Rev. Dr. Scott Herr
“Getting Started” Please Read:
A Sermon by the Rev. Scott Herr Genesis 9:8-17
The American Church in Paris – February 26, 2012 Mark 1:9-15
Many of us who have been in the church for some time are aware that the Lenten journey is a period of forty days that prepares us for Easter. Many of us will recall these forty days are patterned on the forty days in which Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. Today I invite you to reflect with me on the significance of the forty days and why it’s a 40 day journey? We need to ask ourselves, where are we actually going?
Forty Days in the Hebrew Bible can mean just that: Forty days. But it seems also to be code language to refer to a long, or significant time. For example, the first time in the Bible where we read about forty days is in the story of Noah. Apparently, the human project had gone rather badly for God. Earlier in Genesis we read, “The LORD saw the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. The LORD was sorry that he had made humankind of the earth, and it grieved him to his heart… But God found in Noah a righteous man, blameless in his generation” (6:9). God told Noah to build an ark. God commanded Noah to take with his wife and sons and their wives and two of every kind of living thing, male and female.
And then, God said that he would send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights… You know the story. It’s a terrible story of judgment, but also a story of the promise of God’s future mercy in the sign of the rainbow. It’s a story of a journey through the waters of judgment into a new beginning… This is a primary story of redemption, and throughout history the church has been compared to Noah’s ark, a refuge from the storm and a place from which hope and new life comes. That’s why this area here is called the nave – it’s the same Latin root from which we get our English word Navy! It’s upside down of course, but the church is like a ship, turning the world upside down, if we get it right!
The next instance of forty days is when Moses went up to Mount Sinai to experience the glory of the Lord like a “devouring fire on the top of the mountain”(Exodus 24:17). In Exodus 31 we read that Moses went up to Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights and he came down with the two tablets of the covenant. But the people were rebellious and had built their own golden calf. Moses came down from the mountain to find them worshipping an idol. In his anger, he breaks the commandments and goes back up the mountain, and this time he fasts for forty days and nights so the Lord does not destroy the people. After 40 days and nights Moses comes down with a new set of the Ten Commandments. This is another turning point in the history of God’s people. The forty days is that period when the Israelites transition from being runaway slaves to becoming the people of the covenant. They have entered into covenant with God by agreeing to be the people of the covenant.
The next instance of 40 days is when Moses sent Joshua and the other spies to survey the land of Canaan. It was at the end of 40 days that the spies returned to tell of the land flowing with milk and honey. The forty days here is a period of clarifying what the Promised Land really was, of clarifying both the blessings and the challenges that the people would find there. Forty Days of surveillance was necessary after their forty years of wondering in the wilderness. Clearly 40 is a symbol of important preparation before entering into the Promised Land!
Did you know that the story of David and Goliath is also a story of 40 days? We read in I Samuel 17 about how Goliath came forward for forty days and took his stand against the men of Israel. It was at this time that young David decided to fight the giant. This is an important time of a significant threat building, and then a courageous moment of decision to face the threat and trust in the strength of God. It’s of course one of our favorite stories, because it is a story of the underdog winning against all odds!
The final period of forty days is when the prophet Jonah gives warning to the Ninevites. Jonah went through Nineveh shouting “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). And of course what was interesting about that story is that the Ninevites, the enemies of Jonah, did believe God and proclaimed a fast and repented of their ways. This is a story of how the enemies of Israel took forty days to turn to God and change their ways. This story is particularly interesting to me, for it is a story of a journey within a journey. Jonah, you’ll remember, was trying to run away from the call of God. He hates the Ninevites. He wants them to be destroyed. But God forces Jonah to go and warn them, and the Ninevites are saved, despite Jonah’s hard heart. And we are left at the end of the story wondering whether Jonah would ever get over his anger at the people of Nineveh. It’s a story of how God’s mercy is wider than our mercy, and how God’s love extends even to those we would consider our enemies…
Jonah is the last forty days story in the Old Testament. It’s significant in that of course Jonah is often seen as a parable for all the people of God. It’s very possibly our story as well… As we enter into this Lenten Journey, are we going to pursue God’s call upon our lives, or will we run the other way? It’s a very old story, isn’t it!
Our family took a few days to visit Rome this past week and we had the pleasure of spending a significant portion of Ash Wednesday in the Sistine Chapel. We were able to sit and reflect on the amazing artwork of Michelangelo. I’ve always been impressed with the fact that the prophet Jonah is depicted front and center over the judgment of Christ, the terrible scene of Jesus putting the sheep on his right and the goats on his left… It is a powerful reminder to me that like Jonah, we will be judged on how we respond to the call of God. We cannot run and we cannot hide. It is a sobering scene of The Judgment, and one wonders what Jonah ever did decide in the end…
But what I hadn’t noticed before is the prophet at the other end of the chapel, directly opposite of Jonah. Of course it is always significant not only the art subjects that are chosen to be included in the space, but it is also usually equally significant where the artwork is placed in the space...
At the exact opposite end of the Sistine Chapel, juxtaposed from Jonah, is Zechariah. Brilliant, really! Whereas Jonah symbolizes how many of us begin our spiritual journeys: overconfident and willing at the slightest hint of inconvenience to run the opposite direction from the call of God, Zechariah is the older prophet who is struck dumb at first because of his fears and doubts, but later filled with the Holy Spirit and inspired to proclaim what I think is some of the most beautiful language in all of scripture recalling the salvation of God. It seems to me that there on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is the goal of the spiritual journey, from Jonah running and decision to Zechariah silent waiting and inspiration. From fear to faithful proclamation... From anger and judgment to humble acknowledgement of the tender mercies of our God and the promise of a new dawn for all who dwell in a land of deep darkness...
Who knows if there are connections with these forty days stories throughout the Old Testament and our Lenten journey? My guess is there are likely some connections, in that at least all involve a significant crossing over, a transition and even transformation into a new paradigm, a new realization or acceptance of God’s Promise and Hope of new life.
Whether it is Noah, or crossing the Red Sea or the Jordan River into the Promised land, or the story of Jonah and his misguided sailing trip to Tarshish running away from God’s call to proclaim the Word of the Lord to the Ninevites, the journey metaphor on water is prominent… And if you’ve been reading the devotional journal you may have noticed how sailing is also a useful metaphor for the spiritual journey. Indeed, we have to learn to catch the Spirit of God in order to make any progress at all. This isn’t a motorboat journey. Nor a rowboat. We are not going to get there quickly or on our own efforts. Rather, our job is to learn to position our sails so that the Spirit of God will take us to new adventures, to deeper waters of God’s grace and love.
But there is this temptation in the Lenten journey, even among the best of sailors, that we know it all or can do it all. We forget that just like any novice, if we aren’t paying attention, we can fall off the boat... Did you see the story a couple weeks ago about Florence Arthaud, the French solo sailing star? She is one of the premier sailors in France but while sailing alone in the Mediterranean earlier this month she fell overboard. It’s embarrassing, but in her own words, “I quite simply fell into the water while preparing to take a pee…” So there you have one of the greatest sailors alive bobbing helplessly in the middle of the Mediterranean. Luckily, she had her life vest on and her mobile phone in the vest. While her boat sailed on merrily without her … she was able to call mom back in Paris and a rescue crew found her near the Island of Corsica…
Perhaps as we are getting started on this Lenten Journey of forty days we need to remember that it’s not just forty days to look busy, Jesus is coming. It’s not just forty days of self-denial so that we can eat a lot and party hearty come Easter. It’s not just forty days to act more religious. This forty days affords us the opportunity to clarify where God is calling us to go. For those of us who are baptized, I hope it’s a time to remember that the heart of the gospel is that God looks at us as he does his own son and says lovingly, “You are my beloved child. In you I am well pleased!” For some of us, it may be learning to forgive again. For some of us, it may mean letting go of anger and judgment against our enemies. For some of us we may be called to enter into a deeper relationship with God though a new level of obedience and commitment. For others it may be that we are called to face our fears and act with courage. For others, this forty days may be a time for us to learn to trust God and like Zechariah, be filled anew with the Holy Spirit giving new words of praise for God’s tender mercies….
But I think for all of us, we need to realize that even with our best skills we can easily and much to our own embarrassment, fall overboard and find ourselves in need of a helping hand. The Lenten journey then isn’t so much a time to exercise our spiritual skill or experience, as to remember to call upon the One who can save us, that One who beckons us to follow him all the way to the Cross, all the way to Easter New Life in pursuit of the coming Kingdom of God…
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.