February 18, 2024

A while back a bear invaded our deck and took down our bird-feeder.  So, since then we only have the bird-feeder up in the winter while the bears are hibernating.  Our house in the woods seems to be a magnet for creatures large and small.  Lately we’ve been battling stink bugs.  I have no idea how they get in the house, but they find a way.  We’ve had porcupines, and deer, and rabbits, and squirrels all over our property.  In the house at different times, we get flies, and ladybugs, and wasps.  So, I find myself raising a word of protest when I read in Genesis that God made a covenant of blessing with, as the good book says, “every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”  In that, I presume, are included stink bugs and bears.  Go figure.  What would have possessed Noah to take two stink bugs on the ark anyway?

But seriously folks, there’s a pretty important question being raised by this story.  Put one way, the question might be, “does the Almighty really have a covenant with stink bugs?”  Put another way: you and I and the forests and the ice caps and the stink bugs are all part of one interconnected, interdependent reality.  What’s good for the earth is good for humanity, and that which is destructive of our habitat is destructive of us.  In short, yes, the Almighty has a covenant with the stink bugs, as surely as with us.

But I digress.  What really interests me about these two stories we heard this morning (the story of the Divine covenant with Noah and every living creature for all generations after the flood, and the story of Jesus’ baptism and wilderness trial) is that they are intimately bound together in ways that point to a profound and life-altering truth.  They are bound together in imagery and they are bound together in meaning.  The imagery alone is mind-blowing.  Both stories involve, curiously enough, water and beasts, and both relate to a forty day period of trial, to a wondrous blessing and sign, and to a transformational new beginning.  In the ancient Hebrew legend, the water of rainfall covers the earth for forty days and nights to destroy every creature except those beasts who accompany Noah on the ark.  In the gospel story, Jesus is submerged in the waters of the Jordan by John (a wild kind of man who wears camel hair clothing and eats the food of animals), and then is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness with the wild beasts for forty days.

Here’s what I find intriguing: that these two symbols, water and beasts, are ancient and archetypal images for, believe it or not, mom and dad.  In ancient mythology, as Joseph Campbell1 points out, beasts have historically represented the father image, and water is the classic symbol for the feminine and the great mother of all life – the universal womb.  So there is an essential duality established right off the bat in these stories.  The beasts and water represent the duality of male and female.  Out of that duality other dualities are born.  Chief among them is the duality of trial and promise.  The trial in both cases lasts the sacred period of time, forty days.  The rains fell for forty days, and Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days.  And at the end of those times there was a new world to explore, a new task to undertake.  But there is the hint of something more.  There is a note of oneness to which we are drawn.  In The Power of Myth, Campbell talks with Bill Moyers about the kind of dualities I’ve been describing, “male and female . . . the human and [Divine] . . .good and evil.”  He then makes the curious statement that “There is the plane of consciousness where you can identify yourself with that which transcends pairs of opposites.”  Moyers asks him what that which transcends the pairs of opposites is, and he replies, “Unnameable.  Unnameable.  It is transcendent of all names.”2  Here’s the gift wrapped up in these stories about the flood and the baptism: that which is unnameable, that which transcends all knowing, that which we often refer to as “God” draws us toward a deep awareness of, and identification with, that transcendent oneness.  In both stories there is a wondrous blessing revealed in a brilliant and hopeful sign.  For Noah, the blessing is the covenant that the earth will be preserved from such destruction in the future, and the sign of that blessing is the rainbow fixed in the sky.  For Jesus, the blessing is the voice of the Lord declaring that he is the beloved son, and the sign of the blessing is the Spirit descending like a dove from heaven.  These stories seem to have been crafted in such a way as to suggest deep and timeless truths that connect them.

Am I reading too much into all this?  Possibly.  But I’m convinced of the timeless truths nonetheless.  Here’s what I think lies at the heart of all this: These are moments of great new beginnings – the beginning of life for all creatures after the cleansing flood, and the beginning of a world-changing ministry.  And somehow, at the moment of such great beginnings, something spectacular happens.  Forty days of trial are transformed into a new promise, a new life.  The dualities of our existence are melded into a unified whole – the reality of that which transcends common experience, the reality of Divinity strikingly and wondrously present in the here and now and made manifest in the appearance of a dove descending from the sky, or a rainbow on the horizon, or perhaps a wildflower at the edge of a meadow.

Every time I see a rainbow, I think of Hawaii.  Dadgie and I were blessed to have been given the gift of a trip to that magic paradise a number of years ago.  It was two weeks jammed full of delicious moments and experiences of grace.  We learned some of the amazing history of those islands, and of the people.  We learned of their wonderful resilience and indomitable joy.  We saw remarkable, breath-taking landscapes and were in awe of the splendor of creation.  We met Hawaiians who struggled with financial burdens, class distinctions, and cultural losses, and yet who work for a better life for their children, find creative ways to build bridges of relationship, and preserve their cultural heritage with enthusiasm and energy.  And every evening, without fail, there was a brief rain shower, followed by a lovely rainbow.  Those rainbows seem to simply be part of the architecture of Hawaii.  But rainbows now are like reminders to me of grace.  They remind me that the world is put together in such a way that treasures are found under every leaf of autumn, on every snow-covered field of winter, and behind every soft cloud of springtime.  They remind me that human beings are gifted with boundless resources of hope and good will, and that love has the power to heal every heart and transform every life.

You and I are at the beginning of our own forty day period – the forty days of Lent leading up to Easter Sunday.  I would like to suggest to you that the stories of the flood and of the baptism of Jesus are not exceptional.  They are typical; they are emblematic of the “forty day trials” of our lives, and of the overwhelming wonder that can seize us when we are made aware of our blessing.  The season of Lent is typically a time of introspection and self-denial.  It’s a time to wander around a bit in the wilderness of our own uncertainties and insecurities, to examine our failed relationships and to look our temptations and addictions squarely in the face.  What is your trial in these days leading up to Easter?  Whatever it is, it can be the inspiration for a new beginning.  In truth, our lives are populated with beginnings, or at least with the promise of beginnings.  In a way, every night’s sleep can be a metaphorical forty day trial, and every morning can be a beginning.  What if every moment of your life were seen as holding the promise of transformation?  What if every moment were a kind of Easter morning with the crocuses poking their heads up through the earth, and signs of your blessing abounding.

I think you all know by now that Dadgie and I live with a beast.  His name is Charlie.  Sometimes he drives me nuts.  He can get barking at anything, and at absolutely nothing at all.  He can be demanding of his dinner and his treats.  But there are moments, I have to confess, when I look into his eyes and almost imagine that he’s pulling one over on us – that he is actually smarter than we are, and knows more about life and its depths and meanings than we can comprehend.  I realize this is ridiculous, but at least he and his kind are living in harmony with nature, and not polluting the air and destroying the planet.  Then I look over at the end table and see a dreaded stink bug making his way toward my water glass.  And it hits me.  We are, in fact – with apologies to Noah – all in this boat together.  We are part of a wondrous whole, Dadgie and I, the dog, the stink bug, the coffee table, and the trees in the back yard.  We live together in a kind of covenant.  It’s an ancient covenant, a unifying and equalizing promise – a daily and hourly blessing.  May we honor it not just these forty days, but all our days.

1 Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, Apostrophe S Productions, 1998.

2 Op cit. p. 48.

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