Lent 1B (February 18, 2018)

Chaos, in the biblical world, is a negative thing. It is not the absence of a schedule or responsibilities. Chaos is not carefree. It is not freedom. It is not possibility. Chaos is perilous. It kills life and denies new life. In Genesis 1, life as we know it arises only after God tells the chaos—the oceans—to stay to one side. God does not eliminate the chaos; humans exist only because the waters are not allowed to run amok.

Our First and Second Readings today tell of the Flood. The Flood was a chaotic response to chaos. The world in Noah’s day was, according to Genesis, filled with angelic creatures who forced themselves on helpless human women, and whose superhuman offspring used their power for evil. The most powerful creatures in creation were taking and denying life. They were creating chaos. God fought this chaos with raging floodwaters, probably Scripture’s strongest symbol of chaos. In today’s reading, we hear how after the Flood, God made a covenant with Noah, his descendants, and all creatures, that God would never again unleash chaos to fight chaos.

In the Gospel, the wilderness is the place of chaos. Mark tells us of Jesus going into the wilderness now and then, and we today think of this as a retreat, or maybe a camping trip or a nature walk. Jesus needs a rest. No. The wilderness in Jesus’ culture was chaotic. Some of this was grounded in reality: there are wild animals, the elements threaten, outlaws may lurk. Some of this fear was not rational: demons were said to live in the wilderness. Apparently, demons prefer the rustic life. You did not go to the wilderness for fun. The prophet Isaiah had said, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” He meant that God would make the chaotic and dangerous into something safe and orderly. When John the Baptist took his ministry into the wilderness he enacted this idea of God ordering the chaos.

Immediately after John baptized Jesus, the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, into chaos. Mark tells us that Jesus “was in the wilderness forty days”—which of course is how long it rained during the Flood—and that he was “tempted by Satan.” Unlike Matthew and Luke, who give details, Mark tells us only that it went on for forty days. He leaves us to wonder what exactly transpired. If we have only Mark to go on, we know that first John baptized Jesus and the spirit descended on him like a dove; second, that same spirit drove Jesus into the place of chaos where he was tempted by Satan and served by angels; and third, when the forty days ended and John was arrested, Jesus went out of the chaos and into his home country, proclaiming that everyone should get above and beyond their old mindsets. The Greek word we translate as “repent” does not mean “feel shame over bad things” (though you may); it means get above and beyond your old mindset. Whatever happened to Jesus over those forty days, when he returned to ordered society he was calling for everyone to change their ways of looking at things. What happened? What was the temptation?

In Mark that Jesus repeatedly returns to the place of chaos. Just a couple of weeks ago we read that he got up on a Sunday after a lot of healings and went out into the chaos. He went out where demons hang out. As Jesus’ popularity grows he finds he can’t even enter towns, so he stays in the wilderness—in the chaos, like an outlaw. When the disciples return from their preaching tour Jesus invites them to go into the wilderness “to rest.” Right, Jesus. What could be more restful than a weekend fleeing wild predators and being harassed by Satan!? Jesus and the Twelve head out there, five thousand people see them going and follow, so, Jesus teaches them. When it gets late, the disciples say, “Uh, Jesus, five-thousand people wanting to eat sounds chaotic enough; seeing them try to eat in the chaotic wilderness sounds like something we’d rather not observe. Let’s get these people outta here.” And Jesus says, “Oh, no, you’ll serve them, here.” Oh dear! It’s almost as if Jesus is okay being in a chaotic place.

Maybe the temptation in the wilderness was for Jesus to fight chaos with chaos, as he had in the Flood. Saint Paul writes to the Philippians, “though Christ Jesus was in the form of God he did not regard equality with God as something to be seized or exploited.” God had hung up God’s chaos. The bow in the sky, the rainbow, God’s bow-of-war: God hung it up. Satan tempted Jesus: “You could use it, again. It’s time for the Second Person of the Trinity to get rid of the other two and get rid of everything and everyone who opposes him.” But Jesus didn’t do that. The triune God has always been a group effort. For that matter, Jesus’ time in the wilderness was a group effort. The angels ministered to him. I’m not saying the Lord couldn’t do it alone; I am saying, he had angel help. God—who as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a group effort—resisted temptation as a group effort and kept the “rainbow-of-war” in the sky.

I am not Jesus, yet I am tempted to take up the chaotic rainbow-of-war and use it. What do I mean by that? There are things I like and things I don’t like. There are things I embrace and things I fear. Some of these fears are rational: I am afraid of heavily armed white men coming to my daughters’ school. Heavily armed white men shoot up American schools with alarming frequency. Some of my fears are irrational: I am scared to death of clowns. I don’t know why, but I feel like you should be, too. The former fears can take away life; the latter fears cannot, really, but I am convinced they can. I am tempted to grab hold of the chaotic—which takes life and denies life—and use it against the things and the people I fear.

Instead, Jesus emerges from the chaotic wilderness, and calls us into a new mindset. He says, “You gotta stop thinking about things that way, Timothy.” We as Jesus’ followers do not cower in our carefully structured reality hoping that the chaos does not encroach upon us. Nor do we take up God’s chaos and use it to take the lives of those we fear. If we do either of those things, we’re not following Jesus. No, we keep God’s rainbow-of-war in the sky as a reminder that God has covenanted with all of us. The rabbis developed the notion of a Noachide. Briefly put, everyone is descended from Noah, according to the Bible. Before there was the covenant with the Hebrews at Sinai, before there was the covenant with Abraham that Paul liked to reference, there was the covenant with Noah that God loved all creation and would not destroy it. Everyone is within God’s love, and we are blessed with every single person as a potential partner in God’s work. That’s some of the theological grounding of the rainbow flags we use, here. We want specifically to welcome the LGBT because churches so often tell them they aren’t invited. The rainbow is a sign of welcome to them; moreover, it is a reminder to every one of us that we are welcome here because God promised that everyone is welcome. None of us may take up God’s chaotic bow-of-war and deny the fullness of life to anyone. That’s part of the new mindset to which Jesus calls us: everyone is welcome, and that is the only way that I am welcome.

The other part of the mindset is that we’re going out into the chaos. Jesus’ trips to the wilderness to hang out with Satan and the demons culminate in the feeding of the five thousand, as the disciples ask, “what should we do?” and Jesus creates enough for everyone to have something, and tells the disciples, “place it before them.” The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness where he was ministered to by the angels, and then that same Spirit in Jesus drove thousands into the wilderness where they were served by the disciples. That same Spirit in Jesus works today, driving us into the broken world. Jesus drives us into the places that we are afraid to go, to have the conversations we are afraid to have, to face the powers we are afraid to face. Whether our fears are rational or irrational, Jesus drives us into them.

Like the disciples who fed the five thousand in the chaotic wilderness, our job is not to multiply the loaves and fishes. Jesus the creator of the world has got that under control. Our job is to place God before the world. Our job is to go into the places where life is taken and denied and offer life. Our job is to go to those who would seize God’s bow and take life, and to place life in Christ before them. Our job is to go into a world bent on protecting some lives by taking others, and to set before the world God’s model of life sufficient for everyone. And our job is to help each other do it. Jesus had angel help when he faced Satan. Noah had seven other people in the Ark with him, and there when God hung the bow. Jesus has given us each other for when we place God before the world. We welcome others because we are welcome, and we do it together in the chaos because following Jesus is, like the triune God, a group effort.