God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations:
Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Baptism into the Spirit of Christ is to be called to, indeed driven into, an adventure that will include testing, challenge, and temptation.
I would also add that becoming part of a Covenant Community is to join a community on an adventure that also includes testing, challenge, and temptation. An adventure however that can be full of moments of joy, a deepening hope, and the experience of love. So today I want to invite you to recommit to that Covenant adventure.
To get a sense of what a Covenant is we’ll reflect on the Covenant with Noah and all living creatures. Then we will move to the baptism. Covenant will be a central theme in our readings from the OT during Lent. We’ll come to the covenant with Abram next week, the Covenant of the Law after that and on lent 5 we’ll reflect on Jeremiah’s new Covenant.
The Covenant with Noah comes after they have all stubbled out of the Ark after 40 days. Those that have had to do 14 days of quarantine should reflect on being cooped up with a menagerie of animals for 40 days. Quarantine comes from the Italian word for 40 days, the original period of isolation in the Plagues of the middle ages. Fresh air and good coffee are a high priority for those coming out of quarantine. If we read a few verses after our story of Noah today we see that for Noah, all the leftover wine seemed like a good place to start celebrating being out of the ark. Ham sees his father naked after his binge drinking, Noah feels ashamed but scapegoats Ham cursing him and exiling him form the family. Drunkenness, shameful behaviour, scapegoating, cursing and deep family divisions highlight that the sinfulness of humanity was not all washed away in the flood.
But here is the thing, God makes a covenant anyway with no preconditions for Noah, and as such humanity as a whole. The story implies that God realises that using violence to get rid of sin doesn’t achieve anything. Instead God commits to a Covenant hanging his war bow up, the rainbow, to remind God-self that anger, and violence is not the solution. Love and grace are the answer. While the covenant with Noah makes no demands on humanity it invites humanity to choose love and grace over violence and anger. It seems humanity prefers the cute story of the animals being saved. We happily teach that story to the children. But we all tend to ignore the implication of the Covenant with this invitation to love and grace. I guess it is easier to get angry and to use violence thinking that will make things right again.
So, lets hold onto that notion the key to the story of Noah and the Ark is the Covenant inviting us to join God in making love and grace our starting point for all we do.
Now we come to the baptism and Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. Again we have a feeling we know the story. We recall the words God speaks to Jesus, we can name the various temptations. Except in Mark it seems only Jesus hears the words, and no specific temptations are mentioned. Mark has an urgency about the Gospel. εὐαγγέλιον, the Greek word used for Good News was very familiar to 1st century people. It was the word used by the heralds of Roman emperors proclaiming the Good News of a great victory over a particular city or nation. Presumable the Good News was proclaimed throughout the Roman empire after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the rebellion was put down. You can imagine the Heralds calling Good News, the Terrorists in the Judean Province have been destroyed, peace has been restored, the Pax Romana.
But Mark tells of Jesus coming from a “nowheretown” of Nazareth in Galilee and is baptised by the wild desert prophet John in the Jordan. Jesus comes to John with humility accepting the invitation to enter into a new radical relationship with God. As I said last week for the Hebrew people repentance was as much national or communal as it was individual. Jesus was a part of that communal repentance. Again the imperial claims was evoked with Jesus hearing the voice you are my son the beloved. The Emperors claimed to be sons of God.
For Jesus when the Spirit descends on him, he is driven out into the wilderness where he is tested and yet there he is in the company of wild animals and all his needs are met by the angels. Is this a vision of the reign of God, when we can be in the company of the wild animals in the wilderness and know that all our needs will be met by God’s grace: God’s glorious kingdom?
Baptism for us is our entry to God’s holy nation, the Covenant community of God’s people. It is as I said an invitation to an adventure, an adventure that includes challenges, temptations, and testing. It is an adventure that leads to hope, joy, and love. Like the Covenant with Noah, God has initiated a new relationship with us and there is nothing we can do to earn it. It is a gift. It certainly invites us into, and draws us into a life of holiness. But you don’t have to start there and it seems God doesn’t expect most of us to go deep into holiness. The invitation remains. The testing, challenges and temptations are part of the journey to holiness but we can be part of God’s wonderful family even before we ever take one step towards holiness.
In our Lenten study that Bp Jeremy has written we are encouraged to try such things as Contemplative prayer and writing a Rule of life as ways moving forward in the adventure of Baptism. Like any adventure some of us struggle with one thing while finding another easy. The beauty of doing it with a small group is that the group can encourage us when we are struggling. So, if you haven’t already bought the book and joined one of the groups it is not too late. Alternatively, you might like to join Dawn Courtman on Mondays, she has similar challenging adventures into prayer to take us deeper. Like Bilbo Baggins, you have to be crazy to miss out on an adventure.
As I have said before, our Parish is our tangible expression of the Family of God. It is here that we bump into these not yet holy people, who like us as have started the adventure as children of God. Their behaviour will test us from time to time, causing anger to arise in us. We may be tempted to use words with violent force to make things right, or to create division by talking behind their back. We may even be ashamed of our behaviour after some disreputable behaviour of our own, perhaps tempted to blame to scapegoat another so that we feel OK about our behaviour. Being fully human means that we experience expressions of all the sinfulness of humanity right here in our own parish.
But again, like Noah and the promise in our Baptism, God still sees us as his children, God continues to loves us, and once again we are invited to renew and deepen our relationship with God and God’s people. I encourage you to use Bishop Jeremy’s suggestions for a rule of life as a way of cutting into stone your commitment to God and his people. See Chapter five of his study. If you don’t plan to get the book feel free to ask for a copy of that chapter so you can make that chapter your Lenten reflection. Keep in my as you do the reality that our Parish is a tangible expression of the people of God.
Even though I said, a rule of life is a way of cutting our commitment into stone, the rule is a rule not a divine Commandment. If we discover the rule is not helping us grow in faith and commitment we may need to explore why that is and perhaps rewrite or just get rid of that rule.