A Bright Promise

Today’s readings:

Genesis 9:8-17     Psalm 25:1-10     1 Peter 3:18-22     Mark 1:9-15

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, People often think of it as a dark time, a time of deprivation, a time to endure some pain. I think the texts we read today give a somewhat more hopeful view of this season. It is certainly a season to examine ourselves and to think about what is in our lives that might need to be relinquished in order to remove one more barrier between us and our deeper relationship with God. But viewed as an invitation to draw nearer to God, Lent looks like a brighter time.

Today’s text from Genesis at first strikes us as misplaced. The rainbow after the flood in the story of Noah is one of the most colorful and delightful images in the Bible. With the rainbow, God announced that he would never again cleanse the earth of sin by destroying humankind. As we read Mark’s rapid-fire, high-level narrative of the beginning of Christ’s ministry, it is easy to miss the point that when Jesus began to preach, he was fulfilling God’s plan never to crush humanity again in an attempt to wipe out sin. Jesus came, and began to preach the simple message Mark records, because he was God’s solution to sin on the earth. He was the fulfillment of the promise of the rainbow. God could not tolerate the fact that “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.” He sent Jesus to die instead of destroying human beings.

Jesus’ message invited us to draw near to God, because God had drawn near to us. He said, “The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

The problem everyone has with that message is that everyone knows he is sinful. People want to get closer to God, but they don’t dare. They know how unworthy they are. They feel that they have done too many bad things. They have made too many bad choices. They know they need to clean up their act, yet they feel incapable of doing so. Mae West once said, “I generally avoid temptation, unless I can’t resist it,” and most people know exactly what she is talking about. People know that God hates sin, and because they feel they can’t resist sin, they are afraid to draw near to God. They even get mad at God for being so judgmental. They think he has no idea how hard it is to be a human.

They are wrong. As Jesus came up out of the water at his baptism, the Holy Spirit manifested itself to him in the form of a dove, and God said, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” That sounds like quite a lovely sight, but Mark says that the Holy Spirit “immediately” drove Jesus into the wilderness. Jesus was about to find out exactly how hard it is to be human. For starters, he fasted for forty days. He was human, and he needed food. The wonderfully designed human body has immense resources to promote life, even in times of great deprivation, so this long fast did not kill Jesus, but it would have made him profoundly hungry and miserable and weak. It was in that vulnerable state that Satan came to tempt him, when he was as weak and miserable as you or me.

Mark doesn’t provide any detail about the temptation, but Matthew fills in the story. Jesus was tempted over and over to build up his human self rather than trust and serve God. Every temptation is ultimately that one temptation: do what will make you feel good right this minute instead of doing what God created you to do. The story of Jesus’ temptation is like the story of the rainbow, however. It is not intended to make us feel guilty, because we have problems resisting temptation; it is intended to help us understand that God loves us even though we have those problems.

We can be blessed by the story of the temptation of Jesus in three ways:

  •  It comforts us, because Jesus knows what it is like to have Satan in your face, preying on your greatest weakness, pushing all your buttons, teasing you about what you want and daring you to believe that you deserve to get what you want, because God is not fair.
  •  It encourages us, because Jesus, a real human being, was able to prevail. He responded to Satan and resisted the temptation. There is hope for us in the model he gives us. Maybe, just maybe, we can sometimes resist.
  • It helps us understand the calamitous depth of Jesus’ confrontation with Satan on the cross. In the wilderness, at the beginning of Christ’s ministry, we are allowed to see the Satan clearly, starkly contrasted to Christ. In the wilderness, Christ suffers great privation, but no torture. Satan was frustrated in the wilderness, but he did not give up. If we want to know what was happening with Jesus on the cross besides great physical suffering, we have only to look back to the wilderness. The voices at the cross screaming, “Okay, if you really are the Messiah, just climb down off that cross. Show us your stuff,” were animated by the same voice that said in the wilderness, “Why should you be hungry? You could turn these stones into bread if you wanted to.”

 If Jesus had not been tempted in the wilderness, his preaching about repentance might have rung hollow in our ears. After all, what would he know about how hard it is to live a righteous life? The temptation reminds us that Jesus knew exactly how hard it is. When we remember that story, we can put our own temptations in a different perspective. When we think about our problems in the light of Jesus’ experience, then it is easier to see how we might need to let go of some bad attitudes and self-serving behavior in order to be more like Jesus. If we didn’t have the image of Jesus in the wilderness to show us how serious God is about fighting Satan, it would be harder for us to understand that Christ’s death on the cross is the real fulfillment of God’s promise in the rainbow. Every time we see a rainbow, we should remember the price God was willing to pay for his decision not to crush us because of our sins.

The rainbow is a beautiful image. We don’t need to see one in order to think about it. It is easy for us to see a rainbow in our heads whenever we want to. Even little children can do that. When we feel tempted to give up on ourselves because we keep failing to be the people we want to be, we should remember the rainbow. In the rainbow God tells us that he knows all about our problems. He knows how hard it is, and he loves us anyway. In the rainbow, God says, “I love you so much that I’m going to fight that war for you.” When you think of it that way, the Lenten season is not so dark after all.

 Try reading today’s Psalm as your own prayer, thinking about the rainbow promise as you pray.

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