The First Sunday in Lent (Year B)
First Congregational United Church of Christ
Grace to you and peace from the One who bears our burdens and forgives our sins. Amen.
This morning marks the first Sunday in Lent; the first of several Sundays where we put aside the dazzling whites and the sustaining greens of Epiphany and Ordinary Time and exchange them for the subdued penitence of purple; the first Sunday wandering with Jesus in the desert; the first Sunday in the slow pilgrimage to Easter.
Lent is many things to many people.
Many of us grew up associating Lent with the ancient tradition of giving something up. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked this week yet, “What are you giving up for Lent?” (Coincidentally, studies show that the top four things people give up for Lent are chocolate, social media, alcohol, and swearing; I fit right there, I’m giving up Facebook.)
While most of us are familiar with the idea of “giving something up,” some of us might take a slight twist and “take something up”; that is, start or deepen a prayer practice, read the Bible more frequently; spend time serving those in need, writing letters to legislators.
All of these traditions–both the giving up and the taking on–are good traditions, but they’re not the whole Lenten story. If the point of Lent was simply to “give something up,” then we surely wouldn’t devote six weeks to it and so drastically change our way of worshiping during that time. No, indeed, Lent is about more than giving up chocolate or spending more time reading scripture.
The holy season of Lent commemorates Jesus’ forty days wandering through the desert, facing temptation, and emerging with greater clarity and deeper purpose. Lent is a period of becoming prepared. Lent makes the bold claim that life is difficult–that the Christian life, the faithful life, the life of community is difficult–and that preparation is necessary in order to more deeply and effectively engage. Without Lent, we would eventually hit a spiritual wall and crumble.
Lent is also about covenant, about promise. The ancient church marked Lent as a period of preparation for Baptism which always happened at Easter. Candidates for Baptism–both children and adults– would spend the forty days leading up to Easter studying, reading, praying, learning, integrating, serving in order to more faithfully make promises at their Baptism.
These various meanings of Lent converge in today’s readings from Scripture. We’ve got two “big picture” stories here: Noah and the ark and Jesus in the wilderness. We could spend days and days unpacking each of these stories and applying them to our lives today. So I’ll draw our wonder to the story of the Ark.
The story of Noah and the Ark is tragic. It’s absolutely tragic. The ending is good, as we know — the rainbow sits in the sky as a sign of God’s love for us–but the lead up to the rainbow is absolute tragedy.
Not so many verses after God has created the whole world–has given life and breath to everything living, to every plant and animal and person–God is seen destroying the whole world save dear, old Noah; his family; and two of every animal. This kind of behavior is hard for us to stomach. We spend so much time talking about God who is just, God who is loving, God who is merciful. And, indeed, God is all of those things. But God is also sometimes heartbroken.
The story goes that, after many years, the whole of creation had become corrupt and violent. All of creation. Not just the people or the animals. But the whole of creation was so strongly bent toward violence that God’s own heart broke. And, how does God react when God’s heart is broken? Are we not made in the image and likeness of God? How do we tend to react when our hearts are broken? With profound sorrow and deep anger.
In response to God’s heartbreak–that God’s beloved creation, that the very world that God created and called good had become corrupt and violent and perverted — God responds with anger. God cannot imagine moving forward with God’s creation, with the world God created–and so God washes everything away.
Everything, that is, except for dear, old Noah.
Noah is the saving grace in this story. Noah who was righteous. Noah who kept the commandments of God. Noah who cared for the poor and took care of those in need. Noah who picked up his trash. Noah who smiled when he walked down the street. Noah who baked brownies for his neighbor. Noah who prayed for his enemies. Noah who was in relationship with God.
Because of Noah’s faithfulness, God spared creation. God wipes out those whose hearts had become too stained with violence, but God does not end life. God’s anger and sorrow is abated because of Noah’s goodness, Noah’s willingness to be in relationship with God even after God does something which is so hard to believe, so hard to affirm.
And Genesis tells us that God sets the rainbow in the sky as a symbol of God’s promise to never destroy life again. The rainbow is not put in the sky to remind us that God won’t do this horrible thing. The rainbow is put in the sky to remind God that God has promised not to do this horrible thing.
And so what does a rainbow and an ark and a flood have to do with Lent? And more pointedly, what do any of those things have to do with our lives right here and right now?
We’ve experienced a great tragedy this week, haven’t we? It seems like we experience great tragedies every week, every day, and probably even every hour. But in particular, we experienced yet another school shooting (that’s the 18th school shooting this year, for the record.) Surrounding all of this tragedy is death and destruction, violence and perversion. We might be tempted to say, “God! How can you let this happen?” That’s a natural temptation, of course. It’s hard to imagine how bad things can happen to good people; how God could let something like this happen. If that’s where you are this week, don’t feel bad about that. You’re in good company.
We’ve only to look at the sky after the rain to remind us that evils like gun violence, like homophobia, like racism, like classism, like sexism are not the work of God. God made a promise to Noah to never be the cause of destruction ever again. Indeed, great evils are proof that our human nature is cyclical. Once more our hearts are stained with violence, tarnished with corruption, marred with sin. Once more, God’s heart is broken.
But instead of acting out of anger or sorrow–as is natural, as we might be doing this week–God’s choice today as it always has been since that day when God turned a bow upside down and put it in the heavens–is to love.
Love is difficult. I don’t think I’ve shocked anybody with that statement. Love is difficult. The easy response in the face of evil and injustice is rage and anger and wrath. The easy thing in life would be to just plow through anybody who gets in your way. The difficult response is to love those who get in your way; to love those who try to subvert you; to love those who would do harm to you.
Love is difficult. Love takes work. Love takes practice.
When we were washed in the waters of Baptism–when God claimed us as God’s own forever, we made promises–or, if we were too young to make those promises, had promises made on our behalf. In Baptism, we promised to love our neighbor and to love God; we promised to live lives of justice and peace; we promised to honor and respect the dignity of every person.
The simple reality is that sometimes we fail. Sometimes we fail a little bit and other times we fail a lot. Sometimes individuals fail and other times the whole of humanity fails. When we allow the love of guns to overpower the love of children; when we spurn another person for their sexuality or gender identity; when we pollute the earth; when we declare war or allow war to be declared in our name; when we discriminate based on race or gender or class or ability–when we do any of these things which distance creation from the creator, we fail.
Lent is our invitation to wholeness, our invitation to respond as God has chosen to respond, not with anger or wrath, but with love.
We wander through the desert with Jesus during these 40 days in order to deepen our relationship with the God who loves us, the God who created us, and the God who always chooses us. We prepare our bodies, our minds, and our souls for the great festival of Easter where the veil between heaven and earth was forever split and God’s presence among us became permanent. We offer up some things and take up others in order to deepen our intimacy with God and, in truth, with one another.
Our invitation this Lent is to dig deep in the covenant. To look to the sky and remember that God is doing God’s part. To look to the sky and ask, “Am I doing my part? Am I doing my part to cleanse my heart and purify my soul? Am I doing my part to end violence and hatred and injustice?” Am I doing my part? Amen.