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First Sunday in Lent

FEB 21st 2012

Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church

Budapest, Hungary

I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.

If you are like me, you were probably fascinated this past week by the landing on Mars of yet another NASA rover -- or dune-buggy. It was, to be sure, a grand technological achievement, one requiring exquisite planning and close coordination from earth with a sophisticated scientific instrument millions of miles away. The craft was landed, as you probably know from news reports, along the shores of what is assumed to have been a large Martian lake some three billion years ago, now as dry as a bone; around the same time, as one NASA scientist explained, as lakes and oceans were forming on earth as well.

Yet looking at the first images beamed back to earth, I was struck -- as I always am by pictures from Mars -- by the similarities of the current Martian landscape, not to earthly lakes and ponds, but to the deserts of the American Southwest, close to where I once lived; and likely to deserts across the world. A far cry, as the NASA scientist himself went on to note, from the watery blue planet we now know as our home; a far cry as well from the watery world of Noah, as related to us in today’s first reading from the Book of Genesis, in which God makes a Covenant, or promise, to Noah and all his descendants -- and all the earth -- never again to destroy the planet with floodwaters.

And according to the text, God sets the rainbow in the sky as a token of his promise, his first Covenant with humankind, as depicted in this painting of Marc Chagall. To me, there is something almost charming about the thought of poor absent-minded God needing a reminder of his word and promise given, much as some people might need to tie a string around their finger to remind themselves to buy a loaf of bread on the way home from work. “When…the bow is seen in the clouds,” God reassures Noah and his sons, and perhaps himself as well, “I will remember my covenant.”

So far, God has indeed been as good as his word.

Yet, if it was not for the rainbow, it seems, the world and humankind might long ago have been once again destroyed by world-wide floodwaters. For my part, I might have wished for God’s memory to be jogged by something with a bit more substance or solidity than the ephemeral refracted light and water particles which make up a rainbow -- especially if God’s Covenant with me depended upon it. Perhaps a mountain range, say, or a mighty tower of some sort. Still, it may well be that from his vantage point in heaven, the good Lord sees a lot more rainbows than we do down here on the ground in Budapest this time of year.

In one sense, God’s Covenant with Noah is not much. The Lord after all only promises never again to flood the whole world. That is about it. I suppose it could be fire or a meteor next time around, or global warming, if we are not careful. But God’s rainbow Covenant is at least a beginning. And in any case, as the Scriptures show us over and over again, God, indeed likes to make Covenants with his people – a kind of binding relationship of the ancient world much stronger than a simple promise or even a legal contract.

There is not necessarily an exchange of goods or services in the formation of a Covenant. You do not need a lawyer or notary public to draw one up. And one does not necessarily have to do something to merit a Covenant, as we see clearly in God’s unilateral pledge to Noah and, for that matter, to all the earth. Even if you turn out to be a really disagreeable person -- a real stinker -- the Covenant remains in force, as we see throughout the history of ancient Israel. Fortunately enough for all of us God seems infinitely more concerned about this good earth and its peoples than we humans sometimes do. On second thought, perhaps God should have demanded some degree of reciprocity from Noah -- and us -- before entering into his Covenant.

Our Lord, in our account this morning from the Gospel of Mark, finds himself suddenly thrust by the Spirit from the floodwaters of his Baptism by John in the Jordan to the stark and sere terrain of the nearby wilderness and desert; a Martian landscape if ever there was one on earth. And, if the Jordan was in ancient Israel a source of life and healing, the wilderness was equally a topography of danger and foreboding; of testing and temptation; a place inhabited, as we see, by wild beasts and the evil they represent -- and with which we all contend still to this day.

For, the wilderness is in some sense the Paradise Lost long before even Noah came on the scene. The wilderness was for the ancient world emblematic of the near-eternal struggle of good and evil, a world of wild beasts on one side and angels on the other. The desert was at the time of our Lord seen as forever a battlefield. And, forty days is a long time to be left to one’s own devices in such a place -- an eternity, in fact, in biblical terms. Yet it is to the wilderness that the Spirit must drive Jesus, if he is to become the conqueror of sin and Satan. For his Covenant of redemption, freely given to us, to make sense, he must contend with evil on its own terms and on its own turf. He must in other words go through the desert.

And so from time to time must we. Perhaps it is this sense of spiritual warfare and contention which has provided the desert with such an allure to saints throughout the Christian ages. But we need not leave the comfort of our own homes these days to know the wilderness. We need not fly off to Mars, although some apparently would like to go. Send me an Instagram if you decide to make the trip. The wilderness for most of us is of a more terrestrial variety, closer to home even than the alföld and Hortobágy, our own great Hungarian desert.

The past months, for many of us, have been a time of spiritual and psychic wilderness and isolation. Forty days has now become more than forty weeks. For some, it has meant depression and nearly a sense of despair; for others, it has led to frustration and inner rage at the evil arrayed against us. But like our Lord, we must contend with the reality of evil in the world where we find it. Unlike him, we must contend with the reality of evil in our own hearts as well. For that is also where the wilderness is sometimes found today. Without our Lord having been there first, we would not last longer than a Martian day in the desert of sin surrounding us.

But our Lord has conquered sin and evil on our behalf. He has made a lasting Covenant with us; and he does not need a rainbow as a reminder of his saving love for humankind. He has gone to the desert that we might enter paradise. It is said that a twelve-year-old elementary school student gave the current Mars rover its name, Perseverance. Young Alex Mather -- the student -- must be wise beyond his years. For, if perseverance is what humankind needs to get to Mars, it is even more so what we need to survive the desert of our souls. And while there may not be any rainbows on Mars, we do still on this good earth have the reassurance of God’s lasting Covenant with us in Jesus Christ, our Lord.


The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs

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