1st Sunday in Lent

March 1, 2009
See Also: 

Lenten Candle Liturgy
John Cobb on redemption
Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (Cobb)

Reading 1: 
Genesis 9:8-17
Reading 2: 
Psalm 25:1-10
Reading 3: 
1 Peter 3:18-22
Reading 4: 
Mark 1:9-15
By Paul Nancarrow

Genesis 9:8-1
These verses from the coda of the Flood story are the first in a series of stories about covenants between God and faithful people that will occupy our First Testament readings during the season of Lent. (The exception is the Fourth Sunday in Lent, when the story is less about a covenant than about the straining of a covenant.) The covenant between God and Noah, Noah’s sons, and all living things is the first covenant between Creator and creatures, and in a sense is the foundation on which all later covenants rest. God promises never again to destroy all life with a flood; or, in other words, God promises never again to respond to destruction with destruction. According to the Priestly account in Genesis 6:11, God’s reason for flooding the earth was that “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” It is to wash away the violence of earth that God allows the waters to burst from their confinement above the heavens and flood the dry land. But that in itself is a violent act. Answering destructiveness with destruction, attempting to deal with corruption simply by erasing its effects, does not get at the root cause of corruption, nor does it heal the inclination toward violence. By covenanting to never again destroy all life with a flood, God is in effect promising to deal with the problem of sin and evil by more creative means than simply wiping it out. It is in this moment that God is depicted as choosing to be a Redeemer, above and beyond being Creator and Destroyer. This change in God can be understood on two levels. On one level it marks a change in the way the storytellers understand God, a refinement of their theology in which redemption begins to emerge as a genuine divine category. But process and open theisms can also see this as a change in God, a new actualization of divine possibilities in response to new developments within the created world. In this connection, the righteousness of Noah, compared to the general violence and corruption of the world, reveals to God the possibility of working with the goodness of the creatures, not only over and above and beyond them, to heal the wound of earth from within as well as from above. Noah presents a new possibility to God, which God can then take up and actualize as a covenant relationship of non-destructiveness. It is this new possibility of redemptive action within the world that allows the further covenants with Abraham and Moses we will see in the weeks of Lent to come, as well as the new covenant in Jesus set forth in the Epistle and Gospel readings of these weeks.

Psalm 25:1-10
The theme of redemptive possibility is carried over into the Psalm, in the Psalmist’s confidence that God “instructs sinners in the way... leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.” Here again, God’s response to sin is depicted not simply as destruction, but as creative transformation, as “steadfast love and faithfulness” that reaches out to the sinner and provides an alternative way of behaving, along the “paths” of the Lord that lead to righteousness. The key to following the Lord’s path is to “keep his covenant,” to live within the set of committed relationships begun with Noah and developed through Abraham, Moses, and David, to the Psalmist’s own time. Christian interpreters of the Psalm will add to these commitments the covenant made in Jesus, whose path through death and resurrection reveals the ultimate salvific steadfast love of God.

1 Peter 3:18-22
This passage is a kind of “Christian midrash” on the Genesis passage, making an explicit link between the covenant of redemptive non-destructiveness made with Noah and the new covenant made with those who are baptized into Christ. Christ overcame sin not by flooding it or destroying it, but by transforming it through his own death and resurrection. “He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,” so that now “angels, authorities, and powers” are “made subject to him”; the very constitutive processes of the cosmos are changed, not by being destroyed and remade as in the Flood, but by being redirected to new ends in Christ. Likewise baptism is here conceived not as a kind of wiping the slate clean, not simply “a removal of dirt from the body,” but as a new relationship with God that gets at the root cause of corruption. Baptism is “an appeal to God for a good conscience,” an inward knowledge (it is instructive to note that the Old English word for conscience was “inwit”) that allows the baptized to conceive her or his own actions with regard to the good possibilities they offer to God for creative work in the world. Baptism represents a conscious and intentional redirection of personal aims to new ends in Christ. 1 Peter asserts that this transformative good conscience would not be possible without the covenant of redemptive creativity first made between God and Noah.

Mark 1:9-15
It is traditional for the Gospel reading on the First Sunday in Lent to tell of Jesus’ sojourn and temptation in the wilderness. But because Mark’s account is so brief, lacking the three specific temptations recorded in Matthew and Luke, the reading for today can include Jesus’ baptism, the wilderness experience, and the first proclamation of Jesus’ public ministry. Given the way the lectionary often cuts up extended stories into sequential bits, it is useful to see these episodes connected in this reading. Jesus movement to the wilderness happens “immediately” (perhaps Mark’s favorite word) after his baptism; the conferral of the Spirit in baptism has as its first effect the “driving” of the baptized into a period of focused weighing and testing of baptismal vocation. In the catechumenate of the early church, this post-baptismal deepening of vocation was the work of “mystagogy,” a period of meetings with the bishop in which the newly baptized were instructed in the mysteries of the faith that had been named but not explained to them during their pre-baptismal preparation. St Augustine’s sermons on the Lord’s Prayer are classic examples of such mystagogy. In Mark’s narrative, Jesus’ mystagogy is presented of course not as conferences with a bishop, but as direct exposure to the powerful influences of the Spirit and of the Enemy. Interestingly, Mark makes no mention of Jesus fasting in the wilderness; instead, angels “wait on him,” in what may be an oblique reference to 1 Kings 18:5-8, where an angel gives food and drink to Elijah that sustains him for forty days and forty nights. Perhaps Mark likewise thought of the angels as feeding Jesus. In any case, the service of the angels is meant as a specification of the general creative influence of the Spirit. The destructive influence of the Satan, on the other hand, could be exemplified by the wild beasts, taken as predatory and threatening presences surrounding Jesus in the wilderness. Other commentators suggest that the wild beasts were not so threatening, but that Jesus was “with” them in a more creative way, essentially restoring in his own person the relational order of human and nature intended in Eden, when Adam named the beasts and in the naming knew them. However that may be, the wild beasts, the angels, the Spirit, and the Enemy represent various influences on Jesus, presences that tugged his emotions and his aims in various directions, so that he had to test and sift and sort them into coherence with his overall vocation as God’s Beloved. In this mystagogy Jesus confirms his covenanted commitment to the messianic mission God has for him. It is only then that he can return from the wilderness, in order to proclaim with authenticity “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The passage leaves us to question what mystagogy might prepare us to respond to Jesus’ call to repentance and belief, change of heart and faithful action, in order to sift and sort life’s influences on us within our vocation to be God’s beloved people.

Paul S. Nancarrow is the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia, where he makes use of process ideas in preaching, worship, pastoral care, and leadership. He is a co-author of the book, The Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in the Contemporary World and writes a regular column on liturgy for Creative Transformation.