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Bible Study: Lent 1 (B) – 2012

February 27, 2012

Genesis 9:8-17

This passage, in its historical context, most likely served more as a folkloristic explanation for the appearances of rainbows than as a covenant story. Other such texts that use the term “covenant” involve agreements between two parties to perform (or refrain) from certain actions (according to the Anchor Bible Dictionary.) This text does not seem to fit those parameters. Perhaps this “rainbow covenant” story was a late addition to the Genesis text, inserted at a point when covenant rhetoric and its significance was in decline.

Nonetheless, the text could be interpreted as speaking to God’s view of creation, specifically God’s desire not to see it violently destroyed. This echoes, to some extent, God’s command to humans and animals in Genesis 1:29-30 that their relationship is not to be marked by violence and bloodshed – they are told they may eat fruits, vegetables and plants. It is later that God alters this command to allow the consumption of animal flesh, but with restrictions. The rainbow covenant of Genesis 9 also serves as a counter-witness to a certain kind of Christianity which seems to always be looking forward to God’s punishing, wrathful destruction of the created world. This notion runs counter to the thrust of the biblical record, however. The Biblical authors affirmed that the earth is our home, it is indeed good (Genesis 1:31), and the Lord has vowed not to deal with creation through unadulterated violence again. Every time we see a rainbow we are reminded of this.

  • How might we, as those created in the image and likeness of God, imitate the Lord’s promise not to deal violently with creation?

Psalm 25:1-9

This psalm is a beautiful alphabetic poem, i.e. the first word of each line begins with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. While clearly a plea for guidance and forbearance, this Psalm also carries deep themes of the Wisdom tradition. The psalmist longs to be guided in truth, and taught the ways, the paths of the Lord. Proverbs teaches us that the beginning of Wisdom is the fear of the Lord (Pvbs. 1: 7). Psalm 25 serves as response to the Proverbial admonition by acknowledging a desire to be taught. It is often hard for us to admit that there is much we do not know, and that we need God’s guidance, especially those of us who have resources, wealth and privilege. This Psalm is a humble plea and act of submission to the majesty of God’s wisdom.

The psalm also asks the Lord for forgiveness and compassion. The sins of one’s youth are specifically mentioned. So often we are dogged in our hearts by mistakes of the past, especially regrets of things done or not done when we are young. Following the verse about the sins of youth, the psalmist speaks of the Lord guiding the humble. Allowing ourselves to be led in the “ways” of God is the path to transformation, and the death and resurrection of Jesus teaches us that even failings and wounds can be transformed by God into something new and good. Perhaps the psalmist was in tune with that truth as he/she composed these magnificent, heartfelt verses.

  • Are there parts of our lives where we resist submitting ourselves to God’s guidance and paths?
  • How do we interpret the psalmist’s prayer about enemies who might put us to shame? How are we sometimes our own enemies, dwelling on failings from long ago – our “youth” – when God is already willing to overlook these and accept with compassion?

1 Peter 3:18-22

The author of the first letter of Peter is using the symbolism of water in this text teach the significance baptism. Just as the flood waters saved Noah from destructive powers, so baptism allows us to participate in Jesus’ definitive defeat of the powers of evil and death through the cross and resurrection. There are several contexts at work in this passage: the Genesis flood story, the sacrificial interpretation of the cross, as well as the context of persecution and alienation which Peter’s audience was experiencing in the middle of the first century. Peter knew that those who originally read this letter were facing social ostracism and persecution because of their Christian faith. Through baptism however, they share in Jesus’ new life in the spirit. The waters rescue them, just as it did those who took refuge in Noah’s ark.

Interpreters have struggled for centuries to make sense of verse 19, especially the “spirits in prison”. At the time the New Testament documents were written, there was a great deal of speculation about the angels of Genesis 6:2 who took human wives. This transgression was related to God’s decision to bring about the great flood. The literature of the time imagined that those angels were imprisoned by God in what was known as the second heaven. Jesus, upon his ascension, passed by them, and not without saying a few words!

The author of the letter, above all, is encouraging steadfastness in the face of difficulties that the Christian way of living can bring. We are strengthened for this task through the power conveyed to us in the waters of baptism. Through this sacrament we can maintain our ability to “make sound decisions” (a better sense word often rendered “conscience” in this text) in the face of hostility.

  • How might we draw on the power of our baptism as we face adversity? How does our baptism strengthen our integrity? How is this manifested in our everyday lives?

Mark 1:9-15

Today’s gospel captures three distinct scenes: the baptism of the Lord, his time in the wilderness, and his return to Galilee to begin his ministry.

Why Jesus chose to be baptized by John is unknown, but the scripture scholar Jerome Murphy O’Connor offers an intriguing hypothesis – Jesus was in the process of discovering his identity as God’s Messiah. The baptism scene might then be linked to Luke’s story of the 12- year- old Jesus remaining in the Temple to converse with the rabbis. As Jesus struggled to discover his vocation, he first went to the teachers of the law, and now, in John the Baptist, Jesus has come to the prophet. The law and the prophets were the two sources of authority for the people of Israel.

The opening of the heavens and descent of the Spirit of God would have evoked, in the minds of the Israelites, Isaiah chapters 63,64 . Much of the vocabulary utilized by Isaiah is also used by Mark, and chapter 64 ends with the question “Can you remain silent…?” The evangelist answers this question by telling us that, through Jesus, God is again communicating with us.

Interestingly, Mark does not offer a detailed account of Jesus’ temptation by Satan. Matthew and Luke fill this out, probably in response to the curiosity of later generations of Christians. Mark mentions that Jesus was with wild beasts in the wilderness. This point carries great meaning and significance, which is unfortunately often lost on western people who have been heavily influenced by the Enlightenment worldview. Soulful, deeply spiritual people often go into the wilderness to fast, commune with and communicate with nature and other non-human creatures (think Francis of Assisi). This spiritual practice is common across cultures, religions and civilizations, and is still commonly practiced by native and aboriginal peoples, as well as many Christians. It appears that Jesus had this experience as well. Perhaps this “retreat” served as a time of renewal before he undertook his ministry.

Finally, Mark tells us that Jesus returned to Galilee. Apparently he was picking up where John had left off. The Greek word metanoia, often translated “repent”, carries the sense that one must “change one’s mind”. Jesus addressed his preaching to people who already thought that they were very religious and pious, yet he told them that they needed to change their minds if they are to be prepared for the coming kingdom. The message of metanoia still challenges us today, especially we who consider ourselves to be pious believers.

  • How might we relate to Jesus’ quest for self-discovery?
  • What does Jesus teach us through his example of spending solitary time in the wilderness?
  • Are we able to receive Jesus’ call for metanoia with humility and an open heart? How does this call serve as a challenge to us?

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Christopher Sikkema


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