Lectionary Commentaries for February 26, 2012
First Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

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 for which 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 so many references for Mark 1:9-15. The placing of God’s Spirit on his chosen won to bring justice to the nations is part of God’s description of God’s servant in Isaiah 42:1.

The “beloved one” (verse 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 gives Mark and us a deeper sense of what god’s kingdom may be. Isaiah 52:7 connects the one who brings good news, that is, “publishes salvation (Revised Standard Version), with the proclamation, “Your God reigns.” 

The rest of this chapter is important reading as well. The coming of the servant who will be exalted is preceded by his being almost unrecognizable as human. “His appearance was so marred…and his form beyond that of the children of men” (verse 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 Mark’s 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 also there at the beginning. 

All this prophetic preparation does not diminish qualities of loneliness and violence that this passage embodies, a loneliness that will be exacerbated for Jesus as the gospel story unfolds. If we were to pause for even a moment at the unceremonious “immediate” follow-up to Jesus baptism when the Spirit literally throws him out into the wilderness, we are shocked. When we read verse 14 and hear that John has been arrested, we are put on notice. 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 verses. It all begins in the wilderness, home to prophets of Israel and to Israel itself in the years of wandering. Jesus too will be there, his meeting of Satan’s temptations witnessed by no human creatures. At his baptism, the voice and vision belong to Jesus alone. The words, “you are my Beloved,” are singular. It is not Israel who takes on the mission of proclaiming that God’s reign has been set in motion (as Isaiah would have understood it). 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 is unlikely to bode well for John or for 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, 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 rips, the veil that has kept heavens power and intention hidden (verse 10 and 15:38). At the same time, this tearing of the veil between God and humankind, the opening of God’s reign among all humans, begins 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 to hearers who will themselves 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 (Mark 4:9) “Let anyone with ears to hear listen.”


First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 9:8-17

Elizabeth Webb

The story of Noah and the flood is one of those biblical narratives that we are so familiar with we think we know the whole story.

In fact, what we tend to think of as the story is one of two interpretations that are common in our culture. The most common interpretation is very much a children’s story of animals and rainbows. This is a story about God’s love for animals, about remembering God’s love each time we see a rainbow, even about the bright side of every storm. 

The second common interpretation is a story that is most definitely not for children. In this interpretation, God is so angered by human rebellion that God floods the whole earth, wiping out nearly everything in a fit of divine rage. This is a story about a God whom you’d be crazy to want to have anything to do with, a God of wrath who is ready and willing to strike down sinners.

Neither of these stories is the whole story, of course, and neither contains much truth. A truer story is that God has a myriad of ways of calling us back to the harmony that God intended for us. Our text for today, in which God establishes a covenant with Noah and his descendants, tells us that God is hanging up the bow, putting aside forever the option of destruction and seeking us as God’s own.

The entire flood narrative (Genesis 6:5-9:17) is the culmination of a story of increasing human sinfulness that begins in Genesis 3. There we first see that sin results in disharmony — between humans and other creatures (3:15), between male and female (3:16), and between humans and their earthly labors (3:17-18). Disharmony intensifies in chapter four, in which the first murder, that of a brother no less, occurs. The genealogy of chapter five draws the link from Adam’s generation to Noah’s in order to highlight the downward spiral of humanity. Finally, 6:1-8 narrates the breaking of God’s harmonious world. In the coupling of heavenly and earthly beings, the boundary between the two realms is shattered. The entire cosmos is thus thrown into disorder, and humanity is so broken that God regrets having created it in the first place.

The language of this divine regret in 6:5-6 is breathtaking. In verse five, God saw that “every inclination of the thoughts of [human] hearts was only evil continually.” Yet God’s response to this realization is not one of anger or revenge. Rather, God was “sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (verse 6). God sorrows over the corruption of the beings that God made with such care and love, and God’s heart, in striking contrast to the evil inclination of the human heart, is grieved by their betrayal. God is pained by the brokenness of creation. God sends the flood, then, not as an act of revenge, but out of grief over the rending of right human relationship with God. Note that human betrayal of God’s intention has effects beyond human beings; human sin has issued in the corruption of all the earth (6:11), and therefore in its destruction.

That destruction, of course, is not total. God doesn’t wipe away the creation entirely and then walk away. The flood is in fact the means of re-creation. God washes the earth clean and both God and the earth begin again. The re-creative nature of the flood is underscored by parallels between this narrative and the creation narrative of Genesis 1:

  • That which God had repeatedly pronounced good in chapter one, God now names as evil (6:5 and 6:12).
  • The separation and gathering of the waters (1:6-11) is first undone (6:11) and then redone (8:3-14).
  • God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” (1:28) is repeated three times (8:17, 9:1, and 9:7) after the flood.
  • That humans are created in the image of God is repeated (9:6b).

Thus all of creation is given a new beginning, a new opportunity to live in the harmony that God intended. Note, however, that this new beginning is also a continuation; God does not create new beings, but begins anew with a remnant of the beings created at the beginning.

Which brings us to the covenant, the sealing of the newly-restored relationship between God and God’s creatures. Note that this is entirely God’s doing. God enters into an eternal covenant with all creation without requiring anything in return. God does so fully aware that “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth,” (8:21) still. The flood has not cleansed the human heart of sin, which we see in the latter portion of chapter nine. But God knows this, and God enters into covenant with us anyway. Perhaps the divine heart that was so aggrieved by human wickedness that God sent a flood is now moved by that same grief to seek another way to get through to us. So God promises to Noah and to his descendants, and to every creature on the earth, never again to destroy all creation with a flood.

The sign of this covenant, God’s bow in the clouds, is precisely the bow of battle. Ancient depictions of a deity armed with bow and arrow are not unusual. To hang up one’s bow is to retire from battle. That bow in the clouds is the sign of God’s promise that whatever else God does to seek our restoration, destruction is off the table.

An implication of this promise is that God will try everything else. God will seek us and seek us, despite or perhaps because of God’s knowledge of every sin, every grief, and every shame that veils our vision of God’s reality and of our own as God’s creatures. Whatever dwells in our hearts that keeps us from hearing the harmony of all life in God’s care, God will not give up on loving us into restoration.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 25:1-10

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 25 is the reading for the first Sunday in Lent, the season in which Christians prepare themselves for the passion of Jesus.

Jesus, this preacher, prophet, sage, and teacher, begins a journey to Jerusalem that will end in a life-changing event for all humanity. Before we examine Psalm 25, let us briefly explore the accompanying biblical passage for the first Sunday in Lent in the Revised Common Lectionary. 

Genesis 9:8-17 is the concluding scene of the flood narrative. Noah, his family, and representatives of every living creature have been spared from the devastating waters. Noah emerges from the ark, offers sacrifices to God, and God makes a solemn promise, a covenant, with Noah, his family, and all living creatures: “I have set my bow in the clouds . . . the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Genesis 9:13, 15). 

Mark 1:9-15 relates the story of John baptizing Jesus in the waters of the Jordan River. As Jesus came up out of the water, a dove descended and a voice declared, “You are my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). First Peter 3:18-22 draws parallels between the Genesis flood and the rite of baptism.  According to the author, water is not just a means for the removal of dirt from the body, but “an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21).        

What is the tie to Psalm 25? We find in its words no mention of floods or waters of baptism. Rather, its themes are words of trust, teaching and instruction, right paths, and covenants. How do we understand such words on this first Sunday of Lent?

Psalm 25 is classified as an Individual Lament. The psalm singer lifts up the very essence of her being, her nephesh (usually translated as “soul”), to God (verse 1), asking God not to put her to shame or let her enemies rejoice over her. She then requests that God teach her and all those who wait for God’s goodness the ways of God (verses 2-5). Verse 6 is, I think, the heart of Psalm 25. In it, the psalm singer implores God to remember God’s mercy (NRSV; translated in other verses in the NRSV as “compassion”) and steadfast love (NRSV; lovingkindness, KJV; love, NIV). 

Mercy (raham) and steadfast love (hesed) are two of the words found in God’s self-revelatory words to Moses in Exod 34:6-7. Recall that these words were spoken by God to Moses on Mount Sinai after the Israelites had fashioned the Golden Calf and worshipped before it. When Moses came down from the mountain, he broke the first set of tablets of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 31:19); in Exodus 34, he ascended the mountain again and God encountered him once again, this time not only giving Moses the Ten Commandments, but also a self-description that echoes throughout the pages of the Old Testament:

“The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful (raham) and gracious, slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love (hesed) and faithfulness.”
(Exodus 34:6)

The words are woven into many psalms (e.g., 86:15; 103:8; 111:4; 145:8). The word raham (compassion or mercy) is derived from the Hebrew noun, rehem, which means “womb.” God’s compassion or mercy is tied closely to the concept of “womb love,” the love a mother feels for her yet-to-be-born child.

Over and over, the psalmists remember and call upon God’s compassion, God’s “womb love”:  “Be mindful of your mercy (raham), O Lord, and of your steadfast love” (25:6); “Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy (raham), turn to me” (69:16); “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion (raham) is over all that he has made” (145:9). References to God from the verbal root raham occur no less than twenty-two times in the Psalter.

The word hesed is one of the most difficult Hebrew words to translate. It refers to the covenant love of God for God’s people. God makes covenants with humanity in a number of places in the Old Testament.  The first is in Genesis 9:13, “I have set my bow in the clouds and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” God covenants never to destroy the earth by flood again. In Genesis 15, God covenants with Abraham that Abraham will have many descendants who will occupy the land of promise. In Exodus 20, God covenants with the children of Israel to be their God and that they would be God’s people. In 2 Samuel 7, God covenants with David that there would always be a king of the Davidic line to sit on the throne of Israel. 

God’s hesed, God’s covenant love for his people, is a pervasive theme of the biblical text, in spite of humanity’s persistent disobedience of God. The ultimate act of hesed by God was the coming of Jesus, a dramatic reaching out of God in covenant love to humanity. As a result, John the Baptist was able to proclaim, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15).

The singer of Psalm 25 seeks to walk in the paths and ways that God desires, and acknowledges that only through diligent study and learning can we discover those paths (verses 4-5, 8-10). The coming of Jesus, prompted by God’s raham and hesed, gave humanity a new means for finding and walking the paths and ways of God. The flood waters, transformed by the waters of baptism, have become more than a means of cleansing, but a means of participating in the kingdom that Jesus inaugurated (1 Peter 3:21). 


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Peter 3:18-22

Daniel G. Deffenbaugh

About ten years ago I became interested in the spiritual discipline of writing icons, a practice that has less to do with the applied skills of painting than with an ability to reflect prayerfully on the theological work of one’s hands.

There is an order to the craft that must be strictly followed. Novices like me could never begin developing their talents on the more profound mysteries of the faith — the Transfiguration, for example, or the Nativity. Rather, we are first relegated to contemplating some of the lesser luminaries, like the Archangels Gabriel and Michael, or John the Baptist. This has not prevented me, however, from looking into my future and delving into some of the more theologically complex icons of the Orthodox Church.

There is one image that holds a particular fascination for me, primarily because it depicts an aspect of Jesus’ resurrection that we only give passing reference to in our creedal affirmations: “the harrowing of hell.” The icon features Christ in the bowels of the deep, often with Satan under foot, bending down to draw out the souls of the patriarchs and others who have languished in the deceiver’s grasp since the dawn of creation. It is a haunting image, but despite its apparent connection to the text of I Peter 3:18-22, it is not entirely biblical.

On the contrary, the harrowing of hell has more to do with the third-century Gospel of Nicodemus than anything we find stated explicitly in scripture. Yet the tradition prevails, which is in some ways unfortunate, because tradition can too easily cloud the original meaning of this difficult text and prevent us from knowing how Peter’s first-century audience drew hope and encouragement from it.

The key to grasping Peter’s intent lies in focusing on “the spirits” to whom Christ makes his allegedly subterranean pronouncements. Whereas the Orthodox tradition has insisted that this refers to the souls of ages past, “spirits” (pneumatos, 3:19) is never used in scripture in an unqualified way to refer to human beings. Which brings us to a feature of the Genesis narrative too often dismissed by moderns as implausible myth, the “sons of God” (Genesis 6:1-4) living in the time of Noah, understood among Jews of Peter’s day as disobedient angels who were imprisoned in some vague antediluvian judgment. Their captivity is mentioned explicitly in 1 Enoch 21:6: “These are among the stars of heaven that have transgressed the commandments of the Lord and are bound in this place.”

So what Peter has in mind here has little to do with the classic salvation history that later Church Fathers like Clement and Augustine would develop out of this text, a scheme in which righteous humans are released from the bonds of Hell. Instead, Peter is assuring his audience of the cosmic implications of their baptismal vows. The one in whom they have placed their faith, he insists, is indeed the Lord of all creation, of heaven and earth, of things seen and — the point so often discounted by modern interpreters — things unseen

The impact of this proclamation can be better understood when we consider the chapters that precede this hymnic affirmation of the triumphant Christ. Those to whom Peter addressed his epistle were experiencing in their own lives the kind of suffering that was the result of turning their backs on the Hellenistic status quo. Their pleas to God during this time were not unlike those of the Psalmist: “do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me” (25:2). Their baptism, ironically, is at once the source of their hope and the reason for their earthly trials.

Peter introduces this letter with an allusion to the church as a kind of new Adam living in an old world (1:3-5); as such, the faithful will have to endure, if for but a time, the ills of a culture in which they have been effectively marginalized. Though they are aliens and exiles (2:11), they are nevertheless members of a heavenly household. And the water in which they were baptized, and by which they stand before God with a clear conscience, serves as an appropriate symbol for what they are experiencing in their daily lives. Water, especially in the story of Noah, serves as both an instrument for God’s judgment of the wicked and a means for the redemption of the godly. It is good to be reminded which side one is on, especially in times of trial.  

In drawing on the story of Noah, Peter wants to assure his readers that they are indeed the church, a new ark rising and falling with the waters of adversity, yet proceeding toward the day of peace when the chaos around them would recede and a new world would be established. And that day would come, for the Lord into whose body they had been baptized is indeed the Lord of creation. He had made himself known to the spirits of disobedience — even from the first day of his earthly ministry (Mark 1:14-15, passim) — and placed them on notice. Though it might appear to the aliens and exiles that these wayward angels still held sway over their lives, the waters were indeed subsiding.

While talk of principalities and spirits bound in prison may strike us as a vestige of a bygone world, we should not be so quick to discount the contemporary relevance of this text, especially during this season of Lent. Walter Wink has argued persuasively that “the powers that be” are still a very real part of our existence — whether as the collective spirit of a nation, a corporation, or other organizations — and often we are only too willing to offer them the trust and obedience that should be reserved for God alone.

Lent offers us the opportunity to search our conscience, to consider the implications of our baptism, and to assess which side we are really on. Ostensibly, the waters that wash us clean are the source of our salvation, but our actions sometimes suggest an allegiance to the chaos that lies just beyond the walls of the ark. Christ proclaims from the right hand of God that the spirits have been bound, but we too often insist through our words and our deeds that they should once again be set free.