The story of Noah’s ark is a favourite among many people, particularly young children. It is a story that is best known for the images of all the different animals lining up, two by two, to enter the ark to escape the coming flood. It’s a story that brings out pictures of joyful scenes, happy animals and the image of a huge rainbow in the sky that again depicts joyful scenes. Those scenes are a favourite amongst Sunday School stories and songs. But Noah’s ark is a far cry from playful joyful scenes. It is a picture of God’s anger at sin and human beings and how God tries to deal with the situation.
It begins with a regret voiced by God – a regret that he had ever made Adam and Eve and all humanity: God responds angrily saying that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” God is struggling with what to do with sin and sinful human beings. Sin that is so ingrained in humanity that he cannot separate them. Sin that he detests so much in humanity that he loves so much. And so God tries again. He has one family that he respects – Noah and his family – and he will repopulate the world by saving that family and by saving 2 of every animal to breed them and repopulate the earth with them. But what God discovers is that the water that he uses to wash away the evil in the world does not cleanse the world of sin as it soon begins again in Noah’s family despite their upright living. God introduces a system of sacrifices; 3 times a day, morning, noon and night, the people of Israel would sacrifice a burnt offering to appease God for their sin and the sin of the world. Once a year on the Day of Atonement, Israel would capture a goat and lay hands upon it symbolising the placement of all their unintentional sins on it and then cast the goat out into the wilderness taking their sins with it – from where we get the term ‘scape goat’ – a person who takes the guilt on behalf of another.
Again, sin torments God as the people wander away from God after he had forgiven them and follow other gods who seemed to offer more. Again God’s anger causes him to cast his people from his sight and he has them exiled into foreign lands and allows their temple where the offerings were made to be destroyed. But again, that struggle within God between sin that he detests and humanity that he loves sees him relent time and again – in much the same way that he relented from destroying Nineveh in the days of Jonah. So we see this love of God for humanity that forgives the sin he detests when we repent of our sin.
As we move into the New Testament we see God’s struggle with sin continue. He can’t just ignore it and combines his love of humanity and his hatred of sin by sending his own son to become a sacrifice for our sins as Jesus proclaims: For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
John the Baptist prepares the way for Jesus with the message “Repent” – the same message that Jesus would proclaim also – repent, and believe in the good news. Repentance allows God to rebuild us. This message of repentance was so important that Jesus leaves towns still crying out for healing from their illnesses to that the message could be preached everywhere. Jesus, the Lamb of God, becomes our scape goat by which our sins are placed on him and he is cast out taking our sins with him to the cross as our once and for all sacrifice.
On this first Sunday of Lent we see the playing out of that action by God reflecting all the elements we have seen in the Old Testament in God’s attempt at dealing with our sin. We see the waters of the flood used to drown out sinful humanity now being used to drown our sins through Baptism as Jesus begins his ministry for humanity by undergoing his own Baptism. Immediately after his baptism Jesus is sent by the Spirit into the wilderness, a place of danger and alienation. But God’s love for his own son ensures that he is not alone in the wilderness as Mark writes – the angels waited on him: that same promise and love is enacted in our Baptism where Jesus promises – I am with you always.
He never leaves us alone in the wilderness of life. Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness, again reflecting the flooding in Noah’s time when it rained for forty days and 40 nights.
Jesus time in the wilderness becomes a place of temptation by the devil – again replaying the scene from the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve are tempted to depart from God’s care and to provide for themselves and as a result are banished from the Garden of Eden and sent into the wilderness. But God doesn’t abandon them. He provides clothes for them. He provides protection for Cain when he is banished for killing his brother Abel. We see a God who continues to struggle with sin he detests and humanity whom he loves.
God now deals with our sin but does not allow his anger to destroy us like he did in the days of Noah. He does not cast us out of his sight like Israel in the exile. God now deals with our sin, as Paul says: Christ suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. Instead of expressing his anger against us because of our sin, Paul says in 2 Corinthians – God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. A sweet exchange of our sin for Christ’s righteousness.
Sin still plays a heavy weight on Christians; that’s where the devil still does his work. He accuses us, as his name’s meaning suggests – the accuser. That’s where our Baptism does its work for us as Paul again says: Baptism now saves you– not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
None of us are perfect but we are all forgiven when we call upon the name of Christ – the Lamb of God sacrificed for our sins – the scape goat who takes our sins into the wilderness but leaves us in the presence of God’s love and mercy. In these next 40 days of Lent we will journey with Jesus to the cross. We will have opportunity to reflect on our relationship with God and our sinfulness that saw Jesus crucified for our sins.
These 40 days will be our wilderness experience as we reflect on our sinfulness that God detests and our humanity that God loves. Throughout the history of God, we see God’s people spending their time wrestling with God in the barren places. Abraham and Sarah journeying to the unknown promised land – the wandering of the people of Israel for forty years, Jacob’s wrestling with the unknown stranger at the Jabbok where he walks away victorious but lame. The wilderness can be a place of self-discovery as we too struggle with God. God’s people never faced the wilderness alone.
For forty years, God journeyed with Israel.
For forty days, God watched over Noah.
For forty days, God stood with Jesus.
For forty days God watched Nineveh repent in ashes and sackcloth.
And for our time in the wilderness God will stand with us. Our church, our community, our world—now more than ever—needs the wilderness. We need to spend the time looking at ourselves in order to find new life, new ministry, and new ways of being the people of God. We don’t like wilderness experience.
We prefer things to stay the same, for things to be frozen in time – like Peter in the Transfiguration.
We long for the way things were in the past, but God is calling us, like the people of Israel, to a new future – our promised land. God has work for us to do and that work begins, like it did with Jesus, when we are driven to the wilderness of discovery. We go to the wilderness to discover anew the joy of being loved.
We go to learn once more what it means to be and live as God’s loved ones even though sin fills our every inclination. We go to listen for the voice of God calling us again. We go to see Christ more clearly in the world around us. We go because that is where we encounter God. The wilderness is calling. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”