February 21, 2021 First Sunday in Lent The text is Mark 1: 9-15.
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Often, it’s difficult to find the common thread that’s woven among the readings that are chosen for each Sunday worsh. There have been times when it seems the lessons are only barely connected with one another. In fact, Martin Luther is quoted to have said that sometimes you have to squeeze a biblical passage until it leaks the gospel. So, at least I think this inability to see the connections isn’t relegated only to me. If brother Martin occasionally struggled, the rest of us can consider ourselves in good company when we fail to see how portions of the text don’t immediately correlate with one another. But the lessons read this morning do rather closely tie together as they take us from the creation of this world to the fulfillment of the kingdom to come.
The Genesis reading this morning recounts what transpired between God and Noah after the waters of the Great Flood subsided. God makes a “covenant” with all the people and all living creatures that will come to inhabit the earth. This covenant differs from the way they were generally understood to operate in antiquity. They were commonly two-sided in that both parties agreed to the provisions of a covenant and each had the responsibility to honor the terms of that contract. The covenant that God made through Noah was different, though. It was specifically one-sided; God made his promise to never again destroy the world with the waters of a flood. This was God’s promise made to God’s people, and it was given even though God knew that the world would continue to sin. God will allow sinfulness to remain among the people, and even though the world will continue to disobey God’s commandments, in his mercy God promised that he would not punish humanity again.
And we read that the appearance of a rainbow in the sky would be the reminder of this promise, both to the people and to God. And since a rainbow consists of only the bow portion and not the string, this symbol has more meaning than first appears. The bow is a weapon and was a symbol of battle, of conflict in ancient times. Thus, whenever the promised bow without the string appeared after a storm, God’s people would be reassured that the world would never again be destroyed through flood waters, waters that were the result of a torrential tempest. Sin might remain and punishment is warranted, but God’s promise to withhold flood waters will be honored, and the bow in the sky will be the reminder of this promise.
Next, in 1 Peter it is reinforced that the water that brought about the world’s destruction in the time of Noah has now become a sign of mercy, forgiveness, and salvation for God’s faithful people. The writer tells us that through the waters of baptism that we have been set free as we are baptized “into” Christ. The One who is sinless has come to secure the salvation of those who continue to disobey God’s commands. In addition to God’s promise, which is symbolized by the bow in the sky, humanity is now brought into a fully righteous relationship with God though Christ; even though sin remains. Again, God’s covenant is one-sided. God will do whatever needs to be done to save God’s people, even though the people remain disobedient.
Finally, St. Mark recounts Jesus’ own baptism, the sinless One washed clean of the sins of humanity. The water that caused the world’s destruction is now the symbol of the forgiveness that God bestows on a stubborn, disobedient, sin-filled world. And after 40 days of desert temptation by Satan, Jesus sets forth to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God, the reign of heaven that is the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise. And all these Scripture verses come together to reconfirm for us this covenant that was made with Noah; reinforced in our baptism, and brought to fulfillment though the mission and ministry of God’s own Son. As happened in the past, God will not again destroy the world by water; in the present we have secured salvation by our faith in Christ, through our baptismal waters; Jesus’ own water immersion confirms God’s pleasure with Christ and serves as the blessing for Jesus’ work in proclaiming the kingdom which is yet to come. God will keep God’s promise, even though sin remains.
With today being the first Sunday in Lent, we remember the historical theological practice that Christians have been called to observe as a reminder of Christ’s suffering and death. We are admonished to observe a time of self-reflection, denial of self, acceptance of our mortality, and an entry into a general attitude of mourning. Over time Lenten practice has evolved into a 40-day-long period resembling Holy Week, when the focus is squarely on the passion that Christ endured. Now, a call to repentance is valid; in fact, we ought to continually consider our sin and strive toward a reversal of the sinful thoughts and actions that draw us away from God. That said, the past year has been an overwhelming period of things that have been denied to God’s people. Rather than spend Lent in ashes and sackcloth, perhaps we should reflect on what this morning’s texts have revealed to us. After Lent is over, Holy Week has ended, and Christ’s work on the cross is completed, what remains is the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus Christ!
Perhaps, repentance, the “turning away” from our sinful behavior isn’t where our spiritual practice should lead us this particular Lent. Maybe our “turning away” from sin should be a “turning toward” God. We know how the story began; Noah received God’s promise. We have heard how our faith in Jesus makes us active characters in the Savior’s mission; we have been baptized “into” Christ. And we are assured that Christ’s death and resurrection are the confirmation that the kingdom of God will prevail.
It will be Easter before we know it and Christ’s rising from the grave will again remind us that the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed “has come near”. And if we look forward to the joy that is the resurrection, it will be difficult for us to focus solely on what it is that we have had to “give up” this Lent; this year-long Lent that we have found ourselves in. “Turning toward” the empty cross we will instead discover what we have gained; through covenants that assure us that water will never again overwhelm the earth, through the baptismal waters that poured over our heads as we were adopted into God’s family, through the waters of the Jordan into which our Savior was immersed. All these are reminders of what we have been granted; salvation, a righteous relationship with our Father, and reassurance that we have received our invitation to participate in the coming kingdom, which Jesus proclaimed “has come near”.
The age-old practices of Lent that we ought to engage in are worthy and we should strive toward self-reflection and repentance. But let’s not lose ourselves in the grief and mourning that ought to be relegated to Good Friday; for it is Easter that defines us as followers of Christ Jesus. For it is his rising that signifies for us that all that has transpired since time began has been leading to that very event. It is the fulfillment of the covenant that God made through Noah; that even though our sin remains, God will keep God’s promise. Even if it means that God had to send his own Son to ensure that God’s people might be saved. I don’t know about you, but that’s a promise that I trust. And this trust is confirmed whenever I see the bow in the sky or gaze upon the empty cross.
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious and Holy God, in this time of “turning away from” sin, we pray that you would encourage us to “turn toward” you for reassurance of your promise to your people. In our repentance may we recognize that the sinful world that we are part of will be overcome by the kingdom of mercy and grace that you promise your people. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One whose resurrection is the fulfillment of your covenant with your children. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good.