Lent Begins: Flood and Baptism – 3/01/09 – Genesis 9:8-17, Mark 1:9-15

Too much water and we call it a flood.  Too little water and we call it a drought.  Just enough and we call it a drink, or a good swim, or a bath, or a baptism.

At the same time that Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on New Orleans, breaking the levee, and causing a whole city to evacuate and leave homes and businesses to the destructive forces of the waters, the nation of Kenya was further descending into a period of extended drought, causing nomadic farmers to search and dig for water, threatening the lives of animals and livestock, and then the people who depend on these creatures for their food and livelihood.  When it comes to water, we are all dependent on the Goldilocks phenomenon.  For life to go well, we need not too much of one extreme, or too much of the other extreme, but an amount that is just right.

October, 2007 — a group of us from Cincinnati Mennonite caravanned up to Ottawa Ohio, near Bluffton, and volunteered a Saturday through a partner organization of Mennonite Disaster Service.  Over a month before, the area had received several days of heavy rainfall, including ten inches within a two hour window, causing the local Blanchard River to crest seven feet above flood level.  Streets and homes were filled with several feet of water.  Pictures and video of the weeks following the flood show the streets lined with ruined appliances, carpet, furniture, and drywall.  We got there after the worse scenes had already been taken care of.  But there was still plenty of work to be done.  We donned haz-mat suits and sprayed bleach on mold growing in crawlspaces, tore out damaged duct work that was still damp, and replaced drywall and trim.   

In the ancient Babylonian flood myth the man Utnapishtim is warned by the gods to build a large boat to avoid the great flood that the god Enlil was bringing on the earth to punish humanity.  Utnapishtim builds the boat, seals it with pitch, and takes on board his wife, beasts and animals of the field, many craftsmen, and plenty of food reserves.  They enter the boat, shut the door, and it rains for six days and nights, after which the boat is lodged on a mountain and Utnapishtim sends out different birds, including a dove and a raven, to investigate whether any land has appeared.  When the final bird does not return, he exits the boat and makes a sacrifice to the gods.  The gods smell the sacrifice and swarm around it like flies.  The goddess Beletili comes and creates a rainbow in the sky out of her necklace.  The god Enlil is initially enraged that any humans have survived the flood, but soon grants Utnapishtim and his wife the status of eternal life like the gods, and he is sent to live in a faraway land.    

There are over 500 flood legends worldwide, spanning from China, to India, Russia, the Americas, and Hawaii.  A legend from the country of India tells of a man named Manu who lived a long time ago.  One day while he was washing himself Manu saved a small fish from the jaws of a larger fish.  The small fish tells Manu that if he cares for him he will one day save his life.  Manu cares for the fish which eventually becomes quite large and warns Manu to build a large ship to survive a great flood that was coming soon.  Manu builds the ship and ties it to the tail of the fish who leads him and his boat safely through the waters to the top of a high mountain.  In a more local story, the Delaware Indians — the world once lived at peace, but an evil spirit caused the earth to be flooded.  A few humans survived by holding onto the back of a turtle that was floating in the water.  Eventually a loon flew over the turtle with a clump of earth in its bill and guided the turtle and the people to dry ground. 

In the Bible, Manu, Utnapishtim, is Noah, and he and his family and animals of all kinds are the ones to survive the flood.  After the waters subside and Noah builds the altar and makes a sacrifice, God has a moment of speaking to Godself, striking a tone that borders on repentance: “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.  As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”  Noah is not granted eternal life or sent to a faraway land, but God does make an eternal covenant with all of creation – human descendants, every living creature, the birds, and every domestic and wild animal, that never again will all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, the first covenant in the Bible.  The bow in the sky serves as the reminder of this covenant.  We call it a rainbow, but here it is just a bow, a common instrument of war.  Ancient art depicted a deity armed with a bow as a weapon.  In this picture after the flood, God has unstrung God’s war bow, and pointed it away from the world.  God hangs up the war bow and re-asserts that God is for humanity and all creation, not against it.  The Psalmist echoes a similar thought: “God makes wars cease to the ends of the earth.  God breaks the bow, and shatters the spear, and burns the shields with fire.” (Psalm 46:10.)  The Genesis flood also contains another important reminder.    It is the only other place in the Hebrew scriptures besides the creation account where we are told that humans are created in the image of God.  Even though our hearts are inclined toward evil, we remain bearers of the image of God and therefore life is precious.  Last week Keith mentioned that the Elijah story on the mountain, experiencing God as the sound of sheer silence, was a way of differentiating the God of the Hebrews from the Canaanite storm god Baal who was thought to show up in the thunder and lightning and earthquakes.   This is another case of scripture being in conversation with the traditions of its time.  It’s extremely interesting how the Noah story overlaps and is similar to the older Babylonian flood story, but it’s just as important to pay attention to the differences.  The Bible adopts the ancient flood myth and gives it a spin toward the biblical themes of covenant, non-violence, and the sacredness of life.  And it leaves us with the strange notion that we’re not quite sure what to do with of God repenting.  First God repents for having made humanity in the first place and so brings on the flood, and then God repents of having brought on the flood and says it will never happen again. 

This past month marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin.  Darwin’s Origin of the Species and the theory of how life has evolved through natural selection over the course of millions of years was initially met with skepticism and outright rejection by much of the religious community.  His proposal challenged the long-held notion that we are all created separately and distinctly and that we are forever set in our unchanging identity.  It told a story of slow change over time, and where floods are merely one of many large natural events that have shaped the course of evolution.  Glaciers, meteors, earthquakes, and the slow shifting of the continents have also influenced how life has come to be the way that it is today. 

It’s a theory whose overwhelming evidence has led to its broad acceptance.  Not all religious people are able to accept it at this point, but for those who have, it has caused us to rethink where this leaves us in regards to the life of the Spirit.  It’s difficult work to integrate what appears to be the harsh indifference of the story of evolution with the story of the God of compassion, justice, and mercy in whom we have come to believe.  If the earth is a solitary rock spinning around an expiring blaze of hydrogen, a place covered by the never ending pattern of life consuming itself to make more life in which only the strongest survive and the weakest are buried beneath layers of blood and sediment, where does that leave us?  What of beauty, or purpose, or sacred identity, or God the Creator and Sustainer and Redeemer?  What of our scriptures that speak of covenant and the Holy Presence filling all of creation? 

The earth does endure, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, and we’re trying to get our footing beneath us so we can be more than just along for the ride.  We’re relieved to consider that floods and tornadoes are a part of the natural cycling of the earth, not a punishment of the gods.  Meanwhile we look for ways that we are created to do more than just blindly participate in the cycle – how we might be partners with God toward some goal, some aim in our lives.  If we humans are, as some theologians have said, “evolution become conscious of itself,” then we look to the ways that we may help shape creation toward to desires of God — created in the image of God in order to create with God a world that is more just, that is more caring, where the weak are given special dignity, and the strong are called to humility.     

When the flood came to Ottawa, the burning question was not why has God punished these people, but rather how may we be agents of God’s care in helping to rebuild in a small way?  During the day God’s presence was seen in the hands joining together to do the work that needed to be done and we all received a blessing.  One of the families whose home we worked on owned a restaurant, and they returned thanks for the help by giving us a free dinner at the end of the day.  The day began with work, but ended with table fellowship with each other and new acquaintances who were sharing their gifts with us.    

In Mark, Jesus begins his ministry by going through the waters of baptism.  Jesus enters the flood, willingly and purposefully walks right into it, goes under its flow and is raised up in the power of the Spirit.  The same water that covers the earth, creating life, destroying life, the same water out of which life crawled however many millions or billions years ago, becomes, for Jesus, a holy river of baptism.  Jesus sees the dove, hears the voice of the Creator, telling him who he is.  His given identity.  “You are my Beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.”  He is there, by the river, body dripping with water, toes sunk in the mud of creation, hearing that he is a beloved child of the one who formed us out of mud and gives us the breath of life.     

From the flood, Jesus walks into the drought, forty days and forty nights in the wilderness.  Mark says he was with the wild beasts, tempted by Satan, and that angels attended him.  Luke and Matthew add that he ate nothing during this period.  It’s a wonder he made it out alive.  Humans can’t live much longer than that without food.  Can’t even go a few days without water.  Jesus’ body is weakened, but his Spirit is tested and strengthened.  He emerges with a message that will re-echo throughout his ministry and throughout the life of the church.  “The time is fulfilled, and the reign of God has come near, is at hand, is now; repent and believe in the good news.”     

And so the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, and the season of Lent cycles around again…  Here, now, we confront all the ways that our lives have become separated from the Creator God, from the beloved path of love and peace that Jesus walked.  We pause for these forty days and open our spirits to testing, to listening, to watching for angels who minister to us.  We repent of our sins.  We recognize that the words of Genesis still ring true – the inclination of our hearts can lead us astray.  We must be vigilant.  We must be intentional.  We must stop walking aimlessly and ask where we are going. 

In Lent, we repent of our misconceptions of God.  We have forgotten that God’s bow is forever hung in the sky and that it is not a weapon pointed at us.  God has repented.  God is for us.  God is for creation.  God has created us, in the divine image.  Life is holy. 

We quiet ourselves to become better aware of this frail life that we are given, on this planet, this small cocoon of divine hospitality in a massive universe, spinning around in space, giving us the seasons of life.  This opportunity to help creation continue to grow into the image of its creator.  For us to slowly steer a course where not only the fittest survive, but also the weak, the outcast, the forgotten. 

We remember flood, and we pass through the wilderness, and when we emerge from the wilderness, we trust that we will know in a deeper way that we are God’s beloved children.  The water is given as a gift to all of life.  It is for drinking, for bathing, for baptism.