Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 20 February 2020.
• First Reading: Genesis 9: 8-17 (God’s covenant with Noah – The sign of the rainbow)
• Psalm 25: 1-10
• Epistle: 1 Peter 3: 18-22 (Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. The example of Noah, those saved through water, as a symbol of baptism)
• Gospel: Mark 1: 9-15 (Jesus baptized in the River Jordan. Jesus in the desert for 40 days, tempted by Satan. John imprisoned, Jesus in Galilee)
There is something about water that draws us to it. It can be essential for sustaining life and useful for washing. It can be decorative in fountains and can be magnificent in the great waves of a storm erupting over a breakwater or lighthouse.
It can be both dangerously threatening when approached wrongly and yet attractive and sustaining when used and managed properly.
For Noah, it was going to engulf the God-forsaking culture that despised everything he stood for and God was instructing him to build a massive ark to save both himself and his family, as well as the wildlife of the land.
When the work of the flood was done, Noah would again walk upon the dry ground to farm it and to thrive on it. Never gain would humanity be wiped out and God made a new covenant with Noah, proclaimed in the rainbow.
And so the rainbow and the dove with the olive branch have passed into our culture as symbols of promise and peace.
For Jesus the waters also had a powerful effect. They provided the risky setting in which His first disciples gained their living as fishermen, and for Him personally, the waters of the River Jordan were the place where He would also make Himself one with His people in their repentance from their sins.
He would enter that place as the sinless one who stood before His Father on behalf of the people of Israel and He also would submit Himself to that ceremonial washing away of sins and of personal cleansing for a new life.
And whereas on the cross, God would turn His eyes away from Jesus in anger at the sins of the world which Jesus had taken to Himself, here at His baptism Jesus was publicly acknowledged by God for who He was and what He was doing.
Here Jesus was setting out on His mission to proclaim the Kingdom of God. This was the place where the magnificence and the glory of God would begin to be proclaimed – with an act of personal self-humiliation and self-denial.
This was not an act of self-fulfilment or self-assertion. Here Jesus was setting out on a path of self-sacrifice in fulfilment of the purpose of His birth in that stable in Bethlehem.
Maybe this is where we need to focus our attention at the first Sunday of Lent.
This is all seriously counter-cultural, for it speaks of letting God act in us and through us and not of our expectation that He would automatically endorse our every whim and plan.
But then there is more for us to find, or to receive for the first thing that happened after His baptism was that Jesus went into the wilderness to ponder what He was going to do next. Now that He had, to use the modern term, ‘Come Out’ as the Son of God, He would wait and reflect, and yes, He would look at the various alternatives that were there to pursue.
Mark does not describe the temptations of Jesus but he does stress the centre of Jesus’ message and it is there for all time.
First, ‘The Kingdom of God has come near.’ This is the rule of God and the will of God in the lives of all who hear the message. It is a new agenda, different from the agendas of organized and top-down religion. Its authority lies in the authenticity of the message that Jesus was going to bring.
It would not have the coercive power of the institutions of the state or of the prevailing culture, trading on the guilt and inadequacies of the people.
Neither was it going to promise fame and success in every venture of life. Neither was it going to be fashionable or glitteringly attractive.
Yet without all these blandishments, the Kingdom of God was going to be a message so wholly real and personal that lives would be transformed by it and into it for eternity.
The second part of the message was ‘Repent.’ The new agenda would not share space with the old agenda. It would have its own sources of authority and it would drive its own kinds of lifestyle. It would not graft onto the old ways of seeing or doing things, and it would have its own priorities.
Some perspectives and actions would have to change. The old principle of me-first and devil take the hindmost would have to stop. The idea of self as the measure and the means of all activity would also have to be set aside.
A few bland admonitions to be nice to each other and to avoid impure thoughts was not going to be enough.
But then the third aspect of Jesus’ message was to believe. Even among His own people, taught to expect the coming of the Messiah, there was that scepticism and that sense that nobody who was going to upset existing ways of doing things was going to be welcome. Not even the Messiah.
And if that was true among His people, educated by the law and the prophets and the psalms, then how much more it this going to be true in a culture closer to Noah’s? Where scoffing and ridicule are the weapon of choice?
For it was unbelief above all that drew Jesus’ fiercest criticisms of the powers of His time – and those of our time should not expect anything different.