A Homily for the First Sunday in Lent
Texts: Genesis 9:8-17, 1 Peter 3:18-22, St. Mark 1:9-15
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who saves us in the waters of the deep. Amen.
Who has been to the Grand Canyon?
How about Niagara Falls?
Or maybe closer to home, who’s visited Tallullah Gorge?
What do these places have in common? They are geological wonders that show the awesome power of water. The Grand Canyon is, at its max, 18 miles wide, up to a mile deep, and over 200 miles long, all carved out by the Colorado River over the course millions of years – and still growing wider and deeper to this very day as the Colorado continues to eat away at solid rock.
Water is such a common thing we don’t think much about it.
It’s part of our bodies, falls gently from the sky, and is something that we in the developed world are fortunate enough to have access to with the turn of a knob. For many of us, water brings to mind summer days by the pool or fishing. I often think of mountain streams in the Smokies cascading over boulders. For those from Minnesota, it invokes images of thousands of lakes and ponds and the origins of the Mississippi River beginning its trek from Itasca and Bemidji two thousand miles south to the Gulf of Mexico. Most people here today, I would wager, envision tranquil scenes of gentle power.
But water’s power is also a terrifying force to be reckoned with.
Given eons, it can cut its way through solid rock, leaving behind canyons and gorges as surreal scars along the surface of the Earth. Or, when frozen and built up into glaciers, ordinary ice, no different than what you make in your freezer, can scrape out massive valleys or shave away entire landscapes in just a few thousand years. Over centuries, rivers can jump their banks, cut new channels in the soil, and redraw the landscape. Waves can erode away and fundamentally re-shape a beach in years. Damaging floods can destroy houses and towns in just minutes. Many of you probably remember the floods produced by Alberto nearly 25 years ago, severing Macon’s connection to the rest of the world. I saw first hand the damage left behind after Katrina broke the levees in New Orleans – damage that lingered for years.
The power of water is overwhelming and at times destructive. It shapes our world, sometimes sculpting majestic landmarks but just as frequently leaving only destruction.
Our first two readings today call that simple truth to mind. In the story of Noah – familiar as it is from childhood, but far more disturbing than we might care to admit – God sends a flood. Not just a seasonal flood like those that spurred forth the first agricultural civilizations in the Nile or Mesopotamian river valleys, but instead one that wiped out the nascent society. As humanity gave itself over more fully to violence and sin, God unleashed the waters of the deep, releasing the primordial forces to un-make the world. Only Noah and his family were delivered from the deluge.
It’s a recurring theme throughout Scripture: Those on the ark were kept safe as the flood waters raged outside. During the Exodus, God drew back the sea waters, allowing the Hebrews to pass safely through on dry land, and then did the same again as they passed across the Jordan into the Land of Promise. As the waters of the Sea of Galilee raged and began to swamp the boat, Jesus calmed the waves and rescued his disciples. Time and time again, God saves from the water.
In Baptism, we are taken under the water, into that place of chaos. The deep washes over us as it crashed over the earth in the days of Noah, wiping away the old, sinful person. Here, we die to self; we are un-made. In this font, we drown and join Christ in the grave.
Such violent and dark imagery! Why would we submit ourselves to death in baptismal waters? Why is this something to celebrate? Why wouldn’t God save us from these waters of undoing?
It is specifically because God saves us in this undoing. Just as Christ joins us in the grave, dying for us and with us, we are joined to Christ in the waters of Baptism. But we emerge from these waters as a new creation, coming into new life in Christ. In the Sacrament, we die with Jesus in order that we may join Christ in the Resurrection; these waters, coupled with the Word, work mighty acts of grace. God saves us through the water.
Just as the waters of the Flood receded and God made a covenant to never again destroy the entire earth, so to do we emerge from these waters into a new covenant.
In Baptism, we have died the only death that matters. We may fall asleep for a time, but we do so in sure and certain hope of a new and everlasting life, trusting in God’s promise that we shall not perish. Though we may enter the grave for a time, we know that the tombs will be emptied and the sea shall give up its dead.
We have entered the season of Lent – a time of fasting and repentance as we prepare with joy for the Paschal Feast. Around the Church, people are preparing to receive the Sacrament of Holy Baptism at Easter. These, our soon-to-be co-members in Christ, are facing the waters of death and resurrection, and we are travelling with them to a time when we will re-affirm our baptismal promises.
We set out at the start of this season with the end ever in front of us: that just as Christ is risen from the dead, so to do we join in that Resurrection through the Sacrament of Baptism.
It’s not all smooth sailing from here. Trial and tribulation don’t end at the water’s edge. The world is still a violent and chaotic place. The forces of destruction still surge around us; you don’t even have to pay very close attention to the news from this past week to know that the world often feels as though it’s being un-made. As the Gospels remind us, even our Lord was tempted during his time in the wilderness. We will face such trials and temptations: to put our trust in things other than God. To let fear reign supreme our lives. To give in to despair.
But when the powers of this world whisper in your ear, remember this: you have passed through the waters already, and God has brought you into the new covenant of Ever-Lasting Life. You who have been baptized have already died the only death that matters. The waters have already washed over you, carved away the old person, leaving behind a beloved child of God. Whether you were eight days old, or eight years, or eighty, by God’s grace, through no merit of your own, you have been brought into the Resurrected Body of Christ.
The turbulent chaos of this world may rage and surge against us. The tribulations of this world last but for a little while, but our new life in the Resurrection of our Lord will last forevermore.