- Parish House
Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, Year B
The Rev. Ragan Sutterfield
Most Fridays, after breakfast and coffee, my family makes the walk to Allsopp Park and down into the woods, where a short wooden bridge crosses a small, but always flowing stream. On warm days, my daughters wade in, splashing in the shallow water and spotting crayfish making their backward retreat beneath the rocks. But on cold days, when ice covers still patches, and we sit bundled on the bank, we simply watch the water making its way down the slope, curving toward a larger stream where it will eventually pour into the Arkansas River and from there the Mississippi and from there into the Gulf of Mexico where it will mix with the waters of the world.
In watching this water, I have been reminded of how powerfully it forms the earth, exposing and covering what’s beneath. Rock beds are laid bare, the hardest objects of the given world eroded by the constant flows of this basic element. The muddy banks reveal a history of sediment–past waters, ancient oceans, and silty sands. And the process continues, covering and uncovering.
Floods, embody this paradox of water in a dramatic fashion. In a flood, landscapes and buildings, the patterns of the everyday, are covered over. But floods reveal, as well. In New Orleans the floods following Katrina revealed the inequality and unrest that had long been just beneath the surface of the status quo. In Houston, the floods following Harvey made it clear that nature’s patterns of balance had been violated by our hunger for sprawling neighborhoods and more roads.
The poetic images of the story of Noah’s flood are no different–the waters covered and they exposed.
“The LORD saw that humanity had become thoroughly evil on the earth and that every idea their minds thought up was completely evil. The LORD regretted making human beings on the earth and he was heartbroken,” we read in the book of Genesis. God flooded the earth because, as the scriptures say, all creatures had “filled it with violence.”
The land is filled with violence and we want it all washed away. We can identify with that desire, after yet another mass shooting brings us the image of a mother weeping over her child, the black cross of ash Wednesday on her forehead.
In the imagination of ancient Israel, God’s remedy of water, seemed appealing. The evil had to be covered, the violence stoped, and so the waters in the story, covered all the earth.
But after the waters receded, the ravens left and the dove returned with an olive branch, something else was revealed. Something that had been known, from the beginning, but then as now, is sometimes lost. That God’s concern is not simply with humanity, but rather with all creatures, all flesh together in the world. God is not simply about doing away with evil, but with creating something new and good in its place.
Our reading this morning brings us to the place in the story of Noah where God promises, never to destroy the earth with a flood again, and God made this promise not only to Noah, but also to every animal on the Ark. God entered into a covenant, not only with the domestic sphere of animals bent toward human purpose, but also with the wild animals–those creatures that are beyond human concern or benefit, animals that might even be hostile to human beings.
These were the kind of animals, in other words, that Jesus was with while he was in the wilderness. The Gospel of Mark is economical with its language. We move across time quickly and his account of Jesus fasting in the wilderness is far more spare than the version in Matthew with which we are most familiar. But in this sparse account in our Gospel reading, Mark makes a specific mention of Jesus being with the wild animals. Why such a seemingly irrelevant detail?
Too understand we should look to the waters, this time not of a flood, but of baptism and see what they cover and what they reveal.
Baptism, as John practiced it, was meant to be a washing away of sin, a sign of repentance. It was a kind of covering over of the old self that was before the body went down into the waters. But most people who came up from the waters, though penitent and refreshed, were not made new. They were, for a moment washed clean. But the baptism Jesus experienced, the Baptism that Jesus made available to us, is a baptism in which we put away the old person we were, the old “Adam” as scripture puts it. And this brings us to why Mark mentions that Jesus was with the wild animals in the wilderness.
New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham has suggested that Jesus’ journey in the wilderness was a time in which he embodied his role as the new Adam. In this, the first act of his ministry is to do what the old Adam of humanity failed to do–to resist the temptations of Satan, temptations of power, of going against God’s purposes in the world. As the new Adam Jesus embodied a human life that existed in right relationship with the wild, created world that exists beyond our own ends and purposes. A kind of life that was interupted by the violent striving for our own way that the stories of Adam and Noah teach us.
We cannot know for certain if this is the right interpretation, but I think it is one that opens us to possibilities that help us to live in new ways. Baukham suggests that this reading of Mark might even give us an agenda for Lent. This agenda begins with facing the ways in which our own lives go against the will of God and resisting the temptations to do so. In what ways, for instance, do we perpetuate the violence of our society because of our own fears, our own insecruties, our own lack of faith. “Only in you, O Lord can we live in safety.” And yet, so many of us perpetuate the systems of violence because we refuse to live as though that prayer is true (myself included). Over this Lent we should face the temptations to ensure our security through violence and follow Jesus who refuses the ways of power and coercion in this world and instead tells us to follow the way of the cross, the way of the righteous victim who gains victory through resurrection.
“To be with Jesus in the wilderness,” Baukham also suggests, “may mean to sort out how we relate to other creatures of God in this creation that is now so threatened.” We should follow the new pattern for human life, Jesus, the new human, into a reconciled relationship with all of creation. When we can learn to live at peace and embrace our lives as gifts within a world of gifts the seeds of hatred and violence will have no room and the exploitation of the land and its people will be another reality that is put to death in ourselves through the flood waters of our baptism.
In Allsopp park, beside the stream, watching its patient formation of the earth, my my family rests for a moment in the grace of the world. But the noise of engines rumble nearby, and the headlines still echo in my head as I watch my children play and I think of those children who will never again go barefoot in a stream. Somewhere we have gone wrong in our relationships with all the lives God has made and loves. And yet, inspite of us, God is working to reconcile all things, hoping that slowly, we too will join in the work Jesus began in the wilderness. God’s covenant is with all of us. There will be no more floods to save us from the violence of the world, only our baptisms which will send us out to the wild places and put us on the way of the cross. Amen.