The Preacher’s Study
First Sunday in Lent, Year B
John W.B. Hill
Genesis 9: 8-17;
Psalm 25: 1-10;
1 Peter 3:18-22;
Mark 1: 9-15
The following reflection on the scriptures appointed for this Sunday takes into account the origins of Lent as the period of final preparation of candidates for baptism at Easter. Catechumens who were deemed ready to proceed to baptism were enrolled as candidates on this first Sunday of Lent. In the present life of the Church, this pattern is being restored as we rediscover the connection between baptism and the Paschal Mystery. Baptism is our initiation into the Passover of the Lord, and it is the Passover of the Lord that illumines the meaning of baptism. So our preaching on this day, and throughout the season of Lent, needs to be especially supportive of those who are on this last and most serious stage of their preparation for baptism.
The Gospel readings for Year B in ‘ordinary time’ (which includes the Sundays after Epiphany) are sequential selections from Mark’s version of the story. In Lent, however, the selection of Gospel readings reflects the special agenda of the season. The first Sunday of Lent is a good example: the story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness is the inevitable aftermath of his Baptism (which we celebrated some weeks ago on the first Sunday after the Epiphany). Why this flashback?
Lent is a season of testing for those preparing for baptism — testing whether they will give their loyalty to the Kingdom of God, or whether they are still in thrall to the Kingdom of Satan. In the New Testament, Satan is more than the prosecuting attorney we met in the book of Job; Satan is the father of lies, the sower of discord, the deceiver of the whole world, the ruler of this present age. Satan is the personification of our cultural resistance to God’s plan for creation, the personification of all those forces that hold us in thrall.
So if Jesus has been sent to announce and inaugurate the Kingdom of God, he must prevail over the Kingdom of Satan. That is why the Spirit who descends on Jesus at his baptism immediately drives him out into the wilderness to be tested by Satan. Confronting the enemy is the first order of business for the Messiah. It is, of course, only a first encounter; the testing will continue until he is able to recognize how the ultimate battle will be fought, to ransom us from Satan’s power. “I have a baptism with which to be baptized,” Jesus later remarks; “what stress I am under until it is completed!” (Luke 12:50)
So the Gospel readings throughout this season reveal how Jesus’ own commitment to do the will of his Father was repeatedly tested, not just by Satan’s cautionary counsels, but by his people’s growing resistance to him, including resistance from his own disciples! All the people who had gone out to see John and to be baptized by him may have been fascinated by his proclamation of an immanent kingdom change, but they did not repent (see Matthew 11:16-19 and Luke 13:1-9).
A preacher might be forgiven for avoiding mention of Noah’s flood (in spite of its presence in two of today’s readings), for a literal reading of the story yields a problematic portrait of divine justice. However the gospel view of such catastrophic events is that God will not save us from our self-destructive ways if we refuse to accept the paths of peace God opens for us (Luke 19:41-44; cf. Romans 1:18-32). In other words, it is possible to see the all-engulfing flood as a powerful symbol of the consequences of our rapacious abuse of the environment, or of the ‘security’ we seek through reliance on weapons of mass destruction. God has made a covenant with us and with every living creature (Genesis 12-17); but we have repudiated that covenant.
So Jesus announces that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is near,” and calls us to “repent and believe in the good news” — but not until he himself has done what we find ourselves incapable of doing! He descended into the Jordan for the baptism of repentance — that radical turning toward the ways of God and the leading of the Spirit. On our behalf, Jesus became ‘the one great sinner who repents’ (2 Corinthians 6: 10); on our behalf he sinks beneath the flood we have always feared might sweep us away.
The second reading tries to illuminate this vicarious act of Jesus, though it is one of the most confounding passages in the New Testament. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in ‘The Message’ helps to make this tortuous text about Noah’s flood a little clearer: “only a few were saved then, eight to be exact — saved from the water by the water. The waters of baptism do that for you, not by washing away dirt from your skin but by presenting you through Jesus’ resurrection before God with a clear conscience.” (1 Peter 3: 20-21)
What, then, is the greatest catastrophe the world could undergo? Is it a mass extermination that eliminates most of earth’s species? Or is it the rejection and murder of the one who truly understood our peril and offered us a way to live in harmony with God’s creation?
When we can recognize the awful predicament of a world that rejects its only hope of redemption, we can see why Jesus invested so much of himself in making disciples. He needed them to share his baptism and be the continuing embodiment of his proclamation, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is near; repent and believe in the good news.”
The challenge for us is whether we will learn to follow the way of Jesus as his disciples, or whether we too will end up unwittingly resisting the way of Jesus.
John W. B. Hill is an Anglican presbyter living in Toronto, Canada. He is a Council member of APLM, chair of Liturgy Canada, and author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice.
by Ilya Repin (1903)
"Christ in the Wilderness," by Briton Riviere (1898)
"The Flood," by Norman Adams RA (1970's)