First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Lent 1

William Loader

Lent 1: 21 February Mark 1:9-15

This ‘snippet’ from Mark’s opening chapter focuses on the baptism, the temptation and the summary of Jesus’ ministry. Early in Epiphany we had overlapping portions: only 1:12-13 was missing. Now we have the opportunity to reflect again and especially on this key sequence. From identity to reflection to task.

1:9-11 is very like the transfiguration story. It is symbolic narrative, like a movie clip which interprets the whole film. Here is a meeting point of heaven and earth, a deliberate ripping aside of the barrier on the part of God. Jesus is the point of intersection. To turn the cosmology upside down, in him the depth surfaces. John predicted that the coming one would baptise with the Spirit. Now the coming one has arrived and the camera shows the Spirit descending on him. The baptising in the Spirit can begin. One of us, who needs to wash as we do, literally and metaphorically, is where it will all happen. That is promising for us. There is no bypassing of humanity.

This one is then addressed as God’s special beloved child. In Mark it is not a statement about Jesus’ prior existence as the Word, as we might expect in John, nor a reflection on miraculous conception as we find in Matthew and Luke. Mark leaves us guessing about the background, although doubtless special prophetic and royal traditions have contributed (especially Isaiah 42:1 and Psalm 2:7). There may also be distant echoes of Abraham's beloved son, Isaac, though I don't think the sacrificial theme is present. The focus is on the relationship rather than the genealogy, let alone the genetics. The son with whom God is well pleased is surely going to make God’s will known. It is a statement about Jesus’ status in the world of powers and threatening forces which Mark inhabits. That is why Mark tells us that the demons recognised him and did their best to wriggle free from his influence (1:24,34; 3:11-12). It is also why acts of exorcism and healing are seen as his characteristic activity (3:23-30) and Mark makes an exorcism the first public act of his ministry (1:21-28). By the Spirit he confronts the powers of oppression. He baptises with the Spirit and so sets people free. That is why what he announces can truly be described as God’s reign, the coming near of the kingdom of God (1:14-15).

Given the framework of thought within which Mark celebrates Jesus and in his prologue presents him to the reader, we are doubtless correct to see the time in the wilderness as both preparation and struggle from which he emerges victorious. The victory here promises victory everywhere. John was in the desert awaiting what was to come. Now Jesus is in the desert. The desert is a primal place of wild forces and wonders. It is a place of hope and new beginnings. Israel passed through the waters of the sea and set out for the wilderness, where they stayed for forty years. Jesus is like Israel. Matthew and Luke know a tradition (from Q) where this has become the major focus of the temptation story. In Mark’s brief account this symbolism is probably present, including the 40 days, but equally strong is the more overriding sense of the desert as place of danger and wonder. Revolutionary hopefuls would make their way into the desert and prepare to liberate Judea from the Romans.

Preparing for liberation entails facing the raw elements. Part of that is struggle and Mark suggests this is Jesus’ first victory. Part of it is return to simplicity and trust. As John lived off nature (the providence of God), so Jesus would be ministered to by the angels. Mark says nothing about fasting. Back to basics, back to trust, becomes a key teaching of Jesus later when he appeals to the simplicity of birds and flowers (Matthew 6:25-34). Jesus was living off ‘bush tucker’ for a while, like John. The deliberate step into radical simplicity (driven, of course, by the Spirit) is a model for spiritual discipline and a timely focus for Lent. People need to find their desert places. For some the struggle and the fear of the struggle will be overwhelming. If the Spirit ‘drove’ Jesus into the desert places, we may need to lead people very gently. The journey to inwardness belongs to wholeness, but for many people they either do not know where to go or they feel constrained by stereotypical models. Every minister is in this sense a spiritual director. We need to learn how to lead in ways that will make the journey possible for people.

It is almost stereotypical to begin the account of a great person’s life with a story of struggle. This is so doubtless because it so often reflects actual experience. The experience here is defined by the surrounding passage. It is not any journey into inwardness, but the journey to meet the God in that inwardness who seeks to establish a reign of liberation and wholeness and grapple with the forces which are working in the opposite direction. This frame of reference gives a certain structure to the experience. It is not modelling interiority as floundering in introspection, as if the desert experience is its own reward. For some people it could be disastrous. It is the liberating Spirit who leads him there and then leads back and then provides the energy and power for Jesus to proclaim and become good news.

There is a danger is seeing any one of the three aspects of the passage in isolation. Being, without engaging the issues, is remote and might evoke adoration from others but has little point. Struggling, without a sense of identity in being and doing becomes floundering. Doing, without being and struggling with the underlying issues, becomes activism. And 1:16-20 adds: and don’t go it alone!

Epistle: Lent 1: 21 February  1 Peter 3:18-22

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