Sunday, February 15, 2015

Sunday 22 February 2015 - First Sunday in Lent

Theme(s): Covenant / Suffering / Lent / Salvation / Baptism / Temptation and Testing / Wilderness

Sentence: Lord be gracious to us; we long for you. Be our strength every morning; our salvation in time of distress. (Isaiah 33:2)


Almighty God,
your Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness;
give us grace to direct our lives in obedience to your Spirit;
and as you know our weakness
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.


Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15


Introductory Comment:

We read these readings from the perspective of Lent. The Genesis and Peter readings raise many questions which will not be dealt with here. Rather we focus on what they contribute to our journey with Jesus through Lent to the cross.

Genesis 9:8-17

This reading is connected to our epistle reading (see below). At the heart of the story of Noah is the question of relationship between God and humanity, a relationship which has gone very seriously wrong. With the flood, God destroys the unrighteous and saves, via the ark, the righteous (i.e. Noah and his family). In these verses God says that this mammoth act of judgment will not occur again. The rainbow will function as a sign of God's covenant not to act in this way again.

Thus a central theme in the story is God's willingness to engage verbally with humanity, via covenants which spell out what God's plan for humanity is. Soon there will be a covenant with Abraham, then with Moses, followed by a Davidic covenant and then the promise of a new covenant.

Although Mark's account of the baptism of Jesus does not mention a rainbow, it does mention the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove (which also features in the story of Noah). In other words, the covenant-making God is at work in the story of the baptism of Jesus.

Every covenant God makes, including this one here, is part of the assurance through words, that God cares for the world and is committed to the salvation of God's people.

Psalm 25:1-10

What is Lent? In part it is a time of learning, of discipline, of care and attention to the obedient life of a disciples of Christ. Verses 4-5 point us in the direction we need to go; with a reinforcement in verses 8-10.

1 Peter 3:18-22

This reading and Genesis 9:8-17 (from the story of Noah) are obviously linked together, but what is the link to the gospel reading on this first Sunday in Lent?

I suggest the link is provided by the first and last verses of the passage: Jesus 'suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God' (with v. 22 observing that this suffering was vindicated). In Lent we journey with the suffering Jesus, the Jesus who suffers by resisting Satan's temptations, suffers by bending his will to God's will as he travels to Jerusalem knowing the destiny which awaits him, suffers false accusations, a manipulated set of trials, mocking, scourging and finally crucifixion itself.

Verses 19-21 are food for commentarial thought. Peter segues off 'alive in the spirit' in v. 18 to talk about what Jesus then did. The narrative of preaching to imprisoned spirits is connected to the creedal phrase 'descended to the dead' and to 1 Peter 4:6. Beyond that we have no other testimony in Holy Scripture to this action by Jesus. What is Peter saying? Can the spirits of dead disobedient people be released to new life in God? (Cue discussion of praying for the dead, talk of Purgatory and so forth.) If so, note that Peter does not say anything about whether we should pray about such release? Was this action of Jesus a 'one off' proclamatory event, that is, not an event we should rely on as precedent for what happens (say) to ourselves re a future 'second chance' should we choose to live disobediently to God? I'll stop my brief discussion here, for reasons of insufficient time. But clearly a long and lively discussion could ensue. Either way, I do not think these verses are the reason why this reading is chosen for this day.

Verses 20-21 take us to Noah, as an exemplary figure from a time when the inhabitants of the earth 'did not obey'. He then says that when Noah's family were saved in the ark in the midst of the flooding of the earth it was a 'prefiguring' (or, we can say, 'type') of baptism (another link with the gospel reading). Verse 21 is then a theology of baptism: this needs careful thought lest we misunderstand what is being said. I will make just one point here: when Peter writes 'And baptism ... now saves you' he is not saying that we just need to be baptised and we are saved. His point is more subtle than that, because he integrates baptism into the state of our consciences and understands a 'good conscience' as coming 'through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.' Salvation comes through Jesus Christ and we receive salvation as we receive Christ and that, reading the rest of the epistle, involves our inner faith as much as the outer baptism of water.

Mark 1:9-15

Although this passage begins with the baptism of Jesus we have already tackled this in Year A. Our focus today is on verses 12 and 13, the immediate aftermath of the baptism in which the Spirit drives Jesus 'out into the wilderness.'

Mark tells us that Jesus 'was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.'

We can read a lot into these words. The wilderness was the place where Israel was tested between leaving Egypt and entering the promised land, with 40 days here matching 40 years of Israel's sojourn through the wilderness. Israel is God's Son and now Jesus Christ, the Son of God is tested like the whole people he represents. But Elijah, a prophet with many resemblances to Jesus' prophetic ministry, also went into the wilderness for 40 days (1 Kings 19:4-8).

The specific reference to Satan tempting Jesus recalls (at least) the temptation of Adam and Eve and the testing of Job. If Jesus is to be the 'one perfect sacrifice for the sin of the world' then he needs to pass the test which Adam and Eve failed. If Jesus is to truly suffer or experience true suffering, then he, like Job, must be tested through suffering.

The wild beasts are more difficult to interpret. Is this reference to the extent of the wilderness experience: wild beasts threatened to devour him? Or, does this mention imply that when Jesus was with the wild beasts, they were tamed by him who has come to reverse the effects of the fall? The latter is more likely because Mark makes nothing of the threat to Jesus, but in a story about the Saviour who restores the world it makes sense to include references to the ways in which God's new creation is taking effect.

The ministry of the angels recalls both the ministering angels to Israel during its forty years in the wilderness as well as the angel ministering to Elijah during his wilderness experience.

Coming out of the wilderness, Jesus begins to preach the gospel and to inaugurate the kingdom.

The specific sequence of 'baptism' then 'temptation' may not be the typical experience of every Christian disciples, but most disciples experience sharp testing at times in our walk with the Lord.

If we think of the wilderness experience as 'preparation for ministry' then we are reminded here that our efforts to minister in Jesus' name are best served by appropriate preparation.

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