First Sunday of Lent
21 February 2021
Transforming regret ©Suzanne Grimmett
Yesterday we gathered to tell stories. Not just any stories but our very own stories; the stories of this parish and how our lives and the life of this community are woven together. In his introduction, Peter Catt who facilitated the discussion, shared the idea that instead of being called Homo Sapiens (wise humans), we should be called Homo Narrans (story-telling human). This captures the idea that above logic or reasoning or invention, it is our capacity to narrate the stories of our existence that defines our species.
Our scripture is of course full of stories that help us to make meaning of our history and our very existence. Today’s readings cover some big territory in terms of those stories, beginning as we do with the iconic story of Noah’s Ark and the rainbow and ending with the story of Jesus’ baptism, temptation in the wilderness, the arrest of John the Baptist and the beginning of the preaching of the good news- all in a short couple of paragraphs, in the typically brief and action-packed style of Mark’s Gospel.
The story of Noah’s Ark is almost so widely known that we may forget to think very much about what it means. Indeed, we may not even notice the repetitive nature of the way the story is told- evidence if we needed it, of the oral tradition from which it arose, and of the melding together of different accounts. Of course, there are several different accounts of a flood covering the earth in ancient stories of other Near Eastern civilisations, with these myths featuring a small group of humanity preserved to restart the human race. Often the gods of chaos who caused such destruction were pitted against a youthful warrior god, often depicted as armed with a bow and quiver of arrows, in a cosmic battle of good and evil.
The account in the Bible is today almost always glossed over in one of two ways. Firstly, it is accepted as a children’s tale with cute pairs of animals marching in two by two and being saved by God from the flood- the inspiration for countless nursery quilts, curtains and playsets.
But of course, this is not a nursery tale. There may be a family saved from the flood, but the remainder of life is destroyed. This is not just genocide, but a biocide- close to the destruction of all life on earth- and in the other common way of hearing this story, this is carried out by a vengeful and angry God bent on destroying everything in creation.
Neither of these are, I believe, useful interpretations of this text.
The section of the story which we hear today begins further back in Genesis. Humankind has been driven out of the garden of Eden, the first offspring of Adam and Eve fall into conflict and Cain murders his brother Abel. This act of violence leads to further alienation- within the human community but also a rupture of the harmony between humans and the earth. These events grieve the creator God- so much so that in Genesis 6:6, we hear “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth and it grieved him to his heart.” Of that which God had declared good, God now says, “every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts is only evil continually.”
Regret. That is what I am hearing here.
How do you feel about a God capable of regret? We are story tellers, and this God depicted here seems to be going on some kind of character development trajectory. It is difficult to hang on to a God who is immutable, unchanging, omniscient in the light of a story like this. What we do see is a sorrowful God, a God who did not will this at creation, but who is committing to destruction in an act of grief. Cain’s descendants in the preceding stories have stepped up their retributive violence, and God seems to be drawn into this dynamic of using violence against violence. As Mark Heim states, “By the end of the tenth chapter of Genesis, one response to the problem of human violence — greater and greater violence — has been tried both by humans and by God, and found wanting”.
In the reading from Genesis 9 we hear today, God makes a covenant- and it is a covenant which requires nothing of us and everything of God. Noah is silent. God promises that never, never again will the earth be destroyed by a violent flood. Humankind will face the same problem of sin and division, but God will no longer seek a solution in reciprocal violence. As a sign of that promise, God places a bow in the sky. This is not a sign for us, as many commonly interpret it, but is a sign so that God will remember. The text has God saying “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” The meaning of the bow should not be ignored either, given the prevalence of ancient images of warrior gods bearing a bow. The God of covenanting love also uses a bow, but it is a sign in heaven, unstrung and turned not upon the earth but away, as an everlasting reminder for the creator God that the waters will never again wipe out all life on earth. Destruction is no longer on the table of options to deal with the violence of humanity. The God of covenantal love will seek other means in the Divine longing for the harmony of creation to be restored and humanity to be returned in loving relationship to God and one another.
As we reach this first Sunday of Lent, we bring with us this story of the violence of humanity and the divine grief of a covenanting God who has turned from violence and is committed to lovingly restoring us to relationship through any other means. In the sparse language of Mark, we can sense a reversal of the Genesis narrative that is implicit in the proclamation of good news. In Genesis 3:24 in the Septuagint (The Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures) we read, God “drove out the man from the Garden of Eden.” This same Greek word for drove is here used in Mark’s Gospel, where the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. The word bears the meaning of a violent propulsion, as in driving out demons or driving out the people who were selling in the temple. In Genesis, Adam and Eve were driven out and became outcasts from paradise, from the garden to the wilderness. Where the first humans failed, and violence and chaos resulted, God has come amongst us in frail humanity, to do what we could not. Jesus will face the temptations and return from the wilderness in complete harmony with the creating and reconciling Spirit of God. This same Jesus with whom we will walk these 40 days to the cross, then becomes the victim of the violence which has plagued humanity from its beginnings, but forgives, reconciling all things to himself before finally defeating the final enemy, death. Paradise lost can become paradise restored. When Jesus returns from the wilderness, he announces that the kingdom has arrived. The time is now for the spiral of conflict and violence and exile to end and humanity to be restored, not through a punitive vengeful God, but through the Christ, the Holy One, who will willingly endure the shame of the cross and overturn death, offering love and new life to all.
The time is now. The greatest story of all has reached its fulfilment. God, the God who does not condemn us, has never given up and will never give up on loving us into newness of life. Springs will appear in the desert and the garden of your heart will flower again. Repent…turn again in trust… and believe the good news.
 S. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross pp. 73-74