The First Sunday in Lent, 22 February 2015

Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-9
I Peter 3:18-22
St. Mark 1:9-15

Background: 40
The number 40 appears both in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures several times, and it is not unknown in Islamic writings, or other writings of the ancient near east. Like most numbers in the Bible it is of a symbolic character rather than being an exact number. One commentator said that you could loosely translate the number as “umpteen.” In other words, the number represents a large number of significance. That aside, the number is assigned to significant events in both of the testaments: The Rain at the time of the flood (40 days and 40 nights), The Wanderings of Israel in the Wilderness (40 years), The Exploration of Canaan by the Spies (40 days), Moses’ life is divided into 3 forty year segments, Moses on Mount Sinai (40 days and 40 nights), Jesus in the Wilderness after his Baptism (40 days and 40 nights), Days from the Resurrection to the Ascension (40 days), and finally, The Forty Days of Lent. The number in Lent seems to participate in the stories of the Flood, and the Wanderings, along with Jesus’ time in the wilderness. It is a way of entering into sacred time and to identify with the actions of Israel and of our Lord.

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 narrative is introduced by the formula, “God said” and then again later, it is interrupted by the same formula.  In the first instance God speaks about the establishment of a covenant between God and Noah and Noah’s descendants. Indeed it is more than that, for the text includes, “and will every living creature that is with you,” and then goes on to indicate all sorts and conditions of life. And what is the promise? “That never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood.” And here God’s comments end, without any response from Noah, to whom these comments were addressed. Such a silence begs for further comment on God’s part – and God obliges. Now the comments are about a sign of the promise and the covenant – the rainbow. This will be the sign of God’s intentions toward humankind. 

The characteristics of this story are shared with other flood stories, especially the Gilgamesh Epic, where the survivors of the flood are given assurances. In the Gilgamesh Epic, Utnapishtim is granted immortality. Here the Noah story differs in that Noah only resumes his normal mortality and the trials and tasks of life – namely food gathering. The rainbow story may be an added etiology that strives to describe the natural phenomenon, and as being linked to this important story and event in God’s relationship to humankind.

Breaking open Genesis:
  1. What promises has God made to you?
  2. Have you believed in them? Why or why not?
  3. What is a symbol of God’s faithfulness to you?

Psalm 25:1-9 Ad te, Domine, levavi

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.

Let none who look to you be put to shame; *
let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes.

Show me your ways, O LORD, *
and teach me your paths.

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.

Remember, O LORD, your compassion and love, *
for they are from everlasting.

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.

Gracious and upright is the LORD; *
therefore he teaches sinners in his way.

He guides the humble in doing right *
and teaches his way to the lowly.

All the paths of the LORD are love and faithfulness *
to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.

With the exception of two letters (waw and qof) each verse of the psalm is introduced by a letter of the alphabet. There are nine such acrostic psalms in the Bible. In the initial verse the psalmist lifts up the essence of his existence (here his soul, or heart). He lays the entirety of his self as a place from which his prayer ascends. Our translation blunts the Hebrew structure in the third verse. The psalmist asks God that no shame come to the psalmist, Let none who look to you be put to shame.” The following half is translated as, let the treacherous be disappointed,” while the Hebrew again suggests the idea of shame by saying, “let my enemy be shamed. The supplication here is not a specific request, but rather a seeking after wisdom, “Show me your ways, O Lord.” What the psalmist does request is a share of God’s mind. Having asked for God’s wisdom, the psalmist wants to be remembered and to be recalled by God. Remembrance, however, can be a dangerous thing, for God may well remember “the sins of my youth and my transgressions.” Thus the psalmist reminds God of God’s graciousness and uprightness. It is God that guides even the humble, and all of God’s ways, and those who follow God, are informed by God’s covenant.

Breaking open Psalm 25:
  1. Are you ashamed of anything in your life? What?
  2. How do you get rid of that shame?
  3. Have you been able to live in forgiveness?  How?

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.

I Peter desires to teach us nothing else than the whole scope of the Christian story. In this story we meet God in the person of Jesus Christ, whom the author sets up as the primary example of hope and life in a difficult world.  How are we to live in this world? This is the central question that is addressed in the reading for today. Jesus, the example, survives the suffering of his time and passion. The logical conclusion is that we who are in Christ will survive our own sufferings as well. The author uses the Noah story as an example of Baptism, the sacrament that brings us out of an old life into a new one. This is a rich and complex world that the author offers to those who already live in a rich and complex world. The new world, however, is fulfilled in and ordered by Christ, so that even a minority, the survivors (the Christians) are lead into a fulfilled life.

Breaking open I Peter:
  1. How is Jesus an example to you?
  2. How are you an example to others?
  3. Whom do you really admire?

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."

It is surprising to be projected back to the baptism of Jesus and the internal vision that he perceives, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending,” following last Sunday’s readings regarding the Transfiguration. Like the disciples who are led down from the mount following the beatific vision, so is Jesus led away from the vision that transfigures his life. “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”  What follows this vision is a period of temptation and recovery – an intense learning about what life and ministry must be like.

As we enter into Lent, perhaps we also ought to pray that the Spirit drive us into our own personal wilderness of temptation and learning. The lesson to be learned is about the Kingdom of God coming near – the proclamation that Jesus makes upon his initial ministry in Galilee. Mark isn’t interested in the specifics of Jesus’ temptation, but is more interested in the results, the proclaiming of the “good news of God.” All is expressed with a certain sense of urgency and is concisely proclaimed. What is the urgency of our life and proclamation?

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What do you think about when you wake up in the morning?
  2. Does it have anything to do with the promises of your baptism? Why or why not?
  3. Where is your wilderness of refreshment? 
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller


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