First Sunday in Lent

The lessons designated for this First Sunday in Lent invite us to reflect on rupture and renewal. In the next several moments, let us then be attentive then to where “rupture” and “renewal” occur in our lessons as we meditate on them.   


Our Old Testament lesson prompts us to recall an event in which there was a rupture. We refer here to the Flood. The Bible tells us that the springs of the great deep burst forth and the skies were torn open and rain fell upon the earth for forty days and forty nights. The world never saw anything like it before. The world has never seen anything like it since. With the release of the floodwaters came the unmaking of the world. But that is not the last chapter of the history of God and the world. Today we read that Noah and his family have found favor in God’s eyes. Sheltered in the ark, they survived the flood and God now addresses them. With them God is going to begin anew. He pledges his faithfulness to them and to their generations after them. That is what entering into covenant with them means. Covenant means an inviolable relationship between two parties—in this case God and all creation, including the animals. Subsequently, the Bible tells of the history of Israel as the history of God’s covenant people, a people among whom we too are counted.


With “covenant” a “sign” is always linked. The sign both seals the deal and serves as a reminder of the covenant. The sign of the Noahic covenant is the rainbow. God says: “I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth” (9:13). Never again will God allow the flood waters to engulf the earth. The beautiful, peaceful, and colorful rainbow is a sign that the world is now again under God’s care instead of under threat.


Our gospel lesson also draws attention to a rupture. There is another tearing apart of the skies. Only this time the rupture does not precede a torrential downpour of floodwaters, but rather the gentle descent of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit comes down in the form of a dove, the symbol not of destruction, but of peace. But the gospel does not allow our gaze to rest on the dove, but rather the one on whom the dove rests. To him the voice from heaven is addressed: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Like Noah and his family, he too has found favor in God’s eyes; like with Noah and his family, so also with him, God is going to begin anew. In this connection, author and Presbyterian minister Meda Stamper writes: what we have here is “a visible manifestation of God breaking through with a reign of powerful, heart-rending, heart-breaking love that makes new.”


But all is not beautiful, peaceful and colorful in this scene. Jesus does not return to Galilee after that beautiful, life-altering moment. Rather, he immediately goes into the wilderness. The wilderness conjures up the image of the strange and the unknown and even the dangerous. In the wilderness, we are without signposts, without a map, without a set of coordinates.


Parenthetically, we can recall in this connection those events in our own lives when the prospect of the strange and unknown confronted us. It may have been leaving home for college or university; moving to a strange town far away for a job; leaving an abusive relationship; surviving a deceased spouse. Events like these compel us to venture into unknown territory. For this reason, they can be very destabilizing. We have to brace ourselves for what is to come, precisely because we don’t know what is to come. And though it is difficult, most of us do manage to move through the strange and unknown, especially when another has embraced us and told us we are loved, thereby confirming us in our identity.


Jesus is about to venture into strange and unknown territory, where he will undergo his ordeal. But he goes in the knowledge of his Father’s love, which confirms him in his identity as the Son. The Father’s love braces him for the ordeal that he is about to undergo in the wilderness. 


Mark tells us that the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. The choice of verb here is a strange one. It does not denote a “leading” or “sending” but rather a “thrusting” or even “hurling” him in that direction. The verb used here is especially startling in view of what we just saw. For, moments ago, the Spirit descended on Jesus like a gentle dove. Now the Spirit “drives” him, “impels” him, “hurls” him, into the wilderness. What are we to make of this? How are we supposed to understand what Mark is telling us here?


We are not to see this somehow as signaling a change in the relation of the Spirit to Jesus. The Spirit is and remains the bond of love between Father and Son. Rather, we are to see it as a demonstration of the Spirit’s power. Whatever it is that Jesus must confront in the wilderness, he must do it only in the power of the Spirit of God. What we soon find out is that the wilderness to which the Spirit drives Jesus is the realm of cosmic forces of evil, which threaten God’s good creation. There Jesus must engage and overcome them in the power of the Spirit.  


Jesus undergoes his contest with these forces in the wilderness for a period of forty days. We know that the period of 40 is fraught with significance in both the Old and New Testaments. In keeping with our Old Testament lesson, we have only to recall that for forty days and nights the rain fell upon the earth during the time of Noah, wiping out every living thing on the face of the earth. We said earlier that this was the unmaking of the world. The Bible means for us to see it as a de-creation. In the beginning, the earth was formless and empty, and darkness was over the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God brooded over the waters. The world was a watery chaos before God began to create, imposing form and filling the earth. But with the flood the world returns to a watery chaos, without form and emptied of life.


Just as the waters symbolize chaos in the Bible, so too does the wilderness. Jesus enters into the wilderness to do battle with the forces of chaos that have been bent on unraveling God’s good cosmos ever since sin and death entered into the scene, as we have already mentioned. He is there engaged in a contest with Satan, the deceiver of the whole world and a murderer from the beginning. With him are also wild beasts. The word for the beasts appears only here in the gospels, but it occurs numerous times in Revelation 13 and 17, where it is used to symbolize the forces of evil.    


The Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness, not to be swallowed up there, but to invade territory unlawfully seized by the enemy. In this connection, students of the New Testament speak of the irruption of the kingdom of God into our world. Jesus is there to remake, to recreate world. Jesus emerges victorious. How otherwise can we understand his announcement: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news!” It points to the time when not sin and death, but God will reign over a new creation.


It is worth noting here that Jesus’ ability to say “the kingdom of God is near” is based on his engagement with chaos in the wilderness. Scott Hoezee, professor of preaching at Calvin Seminary, notes that in Mark’s Gospel Jesus does not say a single word in public before he undergoes his forty days there in the wilderness. It’s as if Jesus’ credibility depends on it. He must enter into the realm of the demonic before he can reliably declare that the kingdom of God has drawn near.


This ought to reassure us. Whenever we are undergoing various trials and temptations, whenever we are in darkness, we are more inclined to accept the help of one who knows what it’s like, because he’s been there. Elsewhere the Bible tells us that in Jesus Christ, we have a faithful and merciful high priest who can help us in our time of need, because he has been tried and tempted as we have, and has overcome.


Lent begins in the wilderness. On this First Sunday in Lent, we have gone to meet Jesus there. Or rather, perhaps we should say that Jesus has gone to meet us there. How many of us today find the image of “wilderness” to be an apt one in describing the condition of our own world? Of course, we have in mind here a world ravaged by the pandemic. With more than 111.5 million infections, and 2.5 million deaths, we have seen nothing like it since the Spanish flu of 1918. We have lost loved ones, jobs, and freedom of movement. We have coped with loneliness, anxiety and depression. We have witnessed social unrest and inept governments. Where do we go from here? How do we find our way amid all the confusion and disorganization? It is difficult to make sense of life when chaos engulfs us.


So we are in our own wilderness. But we have also heard Jesus’ announcement: “the kingdom of God is near.” Do we have the courage to repent and believe in the good news?


If we have spoken of rupture, we have also to speak of renewal.


Do we believe in the power of God to bring order and new life out of chaos? In our Old Testament lesson, we have seen that it is God who makes new life possible in a world unmade by water and mud and death. Or to borrow the language of CRCNA pastor Stan Mast, the alternative to chaos is covenant. And, as Mast notes, the terms of this covenant are truly remarkable. The parties in this covenant include Noah and his family and all living things.  This is a universal covenant—with the whole human race and with every form of animal life as well.  Indeed, as if to underline the inclusiveness of the promise, God repeats it four times always including “all living creatures.” This is the good news of our lesson.


In our gospel lesson, do we not have the same hope, this time made all the more certain by the very presence of Jesus himself? Recall that he was with the wild animals. Some interpreters see this as a reference to Isaiah’s vision of the messianic age, when the “wolf will live the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together. And the lion will eat straw like the ox (Isaiah 11:6:7). Jesus is the promised Messiah who will bring about this new age—one that involves all creation. This is the hope of God’s covenant people then and now. The presence of Jesus in the wilderness points to a bright future. God will bring order out of chaos, new life out of death. This is the heart of the good news that Jesus came out of the wilderness to proclaim. It is a news that we need to hear always, but perhaps especially now, when we are all still languishing in the wilderness of a world that has been unmade by the pandemic. Let us believe that this is not what God ultimately has in store for it. For our God will bring order out of chaos, new life out of death. Amen.

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