In the name of God. Amen.
Lent begins with hope.
It gets a bad rap – people often think of Lent as a time of doom and gloom and sadness and despair. A time when we think about death and sinfulness and how woeful our existence is. But listen to the lessons that we’ve shared today: Lent, like all things that are of God, has a foundation of hope.
We start with the story of Noah – but the part of the story that we’re often a little more likely to forget. We usually remember the rain and the animals and the big boat, but what we often too easily forget is the end, where God makes a covenant with Noah, and through him with all of us, to never again start from scratch like that. God grieves the decision and promises to hold us closer going forward. And while the rainbow is memorable, we need to remember the point of the rainbow – the story of Noah tells us that it’s a physical representation of that promise from God. It’s beautiful and rare, but not so beautiful that we can’t take it, and not so rare that we never experience it. The rainbow is beautiful and rare, but also available. It’s a steady reminder that we see from time to time to reacquaint ourselves with the truth that God has promised to love us. A promise that still endures.
The gospel tells the story of Jesus’ baptism. I love the way it sort of mirrors the story we heard last week, about the transfiguration. In that story, when Jesus is revealed as Christ in the transfiguration to the disciples that are with him, a booming voice from the heavens cries out, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” But this time, as the Gospel of Mark recounts it, the voice is to Christ, alone. It says, in the same sort of structure as the transfiguration, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
As Jesus formally enters into his ministry through the waters of baptism, the first message he hears from God is a message of love. “I’m proud of you.” “I love you.”
In Mark’s chronology of Jesus’ ministry, the next thing that happens is that Jesus is driven out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit – where he is tempted by Satan. That’s how this story of his baptism figures into the Lenten narrative. But again – even in the chronology of his ministry, Jesus’ season of preparation begins with that affirmation. With a message of love and hope from God, the creator. It’s not until he’s gone through the hope that he’s forced to face the temptation.
It’s true that doom and gloom and sadness and despair, and death and sinfulness and woeful existence are all a part of life. We can’t escape those things. And Lent is about confronting all the aspects of life on this earth – and not about escaping the experience of humanity – just as God never escaped all the experiences of humanity through the incarnation of Christ in Jesus of Nazareth. But at the same time, we shouldn’t forget the hope. We shouldn’t forget the love. Those are the foundations of God’s creation, on which all the rest rests.
In the weeks ahead, we’ll have time to live into the earthier, mealier, grittier aspects of Lent. Each week we’ll take some time to confront our own sinfulness and ask for God’s forgiveness. That’s important. And as we inch closer and closer to Holy Week, we’ll hear and recount the story of Jesus’ last days on earth a little at a time, before plunging head-first into the deep end of those last days on Palm Sunday.
Through all of that, hope and love won’t be at the forefront. Some weeks will feel downright heavy. But even so, hope and love are the foundation that undergirds all seasons of our faith – even this season. That’s why we start here, today.
And that’s an important lesson to remember. So much of Lent is beneficial to us because it gives us a time and a place to practice for the more painful seasons of life so we have tools to confront them when we face them for real. So much of Lent is about reminding us that even Jesus suffered – and even Jesus felt the pain of this life. But just as Jesus’ journey to the cross has love and hope at its foundation, all of our struggles in life do, too.
When we hurt, the hurt is real and we shouldn’t try to deny that. When we’ve been scarred by the unthinking callousness of others, we shouldn’t just sweep it under the rug. When we’re sad and grieving, we mustn’t ignore those real and valid experiences. But at the same time, we have to remember that those states of human experience are not the foundations of human experience. Those aspects of life are just that – aspects. But the essence of life – and particularly of a life of faith in God and in Christ – the essence of that life is better. The essence of that life is more joyful. The essence of that life is understood through the love of God, and the hope that God promises to us for this life and for the life to come.
That’s the core. That’s the foundation. And that’s why we start Lent here – with rainbows and messages of hope and love from God – so we’ll remember that when the messages are sometimes harder to hear. May God bless you on this journey. Amen.