First Sunday in Lent

February 26, 2012
See Also: 
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 S Nancarrow

Genesis 9:8-17

The First Testament readings for the Sundays in Lent focus on the theme of covenant: the series of covenants God makes with people, and the ways covenants are tested, strained, and renewed. This concluding note to the Flood story tells of the very first covenant, the covenant God makes with Noah and his descendants (that is, all humanity) and all land-dwelling creatures. In this passage God covenants never again to destroy the earth with a flood; and, as a sign and reminder of this covenant, God offers to put the rainbow in the clouds.

The assigned passage, however, only tells one part of this covenant story. Covenants always have two parts: there are specific things each party to the covenant must do, in order to actualize the relationship the covenant sets forth. In this case, it is God’s part in the covenant not to destroy the earth with a flood; humans, however, must have their part to play as well in order to make the covenant complete. The human side of the covenant is detailed in the verses immediately preceding the assigned reading.

After Noah and his family and the animals leave the ark, Noah builds an altar and makes a thank-offering for surviving the Flood; God then speaks to Noah and sets some basic conditions for life in the renewed earth. The regular cycles of days and seasons will not be interrupted, God promises, and within that stabilized environment Noah’s descendants are blessed to “be fruitful and multiply” and to inhabit the whole earth. The commandment is so important it’s repeated twice, in verses 1 and 7, as both the opening and closing of God’s description of the significance of life in the new earth. This is, of course, a repetition of the original blessing in Genesis 1, when both animals and humans are blessed by God to be fruitful and multiply; here, however, in the wake of the Flood, it takes on an extra shade of meaning as something restorative, something intended to correct the corruption of the antedeluvian humanity.

In that connection, it is especially interesting to consider the commandment/blessing to “be fruitful.” In its first meaning, it is a simple parallel to “multiply,” a good example of the tendency in Hebrew poetry to say the same thing in different words to reinforce its meaning. But “being fruitful” can mean more than just biological reproductive multiplication. Figurative use of “fruit” may be found in the wisdom writings and the prophets: psalms use the fruitful tree as an image of a righteous person (Psalms 1:3, 92:14); the results of human labor, and not only agricultural labor, can be called “fruits of toil” (Psalm 109:11); the consequences of life choices can be called “the fruit of their way” (Proverbs 1:31); wise speech is “the fruit of the mouth” (Proverbs 12:14,18:20); Isaiah refers to praise as “the fruit of the lips” (Isaiah 57:18); and in the New Testament, John the Baptist warns his hearers to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8), and Jesus counsels that people will be revealed by their actions, saying “you will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16).

“Being fruitful” can mean, in its widest sense, the whole range of human creative activity, all those human moments in which “the many become one and are increased by one” as persons add new bursts of experience to the real world. The fruitfulness of creative transformation is the human side of the covenant God establishes after the flood. For God’s part, God will ensure the stability of the environment and promise never again to destroy the earth with a flood. For humans’ part, living within the rich field of potentials created by God, humans must live fruitfully, engaging in creative transformation for the increase of right relationships of mutual well-being in the world. Together, the two sides of the covenant map out a new dimension of redemptive action for the world: God will from now on deal with sin and corruption, not by destroying it but by transforming it; humans from now on are called to be agents of such redemptive transformation, co-creating with God the fruits of righteous works even out of the wreckage of corrupted experience. The covenant between God and Noah thus sets the stage for all other covenants of creative transformation for right-relationship and mutual well-being that are to come.

Psalm 25:1-10

Psalm 25 uses many themes and images from the general wisdom tradition, connecting to wisdom’s figurative use of “fruitfulness” to indicate creative transformation described above. The theme of redemptive possibility outlined in the Noachic covenant is echoed here, especially 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  transformation, as “steadfast love and faithfulness” that reaches out to the sinner and provides an alternative way of behaving, giving guidance 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 and transformative love of God.

1 Peter 3:18-22

This passage from 1 Peter serves as a kind of bridge between the Genesis and Mark readings, in that it makes explicit a link between the story of the Flood and the theology of baptism. The covenantal relationship of co-creative transformation that emerges from the Flood is now taken up and extended in the covenant of new life in Christ that is marked and sealed in baptism. The saving power of baptism lies in its role as “an appeal to God for a good conscience,” an active connection to God that brings an intensive and intimate knowing of God’s aims and intentions for our actions. Jesus’ passage through the death of the flesh and the “spirits in prison” in the netherworld to resurrection and life in the spirit and heaven is presented here as the archetype of which Noah’s passage through the destruction of the Flood to the new, life-giving covenant of creative transformation is the type; both point to the experience of redemptive co-creative relationship with God that is open to the believer in the name of Christ.

Mark 1:9-15

Given that 1 Peter introduces an explicit connection between Noah’s Flood and Jesus’ Baptism, it is instructive to set up a rough parallelism between them: Noah enters the waters in the ark, sojourns for a time adrift, and emerges with a new covenant of co-creative transformation; Jesus enters into John’s baptism, sojourns for a time in the wilderness, and emerges with a new proclamation of the reign of God.

Typically the story of Jesus in the wilderness is used on the First Sunday in Lent to introduce the Lenten fast. But Mark, unlike Matthew and Luke, does not actually say anything about Jesus fasting during the forty days he spends in the wild. Instead, Mark comments that “angels waited on him”; this is a clear echo of the story in 1 Kings 19:5-8, in which Elijah is served by an angel who twice brings him bread, and that bread sustains Elijah for forty days and forty nights; and the Elijah story itself is an echo of the “bread of angels” (Psalm 78:25) which sustains the entire Israelite population in its forty-year sojourn in the wilderness.

The suggestion here is not so much that Jesus fasted as that he committed himself entirely to God’s care, like Elijah and the Israelites and Noah before him, and God sustained him in some not wholly understandable and yet undeniably factual way. Similarly, during his forty days Jesus was “with the wild beasts.” Noah was also “with the wild beasts” while the ark was adrift, and by a special providence of God the wild ones did not threaten or attack Noah or his family (or each other) during that entire time. We are invited to consider it a special providence of God that Jesus was safe “with the wild beasts” in his wilderness as well. Mark shows Jesus relying on the provision of God for his sustenance and safety, rather than anxiously attempting to serve himself in these needs; and, given that Mark never specifies how Satan tempts Jesus, as Matthew and Luke do, we may take it that such deep trust in God is in fact what overcomes the Enemy’s testing.

The personal experience of relying on God’s provision for him is what confirms for Jesus the divine words at his Baptism — “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” — and what gives Jesus the personal authenticity and authority to call people to “repent” (metanoeite, “transform your thinking”) and “believe” (pisteuete, “put your trust in”) the good news that the reign of God is at hand. Jesus’ figurative reenactment of the Noah story puts him in a position to re-announce the covenant of co-creative redemptive action God made with Noah, extending it now even further with his own proclamation of God’s reign for new life.