Year B — The First Sunday in Lent

Commentary for February 26, 2012
Click here for today’s readings

Genesis 9:8-17
Lent begins with a covenant.

God made a promise (a solemn agreement, if you will) to Noah that God’s vindictive judgment would never again occur by means of a flood. The rainbow becomes a symbol of life through this covenant. It is a sign of hope for “all flesh,” as well — God’s love for the world is just that. God’s love for the world.

Might Lent be an opportunity for us to review our own covenant with creation? How shall I treat the world that God has made, and which I am privileged to occupy?

Psalm 25:1-10
Psalm 25 makes an excellent prayer guide for Lent: “Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.” (v.4)

Walking the path — participating in the journey — taking time to prepare our hearts and lives. Perhaps these metaphors for this season of the church’s life are a bit overworn; however, listening and watching for God’s guidance ARE age-old practices that can and should be renewed — not just in Lent, but throughout our lives.

1 Peter 3:18-22
We follow Jesus. 

That’s our “job description” as disciples. Everywhere Jesus goes, his disciples follow. (For Peter and the gang, that got a little tough in the garden, outside the judgment hall, and at the cross.) What it means for us to follow Christ in his suffering and death is the subject of much consideration for us these next few weeks. 

But, one thing is certain: when we follow Christ in suffering and death (here, “death in the flesh,”) we are, like Christ, made “alive in the spirit.”

Baptism is connected to this supreme action of God in our lives by Christ; it is his acting, his living and dying, which saves us. As Christ was obedient to God in all things, including his own baptism (see the gospel reading for today,) so for us obedience in baptism is an act of following Christ. We are his disciples when we believe and are baptized.

Mark 1:9-15
Belief. Temptation. Ah, the twin experiences of the life of faith!

It would be nice, we are sometimes prone to think, if we weren’t faced with so much temptation as we attempt to live for Christ. We truly believe…and we don’t really mean to mess up when tempted to do so. We feel guilty because of our continuing propensity to sin. 

We may be unsure, at times, of our own worth before God. Why, oh why, do we have to face such trials? Why couldn’t God just remove them from our lives?

The wilderness experience of Jesus — coming as it does on the heels of his own “profession of faith” with John at the Jordan — is a time of preparation. It is signification of things yet to come. Whatever it was that Jesus faced for 40 days in the desert, it was nothing like the trial he would face as he approached the cross.

Perhaps the wild place — the barren, lonely place — is the time we need to be assured of the presence of God, the constant Love of God for our lives. Perhaps this is where we most effectively learn to pray, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”

Is our own time of trial a preparation for what we have yet to face? Can we learn the deep truth of all that it means to be the Beloved of God?

by the Rev. Dr. Ruth Hamilton, Guest Preacher* 

Wandering in the Wilderness
Mark 1:9-15

So here we are, in the wilderness once again. We’re in no person’s land, outside of space and time, in an environment as bleak and cold and never-ending as a January day in Chicago. And yet, for all its bleakness, the wilderness is one of those places where God comes to meet God’s people.
You will recall that even though God has rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, destroyed their enemies, and was personally leading them through the wilderness to a land of milk and honey, the Israelites were not the least bit grateful, faithful, or obedient to God’s will. Time after time on their journey the Israelites complain—there’s not enough water, manna is boring, we should go back to Egypt. So on through the wilderness Israel goes, being tested by God and failing every test.
Finally, just as the Israelites are about to enter the promised land, they completely lose their confidence in God. They are afraid, so they decide to return to Egypt. They have failed the final test. So God decrees that only one of them, the one who did believe, will enter the promised land. On the threshold of that wonderful place to which they had been journeying, the Israelites are locked out. Like Adam and Eve, they have been banished forever from the Garden of Eden.
But, as always, God’s “no,” God’s word of judgment, is not God’s final word. God promises, after the current generation has all died, to let their children enter the promised land. Then God drives the Israelites back into the wilderness, where they wander for forty years. And even then, God does not forsake them.
During the forty days of Lent, we are those Israelites journeying in the wilderness, where our faith is being tested. And we are just like those Israelites, complaining every step of the way. God has given us everything, and we say, “It’s not enough. I need more. I need something different. Could I have my life in another size and color, please?” 
God has guided us faithfully through life, and we keep wandering away, looking for an easier route, a better deal. God has planned a wonderful destination for us, and we are afraid to enter into it. We fail to have faith in God. We would rather trust the things of this world. We would rather be slaves.
But when we live this way, the wilderness becomes dark and scary. We lose our sense of direction and purpose. God seems very far away. We worry that we’ll be wandering around forever because there seems to be no way out. We’ve failed God’s test, so we, like the Israelites, are sentenced to die in the wilderness. We will never see the promised land.
But then in our wilderness, we discover that we are not alone. Jesus has been there before us, and Jesus comes there to meet us now. Mark tells us today that Jesus had been driven into the wilderness for forty days to do what the Israelites could not do, what we cannot do. 
In the wilderness when Jesus is tempted by Satan and wrestles with evil, he passes the test. Jesus has such faith in God that he is willing to go wherever God leads him. Into the wilderness, onto the cross, into the tomb, into hell itself. And because of Jesus’ faith and obedience, God raised him to life and into heaven, life for all eternity. 
Because Jesus traveled that road from the wilderness to the promised land, so can we. We know we cannot do it by ourselves—but we don’t have to. Jesus leads us through the wilderness of this life into the land of salvation. All we need to do is trust and follow him.
Because the destination of our journey is certain, we, like the Israelites, can use these forty days of Lent, this time in the wilderness, to prepare for our entry to the promised land. The disciplines of Lent—penitence, self-denial, prayer, acts of charity—prepare us to hear the good news of Easter. They strengthen our faith. They help us trust in God and walk in God’s paths. So don’t be afraid to enter the wilderness. God is waiting for us there.

* Ruth Hamilton serves as Assistant Secretary in the Office of the Secretary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Among her many honors, she has been titled as an “Honorary Bubbette” and we’re awfully glad to have her here to keep the Bubbas sharp!

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