Genesis 9:8-17 – Noahic covenant (age 600). Never again will I flood the whole earth. The bow in the clouds is a sign of the promise.
Psalm 25:1-10 – Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions.
1 Peter 3:18-22 – You are blessed if you suffer for what is right. Always be prepared to give account for the hope that is within you. Appeal to a good conscience. v. 19 is the “descended to the dead/hell” proof text. Baptism, like Noah, saves.
Mark 1:9-15 – Baptism of Jesus, Temptation, arrest of John. Then “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
First I will offer a bird’s eye view of Lent B. Then I will look at the lessons for this coming Sunday. Finally, for those using my book, Learning to Pray Again, during Lent, I will offer some thoughts on prayer.
At a glance, Lent in Year B looks like this: The Hebrew readings begin with the covenants. This week, Lent 1, we have Noah’s covenant. Next week, Lent 2, we have Abraham’s covenant. Lent 3, we get Moses’ covenant. Lent 4, Moses lifts up the serpent in the wilderness, foreshadowing the coming of a new covenant. Lent 5, Jeremiah promises a new covenant: “I will make a new covenant. I will write the law on their hearts.”
The second readings usually follow an epistle through. Not so this Lent. The second readings jump around to support the Hebrew readings. Lent 1, 1 Peter references the Noahic Covenant. Lent 2, Romans references Abraham, and so on.
The gospels in Lent start with Mark’s shorter baptism, temptation and death of John sequence. Then Lent 2, we get Peter’s confession. Starting with Lent 3 we read from John’s gospel. The Cleansing of the Temple happens late in the Synoptics, but early in John (chapter 2). Lent 4, when we read about Moses’ serpent, we hear from John 3, “As Moses lifted up the serpent… so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Lent 5, the gospel looks toward Holy Week: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” And “When I am lifted up… I will draw all people to myself.”
So let’s look at the lessons for this coming Sunday.
This Coming Sunday
Genesis: The Hebrew lessons of Lent B give us a lesson in covenantal theology. We’ll hear the Noahic Covenant, the Abrahamic Covenant, the Mosaic Covenant, and the promise of a New Covenant. The first Sunday in Lent we begin with the Noahic covenant. God chooses to deal with the problem of sin by wiping out humanity, except for a very few, Noah and his family. We live with this temptation constantly. When we consider the evil in the world (like Russia invading the Ukraine), it there is a temptation to think the military option is the only one. Then, as if God has also repented, we get a promise, a covenant, made to Noah in the 600th year of his life: Never again will I flood the whole earth. I give you, as a sign of this promise, the bow in the clouds.
1 Peter: Noah’s salvation prefigures baptism. The epistle passage from 1 Peter picks up on Noah’s salvation. In a passage on dealing with suffering, the author contends that under normal circumstances, no one should experience persecution for seeking the common good. In the event you do suffer for doing good, you are blessed. Your persecutors will be shamed, especially if you have kept your nose clean. So, live an exemplary life, like Christ, who also suffered for doing good, in order to bring you to God. Then, after a short dissertation on Christ preaching to the “spirits in prison,” those who did not obey “in former times” (from which “descended to the dead/hell” was derived for the creed), the author states that God’s salvation through water and the ark prefigures baptism.
Mark: Jesus’ baptism brings salvation, with consequences. In the gospel, Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan. That baptism is more than just fire insurance. Salvation is wholeness, completeness, fulfillment. This salvation in a broken world has implications of so much more to come. Jesus’ baptism is a commissioning that drives him into the wilderness for testing, and then into public ministry where he preaches: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
So here’s the good news: God has called you in your baptism to be a part of what God is doing, the kingdom breaking into our world!
The covenants are weighty stuff to weave into sermons during Lent. Consider if your congregation is ready to dig deeply into covenantal theology. The covenants are promises God makes, sometimes with strings attached, other times not. Luther said the sacraments were signs of God’s promises. The bow in the sky is a sign of God’s promise to Noah. My wife’s wedding ring is a sign of my promise to her. Both are outward signs of an inward grace. Baptism and communion are visible, tangible, sensory signs of God’s promises in Christ. For Luther, faith is trusting in God’s promises with our whole lives. The sacraments are signs reminding us, encouraging us, and empowering us, to trust those promises, and freeing us to live in good trust. They are the visible Word.
Another angle is to consider Christ’s preaching. It has both the indicative and the imperative. The indicative: The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God has come near. The imperative: Repent and believe the good news. It is never enough to speak only of what God has done. We must immediately follow it up with what we are to do in response. In the gospels and epistles, the indicative is always followed by an imperative. “Take up your pallet and walk.” Or Paul, “Therefore… offer your bodies as a living sacrifice… which is your spiritual worship.”
The rainbow is an intriguing image. ”When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” (Genesis 9:16) The covenant is not just with God and Noah. It is with all humanity, and even the animals (Genesis 9:9-10). God makes a covenant with the birds, and every animal that comes out of the ark. Never again… This is a comforting promise in light of the prophets of Armageddon. It can also be a jumping off point for discussing care of the earth.
The first Sunday of Lent is always Jesus’ fasting and temptation in the wilderness. The shorter Markan version does not mention fasting. It mentions temptation but does not go into detail. For those who take on the spiritual disciplines of Lent- prayer, fasting, and generosity – addressing temptation is essential. Anyone who attempts to deny oneself anything in this society of abundance will encounter temptation. Engaging it in healthy ways is important. It brings comfort to know that even Jesus encountered temptation. If we cannot resist the smaller temptations to deny ourselves, how we will be prepared to resist larger temptations to be derailed from the ministry to which God has called us?
We just read this text on Ash Wednesday. If your people started reading Learning to Pray Again daily from Ash Wednesday, they are through the Introduction and the first four or five chapters:
- Some Benefits of Prayer – Strength 7
- Some Benefits of Prayer – Joy 9
- Give Thanks 11
- Take Stock of Your Prayer Life 13
- Silence 15
If you’ve encouraged fasting during Lent, from food, sweets, alcohol, TV, etc. you might invite them to jump to chapter 13 on fasting and prayer.
In these first chapters, I worked to broaden people’s understanding of prayer. We think of prayer as yammering on and on to God. But in Matthew 6, Jesus discourages long, wordy prayers. Don’t be like those who think they’ll be heard for their many words. Listening is prayer. Silence is prayer.
For the cover, I intentionally chose an inviting pathway through the woods. If I had to choose one thing to spark people’s prayer lives, it would be walking an hour a day. Leave your phone at home. As Mother Teresa said, “The fruit of silence is prayer.”
Too often we think of prayer as a chore. What if it’s an invitation to not work, not do chores, not have to interact with others? Prayer is free time. Given enough silence, stuff happens.
I have found a key to helping people jump start their prayer life is simply getting them to set aside the time. The mechanics are secondary. Since this is behavioral change, it behooves us to spend time getting people to think about the benefits of prayer. They have to want it, need it. In the sermon invite people to take a few minutes of silence and write a list of answers to the question, “If I took 30 minutes a day to pray, every day, what might be some of the benefits, intended and unintended?”
I have asked this question a lot. Here are some of the answers I hear.
“I believe I’d have more peace.”
“It might calm me down.”
“I believe it would help me listen for God’s voice more acutely.”
“It would give me more time to reflect on my life and my relationships.”
“It would refocus me on what is important in life.”
“I believe it would make me more attuned to and available for others.”
“It would deepen my faith.”
“It would give me more focus and energy.”
“When I pray in the morning it sets my day on the right foot.”
“When I pray in the morning, I am more likely to pray during the day.”
“I want to grow spiritually.”
“Prayer lowers my anxiety.”
Eventually, people’s own spiritual hunger will drive them to prayer. Then the Spirit does most of the heavy lifting.
In Philippians 4, Paul connects anxiety and prayer: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
This first week, just help people get excited about prayer. Make an enticing invitation. I am mindful of a statement of T. D. Jakes. Someone said, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Jakes responded, “I don’t have to make him drink. I’m just called to tell him how good it tastes.”