Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-10; I Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15.
The preparation for the Lord’s passion begins with Noah—and baptism through the flood.
The lectionary readings from the Law and the Prophets during Lent mostly deal with covenant traditions. Each covenant tradition is a complex of inclusiveness (who is in?) and expectations (what must they do?), that is, of those included in the promises and what their way of life should be.
The Torah reading presents God’s covenant with Noah and his sons, who represent all subsequent humanity. The central point of this passage is God’s promise not to destroy the world again by flood.
The repetitions within the passage emphasize these points:
(1) that every living creature is included in this covenant,
(2) that all those living at the time of the covenant had passed through the flood and thus are veterans of Noah’s ark; and
(3) that the rainbow, seen in the clouds at rainy season, is the sign of this covenant between God and “all flesh that is on the earth.”
There is an almost homey touch to the way God anticipates the rainbow functioning as a disaster alert: “When [in the normal course of things] I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant … and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.”
The covenant of Noah places humankind at the dawn of a new world. A horrendous past has been blotted out—washed away, as it were—and the human community has a chance for a new start. The following chapters of Genesis unfold a story of diversity among the descendants of Noah’s three sons, and tragic separations soon result from language differences.
But when the covenant of the rainbow was pronounced, the world was open for the best and finest that humans could be. This is the moment to dream – “I have a dream…”
The Psalm reading is a kind of combination prayer and affirmation of faith in the covenant God. An individual speaks at the beginning about the strong trust she or he places in God, and at the end refers to the benefits for “those who keep God’s covenant and God’s decrees” (verse 10, NRSV). Those benefits are God’s “steadfast love and faithfulness” (hesed we’emeth), primary qualities of a covenant partner.
In between there is strong emphasis on coming to know God’s ways, on learning and being-guided-to God’s paths. “Make me know your ways…teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me,…” (verses 4-5). God “instructs sinners in the way. God leads the humble…and teaches the humble God’s way. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness…” (verses 8-10).
Where the psalmist lives, learning the “paths” of the Lord is both urgent and possible. Those who so learn the Lord’s ways and trust completely in the covenant God may not be embarrassed by disappointment before unbelievers (verses 2-3).
I Peter 3:18-22.
The Epistle reading directly links the Torah reading with the Gospel reading: those saved from the flood by Noah’s ark foreshadow those now being baptized in the name of the resurrected Jesus Christ.
The passage touches briefly on some large topics. Jesus suffered for sins, the sins of the unrighteous—potentially of all unrighteous, if they repent. The suffering involved death “in the flesh,” but resurrection was “in the spirit” (verse 19).
The writer emphasizes how comprehensive the message of the gospel is: it extends even to the spirits of those long dead. While “in the spirit,” Jesus “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison.” Who were these spirits? We may think of them as the souls of those who did not repent before the flood, and perished after God had waited patiently “in the days of Noah” (verse 20, NRSV).
The writer assumes familiarity with some ideas that are obscure to us.
For example, speculations about the age of the great world flood were endlessly intriguing to religious people in this era. Such speculations are found in the book of I Enoch and reflected elsewhere in New Testament writings. For example, the main scenario for the fallen angels who rule in hell is in I Enoch, chapters 6 and 10-15 (composed in the third century BCE). This writing was familiar to at least one New Testament writer, Jude, who quotes Enoch in verses 14-15 of his letter. See also Ephesians 4:8-10, where Jesus descends “into the lower parts of the earth.”
Eventually, the idea that Christ “descended into hell” to preach to those lost souls (such as the wicked generation of Noah?) was incorporated into the Apostle’s Creed, which served as the basis for instruction of candidates for baptism, preparing to pass through their own flood to new life.
The Gospel reading presents Jesus passing through the flood by baptism, thereby receiving the Spirit of God, then being tempted by Satan in the wilderness for forty days, and going on to proclaim the arrival of God’s reign as Good News. (People who knew well the old Israelite story could recognize here baptism as exodus, temptation as Israel’s trials in the wilderness, and Jesus’ proclamation as the word of God from Sinai.)
In the early centuries of the church, candidates for baptism at Easter were expected to fast for the preceding forty days, not counting Sundays. The fast thus began on Ash Wednesday. (The actual fasting was later restricted to abstinence from certain foods, such as meat, eggs, and some milk products.) Thus, Lent was an imitation of the days of Jesus’ trial and endurance before he began his Galilean ministry.
The description in Mark of Jesus being tempted does not mention fasting explicitly. However, the reference to the angels waiting on him is most likely an allusion to the Elijah story in I Kings 19:3-8. (The quote from Malachi at the beginning of this Gospel associates John the Baptist with Elijah, Mark 1:2 quoting Malachi 3:1.)
The Elijah story. Elijah, fleeing from Jezebel, went into the wilderness and despaired of his life. He asked God to let him die (tempted to abandon his mission?). What he got, instead of permission to die, was a heavenly messenger (“angel”) who gave him a loaf of fresh bread and some water. This happened again a second day, after which “he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God” (I Kings 19:8, NRSV). The reference to the angels, then, may imply that Jesus was similarly aided in moving toward the divine mission set for him.
Jesus’ proclamation in Galilee (verse 15) applies to all that will unfold in the rest of the Gospel: Jesus’ healings and teachings in Galilee, and the encounters on the way to and in Jerusalem for the final act of God’s work in Jesus. All of this is the arriving of God’s kingdom! And all of it constitutes the summons to Jesus’ disciples (as well as the later followers) to repent of their old lives and believe the Good News (the gospel).
(For the catechumens, this coming of the Spirit-work will mean being baptized, being confirmed into new life with the Lord—and eating eggs again at Easter!)