God has Promised to Remember Us Always
Every once in a while, John and I look at old home movies. The aged super eight movie film was long ago copied onto VCR tapes and later to a CD, but the quality is pretty poor by today’s standards. The action is jerky and the color tends to be washed out. But these tapes contain the story of our early years together, beginning with our wedding day which is why we’re drawn to watch it from time to time. It’s fun and bittersweet to see family and friends from the deep past. In the section about the birth and baptism of our son David who will be 46 years old in a few weeks, one of the people from the past in these home movies is David’s godmother.
Hunter was our good friend, and her story is haunting. She grew up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where her father was the chief physician at the state mental hospital. When Hunter was a very small child, her mother, who suffered from deep and recurring clinical depression, underwent a procedure that was in vogue at the time to relieve her symptoms. She had something called a pre-frontal lobotomy which is an operation that severs the connections between the thalamus and the frontal cortex of the brain. It was used to treat those with depression and some other types of mental illness because it often resulted in significant mood alterations and striking changes in behavior. Hunter’s mother was able to function as a wife and mother after the surgery, but she lost the ability to feel anything emotionally. She once said to her young daughter, “I know I used to love you, but I can’t remember how that feels.” “I know I used to love you, but I can’t remember how that feels.”
Today we hear part of the story of Noah and the ark, which is one of the most repeated and romanticized stories in all of scripture. I say it’s romanticized because it’s a story often told to children with bright colorful pictures of animals and rainbows. Noah, gathering a sort of religious zoo onto the boat he’s made at God’s command, is depicted in a celebrative, almost carnival-like way. And after a page or two or three in the Bible of unremitting rain and seemingly endless waiting, the dove is sent out one last time. When it doesn’t return, Noah releases the animals and his family from confinement on the boat, and life goes on…except there’s also the part about the rainbow which we hear this morning. But the dark stuff about all the inhabitants of the world, both human and animal except for those on the boat, being obliterated in the deluge…all that dark stuff is just kind of glossed over.
Now I am not advocating that we fill tender young minds with graphic and terrifying images of drowning people and creatures. But I would suggest that if you and I have never moved beyond that kindergarten telling of the story, we are literally missing the boat.
Then in the gospel for today, we have Mark’s account of Jesus being driven into the wilderness immediately after his baptism by John in the Jordan River. With characteristic terseness, Mark simply says that he was out there for 40 days, he was tempted by Satan, he was with the wild beasts…and the angels waited on him. That’s it: no details about the nature of the temptations of the sort that Matthew and Luke provide, no indication of why the wild animals are mentioned or what they were doing. We can only suppose from other places in scripture that they perhaps posed a threat to him. And it should be noted that in Mark the angels were with him throughout his ordeal. They didn’t just show up at the end to tend to him.
Mark says, “and the angels waited on him.” I got a bit curious about this word “waited” and looked it up in the dictionary. I don’t know about you, but getting waited on is something I associate with going to a restaurant, or maybe being coddled by family or being entertained by friends. What I found in the dictionary is that it means to watch over, to observe closely, to look out for. All this could be descriptive of a waiter or waitress in a restaurant, but in the wilderness setting in the gospel it seems to have a deeper significance. Jesus was on his own, but these agents of God we sometimes call angels were there to watch over him and see that he came to no harm.
The absolute good news in all this is that in the story of Noah and the ark, God makes a promise that extends through all of history to Jesus and finally to you and me. The point of the story of Noah is that God ultimately remembered the creatures, human and animal, on that boat. In that remembering he promised, not just to you and me, but also to his very self that he would never again react with such fury against our indifference and disobedience. He promised to watch over and look out for us just as surely and carefully as he watched over and looked out for Jesus in that difficult time in the wilderness.
You know, our friend Hunter’s mother did not choose to be unable to remember how it felt to love her young daughter. Back in those days the surgery was often performed without the consent of the patient so she may not even have been aware of what the side effects might be. But it occurs to me that maybe if you and I meditate a bit on that painful reality in her life, we can begin to feel a more profound gratitude for the fact that God has chosen not to forget us; that God has promised to remember us always. As we enter this season of self-examination, we need to be aware that God does remember how it feels to love us, and has committed himself to that love forever. And we need to remember that his deepest desire is for us to love him back.