Each reading for the first Sunday of Lent (Genesis 9:8-17, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15) addresses the renewal of God’s relationship with humanity. The readings invite us to enter the season of Lent with spirit of renewal of our personal relationship with God.
Before the flood described in Genesis, humanity – and all creation – had broken all the rules God had set. Violence had corrupted humankind (Gen 4:24, 6:11). Animals had turned against humans and also attacked one another (Gen 6:12, 9:5). In the story of Noah and the flood, God started over with creation by making a covenant with Noah that showed his love and care.
The time of transformation was 40 days and 40 nights, when it rained and the whole earth was flooded. During this time God remade the earth and his relationship with humanity. This period of time echoes in the time Jesus spent in the wilderness following his baptism and in our own times, in the season of lent.
Immediately prior to the passage that we read today the flood had subsided and Noah had offered an acceptable sacrifice to God. This story marks a transition from one stage to another in a renewed relationship with God.
God established his covenant with Noah unilaterally. He made a solemn promise without asking anything in return. “…I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth …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.”
As a sign of the covenant and the renewal of his relationship, God gave the rainbow. I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.
Peter’s epistle picks up the reference to Noah and makes it part of the continuous story of renewal of God’s relationship, realized in full in Jesus. …God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which … eight persons were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God …
In Peter’s retelling of the story of Genesis God transformed the destructive power of water into the saving water of baptism through the resurrectioin of Jesus Christ.
Mark’s short gospel links the Genesis story to Jesus’ baptism and his subsequent 40 days in the desert in a number of subtle ways. The first is that water became the symbol of repentance and renewal of relationship to God. John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:4) Water’s meaning became transformed from destruction to salvation.
A second way in which Mark ties the gospel to Genesis is that Jesus became the stand-in for all of humanity in his baptism. As Noah became the second source of new life on the earth after the flood, Jesus became the source of our renewed relationship with God in his baptism. This was something that God validated: just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This acknowledgement and embrace of the human Jesus would become available to each of us through the unilateral gift of God in the life and death of his son.
Third, in two densely symbolic verses, Mark tells us that the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. One gets the sense that Jesus was not forced to go into the desert, but was impelled by an inner urge to get away and make sense of the whole experience of his baptism and to “soak” in it so he could understand its full meaning.
The forty days in the wilderness matches both the time of the rains in Genesis 7-8 as well as the time that Moses spent on the mountain in Exodus 24:18. Each of these was a time of transformation in relationship with God. The flood was a time of remaking the earth. When Moses met with God on the mountain God gave him the commandments that made Israel his people. While Mark does not say why Jesus went to the wilderness or what he did during the time, the overall context suggests strongly that he was discerning the meaning of his relationship with God.
When the first Adam was tempted by Eve and Satan he succumbed to the false promise of knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 3. Jesus, the ‘second Adam’, was likewise tempted. Instead of giving in to temptation the story indicates that he resisted and was subsequently re-endorsed by God as my beloved Son at the time of the Transfiguration, Mark 9:2-9, (which we read last week).
The reference to the wild beasts could indicate one of two things. It may simply describe the place where Jesus went and the nature of the wilderness where wild animals roamed. On the other hand, it also recalls the time before the fall of Adam when humanity lived in harmony with the animals (Genesis 1:26). Jesus apparently managed to thrive in the wilderness suggesting that he lived in a mutual accord with the animals. Another point of reference from the readings is that Noah also lived on the ark with the animals for forty days. Whether Mark intended these references when he wrote we see them now.
And the angels waited on him recalls the angels coming to minister to Elijah (1 Kings 19:1-8) when he was in the wilderness, fleeing the wrath of Jezebel. Since Elijah also appears at the Transfiguration in Mark 9 we may assume that these deeper references were part of Mark’s background understanding of Jesus and his continuity with the whole of God’s relationship with humanity.
- How do you read the story of Noah and the ‘rainbow covenant’? Is it a myth that ancient peoples used to explain the existence of rainbows? Is it a skillful use of a natural phenomenon by a storyteller? Is it a divinely inspired reflection on the existence of rainbows to remind people of their relationship to God?
- What meaning does the 40 days of Lent have for you? Is it a time to give up something in recognition of the ultimate self-sacrifice of Jesus at the end of Lent? Is it a time to do something positive, such as spend more time with scripture or do something good to amend bad habits? Is it a time to renew and recommit to your relationship with God in prayer? … Or all of the above?
- Mark’s gospel is action-packed. Between the lines, however, are many references to previous scriptural stories. As Lent proceeds we will read several more excerpts from his gospel. Try, if you can, to excavate their meaning and richness.