Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
Forty days. It comes up over and over again in the Bible. Noah and his family endured forty days and forty nights of rain in the ark. Moses spent forty days on the mountain with God. Goliath challenged the Israelite army for forty days before David defeated him. Elijah spent forty days walking on his journey to Mt. Horeb. And Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness being tested by Satan. It was also forty days after the resurrection that Jesus ascended to heaven. Forty days. It may be more metaphorical than a precise counting. It means a long time.
It a part of the story in all three of our bible readings today. Both in Genesis and in 1 Peter we find references to the story of Noah. We know the story of Noah and the Ark, don’t we? He gathered up a pair of each kind of animal and took them, along with his family, onto a huge boat that he had built. And so all of them were saved from a worldwide flood. And at the end of that ordeal, there was a rainbow.
The story of Noah is, I would venture to say, the most common subject of murals in nurseries and Sunday school classrooms. You’ve got the boat. You’ve got the pairs of animals filing on or off. And of course, you’ve got the rainbow. It’s great for kids. They can count and identify the animals. They can enjoy the happy brightness of the rainbow.
But underneath that happy exterior, the Noah story is a really dark story. Remember that it starts with God being so disappointed in humanity that God wishes we had never been made. God decides to wipe out humanity and start again. And so God chooses one man and his family to be the only human survivors of a worldwide flood that would wipe out every living thing on the earth. So he warns Noah, and Noah builds the ark, and he gathers up specimens of every kind of animal, and as his neighbors jeer at his craziness, he loads them all onboard, and they endure a torrential rainstorm that last how long? Forty days and forty nights. And after those forty days and forty nights, they wait, and wait, and wait for the floodwaters to subside. And they finally do, and Noah and his family and all the animals get off and start the world again.
But remember what they would have seen when they got off the ark. This is more than a story of a happy floating zoo. It’s a story of mass destruction. When people and animals die, they don’t just disappear. But I’ve yet to see a nursery room mural that pictures Noah and his menagerie offloading onto a plain covered with corpses. I’ve never seen one that depicted the ruins of cities, towns, and settlements.
In the part of the story that we read this morning, we get the new covenant that God makes with Noah. This is actually the first covenant found in the Bible, the first promise that God makes. God sets a bow in the clouds as a sign and reminder that God will never again destroy the earth with a flood. We’re meant to see the rainbow as a weapon, an actual bow and arrow, that God has placed facing up, pointed away from the ground, because it is no longer a danger to earth. The covenant is made with all humans, not just with one particular people. The covenant is made even with all of earth’s animals. God will not destroy with flood again.
First Peter picks up the ancient story of Noah and uses it as a metaphor for baptism. The waters of destruction are recast as waters of deliverance. Noah and his family were saved through water. Likewise, we are saved through the waters of baptism. It’s a reminder that baptism is meant to be thought of as a ritual death and rebirth. As in the Noah story, it is a new hope for life in the midst of death. We die with Christ and we are raised with Christ. Peter also makes a hopeful side note that when Jesus died, he went to preach to the spirits in prison. Even for those who were killed in the flood, and indeed for all who have died in sin, there is another chance for liberation in Jesus Christ. He even goes to preach the good news to the dead in hell.
Which brings us to the story of Jesus’s own baptism. It’s Jesus first appearance in the Gospel of Mark. He comes from Nazareth to be baptized by John in the Jordan. He has a mystical experience, in which he sees heaven torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove, and he hears a voice saying, “You are my beloved Son. In you I am well pleased.”
But right after that beautiful and encouraging moment, the mood changes. “And immediately the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness.” It literally says that the Spirit threw him out. It’s the same verb that is used when Jesus casts out demons. The Spirit casts him out, and he is in the wilderness for forty days, tested by Satan. After his baptism, Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness.
Traditionally, the church has reversed the order. Each year we mark a forty day season leading up to Easter. It’s actually forty days, not counting the Sundays, since each Sunday is meant to be a little Easter. It was usually a time of formation for those who were preparing for baptism. They would engage in forty days of prayer and learning and were then baptized on Easter.
So we have weaved together in these stories death and new life, water and spirit, wilderness and chaos, formation and baptism. And they are all connected, all pointing to one other, all providing additional meaning for the others.
We have Noah and Jesus and the Christian believer. We have the flood and the river and the baptismal font. We have forty days of deluge, forty days of temptation in the wilderness, and forty days of preparation in Lent. And in all of them we have a new sense of purpose, a new sense of mission, a promise of new life.
We are three days into our forty-day Season of Lent. But it seems like we’ve been in the wilderness a lot longer than that. People often give something up as part of their Lenten practice, but we are already living without so many things. In a very real sense, we are all on day 344 of a very long Lent. 344 days since the first Sunday that we didn’t meet in person. 344 days since the schools shut their doors. 344 days of being mostly stuck in our houses. And during this 344-day Lent, there are no days of for Sunday.
On the week leading up to the first Sunday of quarantine, I had already cancelled our usual celebration of communion. We had placed bottles of hand sanitizer in pews around the sanctuary. I had placed the offering plate on a little stand at the back of the sanctuary so that people could drop their offerings in instead of having to pass the plate around. A little over three months later, on my last Sunday in Hood River, that offering plate was still sitting there on a little stand at the back of the sanctuary, never having been used.
It’s been 349 days since the last time I gathered in person for worship with anyone outside my household. It’s been 356 days since the last time I celebrated communion. And it’s been well over a year since the last time we have been able to visit family in anything approaching a normal manner.
This time of pandemic has been like a time in the wilderness, and it has lasted so much longer than 40 days. It has been an extended season of fasting that none of us had planned for.
A finally, finally, we are beginning to see an end in sight. Vaccinations are beginning to happen in large numbers. Many the senior living facilities have already fully vaccinated all of their residents, and vaccinations are being rolled out to more and more of the general public. While daily new cases and deaths are still high, they are decreasing now. It is still a time for vigilance and discipline, but it is with a renewed sense of hope.
Many of you are wondering when we will be able to worship in person again in the sanctuary. And that is still quite a ways off. Our bishop is acting with an abundance of caution, and rightly so. But as things continue to improve, we will do what we can when we can.
And while worship in the sanctuary is still a ways off, I can announce that we will have in-person worship in the parking lot on Easter Sunday. You’ll be able to drive in and park. We have a short-range radio transmitter, so you can tune in on your car radio as I, and a few other members of the worship team, lead us in worship. And we will also be celebrating communion on that Sunday. It will be different than usual, but, at least for me, it will be the first time to celebrate communion since before the shut down. That fast will be broken with the end of Lent, and celebration of new life at Easter.
Fasting is hard. Waiting is hard. Separation and wilderness wandering are hard. But they do come to an end. And through them we develop a greater appreciation for what we have missed. We may be in the wilderness now. We may be enduring the deluge. But there will be an end. There is hope for the future. There is the sign of a rainbow. There is the promise of new life. There is the promise of Easter joy. Our spiritual story makes meaning out of this long season of trial. And in the end, our God brings unending joy. Thanks be to God.