Texts: Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
Humans can be aggravating. Can we all agree that this is true? We aggravate each other no end. We are positively genius when it comes to inventing new aggravations. We are so adept at aggravating, that sometimes even things we intend as good and right, end in aggravation for others.
Perhaps this is why the story of Noah appears so early in the narrative of Genesis. It poses the question: what on earth happened to cause such an epic flood that threatened the existence of not only humans, but every living creature? So, says Genesis, from the very beginning aggravation was a big problem with the human creature. Things got so out of hand that before long God also became very aggravated. God sent urgent messages to humans to Knock. It. Off. But no one listened. Except, finally, Noah and his family.
How to do a deep clean of all the aggravations humans invent and impose? God decided to wash it all away. Heavy emphasis on “all”. A stormy watery cleanse.
God sent a final message too: Noah, build a very big boat, stat. And get thee aboard with every creature you can find and bring food for a longish haul. Don’t worry about water, trust me, there will be plenty. Thus the earth was destroyed (or at least Noah’s corner of the earth). And, presumably, every single aggravation along with it.
But now we have a spiritual problem. What happened to the promises God made to protect God’s people always and everywhere? What happened to God’s steadfast love for all Abraham’s and Sarah’s children? How can we possibly reconcile our notion of God who we know fundamentally as Creator, with God who destroys?
Genesis proposes a solution. In the flood God went for a do-over. A cosmological mulligan. Creation, take two. If God destroyed, it was for a restorative purpose - so a new and better creation could emerge out of the seeds of the old.
God’s speech to Noah is pure promise. God is finished with destroying creation. In testimony to this God set a memo in the sky. The bow would forever remind God of a new kind of covenant of Divine forbearance and grace with the whole living fabric of creation.
And though infused with radiant color, God’s bow is not an artistic installation. As warriors hang their bows of vengeance on the wall in time of peace, so God’s bow is placed in heaven, shining against threatening clouds, promising divine peace with creation. In the face of all human failures, God will remain steady.
The first letter of Peter calls upon God’s promise against that terrible cleansing of Noah’s day, God said never again. Nevermore shall water destroy the things that God, out of love, has formed. Instead water is made God’s agency of everything new.
It is pure gift. By water God gives us the means and the capacity to announce our intention to turn our back on all temptations. Best of all, in the watery covenant of baptism we get to claim that good covenant and the inestimable power of a washed and radiant conscience.
Even so, the cleansing power of baptism is sure to be tried and tested, and we will fail along the way. Our baptismal covenant with God requires our full participation as we regularly realize and then confess our complicity with sinful and evil powers. Therefore, this covenant requires our commitment to life-long discernment of the spirits around us as we construct new lives that are aligned with the right pathways of God.
It is against this backdrop that Mark sketches the story of Jesus’s baptism and its wild aftermath. This gospel writer deliberately chooses strong words to convey the holy energies that descend upon Jesus. As he comes up out of the water, Jesus sees a powerful vision of heaven torn wide open, and down dives the dove, straight into him.
And so, God possesses Jesus absolutely. And if there was ever any doubt as to his identity and vocation, it is banished absolutely with the pronouncement of Son, Beloved, whom God favors. In the next moment Jesus is forcefully removed to the wilderness. Whether this is still in the vision or after it, we cannot tell.
It is here that Jesus goes to face a tempting adversary and wild beasts. Mark’s gospel leaves us to wonder what form these might have taken, which is probably intentional. The other gospels suggest a special spiritual power rising up against God.
But Mark leaves open the possibility that what Jesus faced was exactly the kinds of forces that make us stumble and fear. It was these forces that he was required to discern. Just as we are.
Perhaps doubt was one of the strongest forces that Jesus had to stare down in preparation for the life he was taking up. Faith after the flood calls us to believe that God is Creator, not Destroyer. But the message that got John the Baptist killed is exactly the message that Jesus would take up on the other side of his wilderness event. He would have to trust that in his own destruction – death on the cross – God would keep the covenant of new creation with him.
But there were angels there with Jesus too. What can it mean that angels waited on Jesus in the wilderness? It can’t be that they served him fortifying wine and cakes at four o’clock every afternoon. No, angels are always messengers from God. The angels signify constant messages from God that sustained Jesus during his time of discernment amid disruptive spiritual forces.
In Lent we are called to remember and practice discernment in the middle of a conflicted world full of humanly caused aggravations. We are surrounded by forces only too ready to infect us with destructive impulses of anger, resentment, or self-pity. Lent calls us to face our doubts and failures, to admit them and ask God to help us overcome them and become God’s new creation.
Lent also invites us to trust God. Always remember that every place of temptation and untamed beasts that we must pass though, Jesus walked there before us. And never, ever stop listening to the angels who bear messages of God’s good news to sustain us. Amen
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.