The Reverend John Allison, Celebrant
1 Peter 3:18-22
February 21, 2021
Christ Church, Hudson
“I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”
These words from our Old Testament reading stir one of my oldest memories. I can’t say exactly how old I might have been, but I’m guessing I might have been five or six, perhaps younger, when I first noticed a rainbow. I can’t remember the exact circumstances, other than my mother pointing, her finger tracing the arc of the bow and naming the colors, and her telling me that this beautiful, somewhat magical event was God’s promise to us. She would often then use the occasion to recount the story of Noah and the ark and, as I grew older, I came to search out rainbows for myself. At some point, I remember coming home from school one afternoon, after a particularly rousing science class, and excitedly telling my mother, “I know how rainbows are made,” and launching into an explanation of how water molecules served as a prism to refract the light. She listened attentively, noting my excitement, and then said, “That’s all very good to know how it is made. But don’t forget what it means. “I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”
To this day, I can't see a rainbow without remembering the promise it represents. To this day, I can’t see a rainbow without giving thanks.
On this first Sunday in Lent, as we enter a time that serves as a kind of threshold between the mystery of the Incarnation and the glory of Easter, we have much to give thanks for, and our readings this week create a bridge for us between God’s promise of mercy and protection, so wonderfully shown in the story of Noah, and in the waters of baptism through which we are initiated into the Body of Christ. Our Letter from Peter, which was written to new converts to the faith, connects the experience of Noah and the flood to the salvation of baptism. Just as the rainbow after the great flood was a sign to Noah of God’s faithfulness, the water of baptism serves as a sign of the new covenant through the death and Resurrection of Christ. We see this theme further echoed in the Gospel reading with Jesus’s baptism by John just prior to his being driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. We see God’s promise enacted here, today, in our readings, and it will be with us as we journey into the wilderness with Jesus over these next forty days, culminating with God’s saving action at Easter. This is why Easter is often a time when baptisms are done.
But, before we arrive at Easter, we have our time in the wilderness. We have our time of testing and preparation so that we might be more ready to receive, so that the soil of our hearts is tilled and fertile. Lent is a time of testing, to be sure, but it is also a time of growth, a time in which our selves, our souls, are stretched and enlarged. In her sermon on Wednesday, Mother Kathleen pointed out that that’s the meaning of the Old English root from which our word “lent” derives. Lent means spring and alludes to the lengthening of days and the promise of growth.
The journey into that time of lengthening, into Lent, always begins with Jesus being driven into the wilderness. That's where we find ourselves this first Sunday in Lent, with Jesus, in the wilderness, which, biblically, nearly always represents a place of struggle, of vulnerability. This scene occupies a central place in Mark’s Gospel, placed as it is between Jesus's Baptism and the beginning of his ministry, and we might say it names for us the reality of evil in the face of holiness. We might also say that it sets the scene for us to examine, to struggle with, those things that tempt us, that ensnare us or bind us, as we begin our own journey to Easter. Unlike the other Gospel writers, Mark does not detail for us the exact nature of the temptations Jesus faces, only that he was “tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
Have you ever been led by the spirit into the wilderness? I've met a number of people for whom this image is quite resonant. Indeed, many name this past year of the pandemic, of isolation, of economic struggle, of illness and death, as like being in the wilderness or the desert, and I would suspect this might be true for some of you here today. If not called into the literal wilderness, then to some existential wilderness of the soul. I think we all may be able to recall times in our lives when we find ourselves in the wilderness, in places of chaos and uncertainty and struggle. For me, that is key to this passage.
In my own case, that wilderness was both literal and existential when as a young man I found myself in the hills of eastern Kentucky. At the time I didn't necessarily understand what was happening in these terms. I wouldn't even have identified myself as Christian at that point, but it clearly became a place of struggle, a place of choice—ultimately a place of transformation. As I say, that sort of experience has happened to many of us. I would guess that some of you, if asked, could name a place or time that represented a wilderness experience; it may have happened years ago or it may be happening now.
This season of Lent calls us, invites us, into the wilderness, or, at the very least, invites us to reimagine the hard places within us, the hard places within our hearts—the places we fear to enter. It ritualizes and makes sacred this place of struggle and transformation that resonates through our humanity, through our lives. Our Prayer Book tells us we do this by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word. Sometimes we enact that by giving up chocolate or coffee, or volunteering to help those in need, or following a disciplined plan of spiritual reading. Or any of a thousand other possibilities that have meaning within our lives. But is it enough? How do any of these actions on our part lead us to a deeper relationship to God? I’ve heard some say such acts are too trivial to make any difference, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. These acts of discipline point us to something greater; if undertaken with sincerity and introspection they can serve to redirect our gaze from self-centeredness to the one who leads us, who calls us to new life.
The British mystery writer Dorothy Sayers has in one of her novels a character, a well-meaning but bumbling priest, who says this prayer: "Lord, teach us to take our hearts and look them in the face, however difficult it may be." Taking our hearts and looking them in the face is the essence of the wilderness experience. It doesn't require remote landscapes or acts of heroic deprivation. Those things are certainly useful tools when used mindfully and with intention but no, they are not necessary. What is required is sufficient silence for us to become aware of what we feel, what we really feel deeply beyond all the accumulation of stuff and self that obscures our inward vision. A desert monk of the early church once asked a novice to look into a bowl of water that he then shook. When he stopped the agitation the novice could see the reflection of his face. That's what happens to us in Lent. We let the agitation of our busy lives settle, and we see ourselves clearly.
In the stillness of the wilderness Jesus looked into his heart and saw how his identity as the Christ could be distorted into a demand that he be exempt from human suffering or that he have control over others. His resistance to the devil's temptation, his choice, opened the path to liberation for us all.
Lent is the time for us to awaken to what binds us. What are the feelings and actions that prevent you from acting from your whole self as God created you to be? That's sin. It binds us and we miss the mark. Where does sin bind you and prevent you from living into the person God created you to be?
We began this season of Lent on Ash Wednesday by saying the Litany of Penitence and then, this morning, the Great Litany, and both are a good start for inquiry. Are you bound by pride? Hypocrisy? Impatience? Anger? The list goes on and on,. I won't list them all here but I urge you to look at them throughout this season; I urge you to really look at them. And then look your own heart in the face—as difficult as that may be.
It’s there, in that looking deeply into our hearts, that we can be reminded, that we can remember God’s promise. We may see the sign of the rainbow in the sky, but it’s here, in our hearts, where we truly know Christ. Amen.