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The First Sunday in Lent: Forty Days

Genesis 9:8–17

God said to Noah and to his sons with him, "As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth." God said, "This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 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." God said to Noah, "This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth."

Mark 1:9–15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."

We all have a friend who tells us the truth. Maybe a bit bluntly, but with love. That’s my friend Colleen. As I was leaving her house last month with this big purse flung over my shoulder, she stopped me: “Why are you carrying that big thing around? You’ll break your back.”

I knew I could come up with a weak defense, but I didn’t bother. My heavy-purse syndrome is a symptom of something deep—worthy of real reflection. You see, for years, every day, I’ve been carrying around a bulging kit full of items that I, or my kids, or my parents, or a friend or stranger, might need in an emergency. BandAids, Advil, scissors, spot remover, allergy medicine. In one way, I knew Colleen would understand. She’s an old Girl Scout leader like me: “Be prepared.”

But in my heart, I knew this heavy kit was a sign of worry, not strength. Could help me only in the most minor calamities. Had never prepared me to meet the true emergency moments that have changed my life, and perhaps have touched yours: A major injury. A job lay-off. A frightening health diagnosis. A large financial loss. A late-night call from the ER. The sudden disappearance of a close friend. The death of a parent.

In these sharp moments, we are jolted, we are humbled, and we are rearranged. We don’t have time to assemble an emergency kit or even to reach for one. In these sharp moments, we are asked to stand only with the spiritual core we have right then—to face what life will now be, forever changed. 

So, how do we prepare, fully and mindfully, for these major, unforeseen life changes? How do we face the mystery of all that lies ahead, confidently and with grace? What is the practice of spiritual preparation that can ready us for whatever life brings—including the only sure thing, death? “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Maybe I’m being a bit like Colleen this morning—ambushing you with blunt questions when you don’t expect it. But I think they’re what we’re meant to ask ourselves on this first Sunday in Lent, the beginning of a season of self-reflection and deep preparation for life and death.

Often, in my life, Lent has played a role no bigger than my superficial emergency kit. I’d recognize its place in the Church calendar as a hurdle to cross on the way to Easter. I’d give up something minor, as I did as a child. Maybe wine instead of candy. But I’d simply add that practice to whatever other burdens I was carrying around. All in all, the observance of Lent just made my life a tiny bit heavier—but it didn’t touch my brokenness, my spiritual center. Maybe the same is true for you.

But the early Christian Church intended something very different for us. This holy season was meant to prepare us for the great mystery of Easter, when the meaning of our existence is forever changed by the example of Jesus’s final ministry, death, and new life. New converts were to enter into practices of prayer, penitence, and meditation that would make them ready for forgiveness and baptism on Easter. And notorious sinners were to be reunited with the Church community, which, like them, would be made whole again by their repentance and forgiveness.

The season of Lent grew in length because practicing Christians realized that this kind of sincere spiritual preparation cannot be done quickly. As we all well know, it takes time to break habits and addictions; to embody new understandings; to ground new elements of identity in our core. Above all, it takes time to heal the darkest places that keep us broken.

Is forty days enough time to do this? No, not really. The Church calendar invites us to go through this cycle year after year, as our experience teaches us, as our relationship with God deepens, as our healing becomes more definite. We know that life will keep shocking us. So the spiritual training of Lent can keep strengthening us—one day, one year, one step at a time.

So how should we spend these next forty days so that we approach Passion Week and Easter with a stronger core for pain and joy? Our readings this morning point us to Noah and Jesus and their forty days of preparation to show the way. Granted, I’m not going to suggest that we build arks or fast in the wilderness! But I will suggest that we observe the arc of their journeys in order to arrive somewhere new in Lent.

First, Noah and Jesus opened themselves to deep listening to God. For Noah, this came in a moment of revelation, when God asked him to help right a deep wrong in the world and to accept his worthiness to do so. For Jesus, this came in a moment of baptism, when God acknowledged him as his Beloved child, fully pleasing, fully blessed. Whatever was to unfold next, Noah and Jesus could then face it, with full knowledge of God’s tender love—and their worthiness.

Next, they bravely took their insights into a challenging place of darkness. After suffering ridicule, enduring hardship (who would like to gather two of anything wild, no less everything, onto an ark?), and facing doubt, Noah had to ride out forty days in a world-crashing storm—not knowing it would be only forty days, not knowing what would remain of his life on the other side. I imagine he had to continue to ask for and receive the greatest strength from God in this dark hull, in this time of destruction. He had to allow his old life to end in order to live again.

Jesus, too, we are told, was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness after his baptism: a place without his usual comforts or companions; a place of danger and vulnerability; a place of spiritual nakedness. Baptism did not point an easy course forward for Jesus. To be fully whole, to embrace the mystery and the power of his ministry, to become what God truly meant him to be, demanded this time of spiritual preparation.

Here he wrestled with temptation about his future, a struggle I’ve faced and I believe you may have, too. He had angels to sustain him in the wilderness, yes, but he had to go there and do deep, difficult, inner work—alone. For forty days.

And, at the end of their hard journeys, both Noah and Jesus emerged with good news. God said to Noah and to his sons with him, "I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth." Jesus returned with this message: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." He called us to repentance—metanoia— a change of mind or heart.

And with their good news that we can all be healed and changed, Noah and Jesus then began to rebuild the world, with God, from the inside out. With faith beyond fear, even in the face of death.

So, I suggest, that in these forty days we follow the heart of their practice. Set time aside to listen deeply to God. This doesn’t take a special gift or a strange habit. Simply do what you do with a close friend: make time to be present; sit down; be quiet; don’t interrupt; and listen. Do this regularly, in any place that feels safe and familiar. God will be there.

Listen to everything that comes up. Listen to what you may not want to hear about what you can change in your life. Listen also to the message of God’s great love for you and your worthiness.

Then take God’s love and support into some dark corner of your life. You don’t have to change everything. Just look at one place of brokenness that you may not have wanted to face: a relationship, a habit, a fear, a compulsion. Do this gradually and with tenderness—but with intention. To prepare for whatever comes next in your life, pain and joy, this one place deserves healing. And you are promised all the angels you need to make this change, to become whole, for you are God’s Beloved.

Finally, bring the healing of this forty-day practice to all around you. You don’t need to witness with words. Simply bring to others the power of this year’s Lenten journey—the presence of the kingdom of God—in your smile, in your compassion, in your steady, loving presence throughout life’s many emergencies.

Instead of a heavy burden on your back, wear the strength of your spiritual core. Amen.


~ Rev. Clare C. Novak, Interfaith Minister

St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Incline Village, Nevada

February 26, 2012