I know some of you have told me that you’ve been using the Lectionary Readings we’ve listed in the monthly newsletter as a part of your regular devotional time.
So, if you are one of those people, you may have noticed that now that Lent has begun, the readings are all running around the same common theme.
Sometimes, in what we call “Ordinary Time” in the Christian Year, the readings don’t seem to tie together very well… But when holy seasons are upon us, such as the Season of Lent, they begin to compliment each other, highlighting the common thread between the Old and New Testaments.
Over the next couple of weeks the common theme of Covenant runs through the readings–
Our Covenant with God,
God’s Covenant with us,
And what it means for the salvation of our souls and the world.
Today we begin with Noah.
An ancient story.
It was an ancient story even to Jesus and his colleagues.
But it was one that really drove home the reality of covenant.
Even those who have never opened a Bible or sat in a Sunday School class know the basics of the Noah’s Ark story:
The world had grown so evil that God actually began to regret having created it. In fact, the world was so evil that even the soil itself was corrupted with sin. They say nothing would grow there. Imagine the contrast between the beauty of the perfect Garden God had so lovingly placed his creations, Adam and Eve, into.
A Garden so perfect and so lush that Adam and Eve and all the other creatures didn’t even need to work or toil to make it habitable. They got to lie around all day in that wonderful paradise until they gave into temptation and tasted of the one fruit God had told them not to taste.
In just a few short generations Creation had gone from this lush, perfect paradise–a beach bum’s dream come true…to this barren thing who’s soil was scorched black by sin and corruption.
Ten generations passed between Adam and Noah. That’s all it took for humanity to wreck creation to the point God regretted God’s most prized creation.
To put it in perspective, even though America is considered “young” by the world’s standard, my own family has been in here for over 13 generations. And despite whatever problems we may have, despite all our failures, I think America is still a beautiful nation, full of natural beauty and abundance and hope for the future.
So imagine how much sin had to be in the hearts of humanity for the entirety of creation to be so totally and completely wrecked in just ten generations.
God, in spite of God’s sorrow about the condition of creation, looks around and finds one good and righteous man.
He wasn’t perfect.
Righteousness doesn’t mean he was without fault or sin.
Righteousness means he strove day by day, moment by moment to stay in relationship with God and when he faltered he always turned back.
Now, that’s not an unrealistic expectation, but when God, the all-knowing searched the hearts of humanity, all God found was this one man.
And so God decides to wash the earth clean and begin again with this one man and his immediate family.
For forty days and forty nights the purifying waters fell from the heavens. They came down in droves and swept away the trash and the pollution that had so completely wrecked the earth.
And that’s just the days of rain. In all, Noah was on that ark for 378 days.
More than a year before the flood waters receded.
And it would be even longer before the stench of the floodwaters which had purged the earth of all that corruption would fade.
But after it all God looked down at Noah and spoke.
From the heavens God reached out and painted across the sky one of God’s most beautiful pieces of art:
And this, this bridge between heaven and earth would be God’s covenant for the ages that God would never again destroy the earth with water, so that in all the post-traumatic stress of the event, as Noah and his family struggled to rebuild after all that devastation and death, they could rest easy, knowing that the next sound of raindrops would not mean more destruction.
It was a covenant of love and mercy and grace.
And I can only imagine the relief and love and joy that flooded Noah’s heart when he saw the heavens open up and rainbow streak across the sky.
No wonder it still seems to be in our basic DNA to pause and ponder a rainbow when we see it stretch across the sky.
It is a visible reminder of God’s love for us.
By the time Jesus came to the Jordan to have his cousin John dip him in the waters of cleansing, that story had grown very old, but no less loved and no less inspiring.
But for generations the people of earth had only heard stories about heaven and earth touching each other in such a visible fashion.
It was only something the most imaginative could conjure up in art and music and literature to try to tell the amazing story.
So for them, to see what happened on the day of Jesus’ baptism must have been staggering.
John surely recognized Jesus– the Gospel of Mark is famous for not going very deep into detail, but we know from the other Gospels that John was so certain who and what Jesus was that he was hesitant to take the honor of baptizing him.
But from everything we know about the event, almost certainly no one else knew who Jesus was… Let alone what Jesus’ role in salvation would be.
At first it looked like any other man who had traveled out to the middle of nowhere to hear the wild-eyed John preach.
At first it looked like any other baptism. The conversation must have confused folks a bit. But it looked pretty much the same.
Until Jesus came up out of the water and something they had only heard about but not seen for themselves happened:
Heaven and earth touched.
The sky opened up and the Spirit descended from heaven along with the voice of God.
You are my Son,
Whom I dearly love.
In you I find happiness.
But then, something strange happens.
God has literally just said,
I love you.
And then… in the next breath… God says,
Now get out.
Jesus, who we know is God’s covenant of love with us in the flesh, was driven by that same anointing Holy Spirit into the desert wastelands.
It was largely the same message Noah had once gotten: I love you… now a built a boat and get out!
It was the same famous length of time: Forty days and forty nights.
The same infamous incarnation of evil, Satan himself, emerges from the shadows again with more temptations like those which had led humanity so far down a sinful path in the ancient days: Forget God. Do this yourself.
But while the message to Get Out had been about Noah’s salvation from the flood, Jesus’ Get Out was something different.
Noah would be rescued from the rising waters, But Jesus’ fate would lift him up on the cross.
Noah’s life was saved when God told him to get out… But when God told Jesus to get out, it would start him on a path to death.
When I was a child I often struggled with that.
Why would God want Jesus to go out and starve in the wilderness? Exposed to the blistering heat of the day and the hypothermic cold of night?
Why would God want Jesus, the son God love’s and finds so much happiness in, to go into the domain of Satan and be tested by the master of deceit?
Shouldn’t a parent want to protect the child he loves?
Sunday School teachers explained about this being Jesus’ time of preparation– His time to see that his knowledge, faith, and strength had grown strong enough so that he was ready to face a hostile world and ultimately the cross.
But that didn’t make it any better for my youthful mind to wrap around.
It wasn’t really until I matured (and not by much, my mother will tell you) that I began to see what God was trying to teach Jesus in that last lesson before this beloved Son would begin a path that he wouldn’t be able to come back from… Not until sin and death itself had been conquered, anyway.
God wanted Jesus, the child whom God had loved and protected and sheltered for so long, to see what it is we humans are facing. God wanted him to see how frail we are on our own, how weak the flesh can be, how weak the mind can be, how weak the spirit can be.
So the Son whom God had protected from slaughter and who knows what other kinds of evils which didn’t get written down went out into the desert, without shelter, without food… without protection.
Jesus went out and felt hunger like he had never felt before.
The tradition of fasting Jesus was most likely using would have allowed him only one small, bland, scarce meal after sunset– Probably only bread and water,
But otherwise, he sat in the heat of day, praying and meditating, as his stomach began to cling to his spine…
Have you ever been so hungry that it feels like that?
His mouth would have been parched and dry.
His body would have grown weaker and weaker with each day of punishment in the sun.
And as he grew thinner and thinner, the cold desert nights would have been more and more difficult to get through.
And just when he was at his weakest– Near the point of wondering if he could survive another day– Just as he reached the point that world’s poorest live in day after day, Satan saw an opportunity.
When the body is starving and thirsting the brain begins to think differently: It becomes more animalistic. It cares less and less about long-term plans and only cares about surviving. It drives a person to desperate actions.
That’s when Satan shows up.
The last thing Jesus had heard from God was “I love you, now get out…”
And the first thing Jesus hears from Satan is, “You don’t need God. You can do this by yourself…”
It’s the first thing we hear, too… When we are at our worst moments, when we feel our weakest or our most alone. When we are most vulnerable, we hear Satan whispering in our ears,
“You don’t need God…”
Jesus was God’s pure love made human, born of the flesh and blood from a woman,
Just like each of us.
He began life helpless and vulnerable, relying on Mary and Joseph for protection, nourishment, and love.
He learned to coo before he learned to speak.
Just like us.
He learned to crawl before he learned to walk.
Just like us.
He sat in boring classes, learning lessons about life and wisdom and knowledge and faith.
Just like us.
His parents taught him to pray.
His parents taught him to play fair with other children.
He grew, inch by inch.
Just like us.
And just like us, he had to face the cruelties of this world.
He knew hunger.
He knew exhaustion.
He knew what it felt like to be alone and vulnerable.
And he knew temptation.
In the wilderness, Jesus was just like you and me at our worst moments.
And therein lies our hope.
Because in that time in the wilderness Jesus saw the worst part of humanity. He lived the suffering and loneliness. He experienced the temptation. He felt the desperation.
And he didn’t turn his back on it.
In fact, he looked it in the eye and said, “Not today, Satan. I’m not giving up. Not even now that I’ve seen just how wretched humanity can be.”
Jesus lived like the worst of us in his stay in the wilderness, and he loved us in spite of that experience.
He loved us so much that he wanted to save us from it.
He loved us so much that weak and delirious, he stood up, picked up the cross, and said,
“Let’s get this journey started…”