baptism

Dead in the Water

First Sunday of Lent

Genesis 9:8-17
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

Lent is wasted on the orderly, the continent, the well-behaved. Forego some trivial luxury if it makes you feel better, but do it on your own time, please.

Lent is for those whose lives are a mess: an invitation, once again, to acknowledge the fragile illusions in which we place so much trust, to name the destructive power of our deep habits. The traditional practices of Lent – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – were never meant to make good people better, much less make them more appealing to God.

Lenten practices are nothing less than little deaths, killing off the unnecessary within what we like to call “ourselves,” chiseling away chunks of rough marble hiding the delicate human figure inside. Not that we are the killers or sculptors. We enter the practice the way one enters the waters of baptism: called but never in control, ready at last to drown in the ocean of God’s unearned forgiveness.

Don’t tell me Noah was confident of the outcome of his boat-building adventure or that he didn’t wonder when this fickle God would decide that he and his family were beyond saving too. With the rainbow, God offers an unexpected assurance of his abiding patience, making clear that this little band of humanity has passed from disorder to new order through the medium of death-dealing water.

Mark’s Jesus, forever in a hurry, is greeted by the Spirit and with a heavenly benediction as he emerges from the waters of the Jordan, only to be cast out (the Greek verb means to be tossed like a ball) into the desert to be tempted by Satan. Angels wait on him, we’re told, but Mark leaves the timing a bit vague. Did Satan have a full forty days before the angels arrived, or did they work in shifts? In any case, Jesus emerges, triumphantly announcing the gospel, though John will soon die. Through the waters of baptism and temptation in the desert, God does his patient work, leading the world from disorder to the new order of the gospel.

First Peter makes the link clear. Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection were saving acts of a patient God, as was the saving action of God in the days of Noah. Our death to sin through the waters of baptism is prefigured in this and in other miraculous transformations from disorder to order in the Old Testament: Creation from the waters (Genesis 1), crossing the Red Sea (Exodus 14), and Israel’s entry into the Promised Land (Joshua 3).

There are analogous moments in the New Testament: the miracle at Cana (John 2), the calming of the storm (Mark 4:35-41, Luke 8:22-25 and Matthew 8:23-27), the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), the washing of the disciples’ feet (John 13), and the pouring of blood and water out of the wound in Jesus’ side (John 19).

Something – and old way of life, captivity, or disordered relationship – dies in the water, and a new order emerges, not by our doing, but through the patient work of a loving God. This is what we enter in Lent. This is where we die. This is where we are patiently led to new life.

5 Responses to “Dead in the Water”

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  1. Debra Dean Murphy says:

    Thank you so much for this, Brian. The water imagery reminds me of the last line of a Mary Karr poem about the resurrection:

    it’s your limbs he longs to flow into–
    from the sunflower center in your chest
    outward–as warm water
    shatters at birth, rivering every way.

  2. Bo Grimes says:

    “Forego some trivial luxury if it makes you feel better, but do it on your own time, please.”

    I’m not trying to be snarky, but who else’s time would one do it on, and who decides if it’s trivial? If someone has never fasted before and is drawn into the practice at Lent by giving up soft drinks and donating that money to a soup kitchen, who gets to say that’s trivial? Who gets to say he is doing it to “feel better”?

    • Brian Volck says:

      Thanks for your questions, Bo, and no snark taken. I trust that God will use just about anything it takes to get us, and what appears trivial to me may well be the first turning in a real conversion for another. “Donating that money to a soup kitchen” is already a step beyond temporarily giving up a soft drink and may be a profound channel of grace for those involved, especially if it leads to deeper commitment and real transformation. If I were merely American, I would leave these prudential decisions to the individual. To the degree I live out my promises as a baptized member of the Body of Christ, however, I do well to seek discernment in and from other members of that body. Those in the church who know me and my habits may be in a better position to judge the appropriateness of my widow’s mite.

  3. David Kester says:

    I especially like Gregory Thaumaturgus’s comment on Mark that Jesus is the New Noah. I was a bit lost about how to connect these dots until I read Calvin on the Peter passage, then it starts to make sense how Jesus could be the captain of shipwrecked nature washing it clean by baptism, as he did in the flood with Noah.

  4. Michael Bartlett says:

    A magnificent surge of refreshing thought.

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