Today in the Spirit: Lent 2B

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Lent is a season of self-examination and allowing God to speak honestly into our hearts about the quality of our discipleship, corporate and individual. With the readings assigned for this particular Sunday, Lent 2B, we could assign the title for the week, “Even unto Death.” The theme of death and dying appears in every selection. Our sacrifices to the Lord are understood to be a death to self, and even through physical death, God can be counted on to reward us with everlasting life. Out of the assigned Gospel reading from Mark 8:31-38, we hear Jesus’ famous teaching,

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (34-35)

The references to taking up one’s cross and losing one’s life are death images designed to provoke in us a self-evaluation of the seriousness with which we agree to call Jesus the Lord of our lives. 

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The enigmatic OT reading from Genesis 22:1-14 is the narrative about the near death of Isaac. However, the story’s central theme is Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son to follow God. In the end, as Christians look back, we find significance in the name given to the place Moriah (possibly the site of the future Hebrew temple): “The LORD will provide.” There will be a sacrifice in this place to accomplish God’s redemptive purposes. However, it won’t be Isaac or anybody other than, paradoxically, a God-Lamb whom God himself will sacrifice to death. The assigned Psalm 16 is an individual’s prayer for preservation. Acknowledging that YHWH has given him “a goodly heritage” in life “David” declares further: “For you shall not leave my soul in the grave,” and in a stunning prediction concerning a future redeemer, “neither shall you let your Holy One to see corruption (11, BCP Coverdale).

The theme “even unto death” is further developed in the assigned magnificent NT reading from Romans 8:31-39. Nothing in life, and not even death, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (39). The Collect, as always, sets the worshiper on the track of looking for God’s grace to meet the challenges laid out in the readings. “Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: (Therefore) “Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls.” 

The Collect

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities that may happen to the body and from all evil thoughts that may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The LORD Will Provide (Genesis 22:1-14)

When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” (9-14)

This passage appears two other times in the three-year cycle—as the option for an OT reading on Good Friday and as part of the Easter Vigil. Interestingly, verses 1-18 are assigned on both occasions, but here it is just 1-14. Leaving out the statement reaffirming YHWH’s covenant with Abraham (15-18), and on this lenten Sunday ending dramatically with the saying associated with Moriah, On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided, puts all the emphasis for the worshiper on God’s future sacrifice to be made there. Hearing that, the death of Jesus will come into the minds of worshipers just before the reading of the Gospel: And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again (Mark 8:31). 

At no point in the narrative does Abraham clearly understand what God will do on this site. As a matter of personal devotion, we can take Abraham’s faith to ourselves regarding the strange, obscure, and supremely difficult things God has us doing. It is not only the big, biblical concerns like (perhaps) marking the spot of the temple and the place of the Messiah’s crucifixion, but our minor concerns as well. We may not perceive at all the future importance of anything we do in God’s service, but we must believe that Jehovah jirah—“the Lord sees and will provide” (the amplified meaning of the name given by Abraham). Here is C.S. Lewis on faith in obedience to God: “Our highest activity must be response, not initiative. To experience the love of God in a true and not an illusory form is, therefore, to experience it as our surrender to His demand, our conformity to His desire: to experience it oppositely is, as it were, a solecism [a grammatical error] against the grammar of being.”

Today, in the Spirit, applying what I learn from the interaction between Abraham and God in this strange and wonderful narrative, I resolve to obey my Lord Jesus on matters I don’t understand, and he does.

You Hold My Lot (Psalm 16)

The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
    you hold my lot.
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
    indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
    in the night also my heart instructs me.
I have set the Lord always before me;
    because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices;
    my flesh also dwells secure.
For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
    or let your holy one see corruption.
You make known to me the path of life;
    in your presence there is fullness of joy;
    at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (5-11)

Dear Jesus, in my worship today, I find in singing the psalmist’s words an exuberance of my own for a beautiful inheritance. His awe and gratitude are mine as in your presence, the fog of my thinking rolls away for me to find that my boundaries, too, are in pleasant places, far better than I deserve. Your word gives me the right counsel, and when I wake in the morning, I find so often there is wisdom for the new day that was hidden the night before, like a gift delivered in secret by a live spirit of the early hours.  

Where does the abundance come from? To what name can I give the Benefactor? “David” calls out, LORD. But on my lips, it is your name, Jesus, that comes out quickly. It is you whom I hear saying today, whoever loses his life for my sake and the Gospel’s will save it. You have claimed my life to serve you, Jesus, and so I am saved. And I remember you have said, I came that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). Abundantly. 

David’s eyes are full of the joy that comes from the abundance of your love for him, and the words of this song we sing speak of it. Today, in the Spirit, I see it too–and I say thank you.

I Am Sure (Romans 8:31-39)

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
  we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In contrast to Romans 7 where Paul uses I statements one after another to give personal testimony, Romans 8 only contains two: For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (18); and in our passage, For I am sure (or convinced NASB), that neither death nor life… nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. The rhetorical effect of these two statements is to deliver an ultimatum to the reader—something to this effect: “This is the truth that has been revealed. This is what I, who am in the Lord, tell you is the only right response. Now, what about you?” And with that challenge hanging in the air, Paul ends this climactic chapter of his letter.

Devotionally, for us, the only course of action is to look at anything that is set up against us right now and consider: Paul is convinced nothing can separate from the love of God through Christ. How shall I respond? Either Paul, inspired by the Spirit, is wrong because I am convinced these matters regarding my family or my career are outside the reign of Christ’s love and can get the better of me, or he is right, and I need to trust in Jesus as he does. I may have very well confessed with my lips, Yes, Lord, I trust you. But what does my behavior reveal? I am constantly worried and losing sleep. I stand up for myself with anger and impatience, with hardly a trace of the fruit of the Holy Spirit for others to see and enjoy. 

We must not be too hard on ourselves. There is always forgiveness in Christ. But today, in the Spirit, let me meet that challenge of Saint Paul hanging in the air at the end of Romans 8—I am sure—and respond, “Yes, me too.”

Get Behind Me, Satan (Mark 8:31-38)

And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

On one Sunday in each three-year lectionary cycle, we hear a different Gospel version of this important teaching of Jesus (Matthew in Pentecost, Proper 16A; Luke in Pentecost, Proper 7C). Mark’s version in Lent 2B comes across almost as a second Temptation account. Where last week I noted there was no dialogue with Satan, here Jesus rebukes him by name. Interestingly, one detail found only in Mark is that Jesus makes sure all the disciples hear this rebuke: But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Is our Lord purposefully shaming Peter by turning to his disciples? No, but he desires the whole group to see how Satan can speak through anyone–even Peter, who had earlier confessed that Jesus is the Christ–to divert the Church from the gospel course, and he wants them to know how to deal with it forcefully.

None of us are the Son of God, and so we should not be calling out Satan in what someone else has said, much less in the presence of others. Nevertheless, we take from this narrative a harsh reality: while we as Christians have the deposit of the Holy Spirit in us, still, in the flesh, we are more than capable of being the devil’s mouthpiece to tempt others from following the will of God; and other Christians can unwittingly be tempting us. In Mark 7, just a few paragraphs before this reading, Jesus teaches his disciples: “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:20-23). There may be occasions for calling out a false word from another, first in private and then, if necessary, in public. For the most part, however, we should not be overly harsh but rather be aware and pray through the temptations the enemy is making. As Jesus dramatically displays, Satan is the real culprit.

Today, Holy Spirit, in this lenten season, observing Jesus’ words and behavior in this situation, I make a sober and humble assessment of what I and others are capable of in the flesh and pray for discernment to distinguish between a call to take up my cross and a temptation to do the opposite.  

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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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