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Introduction To The Scripture For The First Sunday In Lent - Year B
Isaiah 43:18-25 Psalm 41; 2 Corinthians 1:18-22; Mark 2:1-12

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John normally structures his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
The First Sunday In Lent - Year B

   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 appears.  God 
makes a covenant with Noah that includes 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 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 draws an 
unusual parallel between Christian baptism and the story of Noah.  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.


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 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 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.  


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) reports some startling archeological and 
geological research.  This on-going investigation has discovered that 
about 7,600 years ago (5600 BCE) the body of water that 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, he finds that we read it from the 
standpoint of the Fall, which is in reality an abstract Hellenistic 
attitude.  Pearlson reads it from the standpoint of natural human ascent 
without Hellenistic abstraction.  He sees 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 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) expresses a 
personal attitude somewhat similar to a lament.  The psalmist has enemies 
with malicious intent, but he is really concerned about sins of his past 
youth for which he may now be punished.  He puts his trust, however, in 
Yahweh's compassionate and steadfast love.

The second strophe (vss. 8-15) deals 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 
states the universality of this divine-human relationship in terms that 
recall a wisdom teacher's admonitions.

Finally, the psalmist returns to his personal petition in faith that 
Yahweh will hear and deliver those who turn and seek forgiveness. (Vss. 
16-18)  Enemies still threaten (vs. 19), but the psalmist pleads that 
Yahweh will guard and deliver him.  He also asserts his own integrity as 
he waits 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 experiences 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, deals 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) that deals 
with the issue of believers suffering for their faith.  If both Peter and 
Paul died during the Neronian persecution, the subject of suffering for 
one's faith had great relevance.

Pictographs have been found in the Roman catacombs that 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 behavior.  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 is a quotation from Psalm 16:10.  It also 
may refer to Jesus' declaration of what 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, 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 passed indicated by Mark's statement 
of John's arrest.  Mark is saying, in effect, that the introduction to his 
narrative has ended.  He now moves 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.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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