Sermon preached at St Mary Magdalene Hucknall on 18th February
First Sunday of Lent: Genesis 9.8-17 & Mark 1.9-15
Today is the first Sunday of Lent, the season in which Christians, as individuals and as a Church prepare to celebrate the Easter feast. Through fasting and self-denial; prayer and the study of Scripture; through worship and our daily acts, we try to align ourselves once more with God’s purpose for us.
This morning, we hear two readings that both explain to us what that purpose, God’s purpose for us, may be, so it is worth having a closer look at both of them, and to see how this may apply to us in our daily lives. And so, as we go through these texts, I’d like you to keep the question in mind: What am I for? What is my purpose? Or, most accurately, what is God’s purpose for me?
Our Old Testament reading is the end of the well-known story of Noah’s Ark. God has flooded the earth for forty days, and the only living creatures left are those who had gone into the ark.
Before I go any further, I would like to say something briefly about the genre of this reading. I believe that the story of Noah’s ark, just as the story of the Creation at the beginning of the book of Genesis, are myths, in the fullest sense of that word. It means that they are stories that are true, but not scientifically so. They convey something that is arguably much more important than scientific facts, namely a truth about our being and our relationship with God.
In the case of the creation story, at the core is that God made us in his image. Thus God first of all wanted us to exist, and secondly, without God we could not live. Looking with that lens to the story of Noah’s ark, I think that there are also two important core truths for us. The first one is that we are accountable, and there will be some form of judgment. This is symbolised in the story by the earth being flooded, and God preserving those who are faithful.
But we have to be careful to hear this as God making a distinction between the ‘goodies’ and the ‘baddies’ so to say. As we are all a mixture of good and evil, we all will undergo some form of judgment, and ultimately none of us will know precisely what that looks like. So this story does not try to tell that we should try to find ways to symbolically ‘get into the ark’, but that we need to take responsibility for our actions.
And that brings us to the second core truth of this story, and that is God’s promise to us, his covenant with us. In Old Testament times, a covenant between two people is an agreement based on mutual oaths, which cannot be broken. In it’s thinking it is very similar to what we still have in the vows made at a marriage.
However, the covenant between God and his people is different, as God and people are not equal. It does mean that God will never break his promise, his faithfulness to us, but it doesn’t mean that’s true for us too. That which for God is a reality, for us is an aspiration. What we can do every day, but particularly during Lent, is recommitting to that aspiration.
These themes we recognise in the reading from Mark’s Gospel as well. The Baptism and the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness are stories shared by Matthew, Mark and Luke, but it is in Mark’s version of the Gospel that they are most starkly put in contrast. Mark, as usual, does not dwell on much detail, but, being the shortest of the Gospels, comes straight to the point. In this short reading, there are two points I would particularly like to focus on, in the context of this sermon. The first one is God’s voice from heaven saying ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’.
These words powerfully reveal God’s purpose for Jesus: He is God’s Son, the Beloved. Whatever comes next, this is his identity, this is his purpose: being God’s Son. Depending on your theological tradition, this may imply also God’s sacrifice for us on the Cross, but that’s a discussion I’d like to leave for another day.
Immediately afterwards, Jesus is sent into the wilderness, by the same Spirit who is also God. There he is tempted by Satan, he is with the wild beasts, and, presumably at the end of this experience, the angels wait on him. It is significant, that Jesus’ baptism, the affirmation of his identity, comes before the temptations in the wilderness. It is here that I would like to start bringing this all into the context of our own experience. Because Jesus is not only fully God, but also fully human, and so we can learn and take comfort from his experience in our own lives.
For a moment, I’d like you to think of a particularly difficult time in your own lives. A time that has felt like forty days or more in the wilderness. A time when it was very hard to see any hope, any light, any perspective.
Thinking about this, the first thing we notice is that we will all have had such times. For each of us, it will have been different, but we have that experience in common. And, as I already implied, we can take comfort in the fact that we don’t only have this in common with each other, but also with Jesus himself. Jesus, God, knows what it feels like to be in such a place, because he has been there himself.
Often we hear people say afterwards that something good has come out of these experiences, despite the pain and grief, and I think that is true in many cases. But what I’d like you to think briefly about is not what may have come out of it, but what preceded it. What was it that got you through these difficult times?
Was it your faith? Or the people around you? Or the sheer will to survive? What I would like to suggest this morning is that it is ultimately the knowledge that we are God’s children, that we are his beloved that makes us get through it. Just as Jesus heard those words at his baptism, so these words are available to us. ‘You are my child, the beloved’.
That is our identity, that is our purpose, to be God’s beloved children. That is also the starting point of this season of Lent, and in a way it’s end point too. The hope, the promise and the covenant that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. That is what we try to live out each day, and can recommit ourselves to once more this season of Lent. To be faithful children of God. To love as we are loved, to give as we have received, and to encourage one another when we need to.