when that happens? I grab the paper out of the printer, wad it up, and hurl it into, or at least at, the wastebasket. In a great outburst of frustration and rage, I punch out “Ctrl-Alt-Delete”! Reboot! Start over!
The people of Israel, remembering the old flood stories that everyone told back in Mesopotamia, saw God doing just that—writing off a bad job and cleaning the slate for a new start. But they saw that the real point of the story was not so much the flood itself (even though the part about the animals two-by-two may be fun to tell, especially to the children)—not the flood itself, but what happened after the flood, the part we hear about in the Old Testament Lesson today—the covenant that God made with Noah after the flood, God’s promise not to write the world off as a bad job, God’s promise not to give up on the creation and just pitch it into the trash can, God’s promise not to reboot the cosmic computer.
God’s plan is to redeem the world, to rescue it, to restore it, to heal us who have broken and disfigured and twisted ourselves so badly. God’s plan is to save the world, not to destroy it—and to save the world not just by patching it up on the outside with an assortment of chewing gum and baling wire, but to save the world by genuinely healing it, renewing it, recreating it from the inside, reclaiming us as God’s people in our freedom and not against our freedom, not coercing our obedience but winning our love, mending our brokenness and reconciling us to God’s own self in wholeness, in holiness. God’s plan of salvation is the long and hard way, but it’s the only real way. God doesn’t take cheap shortcuts.
In the Gospel today, this First Sunday in Lent, we hear about Jesus coming out of the privacy of his youth and young adulthood in Galilee to receive the baptism of John, and to begin his public work and ministry. And the first thing he does is to go away into the desert for a while. Jesus understands (as we often do not!) that in order to figure out what you’re doing, you sometimes have to get away from it for a bit. So Jesus goes into retreat for forty days, and for forty days he keeps his mouth shut—in silence, and in fasting—a sort of Messianic vision quest—and he works out in prayer with his Father the direction of his ministry for the redemption and reconciliation of the world.
This year, reading from St. Mark, we don’t hear the details of the devil’s temptations that Matthew and Luke recount in other years, but we know the story: Satan tries to sidetrack Jesus into a scenario for “saving” the world based upon the fallen world’s notions of power. And Jesus rejects that. For Jesus knows that God’s plan of salvation is not the way of power but the way of love, not the way of conquest but the way of suffering, not the way of the scepter but the way of the cross. The Christian life—life in Christ—is a call to share in that plan of salvation. As members of the Body of Jesus Christ, baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, we are called into a mission, to share in God’s plan to reconcile and heal and restore and re-create this broken world — not by power but by love, not by control but (when need be) by suffering. We are not only the recipients but also the instruments of God’s plan of salvation through Jesus Christ, to draw the whole creation into an eternal community of love and joy. This Lent is an opportunity for us to be renewed in our own vision quest, in our life in Christ and in his mission of establishing in this our world the beachhead of the Reign of God.
© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead