Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15

When we tell the Noah’s Ark story to kids, it doesn’t usually sound too much like Lent: a 40-day trial in the chaos. And our reading this morning seems to avoid that idea as well, because it fast-forwards to the end, with the rainbow that declares God’s covenant with creation. That’s the right part of the story, in a big way: the readings for this Lent are really about God’s everlasting faithfulness. At the same time, the season begins with a so-called “children’s story” about the destruction of all but a handful of the living creatures on earth. Sure, according to the logic of the story God was justified in doing this, but there’s a great big mess on the way to this rainbow and its unconditional promise.

That’s part of what I love about the Old Testament stories: their messiness insists that God’s ways are far beyond our understanding, that God’s plans are bigger than our own concerns. Now, that’s not to minimize our suffering when we get the short end of the story. Perhaps a very few of us can say, “Oh, that’s God’s plan, so I’m not worried,” but I’m not one of those people. I’m a firm believer in shaking our fists at God. There’s something truly honest and faithful in feeling the need to remind the Eternal Almighty of her eternal covenant with all creation. Stories like the flood – and I encourage you, as always, to read the whole thing sometime – stories like this are built on a deep paradox: life truly seems to be terribly random, God has this capricious streak, and yet everything presses inexorably on toward blessing.

Thinking about this paradox, I’m always reminded of my parents’ divorce, which has so far been one of the worst things I’ve experienced. My brother and I, of course, were caught in the middle of it, despite everything my parents did right to minimize that. At the same time, we were also surrounded by a church community (and remember that our family was very visible in the church) that did an admirable job of setting aside their own investments in each of my parents and “circled the wagons” around my brother and me. They showed me that even if our closest and most important relationships fall apart, love and faithfulness will always arise from other quarters. That experience has served me very well, in ministry as well as in “real life.” It’s strange but true that I was blessed through my parents’ divorce.

I often get uneasy when we pray for blessings, as if we truly knew what blessings we needed. God’s blessings often seem to come through these terrible, dark stories where we’re transformed beyond what we could really have wanted. God blesses the people of Israel over and over in the Hebrew scriptures. He blesses them with hunger and thirst in the wilderness, turning them to a deeper trust in God’s provision. She blesses them with kings that unite the people but accumulate resources for their own benefit; today, these stories speak to us all about how to use our power justly. God blesses them with enemies who drag the people into exile and force them to truly understand and claim their identity as people of God. Because I know these stories, I wonder: when we ask for blessings, are we “asking for it” too?

If God had reason to bless anyone, it was Jesus – and just look at how that story plays out. Several weeks ago we read the first piece of today’s Gospel: the baptism story and God pronouncing Jesus “my own dear Son.” Now we get the rest of the story. The same Spirit that just pronounced God’s grace “casts Jesus out” into the wilderness, as if the Son of God were some kind of demon. This story sets the pattern for our traditions of fasting, giving something up, or reexamining our lives during Lent. I think it also gives some weight to our sense of indignation that a loving God would ask this of us. Really, the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness? And that’s the way of blessing?

Perhaps we’ve heard enough sermons to think we have have answers about why God did this. The traditional interpretation is that in the wilderness, Jesus shared our humanity, including temptation, hunger, and even confusion about God’s purposes. All the same, I don’t imagine that knowing why he was hungry made Jesus hunger any less. It sure doesn’t do that for me, at least not right away.

The reality is that the God we attempt to trust, the God Jesus followed and embodied without exception, sometimes looks like nothing less than the cause of our suffering. Sometimes the only most-faithful thing we can say is, “Why?” Why did God seem to take my loved one? Why didn’t God save my marriage? How long until God finally provides what I need for a stable life? God,where are you?

Jesus himself cried out, “My God, my God, why did you abandon me?” I don’t think the cross was probably the first time he said that. I imagine hearing that cry echoing through the wilderness too. That prayer, the prayer of lament, does two things at once. It acknowledges how awful life can be, and it insists that God can be present to us, even in God’s absence.

God was present in the wilderness. Maybe he was not visible, but he was there. Mark tells us, “angels came and helped him.” Messengers from God came with protection, relief, and strength in the middle of trial and suffering.

God was present in my experience of the end of my parents’ marriage. God wasn’t visible directly, but angels came and helped me. Angels named Nancy, Becky, Jim, Elaine, Andrew, and Nick. I was grateful for what some of them did, and I didn’t even recognize some of them, but they were there. God was there.

Your angels most likely have other names, but you probably know who they are. Or maybe you don’t yet, but you likely will. We’re never abandoned, even when everything we’ve ever counted on seems to disappear. We can’t usually say that in the moment, but I’m convinced it’s always been true. It was true for Noah, it was true for Jesus, and it’s been true for me.

It was a good move, naming the rainbow as a symbol of faithfulness. It’s a reminder that we can recognize God, trust and call on God’s presence, even and especially when it’s impossible to see or believe in God. It’s an invitation to embody that presence for others, in the name of the One who walks with us in every dark and lonesome valley. Thanks be to God for this unending faithfulness.