God Keeps God’s Promises
Mary loved the story of Noah’s ark. She gave us Noah placemats when our son was born. Her house was decorated with arks of all sizes, Little paired animals marching in to get out of the rain. It had a Noah border in the bathroom. There was even a rainbow painted on the hall leading upstairs. Explaining her love for the story, Mary said, “It reminds me that God keeps God’s promises.” Mary needed that promise.
When I visited her, she was 51 years old and 4 months into a disastrous marriage. The man she married was struggling with mental health issues and couldn’t hold down job. She had thought things would get better once the stress of the wedding was over, But it had gotten worse. On top of all of that, there was a lawsuit against her husband, an accusation of child abuse. The lawyers fees were coming in, and there wasn’t money to pay them. Mary worried that she might lose the house she had spent years saving to buy.
All her life, Mary had been single in a paired up world, the lone animal in the ark without a mate. She was profoundly lonely. So she had grasped at this chance to marry and share her life To be cherished by another person as one’s own. But her ark of hope had been splintered into so many pieces. And now she clung to the hope that somewhere God was keeping God’s promises to love and cherish her. It is not easy to be lonely. But it is common.
Recent studies nonetheless have noted that social isolation is on the rise – The American Sociological Review reported that 1 in 4 Americans have no one they can confide in 1 in 2 have no one they can share intimately outside their immediate families. A person might have hundreds of friends on Facebook, but have no one to talk to. A person can be in the midst of people, but feel totally alone.
Jesus knew what it was like to be lonely, too. In our gospel lesson, Jesus was out in the wilderness. The wilderness is a symbol in scripture of desolation and danger— Out there you are exposed to the elements and without provisions. On top of that, Jesus was surrounded by adversaries: wild beasts and Satan himself. Mark says simply, “Jesus was in the wilderness 40 days, tempted by Satan.” 40 is a symbolic number that essentially means, “a very long time.” Jesus’ solitary struggle against evil was strenuous and lengthy; it was something he had to do by himself. Jesus was alone in the wilderness, but that is not the only form of loneliness that Jesus had to endure. Mark hints at the other kinds of loneliness that Jesus would face. God’s words, “You are my Son, the beloved,” are the same words used by the prophet Isaiah to describe the servant who would suffer on behalf of the people. John’s arrest foreshadows Jesus’ own arrest later on. The sky torn apart at Jesus’ baptism is like the curtain in the temple torn in two when Jesus dies. In the brevity of six verses, Mark signals Jesus’ lonely walk of suffering, betrayal, and death.
Every Lent, my husband Jonathan, choir director extraordinaire, used to do this anthem: “Jesus walked that lonesome valley/ he had to walk it by himself. Nobody else could walk it for him/ he had to walk it by himself.” He would always accompany the song with the solitary beating of the tympani— It was very effective—gave you the chills. Jonathan and I used to argue about this piece because I wanted to write a new verse. The song went on to say that we all walk that lonesome valley, we have to walk it by ourselves. But to me, the point of Jesus walking that lonely path is so that we don’t have to walk it by ourselves. In fact, I would say, Jesus walks beside us in our suffering, so we are not alone. Whether or not the song needs a new verse, I think Mark would agree that Jesus’ loneliness is the cure for ours. Mark’s point in describing Jesus’ wilderness journey was to let his own people know That no matter how hard their situation, they were not alone. The point of the sky being torn open was to signify that God was no longer ‘up there’ Remote, aloof from human suffering But rather among us, one of us, able to take us through and beyond our loneliness and despair To a place where we are sustained and made whole.
Back in Noah’s day, God promised, “I establish my covenant with you… when I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature that is on the earth.” At your baptism, God promised, “Child of God, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” God’s presence, Christ’s presence is with us. But not only God’s presence. For on that day we were joined to the holy and ragtag band of the faithful in baptism We were made part of a community of faith. And that family of faith stands by us in tough times It’s the prayers we offer for each other. It’s the listening without judgment. It’s the ways we connect over coffee in the gathering space or share our stories in adult forum. It’s in the ways we serve one another, teaching each others’ children, mentoring one another Scriptures and sacraments which tell our shared story and highlight our shared identity as one people. As a community we journey together and we are sustained.
Mary was right: God keeps God’s promises. Not a promise that Mary wouldn’t be single in a paired up world Not a promise that we won’t experience a natural or personal disaster But a promise that Jesus is with us, no matter what our circumstances. We are not alone, because the community of faith walks beside us. There is just one more detail to notice in our Gospel story for today: When Jesus walked that lonesome wilderness valley, he actually wasn’t entirely by himself.
Scripture says, that ‘angels waited on him.’ You might miss it if you weren’t paying attention it is a signal for us that God did not abandon Jesus. But it is also a reminder that we often miss the ways that God is tending us in our wilderness times: It is often simple things: the smile of a stranger, the moment of peace in a silent snowfall. “Angels waited on him.”
God did not abandon Jesus. Neither will God abandon us. No matter how far you travel in the wilderness, remember: there is always a bow in the sky: God keeps God’s promises.