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Readings: First Sunday of Lent

18 February 2015

First Sunday of Lent
Genesis 9.8-17; Psalm 25.1-9;  1 Peter 3.18-end; Mark 1.9-15


Treasure at the rainbow's end: Noah's Thanksgiving after leaving the Ark by Domenico Morelli (1826-1901)

Treasure at the rainbow's end: Noah's Thanksgiving after leaving the Ark by Domenico Morelli (1826-1901)

Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness, and was tempted as we are, yet without sin: give us grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit; and, as you know our weakness, so may we know your power to save; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

"MY HEART leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky." So begins the short poem that prefaces William Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality.

Anyone who has ever seen a rainbow knows the spontaneous joy and sense of arrested time which a glorious and fleeting display of coloured light can bring. Wordsworth celebrates this, but goes further, pointing out that the most immediate and powerfully felt events are connected to our development as human beings. Many of our important adult perceptions are tutored by the experience of wonder in childhood.

God is emphatic in teaching Noah how to read the rainbow. It is "a sign of the covenant between [God] and the earth" (Genesis 9.12). Its purpose seems less to remind the earth and its creatures about God's promise, than to remind God of the same thing (Genesis 9.15-16). Lovely in its own right, the rainbow is always the symbol of the solemn pledge to which it points. Yet one does not have to be a biblical literalist to see painful contradiction in this delightful divine-human dialogue (Genesis 9.9-17). A seemingly endless cycle of both naturally occurring and humanly created disasters, with devastating humanitarian and environmental consequences, tests to the uttermost the resources of those theologians who engage actively with scientific research, yet still believe in a God who loves and saves, not by destroying the world, but by acting in it.

It is not so strange that the medieval Church should have found in the ark an image of the embattled Church, floating precariously and yet bravely on a turbulent sea, the sole hope of salvation. The 1549 Prayer Book baptism service adopted from Luther's baptismal liturgy the so-called "Flood Prayer", which makes the same connection in asking "that they [the children to be baptised], being delivered from [God's] wrath, may be received into the ark of Christ's Church and so saved from perishing".

But this is to show a Church in retreat: a faithful witness against a wicked world, navigating a watery wilderness. The wilderness into which Jesus is driven out (Mark 1.12) by the Spirit after his baptism is not a place from which to shrink, but a place of engagement.

Luke and Matthew specify a time of forty days (Matthew 4.1-11, Luke 4.1-13). Luke suggests that Jesus is possessed by the Spirit; Matthew and Mark write that the Spirit "threw him out" into the wilderness. Luke and Matthew introduce fasting. Mark has animals and angels, though he doesn't indicate time, mention hunger, or give details of demonic manifestations. But all three accounts agree on two things: the wilderness itself, and what English translations of their Greek describe as the "temptation" experienced by Jesus.

The rather reductive and playful connotations of temptation in modern usage make it an unhelpful concept. Matthew, Mark, and Luke use a word that means "tested to the limit". It is the same word used by Jesus in the prayer that he teaches the disciples (Matthew 6.13; Luke 11.4). They should pray not to be tested to the ultimate point of endurance.

For Jesus, encountering Satan in a setting where there are no hiding-places may have the look of preparation for all that lies ahead, between his baptism and his crucifixion. Certainly, this event is a critical reference point, when he is again alone and being pushed to the limit in Gethsemane (Matthew 26.39-42; Mark 14.36; Luke 22.40-42). Here we see him living the complexity of the Lord's Prayer, in asking simultaneously that God's will be done, but also that, if God wills, the cup of suffering might be taken away from him.

Just as we might ask how earthquakes and tsunamis can be reconciled with the God who made a covenant with Noah, so we might dare to ask how Jesus's suffering can be reconciled with the God who, at Jesus's baptism, calls him his beloved Son (Mark 1.11).

The writer of the First Letter of Peter wrestles with this question by looking at the covenant of baptism. With enough water, baptism is a cleansing process, acting as "a removal of dirt from the body"; but, much more importantly, it enrols the baptised in the programme of salvation, setting them right with God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3.21).

This flood, which heals and drowns not sinners, but sin itself, deserves the evocative description of the 1549 Prayer Book: the "wholesome laver of regeneration".

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