Beginnings are important. New relationships, new friendships, new jobs, new governments, whatever it is beginnings matter. Last week saw the beginning of a new two party government in Greece. This is the first two party government to be dominated by the hard left. As they opened a new parliament they began as they intended to go on – breaking rules when it came to wearing ties and ditching decorum when it came to oaths.
Yes, beginnings are important, they set the tone for the future and this is true at the beginning of Lent, beginnings matter. So this morning at the beginning of Lent, we have two beginnings, the beginning of Genesis and the beginning of Mark.
Each year at the start or near the start of Lent, the lectionary takes us back to the beginning and the early stories of Genesis. This year they remind us of the beginnings of God’s promises and covenant with creation and his people (Genesis 9, 12, 15 and 17 in Years A, B and C). These same texts are among those set for the Easter Vigil (Saturday night before Easter Day), which recount the story of redemption, from creation through the resurrection of Jesus.
Our Old Testament passage this morning is the conclusion to the Flood story. In this tradition, God has caused the flood to recede, has re-established creation again from all that was preserved within the ark – plants, animals, humans and even time – and now establishes a covenant with all creation (v. 10).
It is a covenant with all creation, not just humans; it is an eternal covenant; and, unlike other covenants of Genesis (17), it is a covenant in which only God has an obligation.
This eternal covenant with Noah (on behalf of all creation) is not conditional upon Noah or us living up to certain standards. Nor is it conditional in terms of time. There is no time in the future when it might cease to be in force. It is eternal. That means that it is there forever, as far as our minds are capable of perceiving a never-ending continuation of time and beyond even that. It means that the covenant is anchored in ‘eternity’. This covenant is founded on that word which proceeds from God and comes from beyond, to break into the limited sphere of our earthly existence.
It is in this context that we read our gospel reading this morning, where Mark knows that beginnings matter as well.
We have heard this account before over the last few months. (In fact this will be the third or fourth time we have heard this topic in our readings in the last three months.) We have listened to the passage in Advent, at the Baptism of Christ, in Epiphany and now Lent – each time we listen we hear the same thing but in a different context. This time at the beginning of Lent, we hear the presence of hardship, loneliness, sacrifice and even violence that permeates these early verses.
As we start our Lenten journey, these sombre notes seem to jump to the fore. Immediately after his baptism Jesus is driven by the same Spirit that confirmed his identity out into the wilderness, the iconic place of testing, temptation and struggle in Israel's history. His ministry then commences when John is taken by force and arrested, the prelude as we know, to John's murder. Jesus declares that the time is fulfilled and he will not use that word again until the moment when he also is arrested and taken by force, to be killed.
Mark's beginning is not just sombre, it's dark, foreboding and ominous. And that is valuable for us to remember on this First Sunday in Lent. Not, because I think we should over-egg the sombre and penitential nature of Lent, (I will leave that to some of my colleagues) but rather because parts of our life are dark, sombre, ominous and at times violent.
This passage -- and, indeed, all of Lent -- speak to an important if at times difficult-to-name element of our life in this world. Because in God’s convent relationship, God is with us, the person we're trying to be, hoping to be, promising to be, and also with the us we find difficult – our failings, sin and brokenness.
Our gospel passage read alongside the Old Testament reading, reminds us that God’s covenant is with all of creation precisely because of our brokenness. Jesus came into darkness and violence precisely in order to be joined to our brokenness and to redeem it.
Lent is a time to reflect on our lives, even those parts we find difficult, our brokenness and failings and allow them to be healed by the grace of God. Lent is not a time to hide our brokenness from God but to know that Jesus came to give us life, and life in all its fullness, and to make time for God to speak to us and heal us.
It is precisely because of these points that we can see these texts come at the start of Lent. They not only look back at a story concerned with human sin, but look forward to the resolution of that problem. Our account from Mark is about the convenant of Grace spoken about in our account of Noah, God announces in Mark that his Son is the fulfilment of the Covenant made in Genesis. As we begin our Lenten discipline let us remember that eternal covenant which God has made.
And as we begin Lent, let us also note that this passage at the beginning of Mark is dark because it is realistic. Mark was writing to people acquainted with suffering and hardship. Whether they have been persecuted for their faith or merely caught up in the confusion of the Roman War that destroyed the Temple is unclear, but it's tremendously clear that Mark wants us to know that we will find Jesus revealed for us in the places of our pain, brokenness, loneliness and vulnerability.
Whenever we find ourselves in the wilderness of disease, loneliness, joblessness, depression, or all the other things that challenge us, Jesus has been there before and meets us there in order to bear our burdens with us and for us.
And finally, In this gospel passage we hear echoed the message of the covenant God made with Noah in the words that God speaks to his son. “You are my son the beloved. With you I am well pleased” - words echoed to us. And as we face those dark places in our lives, places that appear to us as wilderness, places where we find ourselves with wild beasts let us hear again the voice which says to us “You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased.” Knowing that Jesus has gone before us and that God’s angels attend us.
Beginnings are important, but so are endings. And the Lenten journey we commence this week will have a good ending, when we hear the promise that not even death could hold the Lord of mercy and grace. When we celebrate the risen Christ on Easter morning and celebrate God’s covenant with his people.
Until then if we are going to start our Lenten journey, well we need to hear the voice of God speak to us “you are my beloved” and if we are going to be sustained on our journey, we need to receive the anointing of his spirit and if we are going to hear God’s voice and receive his healing, we need to seek to know the sustaining presence of God with us.
In the words thought to have been written by Walter Raleigh while imprisoned in the Tower ‘The passionate man’s pilgrimage’
Give me my scallop shell quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage;
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage. Amen.