Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sermon: "Rainbows in the Wilderness"

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
February 22, 2015 – First Sunday of Lent
Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15

“Rainbows in the Wilderness”

The other day, I saw a sign that someone had posted in front of their house that read, 
“I’m giving up snow for Lent.” 
If only it were that easy.

On this first Sunday of Lent, we may already feel like we’ve been wandering in the wilderness for 40 days.
After a relatively mild December the first snowfall of January was celebrated.  Many of us remarked at how pretty the world looked under a blanket of white, the skiers rejoiced, and teachers and students relished having a snow day after getting halfway into winter without one.
Now just 4 weeks later, after being pummeled with storm after storm, enduring sub zero temperatures, and having classes, meetings, worship services, and other activates continually cancelled due to snow and ice, dangerous wind chills, and the threat of collapsing roofs, many of us have already grown tired of wandering in this winter wilderness.

Which is why, here on the threshold of Lent, the thought of embarking on a 40-day trek into a time of penitence and self-sacrifice may not sound very appealing.

Not when all we want to do is walk outside without having to put on six layers of clothing.
When we long to see green grass and the reds and pinks and yellows of spring flowers, and when we’ve forgotten what it’s like to feel the warmth of the sun upon our face.

Then again, maybe all this winter wilderness wandering has gotten us exactly where we need to be on the first Sunday in Lent.
Because right about now, we could all stand to get a glimpse of a rainbow.

As we begin our Lenten journey, we may wonder why the lectionary gives us the story of Noah’s ark with its imagery of God placing a rainbow in the sky.
Rainbows are beautiful, joyous, and uplifting and not at all what we expect to encounter in this season of wilderness, with its focus on repentance and mortality.

In fact, in recognition of the more somber tone of this season we’ve even buried the Hallelujahs, as we symbolically and literally walked the word out of the darkened sanctuary a few nights ago on Ash Wednesday.  
I doubt any of us were thinking about rainbows then, as we lined up to receive an ashen cross upon our forehead… to remind us that from dust we have come and to dust we shall return.

As Pastor Dick shared in his Ash Wednesday reflection, it’s not often in our culture that we’re asked to think about our own mortality.
It makes us feel uncomfortable.

I suspect that many of us went home that night after the service and took a look at ourselves in the mirror – whether right away or before going to bed – and were momentarily startled when we saw that unfamiliar mark on our face.
How peculiar that in this age of reality TV, graphic news footage, and internet oversharing, where nothing we see seems shocking anymore, that a smudge of dirt in a place where we don’t expect it to be can give us pause.

But that’s the point.
This is the reason why we still practice this ancient ritual of marking ourselves with ash at the beginning of Lent – to remind us that no matter where we find ourselves in our lives – be it languishing in the depths of feeling weak or small, or puffed up with an inflated sense of our own worth or power – we are all made of dust, and we’re all equally beloved by our Creator, God.

Lent is the great equalizer – during these 40 days we’re asked to consider the ways in which we’ve fallen short in our love for one another, for ourselves, and for God, while at the same time being reminded of the radical inclusivity of that love, and the fact that God offers it unconditionally to us all.
This journey that we take with Jesus to the cross is meant to be a time of introspection and self correction – a kind of weeding of the garden - that prepares us for the renewal and resurrection that we experience on Easter Sunday.

So what does Noah and the rainbow have to do with Lent?
Apart from the 40 days of rain that fell upon the earth and the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, what is the connection between these two biblical stories?

We might say that in the Noah story creation and humanity itself endured a period of testing or breaking down similar to what Jesus experienced in the wilderness, but unlike Jesus, not everybody passed the test and made it onto the ark.

Some of you may remember the Farside cartoon from a few years ago that shows two dinosaurs standing on an island as the floodwaters rise around them while they watch Noah’s Ark sail off without them. One of the dinosaurs turns to the other and says, “Oh crap, was that TODAY?”

The reality is that Lent is not about being tested or making sacrifices so God will pronounce us as being worthy of love, grace, and redemption.
It’s about recognizing that God has already done that.
But unless we take the time to nurture our relationship with God we may never realize it.
The covenant we have with God is that God offers us love and grace, and we offer ourselves in loving relationship, to God and to each other.

In the Noah story, the rainbow is a sign of this covenant.
In this ancient story, after God flooded the earth and essentially wiped the world clean of what was seen as Creation gone wrong, leaving only Noah and his family, and whatever pairings of animals he could fit in the ark, the waters receded and God symbolically placed a rainbow in the sky as a sign and a promise that the slate would never be wiped clean again.

Because we are far removed from the age in which this story was written we may not fully grasp how monumental this promise – this covenant – was.

If you’re a student of history then you may know that the flood story we have in our bible is not the only ancient flood story that exists.
Mesopotamia, Greek mythology, indigenous people in North and South America, Hindu religious texts, and African tribal cultures all have stories of deities who flooded the earth to cleanse it of a violent and disobedient humanity in preparation for rebirth.
In many of these stories a few special human beings are warned and advised to build a boat and to fill it with animals.

While scholars can only speculate about the origin of these stories and whether they’re based on a real flood event in our ancient past or a shared mythology from a common ancestor, the difference we see in the story told by the people of Israel is found in the rainbow.
Theirs is the only story that speaks of God making a covenant with humanity.

The rainbow here is a symbolic representation of an archers bow -
the weapon that warrior gods used to fire arrows in the form of lightning bolts against their enemies. 
But the people of Israel envisioned God hanging up this archers bow, as if to say, “I will use it against you no more.” 
This bow hanging in the sky was to be a sign of the covenant that God made with Noah and his ancestors, and with all of creation.

And it’s a sign of the covenant that God has made with us.
Like the rainbow after the storm, God is there with us as we pick up the pieces.
The truth is that God is always with us, even during the darkest days when the rain is pouring down and the flood waters (or snow banks) are up to our neck, but it’s comforting to have that reminder when the storm clouds move on – to see that bow of color in the sky and take a deep cleansing breath because we know the worst has passed and God is still there with us, as the healing and renewal begins.

God does not send the floodwaters to test us.
God sends the rainbow to let us know that God’s presence is always with us.

This is something that Jesus likely knew when he walked into the wilderness.
As we’ve said, the writer of Mark’s gospel is brief – he doesn’t describe the temptations that Jesus faced.
But none of the gospel writers tell us that Jesus felt the need to prepare himself to endure those 40 days of fasting and testing.
He doesn’t undergo any training, go on a special diet, or complete a series of meditative exercises. 
He doesn’t learn any new fighting skills, or self-help strategies.
We don’t see him lifting weights, punching a speed bag, or running up the Temple steps, while “Eye of the Tiger” plays in the background.

He simply gets up out of the River Jordan, with the water from his baptism still dripping down his face and he walks into the wilderness.

There’s little wonder why.
He has just heard the voice of God.
A voice that said,
“You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
That’s the only preparation, the only reassurance, that he needed.

The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness calls attention to our greatest temptation -- the temptation to think that God is not present with us, at all times.
Jesus knew he was not alone when he went to a place where he could search his own heart without distraction.
He knew that God was with him as he faced the temptations and doubts that he feared might keep him from walking the path that God had set before him….the one that would ultimately lead to the cross.
And Jesus knew that God would be with him still when it was over,
when the cross was taken down, when the pain finally subsided,
and life flowed into him once again.

Lent is about nurturing our relationship with God.
By seeking communion through prayer and reflection.
By seeking restoration through examining our shortcomings and accepting that we could do with more love and less fear in our lives.
But Lent is also about envisioning the resurrection and renewal that awaits us all at the end of our time in the wilderness.

It is likely that by the end of these 40 days before us,
when the calendar turns over from March into April,
we may still have some snow on the ground.
On Easter morning, when many of us stand out on the town green at sunrise singing hallelujah once again, we may do so with lingering piles of snow at our feet.
But the air will have warmed,
the soil will have loosened,
and the first shoots of spring will be poised to push through to the light above.

We will get there.

We may have to endure another 40 days of winter wilderness to get there,
but we will get there.

In the meantime, look for the rainbows.
Look for the signs of God’s presence in your life.
Spend some time imagining what a resurrected YOU might look like.
And reflect on the promise that God makes to each of us.
To be with us, to love us, and to make us new, over and over again.

Thanks be to God.