1st Sunday of Lent (B) – February 21, 2021
St. Mary – Derby, KS
Genesis 9:8-15; Psalm 24:4-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15
Intro to Lent: Forty Days Preparing for Mystery and Mission
As we journey through these forty days of Lent, I think it’s probably a good idea to take a quick step back to remind ourselves what we’re doing, but also to make sure we know what the end goal or goals are. Because these forty days are a time of preparation, yes. And we think, “Yeah, a preparation for Easter.” And yes, but no. Yes, we are preparing for Easter, but no—it’s kinda like my diatribe during Advent about how it’s not about baking cookies and wrapping presents for Christmas—just like that, these forty days are not for doing spring cleaning, finding a cute spring outfit for Easter, and stuffing Easter eggs, or something.
These forty days are days of preparation. They are a time of preparation of ourselves. And first and foremost, they are days when we prepare to enter into the sacred mysteries, into the Paschal Mystery. This is a fancy way to say that we are preparing to enter into the life that flows from Jesus. So that’s first. But secondly, and building from that life, these days prepare us for our mission, our “job” as Baptized Christians. So it’s a two-fold preparation: for entering into the life of Jesus Christ, embracing that life, being filled with that life; but then going out, being sent by the Spirit on mission, living that new life in the midst of our families, in our jobs, and everywhere we go.
This time, these forty days, are different for different people, though. For those who are going to be baptized and received into the Church at the Easter Vigil, these forty days are originally for them. Originally, Lent was specifically for these people. It was called the time of “Purification and Enlightenment.” It was the final period of purifying from their lives those things which could not be there if they were going to be a follower of Jesus Christ. It was a time to be enlightened, to grow in knowledge and love of the Lord before they would enter into His very life in the waters of Baptism. Great. For us, for those of us already Baptized and Confirmed, these forty days were adopted as a time of reminding us of our own baptism, our own entrance into the life of Jesus; and renewing that. So while for the RCIA it’s a time to prepare to enter into this sacred mystery, for the rest of us it is a time of renewal of this.
Cool. But that’s only the first step. The second step? It prepares us for our mission, for our job as Christians. Again, we are entering into the very life of Jesus himself. That’s what Baptism and Confirmation and the Eucharist do: they initiate us into the very life of Jesus himself. This is where we get very hesitant as Catholics. We think, “What? I come to Mass. What else am I supposed to do?” The life we enter into at Baptism isn’t just some ticket to get into heaven, nu-uh, not at all. This life is meant to be spread. Jesus didn’t sit around waiting to float off to heaven, no. Jesus had a mission, he was sent for a purpose, to do something.
Think about Jesus in the desert. He spends forty days and forty nights in the desert, being tempted, yes, but also preparing to do the work for which he was sent. He is spending forty days preparing; preparing to go around preaching, and teaching, and performing works of power, and so on. For forty days he prepares, but then he goes out on mission to do the work he was sent to do. As the baptized, people who have entered into Jesus’ life, we aren’t supposed to sit around and do nothing. We enter into this life to carry on the mission of Jesus Christ.
Renewal by Covenant
The mission Jesus comes to accomplish can be summed up in a few simple words: Jesus comes to establish the new and eternal covenant. Jesus comes to establish the new and eternal covenant.
Remember, “in the beginning”—that whole Adam and Eve story, yeah?—things were fine! God made a partnership with mankind—Adam and Eve are symbolic of all of humanity; God made this partnership with humanity that they would work together to bring more and more goodness out of this already good world. But Adam and Eve, humanity, did what? They didn’t live up to their end of the bargain. (Humans, not living up to their end of the deal?? What?? Go figure.) Humans chose from the very beginning to live life on their own terms, they chose to make a world on their own terms, they chose to decide what is right and wrong in their own eyes over accepting to share in the life of God himself—that’s the point that the story of Adam and Eve is trying to make, and that should be something we can relate to. This story is the Bible explaining why humanity is stuck in this situation of corruption and injustice, tragedy and death. Adam and Eve represent humanity. All of humanity has abandoned this partnership with God.
So from almost the very beginning, the world has been in need of renewal, of recreation. God could have said, “To heck with it,” and wiped out the entire world. But that’s not how God acts, no. That’s how we would act, that’s the “logical conclusion” of thinking that “Humans are the cause of all the world’s problems.” Every mass-murderer, Columbine shooters—this is what they have realized. (I think I’ve told you this before. But I asked the 6th graders, “How could Ms. Gumm have a perfectly calm and quiet classroom? How could she very easily rid the classroom of the ‘evil’ of your yelling and distractions?” And one kid pipes up and says, “Well, she could just kill us.” Well, yes, but…yeah, we had that kid go talk to Mr. Montgomery. Anyway.)
The world is in need of renewal, of re-creation! In other words, the work that God immediately begins to do, that he immediately sets out on, is the work of New Creation, renewing all of creation, bringing new life, renewing our very humanity.
The Ins and Outs of Covenants
Now, great. How is God going to do this? What in the world does Jesus need to show up for? Why didn’t God just snap his fingers and renew the world? He could have, but He didn’t. We start telling this story of how God accomplished his plan by sending Jesus to die for us. And that’s true. But think about it, that makes no sense. Why in the world is “Jesus dying for us” a thing? How does that fix anything? Or we hear, “Jesus died to show us how much he loved us,” But again, how does God showing us he loves us by dying for us, how does that change anything or renew creation or renew our humanity? We’re on the right track but we need to ride down this track a little further—actually, we need to back up on this track and see where it came from.
Throughout history, God chose a very specific way to bring about this New and (re)New(ed) Creation. And the way He chose to do this is by something called “covenants.” By establishing a covenant with certain people, a smaller group of people, God would begin to establish this covenant with more and more people, and through them He would bring about this renewal of all of creation. It’s a grassroots movement.
To oversimplify the matter, a covenant is a partnership. A covenant establishes a bond, a familial bond between two parties. It involves making promises and commitments. In these covenants God makes, He makes certain promises and then asks the partner to fulfill certain commitments. And, again, the purpose of these covenants isn’t to be exclusive, or favor certain people or races or something over others, no. The purpose of these covenants is to use His partners to renew His partnership and His relationship with everybody else.
Throughout the Old Testament (and the word “testament” is just another word for covenant)—in the Old Testament, there were four main covenants. There is the covenant with creation through Noah, there is the covenant with Abraham, one with Moses and the people of Israel, and then one with David. These covenants built on one another, growing little by little. The family of Noah, the tribe of Abraham, the nation of Israel, the kingdom of David. Again, little by little, through covenantal relationships with a small group of people, God begins to extend this covenant to all.
The Covenant with Noah
And so that’s where we stand when it comes to our first reading today, about this covenant God makes with Noah. (Over the next four weeks, the first reading is going to be about each one of these covenants in one way or another, and then we will hear from the prophets about a new covenant). But today, in this story, we hear about the covenant with Noah. God has just brought the flood to cleanse the world of humanity’s corruption, and Noah and his family are the only ones left. In essence, the world is “beginning” again.
And so God makes a covenant with Noah saying, “Listen…I know that humans will continue to do evil and be corrupt. But despite that, I’m not going to destroy it like this again. Instead, the earth will be this reliable place for us to work together.” Great! So what does Noah have to do? What are his commitments? Nothing. And that’s what’s so interesting about this first covenant: it’s that God is promising to be faithful even though he knows humans won’t be.
The New Covenant Jesus Establishes (Noah-ically)
God is faithful. We are not. If there is one thing you can be sure of, it is this. God is faithful, and we are not.
Now, we can’t answer all of the questions about why Jesus died or how Jesus dying helps us or renews creation. But we can make one point today: How has God chosen to renew creation, to bring new life, to renew our humanity? Covenants. So, logically speaking, what is Jesus going to do? Establish a New Covenant. “New Covenant will be the means of New Creation. That’s how biblical theology works” (Wright). Throughout the next several Sundays, we’re going to see how Jesus is faithful to the covenantal relationships where everyone else wasn’t. Jesus is going to be the one human who is faithful to the covenants. Remember: whenever God makes a covenant promise, the people He makes that covenant with have certain commitments to fulfill—but they always fail. God is faithful, we are not. Jesus is going to be faithful.
“But Fr. Michael,” you’re thinking, “You said there were no commitments in the covenant with Noah. How is Jesus going to be faithful to the commitments when there are none?” Good question. Jesus is faithful simply by entering into this world as a human. Jesus is faithful by fully entering into this place where God and human are able to work together. Think of today’s Gospel again: Jesus enters the desert and, like all real humans, is tempted to abandon his covenant with God. Time and time again, the devil tempts Jesus to reject God: to live life on his own terms, make a world on his own terms. Jesus—God become man—is going to be the faithful covenant partner, the partner mankind was supposed to be but failed to be.
In other words, through Jesus, God has opened up a Way for anyone to be in a renewed covenant with Him. Jesus comes and announces this new covenant. Jesus establishes a “new and eternal covenant,” a covenant, we’re going to find out during Holy Week, in his own blood. And he calls people to be part of this way. And through him—through him, with him, and in him we say at the Mass—we are becoming faithful partners.
Entering the New Covenant through Water
We enter into this new covenant through water. Like our second reading said, Noah and the people God saved, were saved “through water” (1 Peter 3:20). This water prefigured the water of Baptism, a water which brings death, but a water through which we are also saved and given new life, renewed life. We have to stay tuned throughout the next several weeks to get the whole picture, but for today this is enough: through water, we are given access to this new covenant in Jesus. We are given access to the New and (re)New(ed) Creation God promises.
Throughout these forty days, for those of us already baptized, may this time be a preparation for a renewal of that life. And for our catechumens, may it be a time of preparation to enter into those waters of life.