Today in the Spirit: Lent 1B

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We transition now to a season of forty days (not including Sundays) of walking with Jesus through the trials of his earthly ministry right up to the cross. In Lent, we observe from the Gospels and other parts of Scripture what the Son of God in the flesh endures on our behalf, how he handles it, and often how the disciples of Jesus respond by contrast. In Lent 1, Year B, we begin the season of Sunday readings, as always, with the account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness of Judea. This year, we sit under the brief, hard-punching account in Mark 1:9-13. The contrast between the glory and favor shown over Jesus in the baptism and the solitariness and vulnerability he experiences through the Spirit who has led him into the wilderness is breathtaking.

The assigned OT reading out of Genesis 9:8-17 is the account of God relating to Noah, in the aftermath of the great flood, the divine promise “never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood” (11). The appointed Psalm 25 gives language to us as worshipers to ask boldly for wisdom, courage, and prosperity in light of the promise of salvation: Show me your ways, O LORD, and teach me your paths. Lead me forth in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you has been my hope all day long (4, BCP Coverdale).

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In Lent, our NT readings vary, selected from various sources to complement the other readings. So this week, the assigned portion, 1 Peter 3:18-22, is an NT commentary on and response to the OT covenant to Noah in Genesis 9. Peter will relate the great flood recorded there to our Christian baptism into the waters of the flood and out to salvation. The appointed Collect is a prayer assuming that if “the blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan,” so will we. Therefore, we pray that we, vulnerable to assault as we are, may “find you [Almighty God] mighty to save.”

The Collect

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations, and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. 

Waters of the Flood (Genesis 9:8-17)

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” (8-11)

Put this passage together with the Epistle reading from 2 Peter, where it says, Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience (1 Peter 3:21). Peter’s now saves you signals a change in understanding of the significance of flooding, the waters of the flood in Genesis by which shall all flesh be cut off and baptismal (immersive) waters of salvation. That which could only mean death before now becomes the way of salvation. There is most certainly death in the waters of baptism–so Paul writes, we were buried therefore with him by baptism into death. But baptism (accompanied by faith in Jesus) is burial into not our own death, but Christ’s death; so, going through that death, we are raised from the dead (see Romans 6:1-4). 

Devotionally, we conclude by this biblical transformation of the meaning of flood waters—from just death to death to life—that nothing is ever wasted in the kingdom of life. Indeed, if God can turn immersion in water into a source of life, surely he can take what appears to be all our death-making circumstances into life-giving instruments. What is it that you are drowning in just now—physical sickness or disability, financial loss, divorce? Only in the imagination of God, which is deposited in us by the Holy Spirit, can we see, even if it is through a mirror dimly, the hope of the other side and the death and suffering leading to anything good. Nothing is wasted in the kingdom of life.

Today, Holy Spirit, even as I am caught in the undertow of terrible circumstances, give me eyes to see and patience to wait for your saving, transformational, life-giving emergence out from the waters of the flood.  

Teach Me Your Paths (Psalm 25)

Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame;
    they shall be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
    teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth and teach me,
    for you are the God of my salvation;
    for you I wait all the day long.
Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love,
    for they have been from of old.
Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
    according to your steadfast love remember me,
    for the sake of your goodness, O Lord!
Good and upright is the Lord;
    therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
    and teaches the humble his way. (3-9)

The BCP directs the church to give special attention to the section above this week. Last week’s appointed Psalm 27 and this one are similar in many ways, especially in the desire “David” to know the ways and paths of the LORD (cf. Psalm 27:11, 25:4-5). What exactly is David asking for using this language? Is it to see the way out of a particular situation or to know the mindset of the Lord for handling a situation internally? The varying use of singular and plural is perhaps some help—paths indicating the mindset of faith (like precepts for behaving) and a path indicating a concrete, practical exit plan from trouble. In looking for correct interpretations in cases like this, it is often best to conclude that it is both.

Devotionally, whenever we are up against trouble, we must consider that God desires not only to see us through the circumstances but to build us up in character. Whether problems with people, resources, or sickness, he is using adversity to lead us to adopt the ways of his Holy Spirit, who dwells inside us. Paul understands the ways of God so profoundly as to declare that we (all Christians) rejoice in our sufferings. Why? He goes on: because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us (Romans 5:3-5 NIV). For Paul here and David in the psalm, their highest devotion is to live infused with the character of God.

Today, in the Spirit and from the Spirit, set your hearts on knowing the ways of God internally, even as you pray for the way out of trouble.

Baptism…Now Saves You (1 Peter 3:18-22)

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

Let me add an idea to what I was seeking to communicate in my commentary on the OT passage from Genesis above. I pointed out that Peter uses language in this passage with allusion to Noah and the flood to transform the notion of flooding for his ancient Near Eastern readers from something signifying sure death to something signifying now (note that word in the text) death and new life. But whose death and new life are we talking about? It is not our own but Christ’s. We ride the waves, as it were, on his boat. We are saved only when, by faith in Christ, we are placed in a position by the grace of the Father to be identified with the death and resurrection of the Son.

The context of this enigmatic portion of Peter’s first letter is his encouragement of his readers to endure suffering, and that is where a devotional application of this passage is best found. Right after this passage, Peter writes: Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God (4:1-2). In the Spirit, we arm ourselves to suffer in union with Christ and so too to rise to new life in union with him, or as Paul puts it, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:10-11 NIV).

Today, by the Spirit, following the pastoral counsel of the Apostle Peter, I resolve to put aside the needless suffering that comes by following my own desires and, in keeping with my baptismal vows, follow the way of Jesus in me from death to new life.

And He Was in the Wilderness Forty Days (Mark 1:9-13)

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.

Mark is doing something different in his shorter account of the Temptation of Jesus than Matthew and Luke do in theirs. In Mark’s narrative, everything from beginning to end, from the river through the wilderness, is reported to be happening to Jesus. Our Lord says nothing and does little beyond moving from one place to another. Here, we know nothing of Jesus’ heroic battle of spiritual wits with the devil, just that he was tempted by Satan. The Father and the Spirit are in control. In this short narrative, life is just happening to Jesus, who simply passes through it by the Father’s command and the Spirit’s leading.

Devotionally, through this text, we perceive a different side of our life under God. We learn that just as the Father has the passage of his Son’s life under his sovereign control for these forty days, so he has ours. It is not that that heavenly control is somehow diminished for Jesus as Mark progresses when we begin to hear Jesus speaking and follow what appears to be an independent activity. Quite the opposite, says Jesus himself: “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing” (John 5:19-20). Jesus himself teaches what Mark’s narrative demonstrates–that God the Father has his ways in our hands. Every stage of life we pass through, and every circumstance within each stage, is anticipated by God–and nothing is wasted.

Today, Holy Spirit, lead me in the way the Father and the Son have intended that I should go. And along that way, encourage me as you did Jesus with words of assurance that I am your child, even as I step into my own wilderness of temptation by the leading of your hand.

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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