Beasts and Angels in the Wilderness - 14 February 2018 - First Sunday in Lent

Mark 9:9-15

This short passage in Mark combines two important events that are described in much greater detail in Matthew and Luke—the baptism and temptation of Jesus. Thus several important details found in the other versions are lacking here, such as John the Baptist’s reaction to Jesus’ request and his testimony to the heavenly acclamation. (See Matthew 3:13–17, Luke 3:21–22, and John 1:29–34.) . . .

Mark also deals with Jesus’ temptation only in passing. Given that Mark’s impetus is to emphasize that “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near,” and to get to the story of Jesus’ passion, such minimal detail in these early episodes may be understandable.

The reference to beasts and angels in the wilderness could be an allusion to Elijah, who was helped by ravens during the drought and later by angels on his forty-day flight into the wilderness. The idea of forty days, often in the wilderness, appears in one form or another in three of the readings for today, an echo in a sense of the forty days of Lent which we have entered this week.

The early church called for forty days of preparation for catechumens, which ultimately developed into the observance of Lent for all Christians, not just new believers. –– Jonathan D. Lawrence

Genesis 9:8-17

Genesis 9 introduces the first of several covenants that will be discussed in the lectionary over the next few weeks, God’s covenant with Noah and all living creatures. Here God promises never again to threaten extinction or destruction by floodwater and gives the rainbow as a sign of that promise of protection. Ironically, that sign seems to be more for God’s benefit as a reminder not to destroy the earth than as a comfort to humans that God will not forget. –– Jonathan Lawrence

1 Peter 3:18-22

This short passage connects the story of Noah to the practice of baptism and the significance of Christ’s death. The writer sees Christ’s death and rebirth in the spirit as an innocent suffering or sacrifice on the behalf of all people. The reference to “the spirits in prison,” is cryptic, especially since the description “who in former times did not obey” is presented in the context of the Noah story where the emphasis is on Noah’s obedience and faith.

Early Christians drew on Peter’s symbolism here and used the ark as a symbol of baptism, since “a few, that is eight persons, were saved through water.” Christian paintings in the catacombs and elsewhere used this symbol, in connection to the Eucharist as well. The idea is that just as Noah spent forty days in the ark, as a sign of faith and as the water washed away the sins of the world, Christians wash their sins away (not just physical dirt) and seek God’s care and rescuing. Again, as in the other passages for today, repentance, humility and trust are required of those seeking to follow God. –– Jonathan Lawrence

Jonathan D. Lawrence, an American Baptist Church ordained minister, teaches Religious Studies and Theology at Canisius College, Buffalo, New York.

Homily Service 39, no. 4 (2006): 13-21.

David Turnbloom