February 21, 2021
It feels as if there are two different gods presented in today’s passages. In Genesis, we hear of a God who became so enraged that it became necessary to punish all creation for the sins of humanity. Only one family was allowed to survive. Only a representation of all creation was given the opportunity to start over. All else—humans, wildlife, even vegetation—was destroyed in a flood so vast that it seemed even hope was lost. This God of punishment required a symbol as a reminder to hold back the next time anger took over. A bow in the clouds would serve to keep God in check when humanity would, again and again, turn its ugliness on the world and on God.
And then we get the God of Mark—the God of baptism. The God who calls us beloved in baptism. The God who drives Jesus into the wilderness, not as punishment but in preparation for his ministry. This is the God who doesn’t need reminders but has sent the Christ as representation for God’s abundant and ever-present love for humanity and all of creation.
And I’m not quite sure how to reconcile these two gods. In fact, I imagine most of us struggle with that task. And when push comes to shove—when we experience challenges in our lives—we tend to believe in the God of the flood. This is the God of punishment. The God who sees what humans have done and sends pestilence upon the earth. Maybe not a flood, but how about a hurricane? I remember several religious leaders attributing Hurricane Katrina to God’s wrath at homosexuals. Maybe not a flood, but how about a virus? A virus that wipes out millions of people. Or a deep freeze that causes so much strife. Or famine and drought.
It’s not hard to imagine this God—the Punisher—the angry God who desires to wipe out the sins of the world and just happens to take good people along with the bad. Of course, if you ever listen closely to those who blame God for these kinds of events, they are always pointing to someone other than themselves as the target for God’s anger. And those targets are often people who have been labeled ‘immoral’ on behalf of God. Because it’s easy to attribute one’s own ideas about sinfulness to the god of one’s beliefs. It’s easy to say that since I think this action or this person is bad, then God must think so, too.
And honestly, humanity tends to hold to a punishing God simply because we are a punishing people. When we think of justice, we think of punishment—of retribution—of vengeance. You kill my people, so I kill yours. Even politically, we don’t see each other as opponents of an agenda but as personal enemies. Especially recently. It’s all ‘good vs. bad.’ ‘Evil vs. righteousness.’ ‘Holy vs. profane.’ ‘Loved by God vs. Punished by God.’
But there’s nothing of that God in the gospel story we heard today. God’s spirit comes upon Jesus as he comes up from the waters of his baptism. And God tells Jesus that he is God’s beloved son. God delights in him. Not because he is perfect or sinless, but because he is God’s. And once he leaves the water, that same spirit drives him into the wilderness to be tested. This isn’t punishment. It can’t be. There’s nothing that warrants punishment. Why would God send Jesus into a dangerous place, filled with wild animals that could hurt him? Why would God leave him with nothing to eat or drink for 40 days? What kind of God does that?
It’s the same God who sent angels to be with Jesus during that time. We kind of read over that part. “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” It never says the angels waited until the 40 days were up. They were there, serving him. Not with food, but with companionship. God met him there, in the wilderness—just as God met him in the water. And God never left him. Not even on the cross.
In fact, my personal approach is that even the cross wasn’t God’s punishment for all of our sins. Instead, it was the human response to God’s love. It was how the people responded to a man who spoke for justice at the temple by undoing the robbery that was happening with the temple leaders’ blessing. It was how the people responded to a man who would touch lepers and eat with tax collectors and walk with prostitutes and share a water jug with Samaritan women. It’s humanity’s response to God’s radical and self-giving love. Because we still want to be the ones God sides with against ‘those other people’—the untouchables, the sinners, the poor.
But instead, God goes to the margins. Through Jesus, God bestowed grace and hope to those without any. And God challenged those who thought they had God in their hip pocket. As you know, that didn’t go so well. That kind of challenge landed Jesus on a cross. But not abandoned. Because there is nowhere we can go that God isn’t already there, ready to offer comfort, encouragement, and hope.
God meets us—whether on a cross or in the wilderness or in the hospital or in a polar vortex. God meets us—regardless what we have done and left undone. God meets us—no matter our politics or religious preference. God meets us—when the bully stands with fists raised, when we ourselves have fists raised. God meets us in our belief and our unbelief. God meets us in the flood and on the ark and on dry land. God meets us in our most troubling hour—and leads us to a new day. Always.
I still don’t know what to make of the God of the flood. I wonder if the story wasn’t written and told by someone who also considered the world a huge mess and felt they were on the side of God in the destruction of so much. I wonder if God sent the flood as punishment or if God stood with the people in its path, not stopping the water but standing with them through the torment. Because, you see, as much as we want a God who will save us from the consequences of our collective sin in this world, that kind of god would only see life and hope the way we do—the right now, the immediate, this day for me and my loved ones.
Instead, we get the God of the wilderness—the God of the cross. The God who knows all too well our pain, but instead of saving us from it, walks with us to the other side of it. I know, when we’re in that pain, those words don’t feel very comforting. I only pray that on the other side of the wilderness, we will have recognized how it has prepared us for what is to come. I only pray that we will have seen God’s footsteps with us, God’s hand guiding us, and God’s back scarred with the harshest blows that would have come our way.
I just got done listening to an audiobook by Sue Monk Kidd called, “The Book of Longings.” It’s a beautiful imagining of a woman, Judas’ sister, who falls in love with Jesus. And as the sufferings persist in her life and her beloved’s, her aunt tells her, “All will be well.” Anna can’t imagine how all could possibly be well. But her aunt clarifies—this doesn’t mean that we won’t go through the pain of very difficult times, but it won’t destroy us, either.
All will be well. Because God meets us where we are. May all be well with you. May God meet you in the midst of your pain and take you through it. May you know God’s deep healing within you. May you know that you are beloved and blessed. And may your struggles prepare you to serve God with abandon.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church