Note Bene: The readings from the Hebrew Scriptures this Lent review some of the foundational promises made by God (Lent I, II, III) and the ongoing and future impacts of those promises (Lent IV, V). Walter Brueggemann writes of these promises:
“Israel’s testimony to Yahweh as promise maker presents Yahweh as both powerful enough and reliable enough to turn life in the world, for Israel and all peoples, beyond present circumstances to new, life-giving possibility. Yahweh’s promises keep the world open toward well-being, even in the face of deathly circumstances.” (Theology of the Old Testament, p. 164)
- Genesis 9: 8-17
The Noah story depicts God as “forgetful” but then “remembering.” The story begins with God regretting creating humankind so thoroughly that God wants to wipe all creation away in a world-wide flood. Then God “remembers” Noah and provides a plan to spare Noah, his family and two of every creature. God provides a second chance. After the entire episode, God promises to never destroy the whole earth by flood again. As a reminder of that promise, God puts a rainbow in the sky so that every time God sees it God will remember the promise not only to all humankind, but to every creature.
- Psalm 25: 1-9
Intense introspection leads the psalmist to remind God that he relies on God and God’s ways despite the unrelenting mischief of his enemies against him. He then pleads, “Recall Your mercies, O Lord, and Your loving-kindness… they are forever.” And, “remember me.”
- I Peter 3: 18-22
The writer of this letter attributed to Peter presents a picture of the church’s rapidly developing interpretation of the meaning of the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. The writer asserts, “Christ suffered for sins once for all,” sweeping into Christ’s death the entire history of human sin. Then he elaborates on two nights about which the gospels are silent: the Friday and Saturday when Christ was among the dead. There Christ preached to all, including Noah and his family. Their trial by flood “prefigures” baptism, which is the church’s means to make Christ’s redemptive work available to every human being who will ever live.
- Mark 1: 9-15
In last Sunday’s gospel, Mark emphasized the direct connection between God’s redemptive work in the past and then in Jesus, in the event best described as “the transfiguration.” In today’s gospel, on the occasion of Jesus’ baptism, Mark announces that event when “the heavens were torn apart and a voice declared ‘You are my Son, my Beloved….’ ” After this momentous event, a time of struggle and temptation follows. The number “forty” is loaded with significance– God’s chosen people wandered in the wilderness for forty years; Noah and his family watched the earth swallowed up during forty days and nights of rain while they were safe on the ark for which God had provide the specific plans– are just two of the most relevant occurrences of the number.
The readings from the Hebrew Scriptures this Lent include some of the foundational promises made by God: creation is abundant, generous and good; hope is always an option, even in the most hopeless situations; life will be sustained, no matter what happens. For Christians, all these promises are reiterated and fulfilled most vividly and completely in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Baptism is the sure and certain sign of these promises available to all.
But, sin and temptation are always present in our lives, tempting us to forget the promises. Sometimes, it seems as if human sin is nearly overwhelming and could even disrupt our relationship with God. In the story of Noah, God is so focused on human sin, God “forgets” original intentions. But then God “remembers” Noah and offers an escape from impending destruction. (And God establishes a constant reminder: every time there is a rainbow, God is reminded of that promise!) The psalmist feels compelled to “remind” God that he relies on God and God’s promises. Even Jesus wrestle, for forty dasy in the wilderness, with the implications of the role he is ordained to play from the promises made at his baptism. He is about to take the risk of his life on the promise of a promise. So, as one person, Noah, made the decision to act on God’s promise of rescue from the flood, so Jesus made the ominous decision to follow through on the promise made to him at his baptism– to be the singular sign of God’s promise to rescue humankind from human sin–which will be completed in his own death and resurrection.
Against the reality of human sin, God made promises. Every time those promises are read aloud, as they will be this Lent, Holy Week, Triduum and Easter, any within earshot will make a decision about those promises– Yes! No! or No opinion, (which is , of course a decision, too)!
Paul Ricoeur wrote extensively about this decision-making, which is not based so much on persuasive “evidence,” (which he calls the “modernist ethos”), as it is a personal decision. In Theology After Ricoeur, Don Stiver explores what Ricouer calls “attestation” this way:
Attestation is not totally clear, always faces the restriction of suspicion, and allows for the expansion of surplus meaning. It never escapes the conflict of interpretation but is a risk, backed by one’s life, looking forward to vindication in hope.” “Ricoeur sees that we cannot avoid some outlook on life, but it is not knowledge that can be guaranteed by some method of foundation, a la the modernist ethos; rather, it is a risk we must take that we back with our lives.” (p. 205)
Stiver then quotes an aphorism by Ricoeur: “I hope in order to understand.” (p. 224)
God’s promises of hope and rescue, of the goodness and perseverance of life do not present unquestionable evidence, they invite a decision, a choice. We all must operate with some “outlook on life.” We consider the options and decide whether or not we will take “a risk… that we back with our lives.” God’s promises are bold, definitive and defining. They orient our lives in a very specific direction, if we decide to accept them. (To ignore them or reject them, also, leads lives in the contrary direction.) As Jesus did, we have forty days to consider our options and make a choice.
As the readings and psalm for this First Sunday in Lent make clear, sometimes God “forgets” and needs to be reminded by us; other times we forget and need to be reminded. Jesus struggled for forty days and nights with the implications of the promise made at his baptism. But in the end, a decision is required. Either we embark on a life-long journey of exploring and trusting the promises of generosity and hope or we decline the invitation and move on.