Today is the first Sunday of Lent. Lent is more than Passion Plays and the giving up of coffee or chocolate as a prelude to Easter. We can go back to Jesus’ Jewish roots to appreciate the significance of Lent. And our scriptures today give us a lot to think about as we start Lent.
The story of Noah, the ark, and the rainbow is one of the earliest narrated stories in human history. This morning we read the conclusion of the tale: God creating the rainbow as a reminder to not destroy all human and other animal life again. Sort of God’s note to self. But that promise also contains the recognition that we humans will very likely drive God to the brink of considering annihilation again. This is a sobering thought today on this first Sunday of Lent.
Lent replaces the Jewish Yom Kippur and the Days of Awe. Yom Kippur, the Holiest Day on the Jewish calendar is judgment day. Jews spend the ten days from New Year’s Day until Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgment, in solemn atonement for the sins of commission and omission acted out and thought about during the past year. Jews acknowledge their guilt before God, and acknowledge God’s right, and accept God’s decision to either inscribe them in the Book of Life for another year... or not. They must do this every year to hopefully avert this severe decree. Give us another year! Year after year. It’s not easy being a Jew.
For the Christian, Jesus has saved us from the severe decree. No human action can erase our sinful nature. It’s baked into us from before our birth. Even though we are sinful creatures God has promised us continued mercy, forgiveness, continuing love - and permanent inscription in the Book of Eternal Life. The rainbow is a sign. To be human is to sin. To repent is Christian. To repent as a Christian is to acknowledge and accept our sinful nature is what it is. We do this each Sunday. We reflect on it during these forty days of Lent.
The story of Noah begins in the ninth generation after Adam. Lives and generations were much longer in those days. Noah was 500 years old when he begat his three sons, Ham, Shem and Japheth. God saw the evil man did and that his thoughts and inclinations were always evil, and decided to start over. God said, “This race of men whom I have created, I will wipe them off the face of the earth - man and beast, reptiles and birds. I am sorry I ever made them.” Scripture goes on to say, ”In God’s sight the world had become corrupted because all men had lived corrupted lives on earth.”
We might reflect for a moment on God’s conclusion. Mankind’s corruption caused the corruption of the entire air-breathing ecosystem and all in it. Humans’ pride, greed, anger, violence … all the ways our nature plays out, corrupted not only ourselves, but everything. Other humans, animals, reptiles, birds … everything. Creation is connected. Thoughts and inclinations have consequences.
The Bible gives us a picture of our development both as individuals and as a human species We often overlook that. Scripture addresses the questions we ask as children, and the more curious among us continue to ask all our lives. Why are we here and what is our purpose? What is the meaning of my own life as an individual member of the human species? The forty days of Lent is a good time to reflect on these deeper questions.
Noah was the one uncorrupted righteous man on earth. God instructed Noah what to do, and Noah did it. The ark and the covenant God made with Noah was the salvation of humanity. So why did God bother restarting? What’s the big deal about animal life or human life? Why does God put up with such flawed creatures as us?
Scripture is a very important help and teacher. I believe the Holy Spirit guided the lectionary selection process. The four readings each week are always tied together by a common theme though it isn’t always obvious. When we prayerfully ask scripture, when we ask the lectionary selections to comment on each other, we may see more than the story line or the “moral” of each single reading. Other themes, connections and insights are revealed to us. We may be given hints of new questions, and glimpses at answers.
As our Psalm reminds us, “To you O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame...Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.” That is surely a call to seek God’s message, to search out the deeper questions. Lent is a time for reflection on these questions. Lent is a time for drawing closer to God.
Today’s Epistle reading from 1 Peter raises further questions: “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous, (Jesus,) suffered for the unrighteous”... Why, we ask? And Peter answers, “in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.. And in the spirit he, Jesus, went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison...” Who are these spirits in prison Jesus visited in the spirit and spoke to? Peter answers, “(those) who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which (only) a few, that is, eight people were saved through water.”
Those spirits, or souls visited in prison by Jesus were the ones who had ignored the warning, they had stayed disobedient. But all is not lost. God waited patiently for them, because he loved them. The flood came and inundated them. Their mortal bodies died. Still, God loved them and loves them so much he sent his son to preach repentance to them in their prison - wherever that might be. Peter didn’t explain. (Don’t we wish he had!) But we do know that God did not send his son to the dead, but to those who live, although in this unknown realm.
Peter goes on further: God so loves us, even with our sinful natures, that he sends us the water of baptism instead of a killing flood as in Noah’s time. The water of baptism rescues us, not because it removes sin from our bodies as if it were dirt. We can’t get rid of our sinful human nature while we are in the body. But baptism works by making a direct appeal to God for mercy. It is a sign we are repentant. Peter continues, “Even though we are still sinful, we can appeal for mercy because of the work of Jesus. Jesus has brought us to God. Although we are undeserving, God saves us because he loves us and accepts our repentance.”
This is the miracle of Christianity. The reading from Mark’s Gospel sums up this miracle in just a few lines. As Jesus, son of Man and Son of God, came up from the waters of baptism, the voice from heaven announced the means and the reason for our salvation. “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news.” And God is well pleased with us who believe this good news.
So in Noah’s time, God saw the mess we made and decided to start over. But not from scratch. Noah and seven other souls were close enough to what God had in mind that he set them in his ark, gave us the covenant of the rainbow, and carried our ancestors through the floodwaters to regenerate humanity.
God gave us another chance. How are we doing this time? Are we patient, kind, forgiving one another as God forgives us, bearing all things, loving as God loves? Are we wrapped in humility and forbearance and meekness? Or do we again spit at God as we corrupt the earth and everything alive in it by our egotistic pride, our certainty we are completely right and others completely wrong, our demands to get ours now? Do we damn and condemn, seeing others as “other.” Or do we work towards empathy and compassion and love for all of us who are in this mess together?
God knew we would need help. He sent the sign of the rainbow to hold us in hope until he came in person to rescue us. In these final times, God is become Emmanuel, with us, and God accompanies us on this final stretch home.
Let us reflect on this Lenten message.