Genesis 9.8-17; Psalm 25.1-10; 1 Peter 3.18-25; Mark 1.9-15
Once we moved here, though, and hikes took us to the tops of mountains, my strong preference for looping trails faded quickly. I realized on the way down a mountain last Saturday, that going up a mountain has such a spectacular destination, that returning the way I came was much more satisfying since I got to carry with me the sense of accomplishment from doing something difficult and the awe of seeing something amazing.
While the metaphor certainly isn’t perfect, thinking about hiking in these very different contexts has me thinking about the differences between loops/cycles and journeys with destinations.
There is so much beauty in the cycles of nature. The water cycle takes the same water that has been on this earth for billions of years, and uses it again and again to refresh us and sustain life. Creation moves from season to season, always arriving at somewhere we have been before. The church uses this same concept of cycles and seasons to order our liturgical year, bringing us back to the same celebrations and seasons, places that are familiar and yet always have something new to teach us.
Cycles need all of their pieces to stay intact and to work properly. A lot of what I do with my 5th grade students in science class involves thinking about connections and cycles. Once, I asked the students for a written response to a question about what would happen to the water cycle if precipitation were to just stop. My intention was as simple as making sure we all understood that without that piece, or any piece really, the water cycle would break down. The kids took it one step further. The apocalyptic drawings and explanations I received were clear - if precipitation stops, the water cycle is no more and we all die. Cycles in nature remind us of a created world that is intricately linked, they remind us that our creator God is one of relationships, connections, seasons, and cycles.
There are other cycles, however, that need to be broken. Violence and abuse are cyclical phenomena both in family’s lives as well as institutions and organizations around the world. After another mass shooting in our country, people are lamenting not only the tragedy itself, but the cycle and pattern of mass murder, outcry, inaction, and then the inevitable committing of another one of these horrific acts. Cycles that return us again and again to violence, failure, and destruction are all around us. They are powered by many different things which can all be boiled down to one thing: sin.
In this frame of reference, I see the story of God, Noah, and the flood as God’s attempt to break the cycles of destruction powered by sin. This was an attempt that failed almost immediately. After the flood receded, Noah and his family worshiped God and God made a promise to humanity to never again destroy it in this way again. And the next part of the story, which we rarely read, includes descriptions of how Noah’s family and Noah himself have sinned. God’s attempt to break the cycle of violence with an act of violence simply did not work.
But God kept working, keeps working. In Scripture, the story of God, Noah, and the Ark comes rather early on. From there, God is on a journey, a quest if you will. To repair relationship, to remove the power of sin from the world, to usher in the kingdom of peace.
A journey may have some things in common with a cycle, but where a cycle repeats again and again, always returning to the place where it was before, journeys are defined by moving from one point to another point. Sometimes we may end up where we came from, but journeys by their very nature end, they come to a conclusion.
Every year during advent, we journey to Christmas, but the spirit of that season brings to mind a countdown. But every year during Lent, we specifically invoke the word ‘journey.’ We see Lent as a time to be changed, to reconnect with God, to arrive at the other side of this time somehow different. We know where the journey will end, but each year we search for new meaning and hope in the midst of this arrival at the table of the last supper, the foot of the cross, and the wide opening to an empty tomb.
And because of that empty tomb, we know that where the flood failed, this incarnation of God on Earth triumphs. Because of that empty tomb, we know that God has taken away the power of sin and claimed the power of salvation through love, sacrifice, and mercy.
We also know that sin still fuels cycles of devastation in our world today. We enter the season of Lent understanding that while God calls for our repentance, the world is desperate for it. We begin our Lenten journey Jesus’ story of the beginning of his earthly ministry. From the ecstatic joy of his baptism, he is driven into the wilderness. This is not the wilderness of peaceful retreat, but the wilderness of testing and despair, a place of loneliness and wandering, a place where all feels lost. We know this place. We have been there before. And so has Jesus. And so we never go there alone. God is with us as we lament, as we suffer, as we are tempted to fight violence with violence. While we may wonder if it’s time for another flood, God knows that it will never work. And as Jesus returns from the wilderness, he brings us too, determined to share the gospel and usher in the kingdom, not by himself, but with us as his disciples.
God breaks cycles that are harmful, even in God’s own self. That was the course correction after the flood - no more violence fighting violence. God breaks the cycle of earthly power by becoming a different kind of king. God breaks the cycle of separation by coming to earth and inviting all to the table. God breaks the things that tempt us to sin, not with fists of fury or acts of vengeance, but with presence, healing, and welcome.
Lent brings us to the bottom of a mountain, ready to climb. This season asks us to do things that are difficult, not for ourselves, but for others. And at the end of this climb is a celebration of life that leaves us in awe of a God who can take the darkest day and transform it into new life. The journey of Lent may end on the mountain high of Easter, but we come back down with a sense of accomplishment and awe. We come back down, knowing we will find ourselves climbing this mountain again, knowing the work of this season means something for the world, knowing that God climbs with us, always.