It was probably the most sick and scared and ready to die I have ever been in my life. It was in January of 1986, in the North Atlantic Ocean several hundred miles off the coast of Bermuda. I was part of a research team on the research vessel Oceanus out of Woods Hole, Massachusetts. We left the Sargasso Sea after we were done with our sampling. Then we were hit by this severe winter storm. And now we were in the middle of it. A little 170 foot boat listing 16 degrees on a side, waves washing over the deck so badly that we had to change our heading so we wouldn’t capsize. I just wanted to get back home.
In the fall of 1984, I had tried to meet with my freshman college advisor and was told “he’s on a cruise”. At first I thought “cruise” meant vacation, lots of food, suntanning. But no, going on research cruises was part of his work! I immediately decided I would find out more about this profession of chemical oceanography.
And so, 18 months later, here I was. I didn’t realize that I would get terribly and violently seasick as soon as the ship left the harbor. And now, in the midst of this terrible storm, I just wanted everything to stop moving! I tried going downstairs to my cabin but that just seemed to make things worse. Finally, I went up to the bridge. The captain took one look at me and said “There’s only one thing you can do. Keep above decks – and keep looking up toward the horizon” I went outside to the deck, grabbed a rope, and lay on top of a wooden crate. I forced myself to look out and up at the horizon, and I prayed that I would make it through the next hours. And finally, I started to feel a little better. Looking out at the sky, I felt that the world was more than the heaving and tossing waves surrounding our little boat. The sky, gray as it was, was a sign for me that we were going somewhere.
But nothing compared to the next morning, when I awoke to find the ship slowly cruising back into the Woods Hole harbor. Land! The sight of land on the horizon was one of the sweetest views I have ever experienced. It had only been a six day cruise, but six days surrounded by a heaving ocean were more than enough for me.
Have you ever been on a ship on the ocean, or maybe even one of the Great Lakes, where you have gone far enough away from land that you are surrounded by nothing but water? It can be a frightening experience, with the seas rising and falling in a never ending rhythm around you.
Our Old Testament story for today is the last part of the story of Noah. Almost all ancient societies tell a similar story, of a great flood, waters covering the earth. But the story of the Hebrews is unique, because the story doesn’t end with a ferocious God being conquered. God’s power is still present at the end of the story – God’s bow, unstrung, placed in the sky, facing upwards instead of towards humanity, no longer a weapon of destruction but a sign of promise. God’s choice – to make a promise to Noah, to Noah’s descendents, and even to all of the animals who had been with Noah on the ark.
In our passage for today, God is the only one who speaks. Noah makes no response, and is asked for no reply, to God’s promise. God simply tells Noah “what I just did, I will never do again. I covenant with you and with all living creatures to never again destroy the earth.” Never again will the entire earth be covered in water. Never again will only a small remnant remain of God’s creation.
The rainbow is a sign – a sign of the first covenant between God and humanity, as recorded in the Hebrew Bible. That word, “covenant” isn’t one we hear very often today. A covenant is a promise, but more than a promise. In the study guide for the Disciple Bible Study series, the author defines the word covenant like this:
Covenant is not contract. Covenant is an agreement worked out between two parties. Covenant means a binding pact between God and God’s people.
A binding pact between God and God’s people. And a rainbow for a sign.
Can you remember the first time you saw a rainbow? We don’t see them very often here in northeast MidwestState. According to the website for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, three things have to happen in order for you to see a rainbow: (1) the sun has to be lower than 42 degrees from the horizon, (2) You have to be facing rain, and have the sun behind you, and (3) the sunlight has to be hitting the raindrops to produce the prism of colors that make up the rainbow. My husband will tell you that the rainbow effect depends on the raindrops having a near-perfect spherical shape, and the number and size of the drops is very important. With all of those requirements, it seems amazing that we can see them at all.
Sometimes God’s signs are hard for us to see. Sometimes, it seems like God is not really giving us any signs at all. Have you ever looked for a sign from God and had trouble finding it, trouble seeing your way out of the wilderness? When I was on that boat in the middle of the ocean, the gray sky was the only sign that I wasn’t completely surrounded by water – I saw no sign that the storm was going to end. Sometimes God does God’s work without a sign, it seems. Sometimes we have to make the signs ourselves, with God’s help, to let others know that God is present. Sometimes, when we take the time to make the sign, God shows up in the midst of it.
We’ve been talking about signs quite a bit in the new Marketing Committee here at the church that was formed at the beginning of the year. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the building of the chapel, this wonderful space where we get to worship together every week. And yet, if you are standing outside the church on Number Street, you won’t see any signs that announce the presence of this space. We have a big sign that says who we are, SmallCity First United Methodist Church, and our address, CCC Number Street, but nothing that says the sanctuary is over there, and the chapel is over here. We have a little sign that we put out by the door on Saturday nights announcing our service, but nothing permanent. I hope that soon we will be able to have a sign that tells the world, or at least that part of the world that drives or walks down Number Street, that there is a chapel here, and we have a great time together worshipping on Saturday evenings – and invites people to come on in!
God gives Noah his promise after he endures the trial of the flood. For Jesus, it was, rather, the opposite. You might remember that we read the story of Jesus’ baptism just seven weeks ago, but then, we stopped our reading at verse 11 – “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Today, we take the reading further, as we hear that immediately (Mark’s favorite word again) after he was baptized, the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, where he remained for 40 days. This story comes at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, before Jesus has, as far as we know, done anything at all to merit God’s favor. Jesus appears on the scene where a crowd has gathered to be baptized by John. Jesus joins the crowd, and with them is baptized, and then, God tells him how much he is loved.
We don’t know much about Jesus’ time in the wilderness from this passage in Mark. We know that he was tempted by Satan, was with the wild beasts, and was waited on by angels. And we know his time in the wilderness was the same length of time as the flood, and of our Lenten journey – 40 days. What signs did Jesus look for when he was in the wilderness? How did he know his Father was with him? Was he able to trust in the word he had just received, that he was the Beloved Son?
What gets you through your wilderness times? We all have them, don’t we? Times when we aren’t really sure where we are going. Times when God seems more distant than present. Times of loss, times of struggle. Maybe you are in one of those times right now.
I vividly remember Lent back in 1996 – 13 years ago now. We had lost our son, who was born still, on February 2 of that year. In a couple of weeks, my body began to return to normal, but I didn’t. I went back to work, but it was hard for me to concentrate on anything. I found myself thinking about Michael, as we had named him, almost all the time. We were fortunate to have a pastor who could tell us that grief doesn’t have a time table – that we weren’t supposed to “get over” our loss in a short period of time. Lent for me that year lasted more than 40 days – but in that wilderness, there were signs. People who had been through similar experiences – who shared our pain with us. A pastor who made time to talk with us and grieve with us, and let us know that we were not going nuts. Sometimes, even just a beautiful sunny day.
And the sacraments of the church. Sacraments are signs – one definition of a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” For us in the United Methodist Church, we recognize two sacraments of the church – two special signs that we “do” – knowing that God works in and through them. These are baptism and communion. The sacraments are tangible signs of God’s presence among us – the water of baptism reminding us of God’s spirit working in and through us – water, like the water that represented chaos in the flood, used by God instead to cleanse and renew us. And the bread and the juice we use for communion – signs of Christ’s body and blood, representing God’s self giving in Jesus Christ. Indeed, the visible hallmark of the worship experience is the giving and receiving of signs of God's love. From the songs we sing and hear, to the handshakes and hugs we exchange, to the cross on the altar. We know God is in this place. We know because we see the signs. This is why we are here, so that we can see the signs of God, so that we can remember the covenant of love. In my wilderness times, I come back again and again to receive communion, the Eucharist, literally the sign of thanksgiving. By this body and blood, I am healed.
As we enter the season of Lent, our liturgical walk in the wilderness, 40 days before we arrive at the joy of Easter, we are asked to turn inward. We are asked to assess our lives, to reflect on how we have responded to God's will. Sometimes, when we do this, we find ourselves looking into bleak and dark corners, things about ourselves and our lives that are painful, things that cause us fear, things that make us feel poorly about who we are and what we are worth – wilderness places. During Lent we are asked to face these dark corners of our lives. We are asked to shine a light into these corners, to sweep out the heartache and the dust, and to open the doors to the coming Spring of God's love and acceptance. This is not easy work. And we cannot do it without God's signs.
We need the signs. We seem to be built this way, don't we? Throughout our entire live, every day, we need to be reminded of the fundamental nature of God's unconditional love for each of us. This is our weakness and our strength: we keep forgetting about God's love. We keep falling into darkness and despair. And yet, all we need to climb out of our dark hole once again is just one little sign from God. One little reminder, and we can be back in the light of love.
Thank God for the signs of love. Thank God for the rainbow. Thank God for the dry land. Thank God for the bread of life, the cup of salvation, and all of the signs that lead us from darkness and hunger to love and light as we walk in the wilderness of life. Thank God for the signs of God’s covenants with us.