I preached from this sermon manuscript online for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on February 21, 2021 using lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 9: 8-17 and Mark 1: 9-15.
Thank you for having me back in the pulpit, and to Pastor Dave for inviting me. Last week, he found us metaphorically on mile twenty-two (or so) of this year-long marathon; the end might still be almost a year away. Solutions take time, and can outstrip a human patience. Despite the vaccine roll-out, the declining death rate, the better-functioning government and even the brighter skies, it could change suddenly. We might face a mutant variant of the virus or that wind storm on Tuesday. We’re not at the end, even if we want to be (I want it to be) and there’s no promise we won’t get something new and awful to replace it. The virus replaced, or rather partially displaced, other troubles for too many of us. They’re still there. This is the first Sunday of Lent. All that was my way of saying I’m not giving up anything for Lent.
Lent is the period of reflection and abstinence leading to Holy Week and Easter. But the last year has already been odd mixture of abstinence and indulgence, but without spiritual benefit or earthly pleasure. Like suffering the hangover without having the party. I’ve gained thirty pounds and lost hair. Ordinary pleasures, like talking to your neighbors or a cup of coffee out, are dangerous, or suspected of being so.
In other years, Lent comes as an opportunity to reflect on one’s spiritual state and to act to improve or develop it. The pandemic is different than other challenges because it has been a common struggle. Our personal griefs and hardships, even unmanageable opportunities; for not all stress is because something bad happens — all these happenings that force to look at ourselves and examine ourselves — or pay the price if we don’t — happen without regard to what’s happening to the mass of humanity. The pandemic is more like more like modern war, where you will be affected whether you like it or not.
All those party-goers and revelers that rightly earn our wrath — what are they thinking? — are also affected by the pandemic, but in a different light I’m willing to see that they also work under pressures that need release and deliberate misinformation that makes some of their choices makes sense. That’s why I’d like to look at what we have in common — an equal distance and access to God — rather than our personal self-improvement, and how we can find truth — as bruised a concept as any — in what we find in God.
So if we’re going keep Lent at all and adopt a spiritual discipline, let it be a really good one; let’s try making some sense of what God reveals to us. Dabbling in revelation sounds like the beginning of a Gothic horror film: “oh, what are those kids going to conjure up!?” I can imagine discussing my deep exploration into the mind of at lunch at work – if we ever get to do that again – and try not to sound like a loon or conspiracy theorist. I can imagine not being very successful.
Even if the category of revelation is at odds with our culture, at some point we’re going to have to deal with how God speaks to us. Aloofness about revelation, even to spare public embarrassment, isn’t sophistication; it’s being condemned to being haunted by God. It’s thinking that there’s something deeply true that underscores our lives without ever being able to know anything about it. And it’s precisely because God’s will has been so closely identified in the public mind with proclamations of right-wing politics and an abdication from thinking, that if we’re not clear about seeking God’s will and doing it, then our own lives become a lesson that (1) either God is not important and does not care for us, or (2) that a certain set of people have a monopoly on divine understanding and blessing. That will not stand, if we have faith or even self-respect; that cannot stand.
The problem is that you can’t just summon up an understanding of divine revelation. For one thing, experience shows that if you’re certain about God speaking to you, you’re almost certainly wrong. If there’s not a lump in your throat or pang in your belly when you feel God is speaking to you, you’re almost certainly not. A maxim to preachers I learned long ago: if you go to the pulpit to speak an oracle of God and don’t shudder a little with fear, beware. Like Moses, we go before the Almighty humbled, trembling, with our shoes cast off — but we must go. Let us turn to the lessons.
Today’s reading from Mark acts as a rationale for Lent; Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days, and Lent is forty days long. The word Lent doesn’t refer either to wilderness or self-reflection, but refers to spring (think, “the days lengthen”); wilderness somehow seems more appropriate. This past week of strange, hostile weather and this past year of social isolation seems to me to have more in the same wilderness that Jesus met, and where he met Satan, the great adversary.
But why the wilderness? Why not try to meet Satan on the corner or even in the market where he’s so famously overturned the tables of the money changers?
I’ve been in the Judean desert, in fact, once. It was twenty-two years ago, when a friend and minister invited me along as her guest to see Israel for a few days. (She won the trip as a prize in a game show and I was eager to expand my horizons.) But I was flat broke and the only chance we had of seeing some of the famous out-of-the-way sites near Jerusalem was to take what was known as the sixty shekel tour. For about $19, you would meet an antiquated Mercedes bus near the historic Damascus Gate in the middle of the night, and go nonstop from site to site. You didn’t see anything for very long but you were promised the fortress at Masada, wading in the Dead Sea, a chance to see a nature reserve, a stop at Qumran (where the Dead Sea scrolls were found) and a visit to Jericho, one of the oldest cities in the world.
The antiquated bus had other ideas. The road from Jerusalem down towards Masada was very steep. Just as the sun was rising I saw a sign warning in Hebrew, Arabic and English to shift into low gear. That’s when the transmission or the engine failed; I forget which. The bus stopped and we tourists piled out of the bus in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately the tour operator had a radio in the bus and called for a backup, but that left us sometime to contemplate our surroundings. I looked the grapes and Turkish delight I brought along, wondering how long they’d have to last. There were no other cars passing.
On one side of the road, a hill rose sharply covered in the same powdery tan rock we’ve seen all over the region, here little more than gravel. On the other side of the road the hill descended just as sharply, and in the distance we could see the Dead Sea, shimmering with the dawn. In the distance, we could make out the lights of factories or perhaps a refinery, in Jordan. The bus, the road sign and the refinery were the only evidences of modern technology, and having had that theological education it was easy to imagine that we could meet angels or devils. Surely the landscape was too desolate for anything living.
So I can imagine Jesus’ audience knowing and probably fearing the desert, the wilderness, and wondering what wild creatures could survive there. It’s exactly where you would face Satan, and temptation. The context is absolutely crucial. You feel small, vulnerable, out of place. You look for help, divine or automotive. But in such extreme environments you might also find God, in part because the exposure can be both figurative or literal. One is as revealing as the other. Might Jesus’ flight into the wilderness be figurative and spiritual, following the crashing, fluttering experience of the Spirit in his baptism? The narrative is filled with biblical allusions, but little detail. It might easily be an extended metaphor, but well understood.
Maybe that’s why our hour by the roadside is the part of the day that sticks with me the most even now. Being lost, in an unfamiliar setting, wondering what comes next, looking in the distance: these are as true spiritually as literally.
On the other hand, the passage from Genesis recounts the covenant God made with all living things, but also has to do with context. To recap, covenant between God and Noah and his heirs came before the flood. (W. G. Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, 68.)
But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. (Genesis 6:18, NRSV)
This covenant was with Noah and his family, excluding the rest of humanity.
As many of you know, an ancient story of an all-consuming, universal flood is not unique. It is seen in the epic of Gilgamesh and in other ancient Middle Eastern literature. The flood was a commonplace, but the outcome in Genesis makes it special.
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. (Genesis 9:11)
The rainbow is a sign of this covenant, and a reminder to each generation of what God pledged. I’m sure we’ve covered this in other sermons, or if not, it’s one of those biblical stories that is still widely discussed in the larger culture. I want to focus on another part of the story.
So, why Noah? What made Noah right? Why would he and his family be the basis of a new human race? Why would God make a covenant with him? Was it because of his superlative goodness? Unlikely. As we hear in chapter 6:
Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. (Genesis 6:9)
“Blameless in his generation” is what sticks out. Noah was righteous, but by what measure? Reviewing commentary (see Plaut), it’s possible that Noah wasn’t overwhelmingly exceptional, but simply was the best of a bad lot.
But more, what did Noah think of himself and his family being singled out, alone in the whole world? Was Noah lacking in compassion? It would be a mistake to treat this episode like history, or worse, to apply modern sensibilities or morals to it. But there’s no evidence of longing, of regret or of mercy to all who would die.
But if we treat Noah as a good, but not supernatural figure; and perhaps traumatized and not simply callous, we can appreciate something else about revelation. Throughout scripture, we see God communicate clearly with human beings, either directly or through intermediaries. The days of this kind of special revelation are now past — that’s the majority opinion — and what we receive is a general revelation through scripture. A constant Universalist witness is that scripture contains this revelation,
the trustworthiness of the Bible as a source of divine revelation (UNMC)
the trustworthiness of the Bible as containing a revelation from God (1899)
Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind (1803)
(You get the idea.) That revelation is contained in scripture, but in contrast to fundamentalism, isn’t the revelation itself. You have to look for it, find it and interpret it, and that’s not easy. The encouragement we get from this passage is that looking, finding and interpreting God’s intent is not limited to the exceptionally, extraordinarily good, but be taken on by those with a good intent and a willingness to understand.
Friends, both the passages from Genesis and Mark have themes of wildness and liminality. The churning waves, the desert being the Accuser’s domain. And there’s even a connection in the waters: between those that evoked God’s presence in destruction, and God’s presence in the blessing of baptism. (That itself is another sermon.) Both come with blessing, survival for Noah and his family, and for Jesus,
And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (v. 11)
May your searches prove a blessing, too.
In previous sermons, I’ve talked about having an imagination would approach you scripture, as a way of understanding what God is saying. Today, I would add a sense of empathy and curiosity. I encourage you to dig deep wells of patience, or at least thoroughness in your examinations, and a forbearance that values your everyday opinion over others.
This is path which leads to understanding what God may reveal to you.