The compilers of the Lectionary clearly want us to think about water and baptism today. And, I have to admit, knowing that I am meant to think about it makes me want to think about anything but baptism…
Rebellion is not a bad place to start. After all, it was rebellion that set the stage for Noah and the flood which leads up to the passage we heard from Genesis. Those Lectionary Compilers opened the door on the Story of Noah… so let’s spend some time with it. We, not us personally, but we the human race, rebelled against God to the point where God really lost it.
I try to avoid using human terms when I think about God. Reducing God to a family position or to a pronoun forces God to fit into human terms. However, in the story of Noah, I think you miss something if you don’t understand it as a story of “God the Father” dealing in frustration with really terrible children.
This “God the Father” isn’t just very human. This God the Father is horrifying. We can understand a parent being frustrated and angry with a child. But when a parent kills a child, its unspeakable. A father who kills his children, in our society, is a monster.
And this God doesn’t just kill a child or two… He’s wipes almost all life off the face of the planet. This “God the Father” that Noah encounters may be beyond human comprehension… but not in a good way. What terrible violence he’s willing to commit. What a shocking father.
That’s what leads up to the lesson we heard from Genesis. Noah, with God’s help, loads up the Ark and God effectively flushes the rest of the world clean so we can start anew. This “God the Father” is a psychopath…
But God appears to evolve in this story. In the end what does God say? I won’t do that again… Never again will I drown the entire planet. I’m setting up a covenant. When I see the rainbow (notice that the rainbow is there for God’s benefit) in the clouds I’ll remember my covenant.
God makes this promise twice in Genesis – we heard the second version. In the first version (from the 8th Chapter) God clarifies a bit. “I know that the imagination of Man is evil from his birth” but nonetheless, I will never destroy all life again.
This is not a very hopeful lesson from Genesis. While it is good news that God isn’t going to wipe out the human race again (though we seem determined to do that ourselves), God seems to give up on us. We’re born bad and we’re going to stay bad.
God’s grand do-over experiment with Noah failed. That is the obvious and inescapable conclusion. There is no point in wiping out the world and starting over. We don’t get better.
Yikes… If that’s the case, then there really is no point in Lent at all. At the end of these 40 days, we’re going to be just who we were when we started. Ashes to ashes – nothing in between…
Except there is something in between – it’s that something that the Lectionary Compilers wanted us to think about… Its baptism – our new birth in Jesus.
There is something oddly homeopathic about baptism. In the NRSV as we heard it this morning, the first letter of Peter tells us that, at the time of Noah only 8 people (Noah and the wife and kids) were saved through water.
Through baptism, the number is infinite. The water of baptism allows us to stand before God not because we are washed free from sin. Baptism allows us to stand before God through the power of Jesus – rescued from the flood of our own depravity.
It would be nice if the story ended this way. We get rescued by baptism and we all live happily ever after… But that doesn’t seem to be the way that it works out.
Look at Jesus. He is baptized and the spirit descends like a dove while a great voice says “You are my son. My Beloved.” It’s like a scene from one of those great biblical epic movies – with Charlton Heston as God…
But Jesus doesn’t get a great big close up. The credits don’t roll while the music sweeps us up in emotion.
Immediately the spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness where he faces Satan and an escalating series of temptations. There is nothing gentle in the way Mark relates the story. Jesus is driven out. It seems Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is not despite his baptism, but rather because of it. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about the cost of discipleship, I think this is where he starts.
The baptized life is not a life of comfort and privilege. It’s a life in which we face temptation and even torment.
Baptized life is a life in which our sorrows are multiplied. For in baptism, we recognize that we are part of the family of God… that all people are part of that family. But some of our brothers and sisters go to bed hungry. Some face terrible injustice. We make war on some of our brothers and sisters. And as one of us suffers, all suffer. As one of us is injured, we are all injured. We are one body. If one part is not whole, then the body is not whole. That is part of the cost of discipleship.
Baptism is also a life in which joys are multiplied. Everything is multiplied. Baptized life is, as St Irenaeus might say, fully alive life – that is nothing less than the Glory of God. The water of baptism begins to wash away the anesthetizing charms of wealth, and power, and flesh. Baptism allows us to begin to wake up to the liberating love of God, love of self, and love of our brothers and sisters.
The cost of being fully alive is high – we cannot look with indifference on God’s creation. We cannot look with indifference on the injustices we create and perpetuate – individually and collectively. But our tears are mingled with joy. Just as God is delighted in the person of Jesus, so God is delighted in each of us.
The monastic tradition divides Lent into two parts – Lent A and Lent B… perhaps not the most creative of naming schemes… And each part of Lent has a specific intention. In the first part, the part we’re in now, repentance is front and center. We’re meant to keep our focus on the ways we have rebelled against God and turned away from our baptismal covenant. This is not an exercise in feeling guilty, but rather a chance to change our lives. At the time of the flood in the story of Noah, most living creatures were not given this chance. But through the waters of baptism, we are.
The second part of Lent – part B – has the purpose of directing our minds towards Jerusalem and the crucifixion of Jesus. Should we want to delude ourselves into thinking that this following of Jesus will be fun and easy, the pending crucifixion of Jesus should push that notion away.
The cost of discipleship is, indeed, high. On our own we cannot bear that cost. But bathed in the love of God we are able.