A few days ago we entered the church season of Lent. Maybe you went to a Mardi Gras party or Ash Wednesday service. Maybe you have decided to give something up to help you focus on this season of penitence and reflection. According to my Facebook feed I gather that social media is a pretty common choice to give up this year.
Or maybe some of you are like me and have decided to take on a practice to bring you closer to Jesus during this 40 day journey towards the cross. My daughter and I are doing a program called 40 Acts that gives you a challenge of kindness or generosity by email each day. Others may go to a Lenten study or commit to reading their Bible more.
Whatever you choose to do to celebrate Lent, I can guarantee you that there will come a day in the next 40 days when your choices and your journey will become difficult. When you will wonder why this matters at all and contemplate just throwing in the towel. Does God really want us to struggle with sacrifices and challenging ourselves? Can’t we just rest in grace?
It makes you wonder if there was a point during Jesus’s 40 days in the desert when he thought about giving up. I can’t imagine isolating myself from my community for 40 days, going without food for 40 days, resisting temptation after temptation for 40 days. It must have been exhausting. You wonder if it brought Jesus to the end of his Son of Man rope.Well, Jesus was not just Son of Man but Son of God, so maybe the 40 days was easier for him.
But the one I really wonder about in today’s Scripture readings is Noah. Long long ago there was a time when things on earth got so bad that God decided to start over. Noah and his immediate family went into the ark with two of every animal. This part we like. We romanticize it as a children’s story. Noah and the animals. In fact my baby shower was Noah and the ark themed as my kids came in twos.
But what happens when we think about the time after Noah was shut up in the ark and before the dove came back with that olive branch. What must it have been like during those 40 days of rain and destruction?
When I think about these scriptures about Jesus and Noah another story comes to mind. And though this story is fiction, I think it carries a lot of truth.
It is the story of Bilbo Baggins the Hobbit and his Unexpected Journey.
I love this story so much because I see so much of myself in Bilbo. I too am a slightly chubby creature who likes nothing better than being at home and having tea and cookies. I too do not like it when unexpected things happen like wizards visiting or dwarves coming over unannounced for dinner. I like a nice, quiet, boring life sometimes. But life for Bilbo was not meant to be boring. The wizard Gandalf and the company of dwarves talked him into setting off on a journey. A journey in which they would hike many miles across the land to the Lonely Mountain in order to steal a precious jewel from the fierce dragon Smaug.
Now when I first read this book I thought no way is this Hobbit going to make it against a dragon. He doesn’t have it in him. But as I read on I noticed the Hobbit began to change. You see the dwarves and Bilbo did not go from Bilbo’s Hobbit hole straight to the Lonely mountain and take the jewel and the mountain back from the dragon straight away. Like any good hero’s journey they had many side adventures first.
In my youth, this annoyed me. I wanted them to go from point A to point B, get things done and move on with life. But as I have aged I have learned that the path is often windy and filled with unexpected things. For Bilbo it was first an encounter with mountain trolls, then a scary mountain climb where he almost dies, and then a long pass under a dark, tomb-like mountain filled with orcs.
And each time Bilbo faced a new foe or difficulty, he rose to the occasion. The once lazy, slightly apathetic Hobbit became quicker and more clever. He learned how to use his gifts and rely on those around him to support his weaknesses. Sure there were many times that Bilbo wanted to give up and just back to his cozy Hobbit hole. But he pressed on with the journey. And spoiler, in the end it turns out he has what it takes after all. And when he finally makes it back to his cozy Hobbit hole, he is never the same Hobbit again.
Because for Bilbo, it was never about defeating the dragon or getting gold. It was about taking a journey that would transform him into a new person.
I think it must have been like that for Noah too. After all, did it really have to take 40 days to destroy everything on earth and start over? God made the world in seven days in the beginning, surely 40 days were not necessary to recreate it? And did Noah really have to go through the agony of bobbing around in that little ark while the rain of all rains pummeled the earth?
I find it interesting that the rain that fell during the flood was not just any rain. Back in Genesis 1 we see the third act of creation is God creating a dome called sky to push back the deep, dangerous waters of Tehom, the waters of chaos to bring a place of safety, order, and life to earth. God then contains other waters into oceans so land can be formed and life can live outside of the deep, dark waters.
When God sends the rains in Genesis, he is essentially ripping a hole in the dome called sky and letting the deep, dangerous waters of chaos re-enter earth and destroy all everything on the land and in the air. It is an undoing of creation.
While the epic waters fell, everything Noah had ever known died. I wonder if Noah ever wondered in the midst of the never ending rain and destruction if God would get carried away and destroy him too?
But during this time all Noah really had was God. All he could do is pray and wait and trust God with his future, with the world’s future.
I think that all that time and waiting and trusting must have changed Noah. Anytime you go through an ordeal like that it changes you. It makes you a new person. And Noah needed to be a new person, for he was entering a world made new. As the person charged with carrying on life, he needed to be close to God, to trust God with any and everything.
Maybe the 40 days weren’t for God, they were for Noah.
And so it is for us. As we look ahead to this season of Lent, we know that it is given to us for our transformation, for my transformation and yours. It is to take me from the slightly chubby, sometimes lazy, and often fearful person and change her into someone who is bold to reach out in love and generosity to the world.
It is to take you from where you are to a few steps closer to who God wants you to be. And of course this journey will be challenging and full of unexpected things. For that is how all 40 day, change you into someone new journeys always are. The trick is to keep walking the path, keep looking to God, keep letting God make us into the person God knows we can be.