February 18 - First Sunday in Lent

It hasn’t been long since we gazed at newspaper photos and television screens, wide eyed and stunned to silence at the devastation inflicted in Texas and the southeast by Hurricane Harvey. We followed along, astounded by the staggering rain tallies—measured not in inches, but feet. At the other extreme, we hear about places like Cape Town, South Africa, in the midst of such a severe drought that even this bustling, international city may actually run out of water this spring.

On Ash Wednesday this past week, we talked about how ashes can mean both death and rebirth. Today, we discover the same tension inherently present in water. Water sustains and promotes life. But too much water or too little of it can cause life to cease. Diane Jacobsen, Professor Emeritus at Luther Seminary tells us that this “dual reality of water is all around us…our oceans teem with life as well as threaten. Our rivers both overflow and offer cultivation and transport. We are all brought to life in the midst of our mothers’ chaotic waters…our words can both drown the other as well as gush with wisdom.”[1] This tension between the saving and destructive power of water flows throughout today’s readings.

In the first reading we catch the tail end of the flood story from Genesis. Because of human sin, the story goes, God chooses to destroy the earth by means of a flood, saving only Noah, his family, and pairs of animals on the ark. Children are often the first to pick up on the devastation that the flood causes, wondering why God would do such a thing? There’s really no good answer to this question, only that we’ve come to know that annihilation isn’t the end of the story. God delivers Noah and his family and that collection of animals, blessing humanity and all creatures with a rainbow. Divine destruction gives way to divine promise.

In the gospel reading, we have the quick-fire plot development that we’ve come to associate with Mark.  We hear about Jesus’ baptism when the Holy Spirit descends on him as he comes out of the water. But just as quickly as he is filled with the Holy Spirit and water, he is driven into the wilderness—the desert—a place distinctly known for its lack of water. Yet God’s spirit accompanies him. Divine desolation leads to divine accompaniment.

The words from First Peter connect the watery tension between the flood and the wilderness. In the same way that God delivers Noah in the flood, God saves us through the waters of baptism. Through water and the word, our old, sinful self is put to death and we are reborn as children of God. And it’s not just a simple bath that washes the dirt and grime from our bodies and souls, it’s an infusion of water that flows from Christ’s resurrection into, through, and out of us, bringing new life to the world.

Floods may overwhelm us. The waters of anxiety and fear always threaten to throw us overboard. Drought and unwelcome detours into the wilderness may leave us feeling desolate. The parched ground and lurking beasts of isolation and temptation always threaten to leave us stranded, grasping at mirages. But the current that flows from the cross and into our lives is this: in death and life, in flood and drought, God faithfully remains with us.

The choir this morning announced the words of the psalmist, that God’s “compassion and love…are from everlasting” and “all God’s paths are steadfast love and faithfulness.” This declaration of promise surges into our lives today and rolls onward tomorrow and the next day and the next.

As we begin our Lenten journey to Easter, Lent becomes our forty days in the ark, battered by waves and the torrents of rain that life throws at us. Lent becomes our forty days in the wilderness, hungry and thirsty for something more. But the ark is safe and dry. Even in the desert we are accompanied by angels. Lifted and sustained by this promise of good news, we are sent into the world to be God’s children of water, living out our baptismal call for the sake of the world. At the end of the rain, comes the rainbow, our ashen crosses transformed by God’s love into water marks of promise.

[1] Diane L. Jacobson, Book of Faith Lenten Journey: Water Marks (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2011), 28.

Photo Credit: "Rainbow 2", © 2011 Alana SiseFlickr | CC-BY | via Wylio