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February, 18 2018

First Sunday in Lent (B)

Deacon Dave Shea, DMin

 

Raymond was my best friend growing up. We did just about everything together; from playing marbles to collecting Lone Ranger cards. He was a lot taller than I was and he always stood up for me. I was really grateful that Raymond was my friend. So, one day, we decided to cement our relationship by exchanging blood; by becoming “blood brothers.” Raymond had a pocket knife that he carried everywhere and I got some matches from my father’s end table drawer. We met in the woods behind Perrault Brothers Supermarket. First we sterilized the knife blade over the flame of a match and then we held up our right hands and swore that we’d be loyal to each other forever; that we’d always be friends. Then came the hard part; making a small cut at the end of our index fingers. It was a lot more painful than we had imagined. And when we were both bleeding we squeezed our wounds and pressed them together. We had made a covenant.

Everyone here, old and young alike, has made a covenant. Oh, we may not have used the word covenant to describe it, or even thought of it as a covenant, but we have all made promises and given commitments, “Cross my heart and hope to die.” Perhaps you made a pact with a friend to always stay connected; to always remain close no matter what. Maybe it was a promise you gave to a sibling to always spend Christmas together and preserve a cherished family tradition. And for all the husbands and wives, we entered into a solemn covenant when we stood in front of an altar and exchanged our wedding vows – “I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.”

So, when you think about it, there are more covenants than we ever realized.

It was a perfect storm, a convergence of the worst and most unrelenting storms ever. The great flood created a wet chaos. “The people were seeking higher and higher ground until there was none left.” (Taylor, Gospel Medicine, p. 32) The destruction was incredible. All but a handful of God’s chosen few perished.  

God was angry and it’s easy to think that the punishment far exceeded the crime. But God had watched humanity’s wickedness and sinfulness for generations. It sounds severe but take a look around us – there’s lots of evil and lots of sinning to go around. Our behavior can be a humiliation to God. There are so many times when God could have bailed out on us, but only once did God’s heart grieve so much, that He “regretted making humankind.” (Wallace, Lift Up Your Hearts, Year B, p.60)

And after the flood, when there was complete ruin; when all that God had once created was obliterated, it was then that God made a covenant. It was a divine pledge that what God had done, God would never do again. Never again would there be such destruction on such a scale.

As a sign of that covenant; as a sign of God’s sacred promise, a bow was hung in the heavens – a sign that the violent calamity was over; that peace would replace turbulence and restoration would preplace destruction; that there would be a new beginning. 

The bow was not a reminder to us, but a reminder to God that He would never forget and never exact that level of punishment again. No matter how far we would stray; no matter the extent of our misbehavior; no matter how much we sin, God will never go back on His end of the bargain. “God has bound Himself to an everlasting relationship with us and will never let go.” (First Impressions for 1st Sunday of Lent (B), March 9, 2003)

So it seems only appropriate on this first Sunday of Lent that we begin with a covenant; with Jesus’ own baptism. God sends us proof positive that He’s serious about keeping His covenant. “Jesus is the covenant-in-the-flesh,” and we need look no further than Christ for proof that God keeps His promises. (First Impressions, for 1st Sunday of Lent (B), February 22, 2015) The waters that once destroyed now save, cleanse and renew. The waters of our baptism remove original sin and mark our birth in Christ and sharers in his covenant.

It’s no coincidence that we get plunged into those baptismal waters; that we go down under the water and rise up as we absolutely participate in the life, death and resurrection of the Lord. That really happens.

Baptism comes with some consequences; it binds us to the covenant where we have to live our lives experiencing the dying and the rising of Christ over and over. Oh, we become children of God and heirs of heaven alright, those are the easy parts. But the dying and rising parts are the toughest because they prove that we take our relationship with Christ and our part of the covenant seriously.  

In our Gospel, no sooner had Jesus been baptized when the Spirit drives him into the desert. That same Spirit who was with him as he was baptized pushes him, with urgency, into the desert. Forty days is a long time to be by yourself; to be tested and tempted. We know he came out victorious on the other end, but while it was happening it had to be tough, even for Jesus.

And just as Jesus was driven into the desert to be tested, we too begin our Lent in the desert. And as it was a place of trial and difficulty for Jesus, so it is for us. It is a time for us to leave behind anything that is getting in the way of our relationship with Christ; a time to rid ourselves of everything that “we are using to fill the empty spaces that belong to God.” And “nothing is too small or too big to give up.” (Taylor, Home by Another Way, p. 66-67)

Jesus calls for us to repent and that’s no easy task. Ask anyone who has ever broken a bad habit or entered rehab for an addiction and changed their fundamental way of behaving and living and they’ll use words like determination, persistence, courage, and failure and starting over to describe what they went through.

Repent means that we change our hearts and our minds. It requires us to take ownership of the sin in our lives and especially those sins we’ve pushed deep down into our memories hoping that God will forget them. Repent means claiming responsibility for all of them, “in what we have done and in what we have failed to do, in our thoughts, words and actions.” To repent is an ordeal, and if it’s not, we’re probably not working hard enough.

This repentance stuff is serious and even dangerous. It can test our very identity as Catholics—“Who am I, really, and what do I stand for? Where am I in my relationship with Christ? Does this faith I claim really mean anything in terms of my behavior?” In short, “am I holding up my end of the covenant; am I living my baptismal promises?”

We’re not talking about some mere superficial or cosmetic changes. This is not something that we can get done by working it part time. This is a way of life and Christ is asking us to turn away from whatever is blocking our relationship with him and get rid of it. For most of us, that’s a full-time job!

The good news is that Christ, who holds us to account in our baptismal covenant, stays with us in our Lenten desert testing – he’s been there; he’s done that. We have a Lord who has preceded us into the desert. He’ll help us if we stick with him. He knows the way and he’ll show us the way out.

References & Resources:

Bergant, Dianne with Richard Fragomeni. Preaching the New Lectionary, Year B. Collegeville: The Liturgical                                                          Press, 1999.

Buetow, Harold A. All Things Made New, Cycle B. New York: Alba House, 1996.

Siciliano, Jude, OP. “First Impressions: Preaching Reflections on Liturgical Year B.” http://www.preacherexchange.com/ .

Taylor, Barbara Brown. Gospel Medicine. Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1995.

Taylor, Barbara Brown. Home By Another Way. Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1999.

Wallace, James A. with Robert P. Waznak and Guerric DeBona. Lift Up Your Hearts, “B” Cycle. New York: Paulist Press, 2006.

 

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