Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
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: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” – Genesis 9:8-17
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” – Mark 1:9-15
We’ve been talking about Lent any number of ways lately. We’ve written newsletter articles about it, and blog posts, and Facebook updates and newspaper articles, and we’ve designed a new series of Wednesday worship services for it. Now we’re in the midst of it, beginning this past week with Ash Wednesday and the imposition of ashes, and now this, the first Sunday in Lent. These forty days of reflection, solitude, and penitence are symbolically connected to the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism, which itself is symbolically connected to the forty years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness after they left Egypt, which also symbolically connected to the forty days of rain during the story of Noah and the flood. Each of these things has embedded within it a sense of being separated out; affording, maybe even demanding, a time of self-reflection, and especially causing an amplified focus and reliance on God.
The idea of observing Lent can be a hard sell for us today, for a number of reasons. To turn away from the distractions of our daily lives is a hard thing to do. It’s hard for us to stay focused on something for forty minutes, let alone forty days. Our lives move so much more quickly today than when people first thought about setting aside forty days for introspection and refocus. One of the things that was nice when I first went to Honduras about twelve years ago was that where we were going, there was no internet connection available. There was no cellphone coverage. To go to that orphanage meant that you were going to have to give up all the instant technology that you’d gotten so dependent upon, and I know that a number of us felt a kind of withdrawal for the first couple of days that we were there. But after getting through that, we began to really focus on what was really in front of us, and all around us. Getting to know and love the kids, the natural beauty, the very different culture. Coming to see the reality of corruption and civil unrest, and of poverty on a level never seen before. Letting these experiences speak to our hearts, and to change our hearts. We got to be in that experience, that “zone,” for less than a week, before heading back to the States, and our phones came back to life, and we were resubmerged in our own constantly on, constantly live, ultimately dispersed lives. Finding one’s self in that zone of intense focus, without the normal distractions, has been truly life-changing for hundreds of people who have gone through it, and that was just to experience it for less than a week. Imagine how a life could be transformed by truly experiencing it for forty days.
It is hard to consider sticking with a regimen of introspection and humbly turning ourselves over to God even more deeply for the whole period of Lent. But there’s another aspect of it that I think is even more significant.
When I was first studying preaching, we were supposed to prepare a sermon on a particular passage, and the most obvious message to draw out of the words, at least for most of us in the class, was that we need to be more giving of ourselves – we need to be less selfish and more emptying of ourselves to serve others, just as Christ emptied himself for us. That was all well and good, the instructor said, and maybe it’s a very relevant and important message that a lot of people need to hear. But if the person hearing your message is someone whose issue wasn’t too strong a sense of self, but rather, was too *weak* a one; if your message is heard by someone who’s given of themselves to others so much that there doesn’t seem to be any of her or him self actually surviving, then it’s a wrong and even dangerous message to encourage even more self-emptying and self-destruction in the name of serving others.
The instructor made a valid point. And Lent can face a similar problem. What Lent should mean to each of us can be very different, based on where we’re approaching it from. Yes, it’s probably true that for many, if not most of us, the struggle we need to deal with as we come into Lent is that of humbling ourselves in order to come into God’s presence and to hear God’s word for us, and to recommit our lives to God. We Americans don’t generally do “humble” well; in fact, humility is often held up as a sign of weakness or even moral failing. Whether we look at what our society tells us about what our personal lives, or our national and international posture should look like, being humble and not pressing ourselves onto others rarely rates very high on the charts. So if we find ourselves in that location, it’s good and important to see Lent through the lens of needing to humble ourselves in order to find God in this time.
But there are a lot of people in the world, in the country, in this city, in this congregation, who likely have another frame of reference. There are many people who don’t have any shortage of humility; who don’t think too highly of themselves. In fact, they think too little of themselves. Our communities and our families are full of people whose self-image, whose sense of self-worth has been completely battered to the point that it can be almost non-existent. That’s the point where humility becomes humiliation. They’re told in countless ways that they aren’t smart enough, or successful enough, or good-looking enough, or enough like the way society says they should be, and they live lives filled with the quiet despair of feeling they don’t measure up, feeling worthless, or at least worth little, and certainly less than God would ever want to love.
And if that’s the place you’re standing in, then the worst possible thing you can hear, especially from a pulpit, is that you need to humble yourself even further. To be told that you’ve got to humble and debase yourself even further is a distorted, fatiguing, and even harmful message to get out of Lent. If that’s your vantage point, then you need to see Lent through a different lens. Understand that the humility that’s called for during Lent isn’t an end to itself, but rather, it’s meant to help you truly come into God’s presence and to feel God’s love. And it’s hard to hear God speaking into your heart if you believe that God wouldn’t speak to you at all.
We aren’t going through this season in some sort of masochistic love of beating ourselves up and wallowing in suffering for its own sake, as if suffering itself reconciles us with God. The main purpose of Lent is to feel and experience God’s love for us – especially as we see it illustrated through Jesus’ life and his journey to the cross and beyond. In order to be able to reflect on that love more deeply, some of us need to humble ourselves. But some of us will need to actually lift ourselves up. Some of us will need to allow ourselves to accept that we are good, and lovable, and worthy of God’s embrace, before we can hear God’s voice this season. All of us need to recognize that what’s important about Lent isn’t the details of how we get to the end point, but rather, that we actually get to it. And the end point is this: Just as we heard in our first reading, in the story of the flood, God loves us so much as to establish an everlasting covenant of love with us – one that completely overarches us and covers over us, just like the rainbow in the story that God said is a symbol of that covenant. And for the record: if, by chance, you find yourself in a place where you think you’re so worthless, you’re such flawed, damaged goods that your failings and shortcomings are too great to stay covered over by that covenant of love; that you’re going to poke through that protective rainbow, as it were – know that if you break through that one, that just like in our window, there’s another one just beyond it ready to cover over you and keep you within God’s love and care. And beyond that one is another one. And another one. And another one. You can’t ever exceed or escape God’s love and compassion for you. That’s the ultimate message behind meditating on Jesus and the cross during Lent, regardless of where you start your journey, regardless of your vantage point, regardless of what lens you need to see it through.
Thanks be to God.