Noah’s Ark is a difficult story. Because it has lots of animals, a boat, and a rainbow, we put it on nursery walls and tell it to children. But the real story isn’t cute or happy at all. The real story is hard and confusing.
God looks down at everything he has made, but unlike the goodness he saw at creation, now all he sees is corruption and violence. It’s a mess and God regrets the whole thing. So he decides to scrap it all and start over with just eight people and a handful of animals. He gives Noah instructions for building a giant boat, and once Noah’s family and the collection of animals are on board, God destroys the world with a giant flood. Every animal, every innocent child, every violent man or woman. Everyone dies.
And when Noah and his family and all of the animals finally crawl out of the ark for a fresh start, God promises them all – the animals and the people – that he will never do it again. He puts a rainbow in the sky to remind himself of his promise – never again will the rain mean everything dies. That’s not going to be God’s way to make things right.
Have you ever wanted a fresh start? Everything is a mess, it’s not working out, and you need to start over from scratch. Just burn it all down, as a friend of mine says.
God knows what that’s like. He understands that feeling, and he’s made a better way than destroying it all.
Because what we see in Noah’s story is that destroying it all didn’t work. Noah and his family brought themselves with them into their fresh start, and they start messing up almost immediately. Noah gets drunk, one of his sons does something obscene, and the whole project spirals from there.
The problem wasn’t in everything around them, it wasn’t all just in the violence and evil in other people’s hearts. They had their own regrets and resentments and fears and defenses. The flood didn’t destroy those, and the fresh start they needed was in themselves – in their own hearts and minds.
So God made a different kind of fresh start. God gave us baptism. Like those flood waters, the waters of baptism provide us with a fresh start, but unlike those flood waters, baptism doesn’t destroy to do it. Instead, baptism calls us to move forward in the world as it is and change the world by changing our own lives – changing how we think and what we do. Baptism is about changing the direction we’re going and what we are moving towards.
As the baptismal vows in the Book of Common Prayer say, we turn away from evil, and towards God.
Away from the powers of this world that corrupt and destroy, and towards the Creator who nurtures and heals.
We turn away from the desires that keep us from loving and being loved, and turn to live in the grace and love Jesus freely offers to us and to all.
Every time we celebrate a baptism, the whole congregation renews those vows, and the water that has been blessed for baptism is flung out over us with the words, “Remember your baptism!” It’s one of my favorite moments of the liturgy, and it always makes me smile, because it reminds me that I have a fresh start to live those vows. But we don’t have to wait for those moments to remember our baptism! A shower in the morning as we get ready for a new day can remind us of our baptism. The water running over our hands as we wash them through the day can remind us. An unexpected spring rain we get caught in can remind us – especially if it comes with a rainbow.
In the gospel of John, Jesus explains it to Nicodemus as “being born again.” Parts of the church have turned being “born again” into not much more than an abstract idea, sort of a magic wand that changes where we go when we die, but Jesus is using it to describe a fresh start, a new way of living that starts now.
I think sometimes it’s hard for us to accept that we can really change and things really can be different – that we can actually have a fresh start. It can be hard to believe for myself, and it can be hard to believe for others. But that is the heart of our faith, and it’s what we are inviting others into when we offer them baptism. If the reality that change really is possible in ourselves and in the world isn’t what the gospel is about, I don’t know what is.
That change doesn’t come all at once, but like all new life, it starts in a moment we may not even recognize, and then grows one breath at a time, one step at a time. It’s a spiritual reality that happens here and now, in ways we can see and hear and feel. In the middle of life that is messy and confusing and full of things beyond our control.
The reality is that fresh starts are often not something we’ve gone looking for. Things fall apart or quit working or just come to an end, and we have to pick up the pieces and start over. There’s a flood. We lose a job. The partner we thought we’d spend the rest of our life with is gone. Children leave home. We just realize we’re not living the life we want, aren’t the person we want to be.
That’s why confession is part of traditional liturgies every week. It’s not just words we say. It’s an opportunity to stop and recognize what’s gone wrong – the things we did that make us wince, the things we didn’t do that make us defensive. Instead of burying them or shrugging them off, we bring them up, look at them squarely, and recognize something in us needs to change. And then we lift our souls up to the Lord, as the Psalmist says, and turn to the love of Jesus to receive his grace and love so that we can offer it to others with our lives. It’s a habit, a discipline, and if we enter into it each week fully and thoughtfully, we will find our lives become oriented to that direction we were pointed to in our baptism. The love of God becomes the true north in the compass of our hearts, always pointing us towards his love, both to receive and to give.
Sometime a fresh start is something we know we need, but we’re not sure what it looks like or how to find it. That’s one of the reasons we fast during Lent – to make space in our hearts and in our daily lives for God to do something new.
The first time I tried fasting for Lent, I had no idea what I was doing. I was still a Baptist, and I was living in North Carolina where even at the Bible college where I worked, few people even knew what Lent was. But I was searching to connect with God in new ways, and thought I’d see what Lent might be like. So I gave up sweets for Lent – desserts, the Krispy Kreme doughnuts my office neighbor brought every Tuesday, the bowl of chocolates in our office. All of them. I put a Post-it note on my computer to remind me, and it wasn’t long at all before I started to realize how quickly I reached for those chocolates when I started to get stressed. I’d never noticed how much I used sweets to cope with life, and now that I wasn’t I had to face that stress, sit with it, and work through it. Over the weeks, I started using a guided prayer website in those moments, and gradually that became my instinct when I felt stressed.
There was space for another bit of God’s love to take root and blossom into something new, something God’s love does again and again and again. As we hear at the Ash Wednesday service, we are dust, and we have a Creator who delights in making good things out of dust.
Like Noah, we bring ourselves into the fresh start God gives us at baptism and every day after, and it is the love of God that can make us into something new, that can give us a new way to live, again and again and again. Baptism is not just a beginning, it’s a way forward. A life of continual conversion and transformation of our hearts and lives into the way of Jesus, the path of the love of God.
That is the fresh start we receive at baptism and every time we come to God in prayer, confession, and the table. It’s the fresh start God has for us every moment of every day.