Lectionary Commentaries for March 1, 2009
First Sunday in Lent (Year B)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 1:9-15

Sarah Henrich

The sheer brevity of Mark’s story seems to offer little material for the preacher.

Indeed, as we move through the year of Mark, John’s gospel is called on consistently and often to fill out the Sundays when Mark’s story does not have enough texts to go around. This passage for Lent 1 is typical of Mark. In six verses the events of “those days” are laid out, beginning with Jesus’ arrival from Nazareth and extending to Jesus’ first preaching in Galilee.

There is, however, a certain drama in the brevity itself. In a few swift strokes of the pen, Mark sets the stage for all that is to come. Our attention is focused precisely on the man Jesus and the message he brings. This clearing away of extraneous detail, this forcing our attention on Jesus is just what Lent can be about for believers who are too absorbed in their own projects to focus for themselves. Mark’s opening verses invite us to re-focus in Lent.

As an invitation to re-focus our attention, these verses echo Jesus’ own message, “repent and believe in the gospel.” We might translate these familiar words “re-focus and trust the good news.” Mark leaves us in no doubt about the good news that Jesus calls upon his hearers to trust. First it is specifically “good news about God.” And that news is all about timing: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand.” Both verbs (is fulfilled/is at hand) are in the perfect tense. Something has already happened and the implications of that happening are emerging in “those days,” the very same days referred to in verse 9. The time is ripe and the kingdom has come near. No wonder Mark’s gospel is marked by brevity. His message is urgent  no time to spend on unnecessary words.

Besides, so many words had already been spoken. Mark is able to be terse because his words are all so rich and weighty. In these six verses he alludes constantly to his own Scripture (and that of Jesus!), our Old Testament. As he told us in 1:2, the words of the prophet Isaiah resound through the centuries leading us to the fullness of time.

Isaiah provides many references for Mark 1:9-15. The placing of God’s Spirit on his chosen one to bring justice to the nations is part of God’s description of God’s servant in Isaiah 42:1. The “beloved one” (Mark 1:11) does not convey a message of warm feelings on God’s part toward Jesus. Instead, it conveys the message that Jesus is the servant sent by God as promised in Isaiah. Isaiah’s prophecy also yields a deeper sense of what God’s kingdom may be. Isaiah 52:7 connects the one who brings good news with the proclamation, “Your God reigns.” The coming of the servant who will be exalted is preceded by his being almost unrecognizable as human (Isaiah 52:14).

With these verses ringing in our ears, we hear Mark’s description of Jesus coming (his Advent?) into Galilee wondering what will happen to him. We know, of course, that the story leads urgently to the fulfillment of those prophecies about the servant, as surely as Lent drives toward Good Friday. Yet the promise of exaltation of the servant, as the one who ushers in God’s reign, is there at the beginning.

All this prophetic preparation does not diminish the qualities of loneliness and violence that this passage embodies, a loneliness that will be exacerbated for Jesus as the gospel story unfolds. We are shocked at the unceremonious and “immediate” follow-up to Jesus baptism, when the Spirit literally throws him out into the wilderness. We are put on notice when we hear that John has been arrested. Mark uses the same word to describes John’s arrest as he uses to describe Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, right from the moment Judas is introduced in 3:19 (See also 9:31; 10:33; 14:10, 11, 18, 21, 41, 42, 15;1, 10, 15.) The word is always violent and negative.

The loneliness of God’s servant, a theme that persists throughout the gospel, is already suggested in these opening verses. It all begins in the wilderness, home to prophets of Israel, and to Israel itself in the years of wandering. Jesus will be there too, his meeting of Satan’s temptations witnessed by no human creatures. Then, at his baptism, the voice and vision belong to Jesus alone. The words, “you are my Beloved,” are singular. It is Jesus who is beloved, as Isaac before him and Joseph, men whose lives belonged to God and who suffered much for God’s people. Jesus’ proclamation of the “gospel of God” follows immediately upon the arrest of John who had also been preaching repentance. That arrest will not bode well for John or Jesus.

At the end of Lent and the end of Mark, both violence and loneliness come to a culmination in Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross. We ponder the connection between the establishment of the reign of God and the incarnation of peace where wild animals no longer exist in enmity with humans (a foretaste of that kingdom occurs during Jesus’ temptations in verse 13). Something new has begun and Jesus is announcing it as good news. In him, God pulls back, or better yet, rips the veil that has kept heaven’s power and intention hidden (verse 10 and 15:38). This tearing of the veil between God and humankind and the opening of God’s reign among all humans, both begin in this lonely, isolated way. Who will see it? Who will recognize the truth of what Jesus is saying, and how he embodies God’s way of being among God’s people?

Mark’s gospel puts before us God’s own beloved son who announces clearly what is going on in the cosmos. We who hear him will misunderstand, be misunderstood, and even give up completely. Yet, it is good news announced here. It is good news in 4:8 that some seed “brings forth as much as a hundredfold.” It is good news in 4:11 that “to you (plural) has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God…” During Lent, perhaps we can focus our own attention on that kingdom that Jesus bears among us. He challenges us: “Let anyone with ears to hear listen” (Mark 4:9).

First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 9:8-17

Terence E. Fretheim

What does it mean for God to give an eternal promise to every creature, including the animals, the birds, and the earth?

In this text God lays out the dynamics of a renewed relationship to the post-flood world. This passage, commonly assigned to the Priestly writer, must be read in view of other post-flood texts, especially Genesis 8:21-22. Although Noah is in some sense a new Adam, God’s moves into the future must now take into account the evil inclination of the human heart (8:21). The post-flood world is no Garden of Eden, yet God assures Noah and his family that the basic shape of the world as created still holds, with its blessings, commands, and promises (see also 9:1-7).

The covenant with Noah and all flesh fulfills the pre-flood promise God made in 6:18. Note the environmental implications of this text: God makes a covenant with “every living creature,” indeed with “the earth” (vv. 12-13), not just human beings (see God’s remembering of both wild and domestic animals in 8:1). God’s promise is universal and extends through all time. The meaning of “covenant” here is “promise,” a promise which is unilateral and unconditional. Covenant does not mean “agreement” in this text (contrast Exodus 24:3-8); it is sheer promise from God (see Isaiah 54:9-10, which describes this covenant as a divine oath). God stands as the subject of the verbs throughout the text–even seeing the rainbow and remembering the covenant; nothing at all is said about what human beings should do. God alone takes on this obligation.

God did not create the rainbow for this moment, but it is now filled with new significance for the future. Strikingly, the rainbow reminds God (see Exodus 12:13). God’s remembering is more than a mental activity; it involves action with specific reference to a prior commitment (see 8:1; Exodus 2:24; 6:5). In times of difficulty, particularly conflict and war, this sign of divine remembering is one in which people can take comfort and hope. Sometimes it is suggested that this is a sign that God will not use the bow as a weapon again; but this interpretation is difficult since the broken bow becomes a symbol of peace (Psalm 46:9). But the rainbow is a sign of divine good will toward the creation, even though God’s judgment will continue.

The flood story focuses on God and God’s commitment to the world. This God:

  • expresses sorrow and regret
  • judges, but does not want to judge
  • goes beyond justice and decides to save some, including animals
  • commits to the future of a less than perfect world
  • is open to change in view of experience with the world and doing things in new ways
  • promises never to do this again

What God does here recharacterizes the divine relation to the world. God softens the workings of divine judgment and promises an orderly cosmos for the continuation of life. God will never do this again! God is the one who has changed between the beginning and the end of the flood, not human beings (compare 6:5 with 8:21). God decides to continue to live with such resisting creatures–not the response of your typical CEO!

This story shows that God changes in the divine way of relating to the world. God’s eternal promise is more than simply promising to bring no more floods. The promise in 8:21 makes it clear that God brings the reign of the curse to an end–an eternal limit on the functioning of the moral order–and promises not to “destroy” the world again, by whatever means. Come what may, the cosmic order will remain steady and regular (8:22). “As long as the earth endures” does not qualify the promise; it speaks only of the life of the earth into an indefinite future.

At the same time God is not simply resigned to the world’s evil. God must find a new way of dealing with the problem of sin and evil. God takes three complementary directions:

  • For God to promise not to do something again entails an ongoing divine self-limitation regarding the exercise of freedom and power. God thereby limits the divine options for dealing with evil in the life of the world. The route of world annihilation has been set aside as a divine possibility. And, given the fact that God will keep promises, divine self-limitation yields real limitation. That is, while God would be capable of annihilating the world, God cannot do so and still be faithful. This divine commitment is not unlike marital promises: the parties involved are capable of breaking the promises, but they cannot do so and still remain faithful. On divine impossibility, see also Matthew 26:39.
  • Divine judgment there will be, but it will be limited in scope (e.g., Sodom and Gomorrah; plagues in Egypt). And hence God determines that, while a moral order of sin and consequence would continue, no world-ending consequence would be allowed to occur (end-of-the-world scenarios move to another level of consideration). Sin and evil will be allowed to have their day, but God will work from within such a world to redeem it, not overpower the world from without.
  • Genesis 6:5-7, with its reference to divine suffering over human evil, makes a bold claim about God. That sin and evil continue after the flood (Genesis 8:21), and God still makes the promises God does, means that such divine suffering will continue. This kind of divine response means that God has chosen to take the route of suffering relative to sin and evil rather than annihilative power. For God to decide to endure a wicked world, while continuing to open up the divine heart to that world, means that God’s grief is ongoing. God thus determines to take suffering into God’s own heart and bear it there for the sake of the future of the world. The cross of Jesus Christ is on the same trajectory of divine promise. It is precisely this kind of God with whom sinful readers have to do, and it is primarily the divine commitment to promises made that they most need to hear.


Commentary on Psalm 25:1-10

Shauna Hannan

Psalm 25 is one of those Psalms which seems to lend itself less toward commentary and more toward verbalization.

Just pray it! Just sing it! If you choose to stop reading these comments right now in order to do just that, you have my blessing.

For those of you who choose to read on, let me skip right to verse 6 and all of its peculiarity. “Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.” Is the Psalmist doing what I think he is doing? Is it really appropriate to remind God of God’s personality inventory?  It is difficult to believe that God would need reminding of who God is. What defendant would stand before a judge and remind that judge of her lenient reputation? This bold move takes the focus off the character of the defendant and places it on the character of the judge. Even more, imagine saying to the judge, “For your sake, your honor, forgive me.” Is it not usually for the sake of the accused that the judge would forgive?

The purpose of this “line of questioning” is to present one possible angle of exploration in the Psalms. What can the Psalmist’s words tell us about the Psalmist and, in particular, his relationship to God? First, the Psalmist is clearly in a precarious situation. Enemies are overpowering him (verse 2), the “wantonly treacherous” are all around him (verse 3), and the sins of his youth disturb him (verse 7). Given these circumstances, the Psalmist’s reminder to God could be a last ditch effort to brown-nose or beg God. However, since we have no way of knowing for certain the intentions of the Psalmist, let us assume they are better than that of a brown-noser or beggar. What is certain is the Psalmist knows that God can help. Here is one whose situation is dire, whose need for aid is genuine, and whose certainty that God is the one who can provide is exemplary.

This Lenten Psalm moves us to ask some questions of ourselves. What can our words to God tell us about ourselves and, in particular, our relationship to God? When we cry out to God, do we begin with an assertion of trust? Are we willing to engage in such honest conversation with God? Are we so certain about God’s ability to help us that we would dare remind God of God’s goodness, mercy, salvation? Are we willing to wait on the Lord? And wait? And wait?

The Psalmist invites us to pray this prayer in solidarity with the whole people of God. It is through these prayers that we come to know who we are. Lent is the perfect time to teach and participate in this reflective discipline.

Ultimately, this type of exploration leads us to the ever-important question about who God is. By overhearing the Psalmist remind God who God is, we come to know that God is trustworthy, merciful, steadfastly loving, and one who desires a relationship with us. God’s reputation to provide is firmly established.

By way of an addendum to these comments, it is interesting to note some of the more “technical” details about this Psalm. Furthermore, we notice the way in which such details lend themselves to a homiletical exploration of a Psalm. Psalm 25 has all of the major elements of an individual lament: direct address to God, petition, description of trouble, appeal to the character of God, statements of confidence in God, and a promise of sacrifice or praise (yes, there are elements of praise in lament Psalms). Preachers may want to explore whether or not these elements appear as such in their sermons. Consider what occasions might call for sermons which reflect a lament Psalm. Might the first Sunday in Lent be such a time? Mindful of the Gospel pericope that will be read alongside this Psalm, the preacher may want to explore how Jesus might have cried out to God when he was tempted in the wilderness. Indeed, the homiletical implications are complexified when one acknowledges it is the divine one, Jesus, who joins the whole people of God in crying out to God.

A second “technical” detail explains why Psalm 25 appears to be somewhat random. One could surmise that the Psalmist’s situation might lead to a kind of paranoia, which rarely yields clarity and focus. However, the lack of logical structure is more likely due to its artificial patterning as an acrostic poem; that is, a poem whose organization is driven by the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. (This is similar to the Sunday School activity of taking the letters G, O, and D, and coming up with adjectives that describe God using those letters. The result was often a forced, “God is good, open and dear.”) This structure in Hebrew poetry is used for pedagogical reasons. That is to say, the structure of the prayer itself gives instruction on how to pray. Therefore, it might be worth considering how the structure of a sermon on this type of Psalm instructs the hearer to pray in a way similar to that of the Psalmist. Although the preacher certainly could give a systematic lesson on how to pray (step one is to address God, step two is to describe your situation, etc.), this Psalm, along with other acrostic Psalms, suggests another way to guide and invite hearers into prayerful lives.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Peter 3:18-22

Karl Jacobson

If you’ve ever been to a church youth gathering you may well have seen a skit like this:

A young man, probably in high school, sits reading his Bible while “Jesus” stands, smiling and glowing, at his shoulder. In comes a friend who invites him (the young man not Jesus) to a party. The young man goes, with Jesus “ghosting” along behind.

At the party, our trouble-bound young man first accepts a glass of beer from a keg, then something to smoke, then a kiss with the hint of much, much more from a young lady. With each of these illicit acts, more ghostly figures appear and, hammer and nail in hands, they take hold of Jesus. A sip of beer leads to the first nail being driven home. Jesus looks imploringly at the young man, but to no effect. A drag of a cigarette (or worse) and BANG goes nail number two. Kiss and cuddle usher in nail number three. BANG! BANG! BANG! Jesus is crucified once more. The intended moral of this all-too-passionate play is that we take Jesus with us wherever we go, and with each of our sins Jesus suffers again at our hands. And suffers again. And again. And again.

In the midst of this performance 1 Peter 3:18 cries Cut! “Christ also suffered for sins,” says Peter, “once for all.” Once…for all. While this may seem a relatively small matter to get hung up on, it is not. Christ’s suffering over sin is a single and singular act. Its power and efficacy are not diminished over time. Christ suffered for sins — all sins — once; his suffering, death and resurrection have done sin in. Once and for all.

Now, we should certainly not suggest that sin is not sin, or that we should not struggle against sin, that sin is not serious, or that sin is not potentially deadly. It is. We should. It is and it is. But in the face of Christ’s suffering and death, sin is not the power that it once was. To suggest otherwise is to make light of the crucifixion, and what it really means for us.

1 Peter 3 follows this declaration about Christ’s suffering, making a connection between the Noah story and the baptism of all flesh as the source of salvation. For those familiar with the baptismal liturgies of the Lutheran tradition, this will be a familiar and perhaps obvious move. But connecting Noah and baptism is really a striking, surprising, and frankly, a somewhat unlikely move.

In the Noah story, the few righteous people are preserved, while those who have sinned (presumably by going to keggers and smoking) are washed away. God is wearied by the wickedness of humankind, with its every inclination “only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). Is this really what we believe baptism is all about? Is this what happens in baptism, that the sinner in us is washed away? The inclinations of the average Christian heart seem to discredit this idea. If we are tempted to draw too close a parallel between the Great Flood and the sacrament of baptism, we would do well to take a step back and consider more carefully how 1 Peter 3:21 applies Noah as a metaphor. 1 Peter 3:21 describes baptism not so much as a cleansing (“not as a removal of dirt from the body”), but as an appeal on the behalf of the baptized to God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Thus baptism is not, for 1 Peter 3, a cleansing or a washing away of sin (or the sinner), but a claiming of the sinner by Christ Jesus.

“Baptism now saves you.” This phrase follows closely after the talk of Christ’s suffering. In Peter this cleansing is not tied as explicitly to the death and resurrection of Jesus as it is in Paul (cf. Romans 6:4), but the implicit connection is obvious. Christ suffered for all sins, and baptism is how we are joined to his resurrection: his victory over suffering, sin and death. Noah found favor with God in the face of the world’s wickedness (Genesis 6:6-8). Noah’s righteousness saved him. Baptism now saves you.

Like the Great Flood, the suffering of Christ is a one-time event. “It is,” to coin a phrase, “finished.” In baptism we find ourselves connected to the resurrection of Christ. Unlike Noah, the righteous man who is brought safely “through water” while the unrighteous are washed away, we are the unrighteous who are saved in the water. We are joined to Christ Jesus the righteous one who endured the suffering and death that our sins earned him.

At the end of the great western Unforgiven Clint Eastwood as William Munny stands over Gene Hackman’s character Little Bill Daggett, rifle raised and threatening. Daggett, already wounded, looks up at Munny and says, “I don’t deserve this. To die like this. I was building a house.” To which Munny replies, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” With a cold glint in his eye, Munny chambers a round, and pulls the trigger.

In sharp contrast to this scene stands the suffering Christ on our behalf, and the claim that Christ makes for us in baptism — not after we are cleansed, not on account of our righteousness, but in direct opposition to what we might deserve, another Noah and another flood and another drowning out of the sinner. Instead we are baptized in Christ’s name, delivered from the power of sin through his suffering, and so saved. Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.

“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18).