26 Feb 2012
“The Spirit drove [Jesus] out into the desert, and He remained [there] for 40 days …” (Mark 1:12-13) In the name …
This past Tuesday Dilbert, the jaded corporate engineer who is the namesake of the Dilbert cartoon strip, yells out in panel one: “I’ve found the Higgs Boson!” In panel two the Higgs Boson commands the engineer: “Build an ark!” To which Dilbert in panel three responds by simply turning off the experiment and walking away, mumbling to himself: “Nothing but trouble.” You can see the whole cartoon at the bottom of this morning’s song sheet. The cartoon is only funny if you know that the great American physicist Leon Lederman once wrote a book about the search for the Higgs Boson, a subatomic particle, and that he titled the book The God Particle. This 1993 book is making the rounds again because they may possibly have found evidence for this God Particle over in Europe at the Large Hadron Collider. But all these details aren’t that important, it’s just that the Higgs Boson is also known as the God Particle. The comic strip engineer Dilbert discovers the God Particle, and then the God Particle commands Dilbert to build an ark. Rather than get involved with all the hassle of listening to the God Particle, Dilbert simply turns off the experiment and walks away.
In today’s Lesson, we hear reference to Noah, the proverbial builder of the ark. We hear that God had to wait to enact His judgment on the world while Noah actually went about building the ark. But you know, if God were planning to flood the entire earth anyway, He could easily have built this boat for Noah and left it hidden in the mountains somewhere, and then told Noah where to find it. Then God wouldn’t have had to wait. But the purpose of this myth isn’t just to save Noah. It’s to prove that Noah is worthy of being saved. Noah had to invest everything he had in this project. And part of the myth is that Noah had to face down the jokes and the harassment of his neighbours, that he had to trust in God no matter the cost. When God commands Noah to build the ark, that’s exactly what he sets about to do regardless of his neighbour’s derision and even his own doubts. This is why Noah is worthy of being saved, and this is why God has to wait.
Then First Peter links Noah’s example with each of us, although the analogy is far from clear. As a matter of fact, it’s downright murky. First Peter tries to tell us that Noah and his family, quote, “were saved through water.” (3:20) They weren’t saved “through water;” they were saved from water. The water was supposed to kill everything alive. Only Noah and his family are protected from the water. But First Peter plays with the imagery so that a connection can be made between Noah’s ark and the waters of baptism. It’s not the best of analogies, but we can figure out where he’s going with it anyway. And First Peter goes on to say that the waters of baptism do not cleanse the body. There is nothing inherently evil in our nature. Original sin is not an idea that would make much sense here. Instead of cleansing us of sin, inherited or otherwise, baptism gives us a chance at a “clear conscience” (3:21) before God. Just like Noah was granted the time to fulfill God’s will so we are now granted the time to also fulfill God’s will. It’s not about us as sinners; it’s about giving us the chance to live our faith.
And this is exactly the first message of Jesus’ proclamation: “‘This is the time of fulfillment ... Repent, and believe in the gospel.’” (Mk. 1:15) This present moment, this right-now moment, is our opportunity to do the will of God. We are challenged to repent if we need to, to change for the better if we see the need. But of more lasting importance, we are asked to live the gospel. We are asked to trust in God the way Noah trusted in God. Again, the imagery may be convoluted, but the message isn’t. First Peter is trying desperately to make the connection between Noah saved from the water and we who are saved when baptized through water. First Peter isn’t going to win any kind of literary awards for this kind of writing, but his message still fights its way through the mess. Noah must have faced down his own doubts over building the ark and he must have had to deal with the taunts and ridicule of his neighbours, but God gave Noah the time to prove that he believed. Likewise, this is our time to prove that we believe.
We don’t have to believe in the literal truth of the Noah story to understand his is an example of believing when it would have been far easier to not-believe. That’s the joke behind the Dilbert cartoon. Dilbert figured out immediately that it would be a whole lot easier to just turn-off the experiment and walk away. And he’s right. It would be easier to just walk away. But some things are worth struggling for, and Lent is here to try and convince us that Jesus is one of them. I don’t believe in the literal Noah story that God once destroyed every person on earth except for the eight members of Noah’s family. I can’t stand to hear even about the government in Syria bombing the people in one of their own cities because they dared to disagree. If it is immoral for Assad to kill a few hundred people in one city, and for most of the world to call it inhuman and savage, then why would it be moral for God to kill everyone everywhere except for the eight in the ark? I don’t think God works that way, and I think the life and the sacrificial death of Jesus proves it (1 Pt 3:18). Wiping out creation can make a person afraid of God, but Jesus came to help us love God by showing us how much God already loves us. To love God may mean changing the way we live, repenting. But it also means trying to become a better person, a better Christian. It means all of those hard things about the faith that are not talked about when religion comes up in politics, when religion is rules rather than a way of life with Christ at its center. Lent is here to give us the chance to believe the hard way, not by rules and not by fear, but because of the love of God. May these 40 days help us to understand the difference between the two. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo