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 the Scripture readings of Lent B in the Revised Common Lectionary. Second, I will look at the lessons for this coming Sunday. Finally, for those using, Learning to Pray Again, during Lent, I will offer some thoughts on prayer.
The Hebrew readings survey the covenants in Lent B. One could do a series on the various covenants of the Old Testament if your congregation was ready for this kind of overview. This week, Lent 1, we begin with Noah’s covenant.
- Lent 1: Noah’s covenant
- Lent 2: Abraham’s covenant
- Lent 3: Moses’ covenant
- Lent 4: Moses lifts up the serpent in the wilderness, foreshadowing a new covenant
- Lent 5: Jeremiah promises a future 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 during Lent B. The second readings jump around to support the Hebrew readings on the covenants. Lent 1, 1 Peter references the Noahic Covenant. Lent 2 Romans references the Abrahamic covenant, and so on.
The gospels in Lent B start with Mark’s shorter baptism.
- Lent 1: Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1, his temptation and then the death John
- Lent 2: Peter’s confession in Mark 8
- Lent 3: The Cleansing of the Temple in John 2 (early, unlike the synoptics)
- Lent 4: John 3, “As Moses lifted up the serpent… so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”
- Lent 5: 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 [it] will keep it for eternal life.” “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 ourselves live with this temptation constantly, do we not? When we consider the evil in the world (cite the most recent manifestation in the news), there is a temptation to think the military option is the only one. If we could just kill all the “evil” people… The problem is, there aren’t just two mutually exclusive categories of people: good and bad. It’s not that simple. We are all capable of evil, even if some are more prone to it than others. We are all participating in evil systems. Genocide won’t work. You can’t kill evil with evil. This may be, in part, the lesson of this passage. 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: Three things: Baptism. Temptation. John’s arrest.
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Let me first note that water ties all three of these texts together. In Genesis God deals with sin through the flood. In 1 Peter the flood prefigures baptism. In Mark, Jesus is baptized. An affirmation of baptism with sprinkling would be appropriate.
Here I am going to repeat, almost verbatim, some things from last week’s post, so if it feels really familiar, you’re not imagining it.
In our Lenten text study on Galveston Island, Mark Allan Powell, showed us how the message of Jesus as the “Son of God,” is the framework of Mark’s gospel. Mark Powell is a narrative critic. The beginning and the end of a story tell you what it’s about. His example was The Wizard of Oz. One might think the story is about lions, scarecrows, tin men and witches. But to understand the thrust of the story, one need only look at the beginning and end. The Wizard of Oz begins and ends on a farm in Kansas, with a central theme recapitulated at the end: “There’s no place like home.”
Mark’s gospel begins with Jesus’ baptism, and the Spirit descending on him like a dove saying:
You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. (Mark 1:11)
Mark’s gospel ends with Jesus’ breathing his last, and a centurion acknowledging Jesus identity, the first human in Mark’s story to do so:
Truly this man was God’s Son! (Mark 15:9)
Then smack dab in the middle of Mark comes our text, the Transfiguration, in which a voice from heaven says,
This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him! (Mark 9:9)
Adam is the son of God. The kings of Israel are the sons of God. Historically, many rulers have claimed the title, “Son of God.” The Roman emperors moved from being “like God” to be being son of their divine predecessor, to being divine. For a mere peasant to claim this divinity was seditious, and subject to crucifixion.
Powell points out the parallelism in the baptism and death stories of Mark’s gospel:
Mark 1:9 Mark 15:37-39
* Heavens torn * Curtain torn
* Spirit descends * Breath/Spirit left Jesus, he died
* You are my son, the beloved, * Certainly this man was the Son of God.
with you I am well pleased.
Is the tearing of the heavens like the tearing of the curtain? The text says, σχιζομένους τοὺς οὐρανοὺς. He uses the word schidzo, for torn. This is not a word Mark used much. “Heaven’s torn.”
It turns out the historian Josephus says the curtain of the temple was a tapestry, with the heavens painted on it, so that to those at the temple looking upon it would seem that they were looking into the heavens. This is significant. The curtain of the heavens and the curtain of the Temple are symbolically one. In both cases, God is on the other side of the curtain. The point, according to Juel, is, God is on the loose.
In his baptism the Spirit descends and enters Jesus. In his death the Spirit departs. In both accounts, it is pointed out that Jesus is the Son of God.
Baptism is like death. Death is like baptism. When Jesus talks to the disciples who want to sit at his right and left when he comes into his kingdom, Jesus says, “Can you be baptized with the baptism with which I will be baptized?” He is talking about the baptism of his death. Baptism is about death. In baptism you die to yourself. You are not your own. You are a new creation. Death is about new life, entering into a new realm. A new being. A new way of being. A new way of seeing.
Where does Mark get this idea about baptism being a kind of death? From Paul? The author of Mark almost certainly travelled with Paul. Mark’s gospel aligns with Paul’s theology more than any of the other canonical gospels.
In all four gospels Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan. If John’s baptism is one of repentance (Mark 1:4), then why does Jesus need to be baptized? A couple of things may be said about this. First, as Mark Allan Powell pointed out, in modern Western society we tend to think of repentance in individualistic terms. “I” repent of “my” sins. But in the Bible repentance, like many other things, is a communal act. People repented of the sins of the nation, of Israel. That repentance is a turning away from corrupt systems to a new, divine, way of being. As such, Jesus could indeed repent. He was repenting of the sins of his country.
I would also add, that Jesus’ baptism is a baptism into his ministry and ultimately into his death. This baptism is a commissioning. This baptism is not fire insurance. This is not pie in the sky when you die. Jesus’ baptism is a commissioning that drives him into the wilderness for testing, into the suffering of the world, and then into his public ministry where he preaches: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”
What to preach? What is this good news? God has called you in your baptism to be a part of what God is doing, the kingdom breaking into our world! You are invited, in baptism, to die to your self, your sins, and the sins of your country. You are invited to die to your fears, your anxieties, your addictions, your selfishness, and more.
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, freeing us to live in good trust. They are the visible Word.
Another angle of vision 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.
Then there are the disciplines of Lent that could be preached. 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 the larger temptation to be derailed from the ministry to which God has called us?
Finally, one might preach on prayer, this Sunday or all of Lent:
If on Ash Wednesday your people started reading Learning to Pray Again daily, 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. I’m mindful of Pope Francis’ encouragement to fast from harmful words, from greed, and so on. Wise words.
These first chapters strive to broaden people’s understanding of prayer. We think of prayer as yammering on and on to God. Jesus discourages long, wordy prayers in Matthew 6. Don’t be like those who think they’ll be heard for their many words. Listening is prayer. Silence is prayer.
I intentionally chose an inviting pathway through the woods for the cover. Some think of prayer as a chore. But what if we reframe it as free time – a refreshing walk in the woods? If I had to place a bet, and choose one thing that might be most likely to spark people’s prayer lives, it would be walking an hour a day. As Mother Teresa said, “The fruit of silence is prayer.” Given enough silence, stuff happens. God shows up.
I have found a key in helping people jump start their prayer life is simply getting them to set aside the time. The mechanics are secondary. Since this is behavioral, it behooves us to spend time getting people to think about the benefits of prayer. They have to want it, need it. Invite people, to take a few minutes of silence in the sermon 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.
This takes prayer out of the clouds and makes it real, relevant, hopeful, helpful. I have found that eventually, people’s own spiritual hunger will drive them to prayer. When they are ready, needy, it will happen. 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 think about, and get excited about prayer. Make an enticing invitation. I am mindful of a statement of T. D. Jakes. Someone said to him, “Pastor, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Jakes responded, “I don’t have to make them drink. I just tell them how good it tastes.”