On the first Sunday of Lent, the readings have a very baptismal theme. It makes sense, for it is common on this Sunday that the catechumens report to the Bishop for the Rite of Election, wherein they are recognized as elect (chosen) of God in these final weeks before their baptism.
In today’s readings, there are many themes that form the “spokes” of a wagon wheel, and baptism is the central hub around which they turn. And arching over it all is the great image of the rainbow in the sky, the great sign of God’s love and mercy upon us all. Even in Lent, as we take heed of our sins, we can never forget that though we have been unrighteous, unholy, unkind, undisciplined, and at times even unreachable, we have never been unloved. Yes, God put a rainbow in the sky. (Sadly, the image of the rainbow has been corrupted in recent years. But it is here meant in its uncorrupted sense, not as a symbol for a group that celebrates what God calls sin, but the freedom from sin and its effects.)
More on the biblical rainbow in a moment. But for now, let’s look at the baptismal theme of these readings from two perspectives.
I. The PORTRAIT of Baptism – Both the first and second readings today make mention of Noah and the ark in which he and his family were delivered from the flood. The second reading says, God patiently waited in the days of Noah during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved through water. This prefigured baptism, which saves you now (1 Peter 3:19-20).
Note that while we think of water as a symbol for baptism, the image is really a dual image, an image of WOOD and WATER. For if it were not for the wood of the ark, the waters would have overwhelmed Noah’s family. And thus for us too, the waters of our baptism are rendered effective by Jesus on the wood of the Cross.
Indeed, by God’s plan we might be so bold as to say, “Wood and water work wonders!” There are numerous places in the Scriptures where where wood and water, not just water alone, manifest God’s saving love. Here are five examples:
- Cleansing Flood – We begin with today’s image and one of the most terrifying stories of the ancient world: the flood. The world had grown so wicked and sin so multiplied that God concluded He literally had to wash it clean. And you think it’s bad now! God went to a man named Noah and told him that He was going to trouble the waters and that Noah had to be ready. “Build an ark of gopher wood, Noah!” Now this was no small project. The ark was the length of one and a half football fields (150 yards); it was 75 feet wide and 45 feet tall. Now you really have to trust God to do all that work! “And then gather the animals, two pairs of unclean animals, 7 pairs of clean animals.” More trust, more time, and lots of wood. But then God troubled the waters and the waters of the flood made an end of wickedness and a new beginning of goodness. From troubled waters came a blessing. But first Noah had to wade on in. Through water and the wood of the ark, God worked wonders! (cf Gen 6-9)
- Trouble at the Red Sea – Many centuries later, Pharaoh had relented and the people were leaving Egypt after 400 years of slavery. But fickle Pharaoh once again changed his mind and pursued them. With the Red Sea in front of them and Pharaoh behind them, the people were struck with fear. But God would win for them. How? By troubling the waters. God told Moses to take up the wooden staff and to trouble the waters: And you lift up your staff and with hand outstretched over the sea, split the sea in two … So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided (Ex 14:16, 21). Now you and I know the end of the story, but the people that day did not. With water like two walls on either side they had to go forth; they had to wade, if you will, in the waters. They had to trust God that the waters would hold. God brought them through, out of slavery and into freedom. Are you noticing a pattern? With God, wood and water work wonders. The wooden staff and troubled waters brought forth freedom.
- Trouble in the Desert – It is a fine thing to be free, but thirst has a way of making itself known. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. And the people murmured against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” And he cried to the LORD; and the LORD showed him a tree, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet (Ex 15:23). So once again, with God, wood and water work wonders. The wood of the tree and the troubled waters of that spring brought the blessing of survival.
- More Trouble in the Desert – But again as they journeyed further, there was more thirst. And God said to Moses, Go over in front of the people holding in your hand as you go the staff with which you struck the sea, … Strike the rock and the water will flow from it for the people to drink (Ex 17:5-6). From troubled waters came forth blessing. With God, wood and water work wonders. The wood of the staff troubled those waters and they came forth with the blessing that preserved life in the desert.
- At the River Jordan– After forty years of wandering in the desert, the Israelites were finally ready to enter the Promised Land. But the Jordan was in flood stage, impossible to cross. Once again, God had a plan and was going to trouble those waters. He instructed Joshua to have the priests place the ark on their shoulders and wade into the water. The ark was a box made of acacia wood and covered in gold. In it were the tablets of the Law, the staff of Aaron, and a ciborium of the manna. They knew and believed that the very presence of God was carried in that ancient wooden box, just as it is in our tabernacles today. The text says, And when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the brink of the water, the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap far off … so the people passed over opposite Jericho (Joshua 3:15-16) So again, with God, wood and water work wonders! The wooden box of the ark troubled the waters and they parted, bringing the blessing of the promised land.
These Old Testament prefigurements bring us to the wood of the true Cross. And on that wooden Cross, the waters of our baptism come forth from the side of Christ. With Jesus, our Lord and God, wood and water work the wonder of eternal salvation. We’re not just being freed from an army, or from thirst, or from a flood; we’re being freed from sin and offered eternal salvation. The waters of our baptism are given the power to save by our Lord Jesus and by what He did on the wood of the Cross. You might as well say it, “With God, wood and water work wonders!”
II. The POWER of Baptism – Here we encounter more of the spokes of the wagon wheel radiating out from the hub, which is baptism. And we largely collect these “spokes” of teaching from the second reading (1 Peter 3:17-22). The spokes speak of the power and gifts that radiate from baptism. Let’s look at them.
A. Salvation – the text says, baptism … saves you now. The Greek word translated here as “saves” is σώζει (sozei) and means to be delivered from present danger. Yes, we have been snatched from the raging flood waters of this sin-soaked world and from Satan, who seeks to devour us.
The Book of Psalms says, If the Lord had not been on our side when men attacked us, when their anger flared against us, they would have swallowed us alive; the flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us, the raging waters would have swept us away. Praise be to the Lord, who has not let us be torn by their teeth. We have escaped like a bird out of the fowler’s snare; the snare has been broken, and we have escaped (Psalm 124).
St. Paul says of Jesus, he rescued us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father (Gal 1:4).
And old Gospel hymn says, “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore. Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more. But the master of the sea heard my despairing cry, and from the waters lifted me, now safe am I. Love lifted me! When nothing else could help, love lifted me!”
Yes, through baptism and the faith it confers, we have been saved by the outstretched arm of our God. And if we hold to God’s unchanging hand, Heaven will be ours.
B. Sonship – The text says, Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God. Yes, Jesus has opened the way to the Father. He has reconciled us to God the Father by His precious blood.
In baptism, we become the children of God. Isaiah says, For we like sheep had gone astray, every one to his own way (Is 53:6).
And we were angry and fearful of God, unable to endure His presence and His love. But Jesus, as a Good Shepherd, has gathered us and restored us to grace.
One of the great gifts of baptism is the grace to experience a tender affection for God the Father and to experience him as Abba (cf Gal 4:6, Rom 8). As we grow in the grace of our baptism, so does our tender love and affection for the Father.
Jesus, through baptism and the indwelling Holy Spirit, causes us to experience increasing trust of the Father and to obey Him out of deep love rather than servile fear.
C. Serenity – The text says baptism … is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience. Baptism, while it touches the body, has as its goal the soul, the inner man or woman. In effect, this text speaks to us of the new mind and heart that Jesus, through baptism, confers on us.
In the Gospel today, Jesus refers to this new mind when he says “Repent!” The Greek word translated as “repent” is μετανοεῖτε (metanoeite), which means more literally “to come to a change of mind.”
Yes, the Lord offers us a new mind and heart, a whole new way of thinking, new priorities, understandings, goals, and vision.
So much of the battle we face involves our mind. “Mind” here does not mean “brain” per se. Rather, it refers to that deep, inner part of us where we “live,” where we deliberate and are alone with ourself and our God. Through baptism, the Lord begins a process that renews this inner self, day by day.
As our mind gets clearer and our heart grows purer, our whole life is gradually transformed. This leads to inner peace, to a serene conscience that is confident and loving before God.
D. Spirit! – The text says of Jesus, Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the Spirit. As God, Jesus did not need or acquire the Holy Spirit, He was always one with the Holy Spirit. But as man, He acquires the Holy Spirit for us.
And who is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is the very life of God, the love of God, the joy of God, the holiness of God! To receive the Holy Spirit is to come to a totally new and transformed life.
When Jesus rose, it was not merely that His corpse was resuscitated. It was truly His body that rose, but He took up a wholly transformed human life and He offers this to us.
In baptism, we die with Him and rise to this new life. If we are faithful to our baptismal commitments, we become ever more fully alive; sins are put to death and innumerable graces come forth. Yes, new life, life in the Spirit, comes to those who are baptized and remain faithful.
Do you see what God has done? He has put a rainbow in the sky! When we were spiritually dead in our sin, hostile to God, He would not forsake us. He remembered the rainbow that He promised Noah. Along with you, I can say that I have been unworthy, unrighteous, unmerciful, and unreachable. I have been unteachable, unwilling, undesirable, unwise, undone, and unsure. But I can also say that because of you, O Lord, I have never been unloved. I’ve been unamended, uneasy, unapproachable, unemotional, unexceptional, undecided, unqualified, unaware, unfair, and unfit. But even I can see the sacrifice that God made for me, to show me that I have never been unloved.
Yes, “when it looked like the sun wasn’t gonna shine no more, God put a rainbow in the sky.”
Do you know what a rainbow is? It is a combination of fire and water. Yes, there it is: the water of our baptism and the fire of God’s loving Spirit shining through that very water, the rainbow in the sky, the sign of God’s fiery love and the water of our salvation.
God put a rainbow in the sky!