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"I wonder if there was a rainbow"

So I wonder, on the day when Jesus was baptized, and the heavens were torn apart, was there a rainbow – a reminder that God had committed to responding to human sin in a different way?


[1] “A Choice” by Lauren Wright Pittman
[1] “A Choice” by Lauren Wright Pittman

Genesis 9: 8-17 and Mark 1:9-15

February 18, 2024

Dr. Todd R. Wright


Every year we begin Lent with the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Both Matthew and Luke give more details in their accounts. Still, there is a certain concentrated intensity to Mark that is both bewildering and revealing.


Kate Bowler describes Mark’s Lenten wilderness, as only a poet could:

“as if we have woken up in the middle of a play that has already started, a plot in motion ...

If only we could know the lines, the entrances and exits,

the way to move through with grace and beauty and patience …

Because it’s your story, God, and ours.”[2]


 

I wonder if it helps, or makes it worse, to pair Mark’s account with a scene from after the flood.


God’s creation, that began with a cascade of “it is good” reviews, has soured:

“The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth …

and the Lord God was sorry that he had made humankind …

and it grieved him to his heart …

The earth was corrupt in God’s sight and filled with violence.

And God said to Noah, ‘Make yourself an ark.”


You know the story. The rain fell on the earth for 40 days and nights. And Noah and his family and all the wild animals were shut inside the ark. Eventually the rain stopped, and the waters receded, and a new world was born, a cleansing birth, out of a watery womb.[3]


According to midrashic scholar Avivah Zornberg, “Noah becomes a new man on the ark — a good man — because he learns to keep the animals alive. God devises to reconceive the human not by spiriting him away to some high holy place but by putting him in an ark with every kind of animal and creeping thing, where Noah will have to deal with their appetites and their fur and [manure] and feathers. Being with the beasts for 40 days transforms Noah.”[4]


But it seems to have changed God too, for God swears off divine violence as a response to human violence and makes a covenant sealed with a rainbow.


Let’s be clear, the word for bow used in Genesis is the word for a weapon fit for deadly arrows. This is what God is giving up, voluntarily surrendering, renouncing.


So I wonder, on the day when Jesus was baptized, and the heavens were torn apart, was there a rainbow – a reminder that God had committed to responding to human sin in a different way?


It would have been appropriate, for Jesus’ incarnation was a logical extension of the covenant with Noah and all creation, a sign that God would redeem rather than destroy.


 

Mark’s verbs are a reflection of a God with all the power of the flood story:


  • The heavens are torn apart. Brian Blount writes, “This is no quiet, gentle breeze … this is the language of slashing and slicing, shredding and clawing until something once locked up safe … knifes its way free through the heavens, through the safety buffer, to our human side.”[5]

  • And Jesus is driven out into the wilderness – it is the same word used for casting out demons. Again, Blount describes it: “Even the buffer of Jesus’ human being, his skin and bone, his human spirit and consciousness cannot stop God from moving into him in a way that makes the power that belongs to God the power that is going to be revealed in [him].”


And yet, in the midst of all that fierce and ferocious language, there is also gentleness.


Not to the testing, but to the presence of wild animals and angels with Jesus.


Why are the wild animals there but to keep Jesus from being lonely?


Why are the angels present but to remind Jesus of the presence of the divine?


And he needs that reminder, for Mark seems to think that his testing was like Job’s.


 

Both Matthew and Luke, when they tell this story, talk about the devil – distilled evil. But Mark calls him satan, the adversary, the one who shows up in Job’s story.


It makes you wonder what Jesus’ testing was like.


“Maybe he sits in an ash heap like Job, scraping sores off of his body.

Maybe Satan leads Jesus to believe that terrible things have happened to his family.”[6]


Maybe friends showed up and (wrongly) explained that all this suffering was because Jesus had sinned, that his professed innocence was just willful pride.


Maybe that’s why he needed angels to whisper of God’s enduring love … or a wild dog to curl at his feet and provide a little comfort.  


And maybe, there in the wilderness, despite the “heat that burns your skin, thirst that makes your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth, [and] plants crowned with thorns,”[7] in all that dryness, there appeared a sign in the sky. I’d like to think there was a rainbow – a reminder that Jesus was God’s new way of responding to human sin, God’s new covenant of love.


Think on that as you begin another Lent. Amen


[1] “A Choice” by Lauren Wright Pittman
[2] From “A Lenten Blessing in the Wilderness” from her book Have a Beautiful, Terrible Day!
[3] This imagery from Martin Copenhaver’s reflections on the text “Starting Over” for Christian Century, 2/21/06
[4] Referenced by Debbie Blue in “An Involuntary Fast” for Christian Century, 4/2/14
[5] Here and following from Preaching Mark in Two Voices, co-written with Gary Charles
[6] From Elizabeth Felicetti’s reflections on the text for Christian Century, 2/12/24
[7] From “Angels in the Wilderness” by Talitha Arnold, 2/22/15

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