Wilderness and Water

The season of Lent is a journey for those of us who are trying to follow Jesus.  A time of preparation, of self-examination and repentance, of fasting and sacrifice.  Throughout the scripture readings assigned for the Sundays in Lent, two themes or images keep coming up, keep appearing in the Hebrew Scripture stories as well as the Gospel and Epistle excerpts: wilderness and water.

Water is a source of life – nourishing, quenching, greening, facilitating movement and growth.  But it can also be a source of death and destruction – over-saturation, drowning, flowing waters uprooting or carving it’s own new path.

Wilderness is a place of danger, of darkness, of the unknown, it’s where the wild things are.  But it can also be a place where new discoveries are made, where, in the midst of the wild, we can learn some things about ourselves.

These images, these themes of water and wilderness appear in the readings for the first Sunday of the season, and so they kind of set the tone, show us where it is we need to go in these 40 days.

First, we heard the conclusion to the flood narratives, the end of the Noah and the Ark stories.

Noah and the inhabitants of the ark have floated through forty days and forty nights of purging rain, on (as the Genesis story tellers told it) what seems to be an ever-rising sea of God’s anger at the social disintegration of humankind’s inability to love one another and care for creation.

Despite the way you learned it in 1st Grade Sunday School, this is NOT a good children’s story and I’m afraid, over the years, the felt boarding and colorful picture books have done some great disservices to the intentions of our ancestors in passing this story along.

It’s terrifying, it’s violent.  The flood waters kill everyone and drown everything except Noah and his family and those animals in the ark. And if you’re a fan of folk music from the 60s or of Shel Silverstien’s poetry, you know that the flood even kills the poor unicorns who missed the boat!

It is a frightening story… UNTIL we get to this morning’s conclusion, when God makes a covenant with the whole creation. “See,” God says, “I have set my bow in the sky as a sign of a covenant with you” and there in the sky appears a bow – in the Hebrew language it’s the bow of a bow and arrow.  After the devastation of flooding waters, in a deeply symbolic action, God lays down his weapon of destruction and promises never to take it up again.

Regardless of our interpretations of the flood stories, regardless of believing or not believing the factuality of these stories, the truth our ancestors were conveying in them is still true: there are always consequences to our sinfulness.  When we don’t live in the ways we were created to live, when we don’t fulfill God’s dreams for us when we don’t steward God’s dreams for creation, we suffer.
And, often times, even the innocent get hurt.

And yet, this is NOT what God wants.  God has covenanted with us, with all creation, that God doesn’t want violence or destruction.  God has promised that even when we are far off, even when we are living in a socially disintegrated way, God wants not death or obliteration, but a new kind of life for us and for all people.  This promise, marked by God’s ritual (you might say even liturgical) action of laying down his bow in the sky, shifts the symbol of water from being a death dealing force, to being the elemental vessel through
which God will bring new and transformed life.

Fast forward 70 generations or so and we hear a story of how water is being used by John the Baptist to shift the Jewish understanding of cleansing in a profound way.  Ritual bathing or washing has become a custom in 1st Century Palestine, as a way for the Hebrew people to be cleansed when they have broken a purity code law or in some other way become ritually unclean.  John, however has been preaching that in order to be prepared for the one coming after him, we need to be cleansed not from our ritual impurities, but from our moral uncleanliness.

His baptism is one of repentance, of turning back to God – he’s using water as a vessel through which a person re-orients their whole life around God…and in this morning’s Gospel story, he has just baptized Jesus himself, and as Jesus is coming up out of the water, a dove (the very animal from the flood stories that carries the news to Noah that the waters have subsided) descends from heaven and a voice cries out, “You are my son, my beloved and I am so pleased with you.”

Jesus emerges from these waters of baptism and immediately, Mark tells it, the Spirit drives him into the wilderness.

Now the young Nazarene hasn’t even begun his Rabbinical teaching yet, not even called his first disciples.  He’s not even dry from the water in Jordan river, that voice of affirmation and assurance is still ringing in his ears, and immediately the Spirit drives him into the wilderness where the temptations begin to chisel away at him…  (spend 4 minutes watching this video.)

Though Mark doesn’t share the exact nature of those temptations in the way his successors Matthew and Luke do, this first Gospel account does make it clear that the Spirit doesn’t abandon Jesus out there. The Spirit of God is the very thing on Jesus’ lips as he responds those temptations. The angels minister to him out there, even in the midst of where the wild things are.

For the synoptic gospel writers, part of Jesus claiming his true identity, his real self that was just affirmed in his baptism, is going into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights. He learns something out there about himself, is somehow strengthened and transformed by that wilderness time and is then able to emerge from that time preaching to a broken and hurting world that  “the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

The truth our early church ancestors are conveying in this story about Jesus is still true: growing up, spiritual and emotional maturation requires movement into and through the dark, dangerous, wild places of our lives.   Going there is scary and out there it’s easy to get tricked, tempted, lost, depressed.  The traps set for us in the wilderness are the same as those that were set for Jesus… and yet there is something to be gained in that wilderness, some reason our scriptures and our tradition tell us we need to go there.

Our forty days of Lent are intended to do just that: to make us mindful of the ways that we fall short, to show us how far we have still to go, to help prepare us for what is to come, to get us to that place where we can acknowledge that no matter where we are in our journeys the seductive voice of temptation is ever present.  And I can promise you that out here in this wilderness, we will be reminded of the consequences to our sinfulness.

We will be made aware, perhaps in ways we were never aware before that by not living into the fullness of life that God dreams for us, we have hurt ourselves, and sometimes caused the innocent to suffer.  And it may be scary, and it will definitely be hard, and you can count on us wanting to emerge before it’s time, to be done with it all quickly.

But…if we can recall the tone set by this morning’s stories, perhaps we will remember that, though it may seem otherwise, God does not desire destruction or pain or death, but has promised us, God’s people, has covenanted with us that he truly desires new life.  Perhaps we will remember that on the other side of this wilderness, we will have been renewed and transformed in ways that we did not expect, cleansed not just ritually but morally and spiritually, and will be ready to preach in word and deed to a broken and hurting world that God’s kingdom can be and is a reality here and now.

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