Christ leaves no one behind

  • February 19, 2009
First Sunday of Lent (Year B) March 1 (Genesis 9:8-15; Psalm 25; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15)

A flood is terrifying and destructive even if it consists of only a few feet of water. Images from the tsunami in Asia, Katrina in New Orleans and a host of other regional floods are still fresh in our minds. Destruction is great and loss of life can be heavy.

The covenant described in this Genesis passage comes at the end of a universal flood that allegedly covered the entire Earth. As of yet there is no scientific evidence to substantiate this story. Localized floods, earthquakes and plagues are found in abundance, but no universal cataclysm. And the Genesis story is almost identical to Babylonian myths that have been discovered and translated — only the names and minor details change. Ancient people (and some modern ones too) envision a God who is swift, harsh and destructive with His chastisements and punishments. Better not to get on His bad side.

But the main point of our passage today is not punishment or destruction — on the contrary, it is promise, covenant and hope. The slate has been wiped clean and there is a new beginning. God seems resigned now to human weakness and promises never to bring a flood upon the Earth again. The rainbow is designated as a beautiful and ever-present sign of God’s fidelity. Does God “change His mind” or “remember”? For that matter, does God punish or kill? These are images of God that are suspiciously human in nature and they invite us to think in new ways. This covenant passage is striking in that it includes not only all of humanity but all living creatures. And it seems to turn a page in humanity’s understanding of God. This is where ancient creation myths are left behind and God is understood more in terms of relationship and commitment to ethical ideals. The rainbow is a reminder of divine favour and a hopeful future rather than a symbol of dread and fear and it is this symbol we should remember.

The story of the flood and the ark was a powerful symbol of God’s judgment and justice. But the author of 1 Peter transforms it into a story of mercy and redemption by linking it with Christian baptism. Rather than destroying, water now saves, for Christ now reigns in power from heaven. The curious reference to Christ preaching to the souls in prison echoes the ancient belief that the spirits of those destroyed in the flood or who died before the coming of Christ awaited redemption. The story was a frequent theme in early Eastern Christian iconography. It is clear that our author firmly believes all have the opportunity to hear the word proclaimed and respond to it. In Christ no one is overlooked or left behind.

The text is quite insistent: the spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness to be tested. The preparation for any great mission or undertaking requires preparation and testing, and Jesus was no exception. He must face down the collective spiritual and psychological baggage of humanity. He must steel Himself to resist fear and temptation, especially those linked to power. Only after successfully completing this test is He able to proclaim the good news of God. The moment has arrived — God’s timetable has been completed. God is intervening in human history in a huge way: all of creation and human society is being brought under God’s immediate control and will.

For those who suffer and are oppressed this is good news indeed. An unjust order is being swept away and the world will now be governed according to God’s will. But for many it will not be good news, for they have a big stake in the unjust order and stand to lose much. Jesus invites them (and us) to repent — have a metanoia or change of mind and heart — and receive the news joyfully.

We witness the collapse or decline of many institutions, both political and religious, and a disintegration of parts of the economic order. As painful as this may be, it is also a grace. A new world is possible only by the passing away of an unjust order. That new order must bear witness to God’s standards of justice, compassion and sharing. We can only receive this gift by having open hearts and minds as well as a willingness to accept change.