Being Read By the Story (Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15)
This past Wednesday, in addition to being Valentine’s Day, was Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent. I remind you, almost annually, that Lent is the time we prepare for Easter by reflecting on how we’re doing spiritually. It is more than that, however, since it centres on the Gospel stories of the journey Jesus took to Easter. It’s important to remember that one of the greatest practical and, if you will, marketing difficulties for the earliest Christians had to do with the fact that the founder of their movement had been rejected by the powerful among his people, and was executed as a criminal, a minor enemy of the Roman state, but a major enemy to official religion. How might Jesus’ followers respond to that undeniable fact!?
Much in the New Testament takes pains to clarify that although Jesus’ death, was, in a sense humiliating, brutal and political, it was more than that. It was suffered on behalf of others, and, it was followed by God’s own vindication of his life, death, and teachings by the glorious Easter miracle of resurrection, which, then becomes a model for what happens to every disciple. Life may be humiliating, brutal, and politically dangerous, but it’s more than that. It ends in resurrection. None of that was either an easy sell or easy to swallow, either to those of a Jewish or Gentile background. But, it happened, and, finally the idea of the Risen Christ, captured its world. We who live after so many centuries of celebrating Lent and Easter as followers of Jesus can easily want to skip the death and defeat part in order to get to the Easter part. That’s always been true, but Lent stands in the way of it with a 40 day block of days that says, “Slow down, reflect on and remember the journey through the wilderness that leads to Easter.” Remember what it’s like to suffer and be inundated by a flood of indecision, bad press, less than pleasant life, sickness, tragedy, and death. In fact, without Lent there is no Easter. I read a sermon recently that called Lent “preparation for the Easter party.” It’s more fun to go to a party than to prepare, plan, cook and set up the chairs for it. Everyone likes victory. It’s much harder to live through and think through the low points that must precede it.
The 19th century New Testament scholar Martin Kahler wrote a well quoted sentence in a footnote in what is probably his most famous book. The translation of what he wrote: “The Gospel of Mark is a passion-story, with an extended introduction.” It is true that the passion and death of Jesus casts a long shadow across the whole of Mark’s Gospel. People prepare to kill Jesus as early as chapter 3. The story of the last journey to Jerusalem begins in chapter 8 (halfway through). You can’t miss it. Jesus was doomed to die almost from the beginning. Mark writes nothing of Jesus’ infancy and childhood. We begin with just a few words about Jesus’ call to ministry and baptism by John. That baptism was underwritten by the spirit of God who literally tore apart the heavens, as if impatient to tell readers that Jesus is God’s son, the beloved, who was pleasing (obedient to) God. The very next thing we find is that this same spirit, again literally, drove Jesus out into the wilderness. It was as if, if Jesus was going to fulfill his mission he had to go by way of the outback where no one lived and few wanted to go. He went, and he lived through it, but, even then, life and the decisions of ministry didn’t get any easier. But, even so, at the beginning of Jesus’ wilderness, the spirit spoke, and at the end, the angels served or ministered to him. His response to God’s call, and his journey through his lonesome valley was encircled by God’s care.
There’s no escaping the wilderness, but we don’t walk it alone. Jesus is there, God is there, and we are ministered to by God’s messengers even there. The same point is made by the framers of the Revised Common Lectionary who have chosen to shape and unite our Lenten thinking with the Old Testament readings each week. They, each one, concern a thing called a covenant. A covenant is only as good as the word of the covenant partners. In the ancient world covenants were common ways of allowing diverse groups – families, and even nations – to live together. They were ways of treating those who were not your family as if they were. Covenants could be made between those who were roughly equal partners, which were common in the ancient world in the Bible.
We also have covenants in the ancient world between unequals, kings and their peoples, for example, in which the terms are set out by the senior partner, and agreed to by the junior partner in return for some kind of benefits. We have, again, many examples of such covenants from the ancient world. Because the Bible is much more the story of God than the story of Israel (or the Church), the more common kind of covenant found in the Bible is this latter kind with God as the senior partner and God’s people (sometimes through an individual) as the junior partner.
Our Old Testament Lessons through Lent focus on covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses (and Israel), and the New Covenant in the Prophecy of Jeremiah. In each of these we will learn something about how God’s people are supposed to follow God through the wilderness (and out of it, too) by understanding that our pilgrimage through wilderness is surrounded by God, who calls us to relationship. We will also learn something about God as we read these stories and, in turn, are read by them. By this last comment, I mean that, we allow the stories to address us and involve us personally. One of the commonest ways to keep these stories from addressing us, “reading us,” so to speak, is to hold them at arm’s length by pigeonholing them in the past, thus limiting their power in the present. This story is about Jesus and his first century disciples. Period It concerns the ancient world, not us. It is especially easy to want to control and hold the stories of Genesis 1-11 at arm’s length by insisting that they are specifically about “there and then” and not about “here and now.” There is no doubt that the stories are ancient and speak in ancient words and to ancient cultures. But we can seek to control them by simply allowing them to remain there. These texts can be analyzed, specified, poked, prodded, and pontificated on in order to keep them from speaking to us, reading us. To keep them locked in the past misses their point. Which is to address readers whenever they read them.
Really the story from which our Old Testament Lesson is taken has to do with God’s grief over the creation that seemed like such a good idea back a few chapters, but has, since, become a horrid mess. If we’re going to grasp the power here, we’re going to have to understand the power of story. This is not (or not simply) an account of what happened once long ago, but a story in which we find ourselves as characters involved here and now. This is a story about how God deals with human beings in this world, including us. This story began back in chapter 6 with God engaged in an inner conversation upon which the narrator lets us eavesdrop. Here are the words:
The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only harmful, all the time. And the LORD was sorry to have made humankind upon the earth, and it grieved God’s heart. So God said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have made, people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry I have made them… (6:5-7)
God sees humanity’s harmfulness to itself, others, and the world, and two words are used to describe what that observation does to God: It makes God sorry to have engaged in the human experiment, and it grieves God to the heart. Let’s get one thing straight, the God of the Bible is no “permanent, plastic deity,” that we sometimes hear preached who is unaffected by things and never changes. Here God hurts. And God makes a linear decision from the harmfulness of humans through sorrow and hurt over making humans to the decision to un-make not only humans, but the whole earth. But, even so, here’s the thing: Noah found favour with God (it doesn’t give a process whereby he found it, “he walked with God,” don’t ask for what the storyteller withholds). God put him, his family, and the animals in an ark (which is, by the way, the Hebrew word for box or coffin), but then proceeds to undo what Genesis 1 did. Everything but Noah, his family, and representative animals, inside this box, this ark, dies. This is a searing story of holocaust.
After all that, the Almighty has another inner conversation on the same topic as before wiping everything away, to take stock of what’d been accomplished. At the core of this conversation are the same words we found before: “the inclination of the human heart is harmful from youth.” One might almost say that God grasps just now that even unmaking the world has not changed the basic nature of humans – harmful before, harmful after. The new world that grew up after that cosmic undoing is like the old world before it, and is not changed. What changes in this story is God, who now chooses to relate in a different way not just to chosen people, but to the whole world (for this story is set before there were any Hebrews), not just to the world of people, but to the world of dogs, cats, chickens, and turtles. God breaks the straight line from human harmfulness to divine sorrow and grief to destruction. Though God’s heart is still grieved by human harmfulness, God’s response is a loving family arrangement, a covenant. Here are the words:
I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is harmful from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease…I establish my covenant with you that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth…
In one statement human harmfulness causes catastrophe, in the other, after catastrophe, the exact same thing causes covenant. Again, what changes is neither human beings, nor the world, but, out of the grief of God’s heart, God’s resolve to choose life not death and to follow the way of love, grace, and reconciliation rather than punishment and anger. Without the grief, there is no grace. Even God cannot punish people into changing their hearts. People’s hearts are only changed by covenant love, faithfulness, and steadfast loyalty. If God cannot punish people enough to change their hearts, what makes us think that we can? The author pictures what happens by saying God hangs the divine war-bow in the clouds, and says, “Whenever you see the rain, you will also see my bow there in the clouds, hanging, undrawn, and empty of arrows, and you will remember that never again will I turn against you. I made you, and I love you.”
This passage does not say nor imply that horrible things will never happen again in the world. Remember, it is neither humans nor the world that is changed by all this, but God, whose heart bears the scars of human rebellion, past and future. Nevertheless, no matter the flood-experience that threatens to overwhelm us, at the core of it all, we find those words that never again will the God’s reaction to the hurt in the divine heart be destructive. At the worst moment of the flood story, there are also other crucial words:
God remembered Noah and all the living things, wild and domestic, that were in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the land, and the waters subsided (8:1).
Even at the low-points, God remembers. And God says, “never again.” God loves the world. God is for us and with us.
As we journey to Jerusalem and the cross with Jesus, let us remember that the Lenten pilgrimage is but symbolic of these worst times in life when we are overwhelmed. Even in the flood, even in the holocaust, even at the cross, we can be assured that, God’s basic resolve is for our good and the good of the whole world, and that God will surround us with goodness and mercy, all the days of our life, just as he did Jesus.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.