A sermon for the First Sunday of Lent, February 22, 2015
Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
“I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature…”
Today is the first Sunday of Lent. It’s common to think of Lent as a time to give up things, or to feel bad about eating things you said you were going to give up, or about stricter spiritual discipline or about not saying or singing Halle—oops. But what is Lent about? It’s not about rules. Lent is a period of time that comes before Easter. It has been observed in various ways since ancient times. But the origin of Lent is not about contrasting a somber season with a happy season, the origin of Lent is, that in the early centuries of Christianity, just about all baptisms took place at Easter, the Feast of the Resurrection of Christ. People would finish their preparation for baptism during those weeks, with prayer, fasting and study. The order of the readings through Lent still parallels the instruction and preparation for baptism.
I suggest that the best way to have a holy Lent is to live toward baptism. This doesn’t contradict any discipline that you might have developed, any particular way of paying attention to what is good, any ways of examining yourself, your motives and your relationships with others. But let’s look at Lent as our way forward toward the renewal of our own baptism, of understanding it more deeply, and of sharing God’s grace of redemption with others.
Our first lesson today is the account from Genesis of God’s covenant with Noah. We know about the ark, and the animals two-by-two. We know about the flood that destroyed all living things. But let’s think about it. In there, in that enclosed boat was all the life that was left. The ocean was rising up and the rain was coming down. The ark was, for all intents and purposes, like a submarine immersed in an infinite sea. There was no way of guiding the ark, and no place to go even if you could. Noah and his family were completely lost. They passed through the waters of the deep. Forty days of rain and another 150 days in that darkness, then more months of waiting. It would have been frightening and discouraging for Noah and his family, but God was with them as they passed through the sea. As they returned to life on the land God made a promise, not to curse or destroy his people or his land. And the rainbow is the sign of that promise—that though we go through the depths of the water, in the middle of that and in the end of it, God in all his beauty is there, loving and protecting us.
That water is also the water of life and the water of baptism. In today’s Gospel, Jesus was baptized. Notice here, baptism did not separate Jesus from the real world or its difficulties. Jesus was in the wilderness, he was tempted by the Tempter and he was there with the wild animals. And he was out there for forty days. In a certain sense it was like an intense spiritual retreat, yet what that means is that the realities of this world were with him, even more than in everyday life. But those realities are not just the dangers, the obstacles, and the things that frighten us. Those realities are also the beautiful creatures of God, this gorgeous world which God gave to Noah and his descendants. The baptism that brings us into the real world, brings us into the world of God’s promise, of God’s presence, of God’s love for all of his creatures. And out there in the wilderness, it says of Jesus, “the angels of God waited on him.”
As we move forward in Lent, we are preparing for our own baptism. Baptism is into the death of Christ, but even more, our baptism is into the life of Christ. The life of real hope in the real world, the life of joy in God’s creation, the everlasting life—in Christ’s resurrection, death no longer has power, but we are bound together in his love for each of us.
This afternoon, we will have the service of the Burial of the Dead for our sister Alice Ebanks. We mourn her loss, we pray for her family, especially her son Omar. At the same time, we thank God and praise him, for a Christian life well lived. A sister baptized in Christ’s baptism and a participant in Christ’s resurrection.
Give rest, O Christ, to thy servant with thy saints where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting. Thou only art immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal; formed of the earth, and unto earth shall we return. For so thou didst ordain when though createdst me, saying, “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.: All we go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.