INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Year B - First Sunday In Lent
Lent is a short season of six weeks intended to prepare us for the great celebrations of Easter. The word Lent comes from the old Anglo-Saxon and Old German words for spring marked by days that lengthen. The idea of penitence and fasting during Lent may have begun in earlier, hungrier times as a means of spiritualizing real shortages of food at this time of year.
GENESIS 9:8-17. After the destructive flood, the symbol of God's judgment on human sin, a rainbow of promise appeared. God made a covenant with Noah that included all humanity forever. God is ever seeking to restore us to a right relationship. God's only desire for us is that true fullness of life intended in creation which human sin still frustrates.
PSALM 25:1-10. In Hebrew this psalm has an artificial quality caused by beginning each verse with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This acrostic form created short, easily memorized prayers anyone could use to seek divine help in times of distress.
1 PETER 3:18-22. The author of this letter drew an unusual parallel between Christian baptism and the story of Noah. Through Jesus' death and resurrection a new covenant had been made, one that freed even those who died in the flood in Noah's time. Our baptism is the sign that we are part of that new covenant. We have been given a new, right relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ.
MARK 1:9-15. Mark's brief account of Jesus' baptism and temptation was typical of his abbreviated introduction to the main story he wanted to tell - the story of Jesus' death and resurrection. That takes up nearly one half of the Gospel.
The 40 days before Easter were originally celebrated as the final preparation of newly
candidates for baptism. It tested whether or not they could live in a disciplined, Christ-like way. For us, as for Jesus during his testing in the wilderness, Lent can be a time for checking the real priorities of our lives.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS.
GENESIS 9:8-17. After the destructive flood, the symbol of God's judgment on human sin, a rainbow of promise appeared. God made a covenant with Noah that included not only all humanity but all of creation - and forever.
A book by William Ryan and Walter Pitman, Noah's Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About the Event that Changed History (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999) reported some startling archeological and geological research. This on-going investigation discovered that about 7,600 years ago (5600 BCE) the body of water which is now the Black Sea, stretching between modern Ukraine, Russia and Turkey, was a fresh water lake of much smaller dimensions. Due to the melting of the Euro-Asian glacier of the Ice Age, the Mediterranean Sea rose by about 330 feet in the space of two years, inundating 60,000 square miles of land and breaking through the Straight of Bosporus separating the European and Asian continents. About 450 feet below today's water level an ancient coastline has been located. Carbon 14 dating has shown that mussels found in deep core samples from the clay in the Black Sea bed all date from the same period 7500-7600 years ago. This indicates an almost instantaneous inundation and migration of salt water mussels from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. Further research is looking for evidence of human habitation along the ancient coastline.
If these discoveries can be corroborated by subsequent research, the prehistoric basis of the flood story will have been found. What we have in the biblical record is the ancient oral tale told from one generation to the other for many millennia and subsequently infused with theological meaning by people of faith. How many generations saw rainbows after violent, inundating storms and realized that better weather was at hand? How then did this humble observation get translated into a spiritually meaningful narrative?
We have in this reading a salvation story of great intensity still attracting the rapt attention of young and old. God is ever seeking to restore us to a right relationship. God's only desire for us is that true fullness of life intended in creation and which human sin still frustrates. But God will not let God's plan and purpose for the world to be defeated. The very natural phenomenon of the rainbow is the symbol of divine promise that this shall indeed come to pass.
A Jewish rabbi in Toronto, Jordan Pearlson, has pointed out that Christians and Jews read Genesis from totally different points of view. From his dialogue with Christians, Pearlson found that we read it from the standpoint of the Fall, which is in reality an abstract Hellenistic attitude. Pearlson read it from the standpoint of natural human ascent without Hellenistic abstraction. He saw in the Genesis narratives the maturing of the human race from infancy through puberty and adolescence to a life of individual challenge and responsibility with infinite opportunities to repent and start again. This
too is the moral lesson of the story of Noah's flood.
PSALM 25:1-10. Note that this psalm has twenty-two verses, the exact number of letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In Hebrew each verse begins with a different letter of that alphabet. This acrostic form created short, easily memorized prayers anyone could use to seek divine help in times of distress. The form developed during the post-exilic period and particularly as an element of wisdom literature. The wisdom motifs can be seen in vss. 4-5 and 12-14.
More than one prayer shapes this psalm. It consists of three separate strophes each with its own message. The first (vss. 1-7) expressed a personal attitude somewhat similar to a lament. The psalmist has enemies with malicious intent, but he was really concerned about sins of his past youth for which he may now be held responsible. He put his trust, however, in Yahweh's compassionate and steadfast love.
The second strophe (vss. 8-15) dealt with Yahweh's relations with all humanity. Divine moral instruction sustains and prospers those who give due reverence to Yahweh and learn to obey Yahweh's teaching. Vs. 14 stated the universality of this divine-human relationship in terms that recall a wisdom teacher's admonitions.
Finally, the psalmist returned to his personal petition in faith that Yahweh would hear and deliver those who turned and sought forgiveness. (Vss. 16-18) Enemies still threatened (vs. 19), but the psalmist pleaded that Yahweh would guard and deliver him. He also asserted his own integrity as he waited for divine help in much the same way that Job did (vs. 20 cf. Job 13:16).
The final verse appears to be a concluding extension of this prayer to the whole nation. In the late Persian and Hellenistic periods of Israel's history, the nation experienced much distress from unstable foreign regimes. The prophetic idea of Yahweh as Lord of history never disappeared from Israel's religious literature, especially the wisdom literature and the Psalms.
1 PETER 3:18-22. This is a most unusual passage, not merely because of the comparison drawn between Christian baptism and the story of Noah (vs. 20). We also have to struggle with the all but incomprehensible reference to "made a proclamation to the spirits in prison" (vs. 19). The core of the passage, however, dealt with the effects of baptism. That too is not without difficulty since it comes close to affirming baptismal regeneration.
The passage appears to be saying something like this: "Through Jesus' death and resurrection a new covenant has been made, one that frees even those who died in the flood in Noah's time. Our baptism is the sign that we are part of that new covenant. We have been given a new, right relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ." Thus the passage is really about the redemptive work of Christ and the example of salvific suffering for us.
There are those who still hold to the theory of Petrine authorship of the letter, possibly with the help of Sylvanus, a more skilled writer than a Galilean fisherman. Scholars increasingly believe that the letter was pseudonymous and probably written from Rome after Peter's death as a means of making his teaching known to a wider audience. This brief reading is an excerpt from a longer section of the letter (3:13 - 4:11) which dealt with the issue of believers suffering for their faith. If both Peter and Paul had died during the Neronian persecution, the subject of suffering for one's faith had great relevance.
Pictographs have been found in the Roman catacombs which indicate that the early church did use Noah's ark as a symbol of faith in Christ's saving grace. It also symbolized that this saving faith extended to relatively few. That may well have been as much of a concern in those early days as it is now when the numbers of the church members no longer have much relevance to faithfulness.
To a largely illiterate congregation, the picture of the ark had considerable significance. As a baptized believer, one could identify with the eight passengers whose foolishness saved them. The water of baptism also had a cleansing effect on the conscience though not on the body, as vs. 21 states. The primary significance of baptism is moral and spiritual, something that has to be received in faith and expressed in subsequent behaviour. The questions we still ask prior to baptism today express much the same thought: "Do you believe ....? Will you promise ....?"
The reference to "preaching to the spirits in prison" (vs. 19 KJV, RSV) has never been
satisfactorily explained. Most interpretations assume that between his death and resurrection Jesus descended into Hades or Sheol and preached to those imprisoned there. The text referred in particular to the rebellious generation who died in the Flood. The best analysis of the text draws on Acts 2:27 which was a quotation from Psalm 16:10. It also may have referred to Jesus' declaration of his mission in Luke 4:17-18 and its antecedent in Isaiah 61:1.
However odd it may seem to us, the so-called "harrowing of Hell" became a part of the church's theology. It found expression in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter (ca. 130 CE) and in the words of the Apostles' Creed: "He descended into Hell." As for what such speculative theology may mean for us today, we can only say that wherever we are, in life and beyond, God is with us and Christ has power to save.
MARK 1:9-15. Mark's brief account of Jesus' baptism and temptation is typical of his abbreviated introduction to the main story he wants to tell - the story of who Jesus is, a narrative not merely of his life, but of his death and resurrection. That takes up nearly one half of the Gospel.
The 40 days before Easter were originally celebrated as the final preparation of newly converted candidates for baptism. It tested whether or not they could live in a disciplined, Christ-like way. For us, as for Jesus during his testing in the wilderness, Lent can be a time for checking the real priorities of our lives.
There are some very meaningful symbols in this passage which have influenced Christian thought and art ever since it was written. Foremost among these is the dove. Note that the dove descended "just as he was coming up out of the water" (vs. 10). Considering what was said above about the ark as a symbol of salvation for the early church, could this be a reference to the dove Noah released from the ark (Gen. 8:9-12)?
Note too the voice from heaven. This is the typical way of describing a theophany. Prophetic oracles almost always began with the words, "Thus saith the Lord ...." It is not clear from the context who heard the voice. John's Gospel clearly states that it was the Baptist who heard them. Here we are left with the sense that it was Jesus alone. Why else would Mark write "with you I am well pleased?"
Mark does not give as complete a description of the wilderness experience as do Matthew and Luke. Scholarly hypothesis holds that they derived their narrative from the "Sayings Gospel" known as Q from the German word quelle meaning “source.” Mark's simpler version, however, does record the detail of ministering angels, a detail which only Matthew included in his narrative. That detail had an Old Testament background. Evil spirits were believed to inhabit the wilderness. The scapegoat-demon Azazel was chief among these. (See Lev. 16:10; Isa. 13:21; 34:14) In Psalm 74:19 and Jeremiah 12:9, wild beasts represented hostile forces arrayed against God's people as agents of divine judgment. That angels rather than evil spirits waited on Jesus points to what is to follow in Jesus' proclamation of the eschaton (vs. 15).
The traditional site of the temptation overlooks the Dead Sea above Jericho some twenty kilometers from Jerusalem. A small Orthodox Greek monastery has clung to the cliff face for many centuries. It houses a few monks devoted to prayer and isolation from the world. A rough track which can only be traveled on foot or donkey leads to it. If this is anything like the place where Jesus spent the forty days, one has to admire the fortitude of those who seek to follow his example. One must be driven by a profound spiritual experience to do so, as was Jesus (vs. 12).
The concluding verses of this reading do not have too close an affinity with the temptation pericope. Indeed, they seem to have closer connection to the opening pericope about John the Baptist's preaching. Yet they are also transitional. A period of time had passed, indicated by Mark's statement of John's arrest. Mark was saying, in effect, that the introduction to his narrative had ended. He now moved on to the heart of his story about the good news Jesus not only came to proclaim, but is himself embodying by his life, death and resurrection.