The First Sunday in Lent, 21 February 2021
1 Peter 3:18-22
Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Background: Cutting a covenant
In Genesis 15 we have a startling image of a covenant between YHWH and Abraham which involved the cutting in half of a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon. It explains the Hebrew usage; one didn’t make a covenant, one cut a covenant. In classical usage, sacrificial animals were cut in half, and the two parties to the covenant passed between the offerings, sealing the covenant. The Hebrew Scriptures are full of covenants made between God and humankind, and humans with one another. Such agreements were either obligatory or promissory. Obligatory covenants were seen especially amongst the Hittites where the obligation was between people of an equal status. Promissory covenants are more common in the Hebrew Scriptures, made between a ruling type, or suzerain, and a vassal. Usually included in such covenants were blessings and curses that would accrue to the parties if the covenant was kept or not. There are usually witnesses as well. In the Bible, especially, both heaven and earth were called to witness the covenant. Such covenants were made with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and with David. The whole notion of covenants, which was largely societal and political in nature, soon became a theological reality as well.
First Reading: Genesis 9:8-17
God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 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.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
The Noah story involves so many images and symbols that will play out in later Salvation History. One, which I had never thought of is the notion of the remnant that are saved, the idea of which becomes a real theme in Isaiah. The Covenant that is made with Noah, that is with universal humanity, comes, according to the Talmud, with seven obligations; 1) courts of justice, 2) refraining from blasphemy, 3) refraining from idolatry, 4) refraining from sexual promiscuity, 5) refraining from bloodshed, 6) refraining from robbery, and 7) refraining from eating meat cut from a living animal. The covenant here is not only between Noah (and humankind as well) but between YHWH and all of creation, including the animals. There is a universalism here that is not always recognized or observed. In order to see this covenant in its full context, it would be good to read the entire Noah story in Genesis 9. It is good to see that God looks beyond the remnant to see the totality of humankind as the object of God’s love, grace and mercy. s
Breaking open Genesis 9:8-17
1. What has God promised you?
2. What have you promised God?
3. What covenants do you have with family, friends, and neighbors?
Psalm 25:1-9 Ad te, Domine, levavi
1 To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul;
my God, I put my trust in you; *
let me not be humiliated,
nor let my enemies triumph over me.
2 Let none who look to you be put to shame; *
let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes.
3 Show me your ways, O Lord, *
and teach me your paths.
4 Lead me in your truth and teach me, *
for you are the God of my salvation;
in you have I trusted all the day long.
5 Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love, *
for they are from everlasting.
6 Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; *
remember me according to your love
and for the sake of your goodness, O Lord.
7 Gracious and upright is the Lord; *
therefore he teaches sinners in his way.
8 He guides the humble in doing right *
and teaches his way to the lowly.
9 All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness *
to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.
It is interesting to note that this psalm is made up of petitions followed expressions of trust in God. The individual is seen in difficulty with others and trusting in God to lift up those in trouble. One cannot help but think of Mary’s song in the Magnificat. The psalmist acknowledges his sinfulness and difficulties with God, but trusts in God’s mercy and forgiveness, “for you are the God of my salvation.” The idea is present that this salvation is not a one-time event, but rather an ongoing process. “(God) guides the humble in doing right and teaches (God’s) way to the lowly.” Remembrance is another theme in the psalm. God’ memory of our doing wrong, is offset by God’s memory of God’s mercy and kindness.
Breaking open Psalm 25:
1. What do you ask of God?
2. How do you trust God?
3. How does God lead you in life?
Second Reading: I Peter 3:18-22
Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you-- not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
The author provides a meditation on suffering. The examples that are brought to mind are Jesus himself, and to anonymous souls, the “spirits in prison.” We are reminded of the Noah story in this reading, especially of its connection with baptism – a baptism into the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The remnant is also mentioned here – the remnant that is saved in the Flood Story. The suffering of Jesus is seen as a suffering for us. It is a ministry to those who have floundered, suffered, come under condemnation and have been redeemed. In the closing verse we see a Jesus who is exalted from his suffering and seated at the right hand of God. This reading invites us during this season of Lent to contemplate our own being raised up in Baptism to become a member of the family of God.
Breaking open I Peter:
1. What are your sufferings?
2. In what ways are they a suffering for others?
3. How might you suffer for others this Lententide?
The Gospel: St. Mark 1:9-15
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And 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. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Here we have Mark’s brevity writ large. In this short reading we meet John the Baptist who baptizes Jesus, experience the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, and the beginning of the Galilean ministry and the essence of Jesus’ message, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The initial words “in those days”, or “it came to pass” remind us of how this remembrance of Mark is part and parcel of the entire story of Salvation. Fulfillment of the promise is near. In the Baptism of Jesus our attention is drawn not to John or to the act of Baptism but rather to the vision that Jesus has, for it speaks with a loud voice. First, Jesus is one of us in this act, being baptized in repentance. But then there is a momentous even – heaven being “torn apart” and the vision of the Holy Spirit, and the Voice announcing what the situation really was: Son, beloved, I am pleased.
What follows is something of an opposite: wilderness, forty days and nights, temptation, company with the wild beasts, and…angels! I always like Nikos Kazantzakis’ vision of the Spirit – the dark being who drives Jesus into the wilderness to confront his calling and destiny. With an economy of words, Mark describes two tumultuous situations.
Mark signals to us the destiny that awaits Jesus. John is arrested, and Jesus goes to Galilee, gradually to make his way back to Jerusalem where he will be killed. That is because the “time is fulfilled.” The Kingdom of God has come near, and it will be our duty and privilege during this season of Lent to look for how that is being revealed to us. Perhaps there will be no heavens being torn apart, nor a loud commanding voice, but there will be the Spirit. I wonder where she will drive us during the forty days?
Breaking open the Gospel:
1. When have you heard God’s voice?
2. To where has the Spirit driven you?
3. What is the good news that you give to others?
General idea: Promises
Idea 1: Promises given to Creation (First Reading)
Idea 2: Promises given on the Journey with God (Psalm)
Idea 3: Promises fulfilled in your Baptism (Second Reading)
Idea 4: What are the Promises of the Kingdom? (Gospel)
Questions and comments copyright © 2021, Michael T. Hiller