Mark 1: 9-15, Genesis 9: 8-17
Lent has begun. Whether we have given up something we normally enjoy (like chocolate) or have taken up something (such as more time to pray) or maybe if we’re reading a Lent book or attending a Lent group, there are many ways that we can use the days of Lent to walk more closely with Jesus as we prepare for Easter.
But terrible news has crashed into all the relatively cozy ways we have found of following Jesus, as we heard this week of the murder of 21 Coptic Christians by Islamic State in Libya. Whatever the political rather than religious reasons for those murders, the fact is that they were singled out because of their faith. The footage of the grieving families was truly harrowing to Western ears – the raw grief of people left bereft by this awful slaughter.
The familiar cry goes up to heaven – where is God when the followers of Jesus are suffering?
But Lent is meant to teach us that whatever the deprivation, the suffering, even in death itself, God walks alongside us – as Jesus did, and the love of the Father waits to offer us resurrection life, as he did for Jesus.
Mark’s version of the start of Jesus’ time in the wilderness is a very simple account. The only speech we have is from heaven itself as Jesus is baptized and sees the dove descend “You are my beloved son in you I take delight”.
We are told that Jesus is tempted by Satan and waited on by angels – but unlike other gospels we are not told what is said.
But Mark does give us an extraordinary little detail of what happens to this beloved son of God, who delights the Father so much : “At once the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness…”.
Jesus doesn’t begin his ministry with great shows of power, mass healings, huge sermons (in fact other gospel writers suggests to us he might have been resisting the temptation to do just that).
Jesus begins with God the Father’s blessing – but then the Spirit drives him out into the wilderness for a time of reflection and prayer. Even though the wilderness is a place of danger and trial and difficulty – being blessed by God the Father and accompanied by the Spirit doesn’t save Jesus from the wilderness – the Spirit actually takes him there.
Lent helps us to walk with Jesus and know that this is not an easy, blessed, sacred road – but it is a hard, but still blessed and sacred road. Even in the scorching heat and freezing cold and physical pain of the wilderness, Jesus is not abandoned. He is driven there by the Spirit and he is attended by angels. The wilderness and temptation and trial is real – but the presence and blessing and care of God is also real.
This really shouldn’t surprise us: the Hebrew scriptures are full of God’s promises to accompany and care for God’s people.
We heard in the reading from Genesis, about God’s covenant with the people emerging for the ark. Noah has, on God’s instructions, built the ark, filled it with animals, and sailed through the devastating flood.
But now the action is all over, and today’s passage reports God talking to Noah about the covenant God is making with all creation, sealed with the sign of the rainbow.
I was struck again by the fact that this covenant relationship requires nothing from Noah or any other of God’s creatures: it is a deal struck through the unconditional love and care of God.
God uses the word ‘covenant’ seven times in that passage.
Seven times! - it might just be a coincidence that that’s once for each day of creation – a covenant with every living thing God has made. It might also be that the seven –fold covenant is meant to signify how perfect this covenant is – seven was felt to be a ’complete’ number.
This covenant, like the act of creation itself, is God's initiative - after all, Noah & his family had only obeyed God's instructions - God did all the creative parts!
It is God who closes the door of the ark once everyone is safe inside, God who remembers Noah and the animals and send the wind to dry up the waters of the flood, God who tells Noah to leave the ark, and God who then blesses Noah and his descendants.
Then God sends us a rainbow - a sign that God is in charge and that God’s love will never fail us or leave us.
Lent reminds us of all the promises of God to be with us – but in the grittiness of Jesus’ deprivation and suffering, and ultimately in Jesus death and resurrection, we are not encouraged to rely on God’s presence to keep things easy or fluffy or simple. Suffering is sometimes unavoidable, death is an awful reality, life is never all rainbows. But Jesus walks with us, in all of life’s stress and strife.
So it is entirely proper that we receive communion today – food for our pilgrimage and a memorial of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
When bread – or bones – are broken: God is with us.
Where blood is poured out as easily as wine, staining our world: God is with us.
Where God’s people gather to trust and share and pray: God is with us.
There is only one thing we must do: accept the bread and wine given to us, as a sacrament of all the unconditional love God gives.
Eat and drink – and be very thankful. Amen.