Mind Blown — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines, 1 Lent B 2021

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus announces, “repent, and believe in the good news.”

Here’s the dictionary definition of “repent”: to “feel or express sincere regret or remorse about one’s wrongdoing or sin.” I imagine most people would give a similar definition. I think that deserves a Princess Bride response. “You keep using that word,” Diego Montoya says, “but I do not think you know what it means.”

When a preacher digs into the Greek dictionary, that can be a way merely to demonstrate some scholarly superiority (and personal inferiority). That may be the case now as well, but it’s worth the risk.

The Greek word used in Mark 1:15 is “metanoia.” It doesn’t have anything to do with feeling regret or remorse. It doesn’t have much to do with feelings at all. The word really means to change one’s mind. It means to think in a new way.

Photo by Shivam Patel on Pexels.com

These days, changing one’s mind is out of fashion. It’s regarded as waffling or pandering or shifting with wind of public opinion. Too often, changing one’s mind is exactly that. But the price we pay for this perspective is that growth is penalized. Learning is laughed out of court. Open mindedness is regarded as a fault rather than a strength.

The reign of God has come upon us, Jesus says. Change the way you look at things. To begin, change your mind about changing your mind!

But metanoia is more. I mean, literally, it’s more. The prefix on the word is “meta.” That means bigger than, greater than, in a larger framework than the current situation. It means more comprehensive or even transcendent.

We use that prefix in English, almost without knowing its power. We can talk about metanarratives as the big stories behind our smaller stories. We can talk about metacognition as the way we think about thinking.

So, metanoia – the word translated as “repent” – means to get a bigger mind, a larger perspective, a more inclusive framework. It really means to see the world in a whole new way.

Jesus doesn’t think that this new thinking is good just for laughs. God has changed everything. That’s what it means to say that “the kingdom of God has come near.” Something has happened that forces us to see reality in a whole new way. If we don’t expand our minds, we won’t see clearly.

Think about an event that changed your world. I’m just of the age where I can remember the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Not only can we of that vintage remember the event. We can remember precisely where we were when we heard the news. I was, by the way, in my first-grade classroom at Franklin Elementary School in LeMars, Iowa. Not only is that memory seared into our brains, but we all knew that the world had changed in ways that no one could take back.

For an earlier generation, the event was the invasion of Poland or the attack on Pearl Harbor. For a later generation it was the attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11/2001. For black and brown people, it was the passage of the Voting Rights Act or the assassination of Malcolm X or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or the murder of Trayvon Martin.

For a few of us, it was the Cubs winning the World Series or the Cavaliers winning the NBA finals in 2016.

These events were “mind-blowing” in their impact on our awareness and consciousness. After these things, we could never see the world the same way again. That’s metanoia.

We are impacted in similar ways by personal events. Life looks completely different after falling in love or getting married or having a baby. Life can never be the same after a cancer diagnosis or a house fire or a bankruptcy.

It takes a whole new perspective to survive the death of a parent or a child or a spouse. No matter how we try, we can’t get our brains back to “before.” After a mind-blowing event, there’s only “after.”

Metanoia means getting a new mind, a larger perspective, an expanded view of the world, my community and myself. Jesus announces the change bigger than all other changes – the kingdom of God has drawn near! Nothing can stay the same!

Immediately, as Mark’s gospel likes to say, Jesus begins the work of that new Reality. He heals sick people. He frees those in bondage to evil. He challenges the powerful, the positioned, and the privileged. He embraces the least, the lost, and the lonely. He announces that self-giving service is the mark of true greatness. Any other greatness is a cheap imitation. He begins his journey toward the cross and resurrection, when death is trampled by death and Life is the order of the day.

It is, as the great philosophers at Disney would say, “a whole new world.” Nothing less than a whole new mind can take that in without blowing a gasket, popping a breaker, collapsing under the weight of the new reality.

In Mark’s gospel, we will discover that getting a whole new mind for a whole new world is no easy thing. Spoiler alert for next week – Peter, the disciple, has a gasket-blowing, breaker-popping encounter with Jesus after being with him for months, or perhaps even years. Metanoia is not for amateurs.

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus announces, “repent, and believe in the good news.” In the same way that we get “repent” wrong, we struggle with “believe.” We live in a time when believing is about information and judgment. Believing, for most people – and certainly for many Christians – is, in the words of my generation, a “head trip.”

I’m a happy head person most of the time. But that won’t work here. “Believing” is much more about trusting than it is about knowing. It’s about relationship more than information. It’s about relying on the messenger more than on the message.

Believing is more like falling love than like reading the newspaper. The new input comes at me almost without my consent. I can push it away or I can take it in. If I take it in, everything changes – beginning with me! That’s why it’s most helpful to think about the capacity to believe as God’s first gift to us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Metanoia is more something that’s done to me than it is something I do.

We’ll get to this several times in Mark’s gospel in the coming months. In particular, there’s the desperate father seeking healing for his little girl. He’s not sure if Jesus is up to the task, and that’s a problem. He cries out, “I believe! Help my unbelief!” That’s the real experience of believing that leads to metanoia.

We Lutherans have this perspective in our basic faith documents. In his explanation of the Third Article of the Creed in the Small Catechism, Martin Luther writes this. “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him.” That’s shocking to many “belief as intellectual assent Christians,” but there it is.

Luther doesn’t leave us hanging. He continues, “but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with [the Spirit’s] gifts, and made me holy and kept me in the true faith…” Jesus proclaims the coming of God’s reign among us. That’s the Good News, the gospel, that changes everything. Jesus offers us a whole new mind to embrace a whole new world.

Someone faces a wild new reality and says, “Boom! Mind blown!” It has the cliché status of a meme at this point in history, but that’s what we’re talking about here. God’s reign has come near and is at work. Boom! Mind blown! Trust what you see and hear. And begin to live into that new reality.

Where is Jesus blowing our minds and blowing up our realities in the here and now? For me, learning about and living into a world where the perverse power, privilege, and position of white, male, cisgender, heterosexual supremacy is getting clearer – Boom! Mind blown!

Learning about and living into a world where Christianity is a declining reality, even as pseudo-Christian movements try to resist change – Boom! Mind blown!

Learning about and living into a world where love of neighbor is regarded more and more as a game for suckers and knowing that I will be in the minority for being such a “sucker” – Boom! Mind blown!

What are the ways Jesus is blowing your mind and blowing up your reality?

A few final thoughts here. Refusing to change my mind requires violence to keep things the way I want them to stay. We’re seeing that fearful violence play out in our society in myriad ways. But life insists on continuing. And when life continues, change happens.

My current view of things protects and promotes my interests. So I shouldn’t be surprised when metanoia feels like loss in the short-term. Part of faith is trusting that this is for my long-term good and for the good of my neighbor.

I won’t ever get to the end of this metanoia project – not in this life or in eternity. I can’t ever get to the end or the bottom of God’s grace, mercy, and love. So, there’s always more to learn, to grow, to change, to explore. Once I adjust to that reality, I find that it’s all good news.

Welcome to Lent, my friends. Boom! Mind blown!

Text Study for Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Lent B, 2021

Genesis 9:8-17

The first readings in Lent lead us to focus on covenants in the Hebrew scriptures. We get in succession the covenants with Noah, Abraham, and Israel at Sinai. Then we get God’s promise of healing from the serpent bites in Numbers 21. Finally, we get Jeremiah’s promise the “new covenant” in chapter 31, a text we Lutherans associate with Reformation Sunday. Since Lent can be a time for reflection on and recommitment to our own baptismal/confirmation promises, we could spend the season exploring what “covenanting” means for us.

The covenant with Noah in Genesis 9 is part of what is often known as the “Priestly” tradition within the Torah. This tradition was composed during the Babylonian exile. Wolff notes that there is a concern for the whole world in this tradition, in part, because Judah has been forced to reckon with a “world” much bigger than its own history and borders – a “world” forced on them by the Babylonian conquest and captivity. We see that concern in Genesis 9.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

Wolff reminds us that the exiles needed to know, in the midst of their chaotic and uncertain experience, that Creation was good, orderly, and reliable. They needed encouragement to “be fruitful and multiply” and to fulfill their human vocations as made “in the image and likeness of God.” They had experienced violence and destruction on a massive scale, and they needed help to understand the faithfulness of God in their experience.

The flood story taught them that people forfeit their lives when they live by violence. In the face of absolute destruction and the near extinction of human life, “God, through one righteous man, Noah…has granted them a new start in life” (Wolff, page 33). That was certainly good news for folks who wondered if things were over for them and their descendants. No, the story says, God makes new starts possible, even when it seems that everything good is gone.

“God’s renunciation of total destruction is theologically explained,” Wolff writes, “as a ‘covenant’ with Noah” (page 33). God gives Noah a symbol that all people can recognize – a rainbow. “God places the rainbow in the clouds the way an archer hangs his weapon on a nail,” Wolff notes. The good news of the text is clear. “Israel, scattered among the nations of the world, is to realize that she [sic] lives,” Wolff concludes, “by the goodness of the Creator and by his [sic] renunciation of force” (page 33).

Wolff suggests that the covenant language emphasized in the Priestly document was the simplest possible. “I am your God,” the Lord says, “and you are my people.” The Kingdom of Judah had failed in its obligations and loyalties to the God of Israel and had been judged. “They are now to recall,” Wolff writes, “that God had committed himself [sic] to them, and that the covenant which [God] had instituted remained in force even though” they had broken it (page 34).

Cameron Howard, in her workingpreacher.org commentary, points to things about the covenant with Noah here. The covenant is not only with Noah but rather with everything that lives, all of Creation. “The second extraordinary detail about this covenant,” she writes, “is that it does not involve the legal reciprocities of a treaty. Instead, all of the obligations rest with God.” Unlike covenants in the ancient world that specified mutual obligations, the promises in this agreement all flow in one direction – from the Creator to the Creation.

God is the Giver, as Luther liked to say. Thus, covenants with God must be rooted in God’s grace. God needs nothing from us and wants everything for us. Howard writes that “in the Noachic covenant, promises are made freely by God and do not count on any reciprocity from creation. The promises made by a church community at a baptism, especially of an infant, are reminiscent of this unconditional covenant,” she suggests.

The specifics of this covenant matter a great deal. Part of God’s promise is never again to respond with deadly violence to the reality of human sin. “The sign of this covenant, God’s bow in the clouds, is precisely the bow of battle,” Elizabeth Webb writes in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “Ancient depictions of a deity armed with bow and arrow are not unusual. To hang up one’s bow is to retire from battle. That bow in the clouds,” she notes, “is the sign of God’s promise that whatever else God does to seek our restoration, destruction is off the table.”

We Christians see this bow in the clouds as a foreshadowing of the cross of Jesus Christ. Rather than wipe out Creation in an orgy of wrath, God takes the powers of sin, death, and the devil into the Divine Life and suffers all the impacts those powers can inflict. We confess that the cross is in fact the clearest expression of God’s power – Power that no other power can overcome. The cross is not payment to an angry God but rather the victory of the God of Love.

Every human covenant that lives by violence is therefore ruled out of bounds. “The rainbow covenant represents radical inclusivity in the heart of a narrative shaped by gender bias and ethnocentrism,” Wil Gafney writes on workingpreacher.org. “The covenant between God and all flesh is between God and every person for all time,” she continues, “including but not limited to those who can trace their ancestry to Noah and all of their descendants forever.” It should not be surprising that the symbol of the rainbow is used by LGBTQIA+ movements and organizations to represent radical inclusivity. That is the nature of this covenant in Genesis 9.

Humans make covenants too often to maintain privilege, position, and power. Housing stock in the United States was redlined for decades in part through restrictive covenants that prohibited owners from selling their property to Black, Brown, or Asian people, or Jews. Those restrictive covenants continue to shape neighborhoods, school districts, and access to health care across the United States. And some of those covenants continue to be enacted, consciously or otherwise, by some banks, realtors, and politicians. God’s covenant declares all such covenants of violence to be null and void and calls us to act accordingly.

Howard reminds us that we have an opportunity to reflect on the care of creation in this text if we wish. The covenant is with all of Creation, and Noah is to be a steward of that covenant. “As the Lenten season calls us to repentance,” she writes, “a sermon on the flood could provide a call to repentance from our corporate sins of environmental degradation, as well as a call to action for ecological justice.” Living in Lent toward Earth Day in April, for example, could be a good part of our seasonal discipline.

I find it most helpful to read this text and those like it as a Christological allegory. I don’t assert that this is “the truth” of the text or that its reading, for example, in Judaism is “wrong” or “superseded.” But if I am to be true to my Christian worldview, I am best served if I read this text through the “lens” of Jesus.

It truly is God’s desire to eradicate sin, death, and evil fully and completely. That is the real meaning of the Flood, through the lens of Jesus. The Flood is an eschatological sign that is fulfilled, for example in the Apocalypse of John. In that book, the “sea will be no more.” It’s not that God dislikes oceans. Rather, the death-dealing power of the waters of chaos will be defeated and deleted. There will be no more crying or mourning or dying (or drowning!).

In the same way, the rainbow promises that this eradication of sin, death, and the devil will not be accomplished by violence. Instead, it will be the work of Divine mercy and steadfast love. That Love takes in the violence of the cosmos and transforms it into cosmic peace. The ark is a symbol of God’s protection in the midst of the chaos, and the landing is a “new creation.”

I close by remembering some work we did as part of a “Camp Noah” experience after Hurricane Katrina. Camp Noah provides a therapeutic and supportive week of Bible camp for children who have survived and been traumatized by natural and other types of disasters. I remember one afternoon when we were playing outdoors. That was a great joy for the children, many of whom had been locked in eight-foot by twenty-foot FEMA trailers for the previous nine months. We were having a wonderful time.

Then the sky clouded over. The wind picked up a bit. Anxiety levels began to rise. With the first flash of lightning and rumble of thunder, children whimpered and tears began to flow. The children had been so terrorized by thunder and lightning, wind and water, that they could not manage their fears. We quickly got them back into our classrooms and pulled the blinds. We wrapped them in their safe blankets – decorated with rainbows – held them close and sang Jesus songs together. The anxieties softened, and in about an hour the storm was passed.

It was a concrete experience of the work of transforming rainstorms into rainbows. Our task was to tell one another (after all, many of us counselors were frightened but feared admitting it) that God is faithful, even in the midst of the storms. Our work was to hold one another close until the sun came out again. Our privilege is to be part of the sign of God’s mercy and love when the storms come.

Resources and References

Gafney, Wil. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-genesis-98-17-4.

Howard, Cameron. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-genesis-98-17-3.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Lewis, Alan. Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday. Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 2001.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.

TDNT VI: 23-26 (Seesemann), peira, etc.

Vena, Osvaldo. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-mark-19-15-5.

Von Balthasar, Hans Urs. Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter. San Francisco, CA.: Ignatius Press, 1990.

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan Publishing, 1996.

Webb, Elizabeth. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-genesis-98-17.

Wolff, Hans Walter. The Old Testament: A Guide to Its Writings. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress, Press, 1973.

Wright, N. T.. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) . Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for 1 Peter 3:18-22; 1 Lent B, 2021

1 Peter 3:18-22 (NRSV)

This sermon, packaged as a letter, may have been written and distributed near the end of the first century. It is addressed to “To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia…” These are Christian exiles who have fled some sort of tribulation or persecution, perhaps in the wake of the Jewish War in 66-70 CE or perhaps in the wake of some more local trouble. Responding to persecution and remaining faithful in times of trial is one of the themes of the letter.

In the opening verses, the writer reminds them that they have had to “suffer various trials”. The Greek word here is “peirasmos,” which is another form of the word for “temptations” or “testing” that we find in the gospel reading. Here it is clear, at least in the first chapter, that the emphasis is on testing rather than temptation. The verb in 1 Peter 1:7 is “dokimazo,” which means to test or try the quality of someone or something.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

The letter continues with calls to holiness, faithfulness, and steadfastness in faith and practice. In chapter 2, the writer reminds the listeners that they are chosen to live as honorable servants of God. The community has either engaged in or is contemplating some forms of resistance or civil disobedience. The writer discourages that course of action and encourages the vulnerable communities to live as law-abiding and peaceful citizens who “fear God” and “honor the emperor” (2:17).

That cautious perspective continues by counseling slaves to “accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh” (2:18). This is one of the passages most detested by Americans enslaved and/or opposed to slavery prior to Emancipation. And it was one of the favorite texts of the chaplains to enslavement who filled the pulpits of southern Christian congregations before and during the American Civil War. The writer points to Christ, patient in suffering, as the example the slaves should emulate in their patient, passive, and obedient endurance in suffering.

In light of what is now a troubling emphasis, reprehensible in its ancient usage as well as its American application, I am reluctant to preach on this little letter at all. Of course, it gets no better in chapter three. Wives are counseled to “accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives” (3:1). Wives are to refrain from drawing physical attention to themselves and rather are to “adorn themselves by accepting the authority of their husbands” (3:5). Husbands are to “show consideration” for their wives since “they too are also heirs of the gracious gift of life” (3:7).

These communities have accumulated some privilege, it would seem, and are loath to put that privilege at risk. The recommended path is to keep their heads down, live as quiet and conservative citizens of the Empire, and give the appearance of stable townspeople who will cause trouble to no one. They are not to compromise the testimony of their faith, but even in that case they are to exercise care. “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you,” the author writes, “yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (3:16).

We arrive now at the appointed text. Just as Christ suffered while doing good, so the listeners are counseled to endure their trials. In the midst of this quietist conservatism, we get one of the several paragraphs in the letter that draw some positive attention. To illustrate patient endurance, the writer describes Christ’s death in the flesh and new life in the Spirit. In the power of that Spirit, Christ “also went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison.” This is one the primary Scripture texts standing behind the credal claim that our Messiah and Lord “descended to the dead (or “into hell”).”

Alan Lewis spends several pages (37ff.) on this topic in his Between Cross and Resurrection: Toward a Theology of Holy Saturday. He notes that the interval of Holy Saturday was not a time, in the Creeds, of divine inaction. Rather, he says, something happened – the “descent into hell.” Lewis notes that theologians have typically viewed this statement either as the conclusion of Christ’s death or the beginning of his Resurrection. Each perspective, he says, “seeks our consent to the exclusion of the other” (page 38).

I appreciate (no surprise forthcoming) that Lewis embraces both perspectives and holds them in tension. The descent into hell is both the conclusion of Christ’s death and the beginning of his victory. It is the clear statement of faith that Christ’s death is real, full, and human – not a symbolic or “apparent” suffering and death. “If death and hell are only defeated by the divine submission to death and hell,” he writes, “then for the gospel’s own sake is it not imperative that nothing cancel out the deadly hellishness of all the Son of God endured?” (page 40).

With the descent into hell we stand, as Lewis puts it, “on the boundary between yesterday and tomorrow” (page 43). The second reading helps us to see Jesus’ temptation as a foreshadowing of that descent, as he embraces the struggles with sin, death, and the devil, which are central to the life of the believer in a world still beholden to those powers. I would suggest that this is why the text is found here on this first Sunday in Lent – shaping our view of Jesus’ testing as a vision of things to come.

Other theologians have found this small article of faith to be an important symbolic platform for deeper theology. Hans Urs von Balthasar calls this the center of all Christology in his Mysterium Paschale. The descent into Hell is the final and full expression of Christ’s self-emptying, as described in Philippians 2. In that descent, Balthasar suggests, Christ proclaims the good news to all who are imprisoned by the power of death. Christ “plants within eternal death a manifesto of eternal life,” he writes (page 180).

In that descent, according to Balthasar, Christ also offers liberation to all the imprisoned from the power of death. Since he proclaims good news to those who are imprisoned, the offer of liberation is an accomplished fact. That proclamation is described in 1 Peter 4:6 — “For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.”

All that is left for the prisoner is to walk through the open door into forgiveness, life, and salvation. Balthasar asserts that this is not a ground for assuming Christian universalism, but I’m not sure he’s right on that score. Several ancient witnesses suggest that once the doors of the prison are opened, the prison is emptied of inhabitants. I suppose that at some point we’ll find out who is right on that one.

As Balthasar points out, the descent into Hell is seen as “the decisive image of redemption” in the Eastern Church, “that is, in the breaking down of Hell’s gates and the liberation of the prisoners” (page 179). This is captured in a line from Maximus the Confessor, quoted by Lossky in the Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church: “The death of Christ on the cross is a judgment on judgment” (page 152). The descent into Hell, in this framework, is part of that conquest of our bondage to sin.

For Martin Luther, the details of the descent were of little interest or import. Instead, he focused on what he saw as the central importance of this small article of faith. In his 1533 sermon at Torgau “On Christ’s Descent into Hell,” Luther said, “It is useful and gives the power that we have from this: that neither hell nor the devil can take us and all others who believe on him captive nor can they do us harm.”

For Luther, this proclamation to the “spirits in prison” was not an historical or one-time event. It is rather a symbol for Christ’s desire to reach all spirits in any prison whatsoever at any time. Christ will go “to Hell and back” in order to bring us to the abundant life with him.

Despite my dislike of Peter’s first letter on balance, this message will preach. And if I were to preach on this text, I would not be able to resist talking about the need to preach the gospel to the spirits currently in prison among us. I’m not talking about prison ministry, although I have experience in that regard and think that ministry is a critical part of the church’s work.

No, I’m talking about the importance of working for criminal legal reform and the end of our racialized system of mass incarceration. People don’t have to wait for death to spend time in the hell of prison — and often for offenses that would get white people a fine and some public service time. Lives are ruined. Families are destroyed. Communities are decimated. A whole culture is polluted with our ongoing commitment to pseudo-slavery under the guise of law and order. Unless our gospel is just pie in the sky in the sweet by and by, then our proclamation must be on behalf of the spirits in prison now.

There. I feel a little better about this text.

Resources and References

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Lewis, Alan. Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday. Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 2001.

Lossky, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Crestwood, NY.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1957.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.

TDNT VI: 23-26 (Seesemann), peira, etc.

Vena, Osvaldo. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-mark-19-15-5.

Von Balthasar, Hans Urs. Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter. San Francisco, CA.: Ignatius Press, 1990.

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan Publishing, 1996.

Text Study for Mark 1:9-15 — 1 Lent B 2021 (part two)

Part Two: It’s Gets Harder from Here

“Therefore, you need to consider that it is no joke at all to take action against the devil,” writes Martin Luther in his preface to the Service of Holy Baptism, “and not only drive him away from the little child but also hang around its neck such a mighty, lifelong enemy” (Luther’s Small Catechism, page 72).

While Luther notes that the benefits of Holy Baptism are forgiveness, life, and salvation, he also reminds us that this baptism is entry into the battle for the life of the cosmos. When we are baptized, we have a big, old, bullseye attached to us and shoot expect sin, death, and the Devil, to take shots at us regularly and often.

Photo by Kampus Production on Pexels.com

This runs counter to the longing among many who seek a deeper spiritual experience these days. We have a deep desire for spiritual safety and security or at least a modicum of tranquility. I think that neither Mark nor Luther offers or promises such escapist relief. Instead, Luther wrote, as Timothy Wengert notes, “Yet such is life that one stands today and falls tomorrow.” We are as, Luther describes us, simultaneously justified and sinners. Baptism does not free us from attacks by sin, death, and the Devil. If anything, those attacks are amplified when we wear the bullseye of baptism.

“This remarkably realistic view of human existence contrasted with the medieval anxiety over whether one was in a state of sin or grace (or perfection),” Wengert notes. Luther’s existential realism also “contrasts with modern American addiction to conversion experiences, decisions for Jesus, and the striving for holiness and perfection” (Martin Luther’s Catechisms, page 95). One of the marks of privilege is the belief that we deserve tranquility and are entitled to comfort. It seems to me that many these days pursue a variety of spiritual disciplines to escape from trials rather than to be better equipped to deal with such struggles.

In Mark, Jesus’ ministry is one of confronting the forces of sin, death, and evil. Jesus “has come to combat and perhaps defeat forces determined to counteract God’s intentions for human well-being,” Matt Skinner writes. “The antagonists in Mark are not human ignorance and religio-political authority; they are spiritual forces, things that oppress human bodies and minds and defy human attempts to subdue them. The world Jesus inhabits,” Skinner concludes, “is a dangerous place.”

Part of Mark’s purpose, it would seem, is to remind us that the world doesn’t get safer for us. That much should be obvious as we continue to live through The Pandemic, insurrection, political intrigue and drama, white supremacist plotting and pontificating, and all our individual and local challenges to live faithfully and well.

Some of us have been formed to see Lent as a time of extended sorrow for our sins (and it is that). But what if we see it more as a time for intense discipleship training and practice to equip us for faithful obedience and endurance in a threatening world? “Jesus went the way that all his people must go,” N. T. Wright concludes, “and he could do it because he had heard the words of love, the words of life.” (Kindle Location 325). In Lent we are invited to hear those words of love and life for us as well.

Luther described his own experience of the life of faith (and what he expected for others) as Anfechtungen, that is, “attacks.” These attacks can lead us to false belief and despair. The antidote to false belief and despair is trust in the work of the Holy Spirit to continually create in us the faith that justifies and transforms us in the midst of our struggles.

Christians have often wondered why we are not free from struggle and suffering now that we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection and are walking in the newness of life (see Romans 6). That wondering goes back to the earliest Christian communities. “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you,” we read in 1 Peter 4:12-13. “But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.

Even early Christians were knocked off balance by suffering and struggle. We don’t need to go looking for trouble if we are faithful Jesus followers. Suffering and struggle are part of the journey. Challenges from sin, death, and the Devil will find us often enough and soon enough. We need not be surprised when that happens. Instead, we can take those times as opportunities to rely even more securely on the grace, mercy, and love of God in Christ by the Spirit’s power. As I noted above, Lent can be used as a time to practice that reliance, so we are better prepared when the real thing hits us.

In our system of privilege, we expect to be comforted and feel entitled to a path that gets easier as we go. In fact, Mark’s gospel portrays the opposite path for disciples. The path becomes more difficult as we go. The Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, does not make things easier but rather plunges us more deeply into God’s struggle against the powers of sin, death, and the devil.

Luther’ spirituality is consistent with this view. Luther did not expect things to get easier when he got closer to Jesus. Instead, he expected things to get more difficult, the tests to come closer together, and the despairing times to be even deeper. Luther wrote numerous letters of comfort and encouragement to believers who struggled with anxiety, despondency, and despair in the face of such attacks. Luther knew what he was talking about since he dealt with such attacks throughout his life.

In Matthew and Luke, Jesus responds to the Satan by engaging in a theological and political debate. We don’t get such a blow-by-blow description of Jesus’ struggles in Mark. I like to think that perhaps Jesus engaged in more “Luther-like” responses here. In his letter of spiritual council to Jerome Weller, Luther offered several strategies for responding to these demonic attacks of anxiety, despondency, and despair.

First, he notes that such attacks are not signs of a lack of faith or a failure in God’s grace, mercy, and love. Instead, he writes, such temptation from the devil “is a certain sign that God is propitious and merciful to you.” Weller’s resistance has been such that the devil is forced into a war of spiritual attrition. “If [the devil] cannot break a person with his first attack, he tries by persevering to wear him out and weaken him until the person falls,” Luther writes, “and confesses himself beaten” (Letters of Spiritual Council, page 85).

Instead of exercising spiritual brute force, Luther counsels, come at the attacks from a position of contempt for the devil. Despise those thoughts which convict and contort your spirit and regard them as false. Laugh at the devil. Luther urges Weller to make jokes and play games with Luther’s spouse and family (in whose home he was a guest). “In this way,” Luther assures Weller, “you will drive out your diabolical thoughts and take courage” (page 85).

It is a principle in the spiritual life, therefore, that there will be personal progress in the power of the Spirit. But there will also be demonic pushback. We should expect both realities to be at work in our lives. In the same way, we should expect such struggles in the world around us. Ibram X. Kendi describes this well in the area of anti-racism. He notes that we see and experience progress in anti-racist work, policies, and outcomes. But we see and experience “progress” in racist work, policies, and outcomes as well.

There is no safe harbor from the battle. Certainly, there are moments of rest and recovery, and spiritual disciplines can provide such respite. But if we wish to resign from the fight and occupy some perpetual quiet space of spiritual equanimity, we can only do that at the expense of others who will pay for our peace. That’s the nature of privilege, and it is not a description of the authentic Christian journey (at least not in historic Lutheran terms).

One last word from Luther in this regard. Our trials do not come from God, but they may be useful in driving us into God’s loving arms in the name of Christ and by the Spirit’s power. “God both loves and hates our afflictions,” Luther (that master of the coincidence of contradictions) said during one of his Table Talks. God “hates them when we are driven to despair by them. But when our afflictions move us to deeper trust in God’s grace, mercy, and love, God does indeed love them.”

Even our doubts and despair can be a sign of our secure place in God’s heart. Valentine Hausmann, the burgomaster of Freiberg, was often troubled by doubt and unbelief. His conscience was often terrorized as a result. “How many there are who have less faith than you have!” Luther wrote him in 1532. “Yet they are not aware of it and remain in their unbelief. The fact that God makes you sensible of this is a good sign that [God] wishes to help you out of your condition. The more you are aware of it,” Luther says, “the nearer you are to improvement. Cling calmly to God,” he advises, and God “will cause everything to turn out well” (Letters of Spiritual Counsel, page 119).

Resources and References

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.

TDNT VI: 23-26 (Seesemann), peira, etc.

Vena, Osvaldo. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-mark-19-15-5.

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan Publishing, 1996.

Wright, N. T.. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) . Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 1:9-15 — 1 Lent B, 2021 (part one)

Part One: Tempted or Tested? Yes.

The first Sunday in Lent each year lands on the one of the “temptation” narratives in the Synoptics. Matthew and Luke share a tradition of three temptations with some fairly extensive descriptions. Mark’s account is brief and urgent, just like the rest of Mark’s story. The lack of extras allows us to focus on Jesus’ “testing” with no distractions.

We have visited portions of this text during Epiphany, so some might think we’re repeating ourselves. I find that to be a lack of imagination. We are given the rare chance to hold up a text from several angles and explore them in some detail. Some may wonder if the preacher should preach to the text or to the day (or season). I always find that to be a false dichotomy. The text and the season shape one another.

“This is a test. This is only a test. If this were a real emergency…” As I was growing up, these test announcements always brought an awareness that the end of human life could be no more than ten minutes in the future. If one thought hard enough about that reality, there was a temptation to despair. But that was not the purpose of the system test.

Photo by Arthur Brognoli on Pexels.com

The test was to make sure that the system would function if and when it was needed. I wonder if this is a possible metaphor to use for the story of Jesus testing/temptation. Jesus’ testing was not a “temptation,” not an enticement to failure. Rather, just as the Emergency Broadcast System is tested regularly to make sure it works, so perhaps Jesus endured testing in order to make sure the “system” worked when it was needed. What if that is part of the purpose for the testing of Jesus in the wilderness – to make sure that the “system” works?

Shall we describe this as the “temptation” of Jesus or the “testing” of Jesus? The Greek word is “peirazo” and can be translated either way. I’m going to get into the “word weeds” more than a bit here, but it’s important to hear the Spirit’s purpose in this episode.

First, I want to clarify a bit of grammar. Mark uses the word here to indicate the purpose or end of the action (see Wallace, page 636). Why does the Spirit “drive” Jesus into the wilderness (the Greek word is “ekballo” – to “cast out”)? The Spirit does that for the purpose of or in order to test or tempt Jesus. The grammar Mark uses indicates that the verb explains the purpose of what will happen (the testing or tempting). And it emphasizes the actor (the Spirit) rather than the action (the testing or tempting).

Only in Mark do we read that the Spirit “drove” Jesus out into the wilderness – not “led,” not “invited,” not even “accompanied.” Was Jesus on his own during the testing? “Though we do not really know what was behind Mark’s choice of words here,” Larry Hurtado writes, “the effect is to make the temptation seem more of an unsought and uncomfortable experience, an ordeal.” Hurtado suggests that this word choice makes clear that God intends for this testing to take place (page 20).

Matt Skinner offers helpful comments here. “Still, we should not miss the fact that it is the Holy Spirit who initiates the scene, putting Jesus into the setting where he must contend with Satan,” he writes on workingpreacher.org. “The Spirit forcefully compels Jesus there, indicated with the verb (ekballo, “drove out” according to the NRSV in 1:12). The same verb appears elsewhere in Mark,” Skinner notes, “when Jesus exorcises unclean spirits from harassed people. This Holy Spirit possesses Jesus, having entered ‘into him’ at his baptism (the NRSV drops the ball by translating en as “on” in 1:10).”

On the other hand, the agent of the testing is “the Satan,” not God. The grammar indicates that the Satan is the “ultimate agent” of the verb (see Wallace, page 433). Notice as well that “the Satan” is a title here and not a name, just as we find, for example, in the Book of Job. That leads me to believe that Mark sees the role of the Satan as analogous to that found in Job. The Satan served as God’s rather confrontational “quality control” officer. The Satan made sure that the faithful were authentic in their faith and up to the task when times got tough. I wonder just how much the Book of Job stands in the background here for Mark (perhaps some doctoral research for someone here).

So, is it “temptation” or “testing”? It is, in fact, both – my favorite answer to either/or questions. The Spirit tests Jesus’ faithful obedience and endurance by means of the Satan’s temptation. The Satan tempts Jesus to turn away from the path of faithful obedience and endurance. Later in Mark’s gospel, we get the full content of that temptation. That’s why, in Mark, we don’t need the threefold description we get in Matthew and Luke.

In Mark 8, Jesus tells his disciples that his suffering and death are a necessary part of the path. Peter resists this idea and seeks to deflect Jesus in another direction.  Jesus responds to that temptation by calling Peter “Satan.” Here it is not a title but a name. We don’t need the details of Jesus’ testing/tempting in the wilderness because we get the details in Mark 8. The test is whether or not Jesus will remain faithful all the way to the cross. The temptation is to turn off the path and to set one’s mind on human things rather than Divine things.

The suggestion that God “tempts” anyone presents theological problems within the New Testament itself. For example, the Letter of James devotes an entire early paragraph to this issue.

Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. Do not be deceived, my beloved.” (James 1:12-16, NRSV)

James rejects the suggestion that God could be responsible for human sin. The paragraph, Seesemann suggests, “is directed against Christians who are in danger of taking temptations too lightly, and who even seem to be disposed to make God responsible for their sins” (TDNT VI:29). James rejects the notion that God’s sends suffering, for example, as a continuing education opportunity. Suffering can prove and demonstrate our faithful endurance, but God is not the source of that suffering (according to James).

Regardless of the translation, Jesus triumphs in and through the experience. “Early here in the Gospel story,” Hurtado writes, “Jesus encounters Satan (v. 13) under adverse circumstances and, as the narrative implies, wins against him, setting the tone for Jesus’ conflict with demonic powers to prevalent throughout the rest of the book” (page 21). Osvaldo Vena notes that Mark understands clearly that this testing is “the decisive encounter with Satan that will explain Jesus’ exorcisms in the rest of the Gospel: “the stronger one has confronted the prince of demons, and is plundering his house” (Mark 3:22-27).”

Jesus is in the wilderness “forty” days. The grammar indicates that he was being tested during this time, not merely afterward. There is no mention of fasting or other privation here in Mark. So, Mark wants us to think about the periods of forty in the Hebrew scriptures as we imagine the Testing. We know that in one version of the flood story, the ark was upon the waters for forty days and forty nights. We know that Moses was on Mount Sinai with God forty days and forty nights as Moses received the tables of the Law. We know that Elijah was in the wilderness of despair for forty days.

Most of all, we know that the Hebrews were in the wilderness for forty years as they prepared to enter the Land of Promise. “The point of the probable allusions to these traditions,” Hurtado notes, “is to make Jesus’ desert period a time of new revelation and salvation equivalent to the revelation given to Moses and Israel in the classical, Exodus time” (page 21). These forty-day periods in the Hebrew Scriptures are times of waiting, times of preparation, times of discerning God’s intentions – as well as a time of repentance and regeneration for Israel before entering the Land of Promise. Mark can tap all those illusions with this small referent.

We know now that the season of Lent is forty days (excluding the Sundays from the count). This was a time of final preparation for baptismal candidates who would undergo immersion on the Eve of Easter. Does Mark intend for our imagined baptismal candidate to see their own period of preparation in Jesus’ story here? That seems likely. “Jesus is acting out the great drama of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, Israel’s journey through the wilderness into the promised land,” notes N. T. Wright. “The road Jesus must tread, precisely because he is God’s dear son, is the road that leads through the dry and dusty paths, through temptation and apparent failure. So,” Wright concludes, “it will be for us as well.” (Kindle Location 317)

It’s not clear if Jesus finds himself in the company of animals and angels during or after the forty days. Hurtado suggests that the mention of the wild animals is intended to portray the danger of the experience. He also notes that it could be an allusion to the story of Adam naming the animals in the Garden of Eden. If that is the case, “Mark may be portraying Jesus as a new Adam signifying a new beginning for the human race” (page 21. Hurtado notes that he is not persuaded by this suggestion, although he doesn’t explain why that is the case.

Malina and Rohrbaugh make a different suggestion about Jesus’ traveling companions. Jesus is alone in the wilderness. “He is far removed from the protective network of kinsmen and therefore vulnerable to attack,” they note. “The social network of the heavenly realm comes to his aid, however, and it is revealed that he is not alone at all. Once again,” they suggest, “the claim to be of the divine kin group is affirmed” (page 176). Osvaldo Vena notes “That Jesus was assisted by angels resembles a similar situation in the life of Elijah (see 1 Kings 19:5-8)”. Jesus may appear to be alone, but he is not. He is “with” Creation and “waited on” by the angels as he recovers from his wilderness wandering.

“Mark 1:13 may talk about a transformed creation made harmonious, or it may hold out the promise of keeping at bay all the still-dangerous elements of creation,” Matt Skinner summarizes. “In either case, the imagery contains a sense of reconfigured boundaries,” he notes, “Old rules and expectations no longer apply in the same way when Jesus is present.”

It’s not clear if John’s arrest came “immediately” after Jesus’ return from the testing. We get no indication of the time frame. But there is a connection between that arrest and Jesus’ wrestling. I often wonder if the arrest came between the baptism and the wilderness wandering and precipitated this time of testing. Jesus comes out of these challenges with a clarity of vision and with a passionate purpose. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near,” he announces, “repent and believe in the good news.”

Resources and References

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.

TDNT VI: 23-26 (Seesemann), peira, etc.

Vena, Osvaldo. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-mark-19-15-5.

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan Publishing, 1996.

Wright, N. T.. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) . Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.