It’s the Water,
and a Lot More
It’s the beginning of Lent, a journey that takes us from temptation to temptation, from grief to death. It’s a time of reflection and for letting go of distractions and obstructions. Some of us do better at this than others. I must confess to a lack of discipline in these things, and Lent has been no different than any other season. But the invitation to allow God access to our lives so that we might be reconciled and renewed is there. Here is an invitation to join Jesus in the wilderness, where trust in God is essential.
Reference is made in each of these lectionary texts to water, which as we know is the foundation for life. Without it life is, it appears, impossible. This is why astronomers search the heavens looking for planets that might have water, and thus the promise of life. We know that our carbon-based bodies are made up primarily of water, and so without water there’s little left except chemicals. Thus, water is, so to speak, our life-blood.
Water is the thread that connects these three texts, taking us from the story of Noah to Jesus’ own baptism at the hands of John, with a stop to reflect on the salvific effects of the baptismal waters. What we learn is that God is at work in the midst of these waters, not washing away dirt, but drawing humanity into the covenant community. Water is, for Noah and for Jesus, the starting point for a journey into the presence of God, and in 1 Peter, baptism is linked to the Noah story, serving as “mark of a good conscience toward God.” Thus, as we begin our Lenten journey, we begin in baptism, which ushers us into the covenant community.
Although baptism doesn’t figure directly into the Genesis passage, the fact that the author of 1 Peter appeals to Noah’s experience with the Flood, which serves as a metaphor for baptism, connects the Noah story to the other texts. Baptism is for Christians one of the two foundational sacraments. We may vary in our theologies and our practices, but whether applied at the beginning of life or at some later time of accountability, Baptism serves as a sign of reconciliation and inclusion into the covenant community of God.
To provide a theological context to consider the relationship of these texts to baptism, I want to point to an invitation given to Disciples of Christ to deepen their theology of baptism. In a book edited by Keith Watkins, we hear this word:
Through the signs of water and word, God is reaching out to humanity to join us to God’s own self. It is this transcendent aspect of Christian baptism that has taught us a truth we did not initiate, and that bids us into covenant partnership with God-in-Christ through baptism. In the preamble to our Design, we affirm along with the whole church in every time and place that baptism is ours only as a gift. [Keith Watkins, ed., Baptism and Belonging, (Chalice Press, 1991), pp. 16-17].
With this thread in mind we turn to three texts that introduce us to the Lenten journey.
If you grew up in the church, as did I, you were introduced to the Noah story early on. You probably didn’t hear the whole story, how God judged the earth and killed every living thing, except Noah, his family, and the mating pairs of animals who would, like and his family, repopulate the earth. All we heard was that God told Noah to prepare for the Flood by building an ark and making room for all these animals. Later I learned that Noah’s Ark was located somewhere up on Mt Ararat in Turkey. That was, however, back in my more literalist days. In this passage, the Flood has subsided, and before Noah, his family, and the animals leave the ark, God makes a covenant with them, that never again would the flood waters destroy all creatures. The sign of this covenant is the bow that God places in the clouds. It will serve as a reminder, not to human or non-human life, but to God. When God sees the rainbow in the sky, God “will remember the enduring covenant between God and every living being of all earth’s creatures.”
It’s important to note the breadth of the covenant partners included in this relationship, especially in light of recent comments made by a Presidential candidate who accused the President of having a non-biblical theology that placed humanity below the earth. What is clear in this passage is that God not only covenants with Noah and family, but with all creatures – great and small. There is a strong environmental/ecological message present in this covenant. As Nicole Johnson writes in her lectionary commentary on this passage:
God’s promise to protect the entire creation calls the faith community to see its own existence and well-being as tied together with the existence and well-being of the rest of the created order, so loved and protected by its creator. Humans are in covenant not only with one another and God but with the natural world as well. (Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B. p. 129).
It is a reminder that God’s reconciling vision of a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:19) must include more than simply human life, but all of God’s creation.
When we come to 1 Peter 3, we find a discussion about the reconciling ministry of Jesus, who dies that we might have forgiveness of sins, but who is made alive in the resurrection so that he might take his place at the right side of God, where Jesus “rules over all angels, authorities, and powers” (1 Pet. 3:22 CEB). This is a rather intriguing passage with mysterious connotations. The meaning of baptism is linked to the Flood, and the ministry of Jesus includes preaching “to the spirits in prison,” that is the disobedient spirits that had been waiting since the time of Noah to hear this message of salvation.
There isn’t space here to explore the implications of this obscure reference, though it has been taken as the foundation of the so-called “harrowing of hell,” whereby Jesus liberated the spirits from their hellish existence so that, having heard the good news, might be saved. It’s a passage that gives some support to the idea that there are post-grave opportunities to hear and respond to the gospel. The passage is not clear, but it is suggestive, and thus worth pondering.
With regard to baptism, Peter connects it to the Flood, so that even as Noah and his family are “rescued through water, baptism is like that. It saves you now . . . because it is a mark of a good conscience toward God” (1 Peter 3:20-21 CEB). Peter links this act of baptism to the resurrection, which is the ultimate foundation of salvation. Although this reference is not as clear as Paul’s reference in Romans 6, here it seems that baptism serves as a sign of identification with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Even as we go through the baptismal waters we are saved through the resurrection of the one who sits in heaven at God’s right side. If the connection with Noah holds, then baptism isn’t just an appeal of a good conscience, it is the sign of the covenant that God makes with the world.
With the gospel reading we return to the Baptism of Jesus, which we observed at the beginning of Epiphany. Once again we hear a word of how Jesus came to John and was baptized in the Jordan. Mark’s account is brief and active. As he comes out of the water, the heavens split open and Jesus sees a Spirit fall like a dove upon him, and then hears a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” There is, of course, an adoptionist understanding of Jesus’ relationship to God. There’s no pre-existence or miraculous birth, just an embrace of Jesus as the one who would be God’s Son – and thus the one who would represent God in this world.
But the baptism is only part of the story. We’ve already been to this place in this story, and so we must move with Jesus into the wilderness. Mark with his forceful delivery tells us that the Spirit “at once . . . forced Jesus out into the wilderness.” The wilderness of Palestine shouldn’t be confused with our understanding of wilderness. Growing up in Oregon, wilderness means rugged mountains with lots of big trees. Here the wilderness is a desert. Water may be the foundation of life, but here water is a scarce commodity, and thus life is precarious. Here Jesus faces the tempter, Satan. For forty days, Jesus is out among the animals, facing temptation. What this temptation is, Mark doesn’t say. Matthew and Luke fill in the details, but Mark just has Jesus wrestling with temptation, and as he does, the angels, whom according to 1 Peter, Jesus will one day rule over, attend to his needs in this difficult hour.
Following this wilderness experience, and after John is arrested, Jesus begins his ministry. He goes into Galilee, a much lusher place to live, where he announces God’s good news. And what is this good news: “Now is the time! Here comes God’s Kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (Mark 1:14-15 CEB). From Baptism to the travails of the desert, Jesus is prepared to take up his calling to preach the good news, the news that saves and brings into existence God’s kingdom. The nature of the kingdom isn’t defined. But it’s clear that the kingdom is coming, and it’s time to get ready. So do change your heart and you life, so you’ll be ready. And know that it is for this reason that God is happy. The reign of God in Christ is here.
As we begin this Lenten journey, a journey that begins in a baptism that draws us into the covenant community of God, we hear our own calling to announce God’s good news. As Paul makes clear in a passage read during Ash Wednesday, to us is given the ambassadorship of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:20). Since the reign of Christ is upon us, may we trust our lives to the God proclaimed in this good news.