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First Sunday in Lent, Year B

The Covenant of Baptism

As we begin the Season of Lent, we have an account in Mark’s Gospel of the baptism of Jesus:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”   (Mark 1:9-11)

Mark’s Gospel is short, direct, and to the point. Fortunately, we have some wonderful commentary on the baptism of Jesus from the other appointed scriptures. Someone has said that the scriptures make very good commentary on the Bible.

Let us examine baptism from both an Old Testament perspective as well as a New Testament one. Reading from Genesis:

God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.   (Genesis 9:8-15)

God made a covenant with Noah and his family. What is the context of this covenant? The earth was full of evil people whom God has destroyed by the flood which covered the whole earth. He did so in order for humankind to have a fresh start in serving and worshipping their God. God gives something and God asks something from those who participate with him in the covenant. The covenant is a holy agreement with God and his people which must be honored by all participants.

How does this covenant with Noah and his family compare with the Covenant of Baptism? From 1 Peter we read:

Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you — not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.   (1 Peter 3:18-22)

Do we notice the similarities? God eradicated the sin in evil people by the flood. Now God has eradicated sin altogether by the blood of Jesus. We can now have a good conscience before God. Thus, we have access to God by our baptismal covenant.

Jesus was baptized by John in the river Jordan. It was more than a baptism of repentance because Jesus did not need to repent. It was a baptism of empowerment by the Holy Spirit. We may wonder why Jesus needed power from on high to begin his ministry. He had given up all his divinity and heavenly power to become one of us in every way.

Jesus set an example in his baptism for us to follow. In Romans, the Apostle Paul further illuminates the Covenant of Baptism:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.    (Romans 6:3-8)

If we have confessed our sin and embraced Jesus as Savior and Lord of All, then our baptism is meaningful to us and to God. We have entered into a covenant with God. We have died to sin so that we might receive a new life, absent from sin. All this is by the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s gift to us in baptism.

Have we now arrived? Mark’s Gospel did not elaborate on what baptism means, but it wasted no time in telling us that Jesus was immediately tested after his baptism:

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.   (Mark 1:12-13)

After Baptism we have begun a journey. Jesus had a wilderness experience right after his baptism. He was directed into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is ready to direct us as we observe a Holy Lent. Even though we go through difficult times, Jesus is still with us as he has promised to be. Lent is a dress rehearsal for those times. Thanks be to God that during such times we grow closer to God, empowered by his Spirit to serve him in newness of life.

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The Season of Lent

artprint77The Wilderness Experience

The Season of Lent is a time of fasting and prayer for the Church. It corresponds to the time of preparation that Jesus spent in the wilderness before beginning His earthly ministry. Scripture tells us Jesus was led there by the Holy Spirit for forty days of fasting and prayer. Thus, Lent begins with the service of Ash Wednesday and runs through Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday. This time period is actually forty six days, because the six Sundays in between the beginning and end of the Lenten Season are not really part the days of fasting. Sundays are always days of celebrating the resurrection of our Lord.

Historically, in the Earth Church, Lent has provided a time in which new converts were prepared for Holy Baptism. This practice is still observed in many liturgical churches.

Why should we observe this time of preparation and what does it mean to each of us and the Church today? Clearly this observance is not required for salvation. The saving act of Jesus on the cross and our response to His loving sacrifice is required, followed by our endurance in the Faith with His help. Nevertheless, we cannot deny that life does present us with wilderness experiences.

What is false is a church that suggests that Christians should not have them. We do have them. Job stood head and shoulders above his peers as a righteous man in his day, yet he experienced a terrible wilderness experience. The false triumphalism found in some of today’s churches would have us believe that such experiences should not occur, bringing condemnation on those who go through them because they do not have enough faith.

If we have wilderness experiences as a matter of course then why designate an appointed time to go through one within the Church Year? Is not this appointed time artificial? It is my belief that the Season of Lent in the early church was very much influenced by the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it is better to observe a wilderness experience appointed by the Holy Spirit than the one that is unscheduled and catches us by surprise. We may still endure unscheduled ones but we might be better prepared for them having benefited from the teachings and disciplines of Lent. Jesus required preparation in the wilderness through the Holy Spirit in order to begin His ministry on earth. He experienced other wildernesses as well, Gethsemane being one of them.

Our purpose for Lent should be the same purpose that Jesus had for entering the wilderness: to prepare for ministry. We all have a ministry if we are Christian believers. Lent should be a time of fasting and prayer, self-examination and repentance, and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. It should be a time of setting aside the things of this world that so easily creep in and devote ourselves more to God and His Word. In other words, let us come up to the mountain of God and be prepared for his transformation.

What should Lent not be? It should not be about our attempt to impress God by what we are giving up for Him or what spiritual gymnastics we are putting ourselves through. The “giving-up” notion is fundamentally flawed. It makes us dread Lent. We then cannot wait for Lent to be over. That is why Mardi Gras or Carnival has such an appeal for many people. Too often Lenten promises are like New Years resolutions. We make them but we don’t keep them and then we are under condemnation. Satan has a field day with us. He loves our false humility and piety.

It is said that we often grow through our struggles and trials. This may be true but it is not necessarily true. A greater truth is that our struggles do teach us that we cannot get through life on our own strength alone. The struggles often drive us to God. It is God who then changes us and not our struggles. Why should we wait for a crisis to go to God? Why not go to Him early and often?

Perhaps the best observance of Lent would be to approach God with faith in the saving blood of Jesus, asking Him what He would have us discover about ourselves and about Him. Let Lent be a time of intentional fellowship with God in prayer, seeking His will and wisdom for our lives so that we might be better disciples of Jesus Christ and living examples of God’s love for the world.

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