So, the first Sunday of Lent. The time when we prepare for
Easter, the season in the Office of Daily Prayer of ‘Returning to God’. Last
Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, we remembered that we are fragile human beings … a
fact brought home to me all too clearly by going to the dentist and finding out
I need fillings. We are dust and to dust we will return.
Except that the fact of being human is not something to feel
despondent about. These passages point to something intrinsically human – that
there is something hardwired within us that latches on to signs and symbols.
Our world is full of them …. This ring on my finger is not just a ring, but a
symbol of the promises I made before God to another person. As a wedding ring
it is a statement of fact – that I am married – and also a sign of hope – that
my marriage will continue into the future.
In Genesis the promise made by God to Noah is sealed with a
rainbow. A few chapters later, God’s covenantal relationship with Abram is
marked by the new ritual of circumcision for every Israelite boy. God gives
tangible reminders to frail human beings that there is a promise, a
relationship, here, even when the situation seems to indicate otherwise.
And for a long, long time it does seem to the Jewish people
that they are hanging on to a memory. Each male generation shows that they are
different to the other men, and their circumcision remains a viewable sign of
fact, but increasingly the hope for the future becomes a yearning for a
messiah. From time to time prophets are raised up, who point again to the
heavens and say that God has made a covenant, and God is reliable and can be
trusted, but the situation doesn’t match the expectations. What has gone wrong?
And then into this apparent silence there comes a man – John
the Baptist, who begins to use an old ritual with new significance – baptism, a new sign that
shows repentance and turning back to God. Water has always had a cleansing
property, but now it is used metaphorically to cleanse from sin.
And Mark writes about how Jesus comes along and asks to be
baptized. Jesus – a man whom Mark has introduced in his opening sentence as
‘Son of God’. And he asks to be baptised as a sign of repentance! This sign,
this ritual must be something special.
And then in the story we the reader are given a picture of
the start and the end of the story, all at the same time. The verb in the
original Greek – ‘skizomenous’ – ‘splitting’ links in one word the opening of
the heavens as Jesus comes out of the water with the tearing of the veil in the
temple when Jesus dies on the cross. Here at the start of the journey of Lent
we get the full picture – Mark is saying, ‘Look, God himself is confirming what
I said in the first line of my scroll – this is the Christ!’ The Kingdom of God
has now arrived, and it will be here forever.
It is this finality that the writer of 1 Peter picks up on
when he writes to refugees, scattered and persecuted. ‘Christ died for sinners
once and for all’. The rainbow for Noah, the smoking fire pot and flaming torch
for Abraham has become a human being. Death is not the end because someone went
through death and was raised back to life.
How do we know that it is true? How do we know that this is
the ultimate sign of God’s covenant with us? What do you say when Coptic
Christians are beheaded? When the situation around us seems to say that we are
on our own?
For me, it comes back to communion. When the chalice and host
are lifted up as the body and blood of Jesus we hear again in our heads his
final cry – ‘It is finished!’ This the ultimate sign of the final covenant God
made with His people. It is the sign of the fact, in the same way that my ring
is the sign of my marriage. And it is the sign of hope for the future as well.
And I would suggest that during this journey of Lent, we who
are hardwired to see signs and symbols would notice them and tell each other.
God’s kingdom is breaking through, in ways we don’t understand or expect.