First Sunday in Lent, 26 February 2012

I’d like to begin today by reading a poem for you, one with which some of you may be familiar. It’s the first thing that came to my mind upon reading today’s Old Testament reading (well, actually, the second—the very first thing was an image of Kermit the Frog singing a song called “The Rainbow Connection.”) In any case, this poem has always been one of my favorites, by one of my favorite poets, William Wordsworth. It’s called “My Heart Leaps Up.”
My heart leaps up when I behold
a rainbow in the sky:
So it was when my life began;
so it is now I am a man;
so be it when I grow old,
or let me die!
The Child is the father of the Man:
and I could wish my days to be
bound each to each by natural piety.

How many of you experience a similar feeling when seeing a rainbow appear? Do you take a moment to stop and look? Do you have a sense of hope, of wonder? Or is that sensation something that you left behind in childhood, with no time now, as an adult, to pause and admire God’s handiwork? I would imagine those of you with children and grandchildren look, if only because your youngsters are fascinated by the phenomenon of misty colors appearing in the sky. Given the photographs of rainbows that appear frequently on the Weather Channel, I would say that a large amount of people still take that time, still feel that sense of wonder.

After all, the rainbow remains in our culture as a symbol of hope, as well as of community. I mentioned Kermit the Frog’s song, “The Rainbow Connection,” from the original Muppet Movie from the late 1970s, in which he sings: “Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection, the lovers, the dreamers, and me.” This, too, has always been one of my favorites, as the lyrics appeal to the dreamer and mystic in me.

However, in light of today’s readings, I’m thinking about both Wordsworth’s and Kermit’s lyrics. I think that Wordsworth is pretty spot on, but Kermit’s song implies some future date—a state of existence that hasn’t yet occurred, but will. The words also say that it’s the lovers and dreamers who will find this connection—that one needs some special or different quality to find it or make it. And while perhaps those lyrics are simply speaking to that sense of childlike wonder that Wordsworth speaks of, I can’t help but feel that the song’s writers got it wrong by using the word “someday.” I think I know why they used the word—in hope of better days, where everyone lives peacefully together—the Kingdom of God, if you will.

But as we have just heard, the verses from Genesis relate the establishment of the first covenant. This covenant is not just between Yahweh and Israel as it will be with Abraham and Moses, but actually encompasses the entire world. As a sign of this, God puts his bow in the clouds as “a sign between me and the earth” that when the bow is “seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.” This sign is a reminder to himself of this covenant, and by extension, a reminder to us. How many of us, when we stop to gaze at a rainbow, remember this part of the story? And while scholars suggest that the story of the flood may be just that, a story that the writer of that part of Genesis took from a much older tradition—it is nonetheless a story that illustrates God’s interaction with his creation. This covenant between Yahweh and his creation is ongoing, and it is an act of God’s grace. It’s not “someday,” it’s now. Wordsworth, I think, knew this; he felt that a love of nature kept us spiritually connected with God, and perhaps with that first covenant. He hoped for that “natural piety”–an uncomplicated sense of devotion to God. How many of us, when we stop to admire that rainbow, take a moment to reflect on God’s continuing patience with us, his love for us?

That is, I think, the message running through the readings today, the first Sunday in Lent. We began the season earlier this week with the very somber Ash Wednesday service, in which we are reminded of our origins in dust, we lament our sins, and we ask for God’s help in creating in us new and contrite hearts. This is a time when we remember Christ’s suffering in the wilderness and his temptation by Satan by giving up some of our own physical comforts and things that tempt us away from our connections to God. We often focus solely on the penitential part of this season.

However, these readings are meant to give us a sense of hope, too. I know we associate hope with Advent, with the birth of Christ, but I think we should remember to look at Lent that way, too. The word Lent is actually from the Germanic for spring, which is traditionally a season of hope, and of course, rebirth. That’s why we should be hopeful. The reading from Peter speaks of baptism, which he says was prefigured by the flood because Noah and his family were savedthrough water. So many people look at the flood as destructive, which it was, but it was also, in essence, a re-creation, a re-birth. God, despite knowing we would return again and again to our violent ways, did not totally wipe us out—he could have done so, I suppose, and created a new humanity. But that’s not how our salvation history goes—that saving by water was necessary to offer us the hope of baptism and rebirth in Jesus. Peter reminds us that baptism is not the literal removal of dirt from the body, but rather the appeal to God for a good conscience—that new and contrite heart.

Hope is also the theme, I would say, in the selection from Mark—the scene of Christ’s baptism by John, the appearance of the Holy Spirit—and we could take time to unpack the symbolism of the Spirit descending like a dove and how that might relate to the dove in Noah’s story. If nothing else, that paradoxical image of the heavens being torn apart, which seems violent and agitative, followed by the Spirit descending as a dove, which we associate with peace, seems worth pondering for a moment. I love the both/and tension in that moment. Christ’s life is going to change in a big way—he will proclaim peace but certainly agitate a lot of people. Gives me chills to think about.

In any case, hope is present in this moment, and in the fact of Christ’s time in the wilderness, when he says no to the temptations offered by Satan, on which the Gospel of Mark doesn’t elaborate. He says yes to his call, and goes to Galilee to begin his ministry and proclaim the Good News of God. And while Jesus was Jewish and his message was initially for the Jews, through his apostles, I believe that message fulfilled that first covenant symbolized in the rainbow. In many Middle Eastern cultures, the rainbow did symbolize the weapon it looks like–the bow—the word used in the NRSV translation. The notes in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV, suggest that God points it upward so that he won’t ever use it against us again. This may sound corny and I’m still thinking about this analogy, but Christ replaced that bow, that upturned weapon, as a symbol of that first covenant with the world. I think of the scientific explanation for the occurrence of a rainbow—light shining through water—and I think of Christ, who is the light of the world, saving us through the water of baptism.

And so, I believe that today we are called to remember that Lent isn’t necessarily a dark time—that at the end comes the hope of the Kingdom of God as proclaimed by Christ who makes us alive in the Spirit through his resurrection. God loves us! I pray and hope that your days this season and afterward are bound each to each by natural piety. Amen.

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