Sunday 21 February 2021 – First Sunday of Lent
Readings: Genesis 9: 8-17, Mark 1: 9-15
Thank you again to Rev’d Christopher Miles for taking last week’s service. I had the pleasure of joining in the service from home and it did come across better on Zoom than I sometimes fear that it does from this side of the camera, so it was good to experience that. Although I do hope that we shall soon start moving back to worshiping together physically again in church – there will be resurrection!
The season of Lent started last Wednesday, and it started even though we missed the physical, sacramental, sign of being ashed. As I said two weeks ago it is so important that we do not just make Lent a time of giving up chocolate or alcohol AGAIN and think that this is going to make us any better prepared for the events of Easter which lies ahead or any closer to God. I know that for many of us lockdown has felt like a huge time of giving up so much and so we cannot bear to give up anything else. But if we make ‘giving up’ our focus then we have lost the plot. Lent is about deepening our relationship with God, adopting the discipline of being a disciple, so that week by week we can walk with Jesus the path which leads all the way to the cross, to enter into the darkness and pain of Good Friday, the silence of the tomb on Holy Saturday and experience the joy of Easter Sunday – and if that joy is confined to having a chocolate egg and a glass of wine then, again, we have lost the plot.
Treat Lent not as a punishment or even as an exercise in temptation which simply has to be got through, although there is an element of that which I’ll come to, but as a gift from God. A gift of time and a gift of a season in which you are positively encouraged to draw closer to God, to pray more, to engage more with the bible, to cleanse your heart, your life, your soul from those things which stand between you and your relationship with the one who yearns to be in ever deeper relationship with you. There are countless ways in which this can be done and none of them need be complex. My suspicion is that the God who knows each one of us more deeply than we know ourselves knows exactly how each of us can best draw closer to him – it may be through prayer, through reading, through worship, through silence. Our job is simply to clear the path of our usual distractions and seek to co-operate with God. If we are distracted from God by chocolate, or meat or booze or TV or the internet then, yes, take the time to tackle those distractions by ‘giving them up’ for a season, but not as an end in itself – but as a means of letting go and letting God. Focus always on the one who calls rather than on what you are called to let go of and the journey will be easier – look to the horizon rather than the bumps in the road.
I mentioned temptation a moment ago and this First Sunday in Lent is when we normally think about Jesus starting his earthly ministry, following his baptism, by going out into the wilderness for 40 days in order to wrestle with temptation. The Gospel of Mark, which we had this morning, is notoriously concise in places and whilst Matthew and Luke give us the memorable stories of Satan tempting Jesus to break his fast, to accept an earthly kingdom and, most of all, to give up his calling Mark says very simply: “He was in the wilderness for 40 days, tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him.”
C S Lewis says that Christians make two big mistakes when thinking about Satan: The first is not to think about him at all, the modernist approach which affirms only the nice and comfortable bits of faith, the bible and tradition, and the second is to think about him too much – those who think that everything is spiritual warfare and that the devil is to blame for cutting themselves when opening a tin of dog food.
Mark seems to hit the C S Lewis balance – he says 3 words about the temptation by Satan, thus acknowledging the reality of the experience, but he says more words about Jesus being with the wild beasts and being ministered to by angels, which we seem to think about less.
We know that Jesus got through his 40 days in the wilderness, that he resisted temptation, that he accepted the ministrations of the angels and that he returned to ‘civilisation’ to commence his ministry which, again, Mark gives us quite succinctly:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.”
And that says just as much to us about the purpose and the season of Lent as Satan in the wilderness – the kingdom of God has come near – repent, turn around your life, get rid of those habits and distractions which keep you far from God and believe in the good news, the gospel, that God has come down to earth as a human to lift humanity back up to God.
I could end there, but there is another story presented to us today, and it is one which speaks to me of hope in lockdown.
Our first reading this morning struck me, at first, of being slightly incongruous. Whilst we are setting out on the journey of Lent our reading from Genesis was about the end of Noah’s journey on the ark – God promises to Noah that he will never again destroy the earth by a flood and he sets a rainbow in the sky as a reminder of that promise not only to mankind but, interestingly, to God himself:
“When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant…”
The image of Noah, smiling at a rainbow, and surrounded by colourful smiling animals is one that we can all picture from children’s story books of the bible, of course normally preceded by a picture of happy animals going up a gang plank two by two for a jolly boat ride.
But there is a bit more to the story of Noah than those two pictures tell, and I want to explore that briefly this morning.
The character and the story of Noah covers chapters 6,7, 8 and 9 of Genesis. He is actually a much bigger part of scripture than we commonly imagine. Interestingly Noah is also an important prophet in Islam, and there is both a Sunni and a Shia tomb for him. Islam also credits Noah with a fourth son, in addition to Shem, Ham and Japheth, but who did not get on the ark, with the expected consequences.
Turning back to Genesis, God created the world in chapter 1, and he said it was good. In chapter 2 he created humanity in his own likeness and breathed his sprit into us, the very first Pentecost if you will. But by chapter 3 the fall from God’s grace and presence had begun, in chapter 4 we have the first murder of Abel by Cain and then chapter 5 is a chronology of the generations from Adam to, yes, Noah.
By the time we get to chapter 6, it seems that the wickedness of humanity knew no bounds and Chapter 6 v 6 says:
“The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.”
God regretted creating humanity and his heart was troubled. If we think that God is always impassive and unchanging then I am not sure how that theology copes with this. The God who walked in the garden of Eden with his beloved creation is now regretting his action of creation. I have occasionally regretted late night purchases on eBay but this is something else.
Anyway, God decided to bring the wickedness of humanity to an end with a great flood. There are all sorts of theories about a great flood in the ancient world and about how it is mentioned in the Epics of Gilgamesh and so forth. I am not going there today but it is interesting to look at and, for me, enhances rather than diminishes the biblical account.
Fortunately, not all of humanity was evil and corrupt and Noah was righteous and blameless amongst all the people. So, God commanded Noah to build an ark, he gave him the precise measurements which make for a large boat with several decks.
I have already mentioned the image of animals going into the ark two by two, but that is only half right. In Chapter 6 v 19 God tells Noah to bring two of all living creatures into the ark but this is amplified in chapter 7 v 2 when God says that Noah is to take seven pairs of every clean animal and one pair of every unclean animal. When you see two lions or two giraffes trotting up the gangplank you have permission to say “unclean”.
And it is just as well that Noah had 7 pairs of every clean animal because, although I don’t want to get ahead of myself, when the flood receded and they came out of the ark the very first thing he did was to give thanks to God by sacrificing some of the clean animals. You don’t normally see that in the picture books and you probably wouldn’t do it with only one pair!
Noah, and his wife, and his three sons and their wives and all these clean and unclean animals entered the ark. Once the door was shut the only opening was one small window, one cubit square, right at the top. Just think about that. It is a fair-sized boat but it is now stuffed with 8 people and untold hundreds of animals – with one small opening. The darkness, the noise and, yes, the smell must have been overwhelming.
When they got into the ark and shut the door it wasn’t even raining. It didn’t rain for a whole week after they shut the door. (chapter 7 verse 4). Imagine the atmosphere by, say, Wednesday or Thursday of that first week…
But then it did start to rain. And it rained for 40 days and nights. A time which may sound familiar to us from earlier. Speaking as someone who likes messing around on boats it must have taken some time for the ark to start to float and those initial movements as the water started to lift it but couldn’t quite, must have been terrifying.
Although this is hard to do on Zoom, and without looking at Genesis, any guesses how long Noah and his family and all these animals were in the ark for?
We have already had the initial 7 days of no rain and 40 days of rain, so any advances on 47 days?
The total answer is 370 days, or just over one year.
In addition to the 47 days in chapter 8 v 3 the water was present for a further 150 days before the ark ran aground on Mount Ararat on the 17th day of the 7th month. But is wasn’t until the 1st day of the tenth month that other mountain tops began to be visible – so that was another 2 and a half months of remaining cooped up in that noise and smell and darkness, again with the boat settling on the mountain, and perhaps even sliding from time to time until it rested securely.
Another 40 days after the mountain tops became visible Noah opened the one window and sent out a raven and then a dove. He waited another 7 days and sent out the dove and it came back to him with a leaf. He waited another 7 days and sent it out again and it did not come back. Only then does Noah roll back the covering from the top of the ark. The daylight and the fresh air must have been incredible. But, even then, there is no unseemly rushing out of the ark and Noah waits until God says that he can come out.
But they came out again, Noah gave thanks through his sacrifice and, as we heard this morning, God promised that never again would he send a flood to bring us back to righteousness.
Instead he sent his Son, Jesus Christ.
We can do lockdown because Noah has been there before us and emerged giving thanks.
We can do the wilderness of temptation because Jesus has been there before us, not only resisting Satan but accepting the ministrations of angels.
We can even face death because we know that this story does not end at the cross of Good Friday but in the resurrection, in the ascension and in the renewed heaven and earth where God will once again walk with his children and we become his children by adoption and grace when we follow Jesus and clothe ourselves in him.
The kingdom of heaven has come near. Repent and believe the good news.