Let’s start with a story. There was a man, let’s call him Rod, who was a fine woodworker. He made cabinets, shelves, and tables for family, friends, and fellow church members. One day his pastor asked him to come to his house and reconstruct a cabinet over his new refrigerator because the new refrigerator was taller than the old one. Rod agreed. When he came to do the work, his pastor and the pastor’s wife were not at home. They had given him a key to get in. Rod was a former member of the church board, a man to be trusted, a man of integrity.
At eleven o’clock, as he worked on the cabinet, Rod noticed that his stomach was growling. He was hungry, really hungry. He stopped working for a moment and looked around. Then he saw it. A chocolate cake, with one piece cut, as if to say, “I’m yours: take me.” Rod’s great weakness was chocolate.
A voice in his head said, “It’s O.K. You can take it. The pastor and his wife wouldn’t mind.” Another voice replied, “No way. From the time you were a child you were taught to never take something that belongs to another, you must ask first.” He quickly looked back to his woodwork. “How could I even think of taking that piece of cake?” he said out loud.
As he reached for one of his tools, there was that piece of chocolate cake again, staring him in the face, beckoning him to come and feast. He thought, “If they were here, they’d tell me to take it. But his conscience told him, “But they aren’t here!”
Rod got to thinking about his church background. He had been raised a Roman Catholic but now was a dedicated Lutheran. How could he even consider taking that piece of cake? It would be stealing. Then he thought, “You could leave them a note and tell them you took it.” He reached for the piece of chocolate cake. Then stopped, and said to himself, “They will think you are rude if you do that.” He worked on, now famished and confused. He knew that he shouldn’t take it, but he still wanted that cake. He made his decision. He would resist temptation. He chose to do the right thing, but his stomach was still growling.
A few minutes later he noticed a jar of pepperoni sticks on the table near the chocolate cake. This time, his hand moved fast and his went mind still faster; “They won’t even miss one stick.” The pepperoni tasted good as he put it into his mouth. I like pepperoni almost as much as chocolate,” Rod rationalized.
Hmmm. What does this story of temptation have to do with the story of the flood in the book of Genesis? Further, what does the story of the flood have to do with temptations today?
First of all, humanity was created in God’s image, not to be robots but to be companions. In that freedom, people would have to make choices between good and evil. That meant that we all are open to temptation and that sometimes we use our freedom to resist temptation, but sometimes we go right ahead and do what is wrong. God wants our love from our free will, not automatically.
To make the choice for evil, whether it is committing a major crime or taking a pepperoni stick, is part of our fallen condition.
Genesis 6 reports that after creation, the Lord observed humans accepting and embracing temptations much more frequently than resisting them. The wickedness of humankind in the time of Noah deeply disappointed God. God sent the waters of the flood. These were the waters of punishment for disobedience, violence, and self-centeredness. Only Noah, his family and two animals of every kind were saved. As Noah floated in the ark over mountaintops in the waters of the flood, he wondered when the rains would end. When the rain stopped, he wondered when he would see dry ground again. Finally, one day he sent out a dove to see if the waters of the flood had subsided. The dove returned with no evidence of dry ground being found. After seven days, he sent the dove out again. This time the dove returned with a freshly plucked olive leaf in its beak.
The dove was a sign of peace to Noah and his family. And when Christ came, the dove became a sign of Baptism.
Today we pick up the story of Noah in Genesis 9:8-17 where God establishes a covenant with Noah and his family. God’s part of the covenant is that God will never again send flood waters over all the face of the earth. Noah and his descendants have a responsibility in this too . Their part, and ours, is to promise to remember God and try to resist temptations when they come. The sign of that covenant is the rainbow. Interestingly, God takes the symbol of a weapon and turns it around into a beautiful rainbow. I think God’s mind was changed when God saw the faithfulness of Noah.
The gospel reading for this first Sunday of Lent (Mark 1:9-15) also makes the connection with the Old Testament story of temptation and water. In this passage, we hear about the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River: “To fulfill all righteousness,” as one translation puts it. Jesus was baptized vicariously, that is he was baptized for us. He didn’t need to repent because he never sinned, but he demonstrated his identification with sinners by being baptized for us.
In the Gospel reading we also hear God’s approval, “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
While this approval was for God’s son, we experience that approval as well when we remember our Baptism.
In addition to this Lenten Gospel Reading, we hear both the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness and how he rejected them. Jesus blazes the trail before us showing how focus on God can help us resist temptation. When temptations are renounced, repentance is still possible. Remembering our baptism is a way to come back to God when sin has separated us from God and from each other.
The Gospel reading ends with the stunning reminder of the meaning of ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”
Sometimes it takes a while, but God is patient. God has all the time in the world. When the kingdom of God breaks into human time, the possibility of people being restored to a right relationship with God opens up. Repentance is the act by which this restoration happens. In other words, Jesus was baptized not for himself, but for us. In the waters of baptism, God reaches out and tells us, “You are my child, I am your God,” thus establishing a covenant of mutual loyalty and love. Like Jesus, we are tempted but with the temptation, God provides good news of a means of escape. Even if we sin, God provided the means of escape called repentance.
There is an old Native American story about two wolves. One is a wolf called “Evil” and the other is a wolf called “Good.” These two wolves are in conflict and viciously attack one another. “Which wolf wins?”, asked a listener. “Whichever wolf that you feed” replied the storyteller.
In other words we have the possibility of being flooded with the waters of punishment if we feed “Evil” and the possibilities of being flooded with the merciful waters of baptism if we can remember the One to whom we belong. It depends on which wolf we feed.
Let’s go back to our friend, Rod, the carpenter and his story about the chocolate cake and pepperoni sticks. You will remember that Rod resisted the chocolate cake, the area where he was most vulnerable. Then the little voice of rationalization suggested that no one would know if he took a pepperoni stick. The pepperoni stick tasted mighty good when he first put it in his mouth, but as he sucked on it, he found that it had a rather odd taste. Nevertheless, he was hungry, so he went back for a second piece. “They’ll never notice that two pieces are missing,” he thought.
This time he looked closer to the label on the jar: It read, “Puppy Pepperoni.”
Please pray with me:
Please help us resist temptation, help us to remember our baptism, help us to repent of our sins, and restore us to right relationship with you.
In Jesus’ name we pray,