February 15, 2021
Author: Scott Hoezee
Lent begins in the wilderness. And it’s not a terribly safe place to be all things being equal. Some years ago after a seminar I was attending in Tucson, Arizona, wrapped up around the noon hour, my wife and I decided to check out a nearby National Park. We took a big bottle of water with us but as we strolled through the cacti that June afternoon, the temperature on the desert floor topped 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The water was depleted much sooner than we anticipated, and while we may have never been in any real danger, we were most assuredly glad to get back to our car eventually. It required no imagination whatsoever to conceive of how easily one could die in such a harsh, hostile environment.
But biblically the desert or wilderness was always a sign of grave spiritual danger, too. Before God imposed order on his creation—before he made it a cosmos—all was chaos. It was, in the original Hebrew, tohu webohu, it was formless, shapeless, and dangerous. Life could not flourish unless God started separating things and carving out a life-nourishing niche for his creatures. But throughout the rest of Scripture, wilderness (the same tohu webohu of Genesis 1) became shorthand for the devil’s realm, for temptation, for threats to life, limb, and also to soul.
If we are going to follow Jesus to the cross in Lent, then we have to start where he started, where John the Baptist started.
We have to start in the wilderness.
John went out there first to declare the fulfillment of those prophecies that forth-told God’s plan to build a salvation highway—a road back to shalom—starting right there in that dangerous desert. Jesus then joins John in the desert but is no sooner baptized and hailed as God’s beloved Son before he is violently thrown—quite literally hurled—into a far deeper wilderness experience where the wild animals prowled and howled.
Think of that: In Mark, Jesus says not one single word in public, preaches not even two minutes’ worth of a sermon, before he is dropped down smack in the middle of a very bad place of chaos. It’s almost as though Jesus cannot credibly say or preach anything until this happens. Jesus has to enter the worst of evil on this planet before he can reliably declare that the kingdom of God has drawn near. Maybe that is because the kingdom of God cannot draw near until the kingdom of darkness—epitomized by the deep desert of evil—is engaged.
It may seem a trite example but years ago on the TV series M*A*S*H the unit’s priest, Fr. Mulcahy, tried to talk with a wounded soldier who had been severely traumatized by what he witnessed on the front lines of the war. But when this soldier discovers that the good Father had never been anywhere close to where the fighting of the war was taking place, he concludes they just cannot talk. The soldier had no interest in hearing the pious platitudes of one who had no idea what he was talking about. Later in the episode, after Mulcahy does come under enemy fire and is forced to perform an emergency medical procedure on a soldier even as shells are exploding all around him, the soldier welcomes the Father after all. Now they have a common frame of reference, now they can talk. Now Mulcahy gets it.
Jesus could not say the kingdom was near until he had been to the front lines, until he had engaged the evil of this world head on in the wilderness. Because then when he spoke words of hope and promise, everyone could know that these were not the sunny predictions of some starry-eyed but finally unrealistic optimist. No, this was someone who had engaged the jagged edges of real life in a fallen world and had even so emerged victorious. The features to this world that make us need the coming of God’s kingdom will not thwart the advent of that same kingdom. The post-wilderness Jesus was living proof.
“He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.”
That’s all Mark says in his typically spare way of writing. It’s maybe all he needs to say, too. Because here is an early indication in the gospels that where Jesus will go, somehow shalom will follow. Jesus will touch the unclean but not become unclean himself but will instead leave cleanness in his wake. He’ll touch the dead and they’ll come back to life. He’ll speak to the blind and leave them seeing, to the deaf and leave them hearing. He’ll enter situations of despair and isolation and leave behind him a cornucopia of hope and community.
Lent begins in the wilderness, in the worst parts of life in a fallen, broken world. It begins there as a reminder that Jesus is transforming this world by his very presence. Lent begins in the wilderness so that by the time we see Jesus enter into nothing short of hell and death itself near the end of it all, we will have more than a firm sense that somehow, some way–by a grace and a power we can scarcely imagine–Jesus will leave even those places changed. He’ll pass through the hell of death and somehow leave Life in his wake.
It’s a strange and mysterious alchemy that he works again and again. But it’s a little less mysterious when we remember the very first thing Mark told us when he opened his gospel: this Jesus we’re talking about is (you may be interested to know) “the Son of God.”
That little fact doesn’t change the wonder of his shalom-restoring powers. But it sure explains a whole lot!
Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our 2021 Lent and Easter page.
This short lection does not contain any particularly striking textual points of which to take note, though there are a couple of verbs here that tend in the direction of drama (if not a measure of violence). The heavens are not merely “torn open” in verse 10 but are rather rent asunder, split wide open (the Greek verb is schizein.) Similarly, the dove/Spirit in verse 12 does not politely lead or send Jesus into the wilderness but rather violently hurls, throws, or ejects Jesus in that direction (again, the Greek is the vivid ekballein). The image is the classic one of the bouncer hurling a rowdy bar denizen through the window and out onto the sidewalk. On the surface this all looks calm and serene but the text indicates that cosmic happenings were afoot here. Reality on this earth was being invaded by no less than the power of Almighty God. We ought not miss the drama of it all! We should note also the connection to the end of Mark’s gospel when, after Jesus breathes his last (literally he EX-SPIRITS his last), the Temple curtain is schizein or split from top to bottom. The gospel begins with the pneuma or Spirit of God coming on Jesus from a split heaven (unleashing the power of God in the world in a new and dramatic way) and it concludes with Jesus’ EX-pneuma and the Temple curtain is then torn (from the top and so by God) thus giving us access to God in new ways.
When I was growing up, my parents had an old pump organ that my father had refurbished. When a certain stop was pulled out, the organ’s keyboard would automatically play bass clef chords to correspond with and harmonize with notes you played in the treble clef. I used to like playing that organ (which was also something of an aerobic exercise of pumping those pedals!) because I loved to see those other keys go down automatically when I pressed the right keys higher on the keyboard–to my young mind it was almost like magic!
That kind of thing happens in the Bible, too. If you press the right notes in one place of the Bible, you find that corresponding chords resonate in other parts. In the case of Mark 1, Mark plays the key to tell us that Jesus was with the wild animals, and presto: accompanying musical chords rise up from the pages of Isaiah where the prophet predicted that when shalom returned to this world, the wilderness would bloom and become a place of verdant life, not a threatening place of imminent death. What’s more, when that happened, the lion would lay down with the lamb and even small toddlers would be perfectly safe making mud pies right next to the hole of the cobra snake. In shalom, all creatures and all people could be with each other in harmony and goodness and without peril.
So in Mark 1:13, you don’t even need the part about the angels attending Jesus to figure out how Jesus’ tempting by the devil turned out. Jesus won. He won so marvelous a victory that for at least a time, shalom burst forth, life exploded onto the scene in a place of death. Maybe that is why Jesus had to be tossed out there as an immediate consequence of his anointing by God. Unless the powers that be are met head on, evil cannot be dealt with. God cannot bring salvation by remote control, pushing buttons and directing the action from a distance some light years away. God must mix it up with evil and that is precisely what he does through Jesus.
Author: Stan Mast
As we begin our annual Lenten journey to the cross and the tomb, our Old Testament reading takes us to the new journey of the human race after The Flood. In words that almost directly parallel the Genesis account of creation, the opening verses of Genesis 9 lay out God’s mandates for the new human race: fill the earth, have dominion over the rest of creation, including animals who may now be eaten (minus their blood), and defend the sanctity of human life.
In those verses, God basically tells the representatives of the new human race to start over. But how can they do that? Humanity had made a total mess of everything. Now in the midst of the drying mud and the rotting death, how is it possible for humanity to make a new beginning and do better. Can they/we do it by immense human effort? No, answers our text, we can start over only by the grace of God. That’s how it was for Noah as the journey of humanity began again. That’s how it is for us as we begin our Lenten journey again.
In The Flood, the waters below and the waters above brought the original chaos of Genesis 1:2 (tohu wabohu in the Hebrew) onto the earth. Now by making a covenant, God brings order and life out of the chaos. The alternative to human sin is God’s grace. God is the one who makes life possible in a chaotic world filled with mud and death. Or to put it in the terms of our text, the alternative to chaos is covenant. That’s the great message of this text.
Immediately after speaking his commandments for new life in verses 1-7, God anchors the continuation of life on earth in a covenant, a covenant initiated and kept by God and God alone. Contrary to the universal belief of our day, the continued existence of life on our planet does not depend on human decisions and actions. Though we are responsible to live by God’s commandments, it is not finally up to us to make human history turn out right. If right living determines whether life continues on planet earth, may God help us, because we have demonstrated from the very beginning that we cannot do it. Ours is a legacy of chaos and rebellion and disobedience and death. May God help us. (Thanks to William Willimon for these last insights.)
That, of course, is exactly what our text is saying. God does help us, even after we have made a total mess of things. “Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘I now establish my covenant….’” What a crucial word that is! A covenant is not just a legally binding contract; it is a personal promise made from the heart. Life does not depend on the whims of a fickle deity. It depends on the firm promises of a faithful God. Though life does not finally depend on the choice and behavior of sinful human beings, it does depend on the fixed purpose and unbreakable promise of a holy and just God. “I now establish my covenant….” Thank God! Life on earth is guaranteed.
The terms of this covenant are remarkable by any accounting. Verses 9-10 detail the parties in this covenant: Noah and his family and all living things. This is a universal covenant—with the whole human race (not just with one tribe or nation as in the covenant we will study next week) and with every form of animal life as well. Indeed, as if to underline the inclusiveness of the promise, God repeats it four times (verses 10,12, 15, 16), always including “all living creatures.”
In verse 11, God gives the promise at the center of this covenant. “Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” What just happened will never happen again! That is unconditional. No matter what humans do, never again will God respond with a world destroying flood. Never again will the cycle of nature be disturbed so totally (cf. Genesis 8:22). Never again will all life be drowned by a flood. The waters of chaos will never again destroy all life on this planet.
As subsequent history has demonstrated, that promise does not mean that floods will never happen again. They are as much a part of human existence as their dry counterpart, drought. Floods will happen and, tragically, people will lose their lives. But life will go on through flood and drought. God has promised.
Further, as subsequent Scriptures reveal, this promise does not mean that God will never judge the human race again. As the next chapters of Genesis reveal, God’s effort to wash the earth clean of sin did not succeed. Indeed, sin immediately surfaced in righteous Noah and his family. The holy and just God will not and cannot let sin run wild and ruin his world completely. So, his judgment will fall upon a sinful world again.
Never again will it take the form of a universal flood, but it will take the form of a universal fire that will completely cleanse the world of all sin. II Peter 3:12-13 put it this way: “That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteous.”
God will keep this promise of continued life, even after the fire at the end of this earth. In the meantime, life on earth is assured by this promise. It is unconditional and eternal. The alternative to chaos is covenant, no matter what humans do.
God assures us of that with this business of a rainbow. It is the sign of this covenant with all humans and all nature. All ancient covenants were sealed with some sort of visible sign—a reminder to the parties of the covenant that the promises are sure. Sometimes the sign was a stone. Other times, as in our text next week, it was circumcision. Here the sign was a rainbow.
As usual, God chose some aspect of creation, some natural phenomenon, to point to the certainty of his promise. Obviously, there were rainbows before this covenant. But God chose this spectacular refraction of light after a storm to attest to the firmness of his covenant.
But interestingly, this sign was directed not toward forgetful humans, but toward his faithful Self. “Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant….’ Would God forget without the rainbow? Clearly not.
But God wanted Noah and his descendants to remember what God had said about the rainbow. Every time you see a rainbow, you can be sure that I am remembering my promise about life. Every day, all over the earth, rainbows testify about God’s faithfulness to his covenant, because God sees them too, and remembers his promise. No matter how sinful humanity becomes, no matter how many storms and floods wreak havoc on the earth, God will not wipe out life on this earth by a flood. Life will go on.
That’s the covenant underlying life on this planet. God promises physical life for all. But there’s a greater promise that we focus on during Lent—the promise of eternal life for all who believe in God’s Son. The God who cares about all life in this world has sent his only begotten Son into this chaotic, disobedient, rebellious, deadly world to bring life abundant and eternal.
Lent is a season of honesty about our sins and the human condition. The background of our text for this First Sunday of Lent reminds us of the destructiveness of sin. And this text reminds us of the persistent grace of God that keeps coming back to humanity, even after The Flood and even after the Cross. Let us consider the flood and repent. Let us remember the covenant and hope. Let us consider the cross and believe. “For God so loved the world….”
The difference between a contract and a covenant can be likened to the difference between a pre-nuptial agreement and a marriage. The pre-nup is a contract that is enforced by law. The marriage is a covenant that is held together by vows. To break a pre-nup is to violate the terms of the contract. To break a marriage is to violate the trust that made the promises. Breaking a pre-nup only breaks a law. Breaking a vow often breaks a heart.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Samuel Johnson is reported to have once said something to the effect that we need more often to be reminded than instructed. And perhaps the RCL thinks so too since Psalm 25 was assigned a few months ago near the end of September. Probably what I wrote then—most of which is the content of this sermon starter—can take on a slightly different spin for the first Sunday in Lent with the psalm’s words about the need to instruct sinners and receive guidance from God on a regular basis ringing some penitential notes in this penitential season. So let’s explore how this goes in the 25th psalm.
Again pace Johnson: we need more often to be reminded than instructed. Intuitively probably most of us have a pretty solid sense of what he meant. It’s not that I don’t know the basics of knife safety when I am slicing and dicing vegetables in my kitchen. It’s just that sometimes I am in a hurry and so I don’t clean off my cutting board. Next thing you know my knife tip gets stuck on a piece of carrot, the knife slips sideways as a result, and I take a chunk off a fingertip. I received the proper instruction once. I just needed to be reminded of it again. To remind myself.
This does not mean, of course, that any of us are ever really finished with encountering new learning in various subject matters or areas of life. Hopefully we all aspire to be life-long learners. But the fact is that most people of all education levels have throughout their lives received plenty of good, solid, accurate instruction about all kinds of things we encounter on a daily basis and so the key is to remind ourselves of what we know so we can follow through on it, do things right, be wise, stay safe. How often, having taken a shortcut to save time, do we make a mistake only to say to ourselves, “I know better than that!”
Indeed we do often know better. We just need to be reminded.
Psalm 25 is a poem that pines for divine guidance and instruction. Lots of psalms ask God to shine a light upon our paths, to guide our steps, to teach us what is right.
For also followers of Jesus—remember that the Greek word we translate as “disciple” in the New Testament really means “student” at its most basic linguistic level—lifelong learning of God’s ways (as perfected humanly in Christ Jesus) is vital. It’s basic. But let’s also be honest: most of what we need to know to be Christ-like we already know and learned a long time ago. We really do more often need to be reminded of that. Frankly, some of it is common sense, other parts of it are common decency, and still other parts are so morally basic that they are reflected in the laws of almost every civilized nation all down through history.
Even as children we know more than we sometimes want to admit. With some—but rare—exceptions, very few children who get caught having done something wrong are being honest when they claim, “I didn’t know that was naughty to do!!!” Grown-ups are not much better. When a man tells his wife that he really didn’t know that having a couple drinks with another woman at a bar followed by his inviting her to chat more in his hotel room would lead to his committing adultery . . . well, he’s not likely telling the truth of what he knows deep in his heart and soul. We often know what is right. We don’t need to be taught. Just reminded. Again: we need to remind ourselves as often as not.
Or to make this more spiritual and less psychological: we need to let the Holy Spirit remind us. We need to be attentive to the Spirit’s voice in our hearts as the Spirit guides our feet, helps us make better decisions, and shows us—albeit not for the first time but perhaps the ten-thousandth time—the path on which God wishes to guide our feet. And listening to that Spirit is by no means automatic. If only it were.
Instead this is a matter of regular prayer. Maybe it’s a matter also of praying the psalms, like Psalm 25. We want to find ways regularly to attune our spiritual hearing to the Spirit’s voice, to let the Spirit set our internal moral compass for us. Yes, as also disciples we should desire to be lifelong learners but as often as not, we need to be lifelong receivers of the Spirit’s prompting us to do what we already know is right.
But another word needs to be said before this sermon starter concludes: life does contain a lot of morally gray zones where it is genuinely difficult to know what to do. Years ago the WWJD bracelet and t-shirt fad—What Would Jesus Do?—made it seem as if so long as you had a bracelet on your wrist to remind yourself to ask yourself what Jesus would do in any given situation, then you’d know right away. But it’s not always quite that easy to know what Jesus would do or what Christ through the Spirit would have us to do or to say. It’s not a weak Christian who admits to being stumped somewhat often as to how to navigate certain waters but a strong and wise one who does so.
In that case the words of Psalm 25 become even more vital as we really do need to be instructed and not just reminded. The Spirit no doubt has a hundred good ways to get through to us with answers to such quandaries and questions, though not all are easy to receive or hear and sometimes answers can be a long time coming, too. Just because we cannot tell quickly what we ought to do is no reason not to keep on asking for the instruction.
Verse 9 notes that it is the humble person who receives God’s instruction the best. Humility is the opposite of pride, of thinking we can make a go of everything totally on our own all the time. And humility is the beginning of wisdom and so is the opposite of also folly. Because as it is often said: Fools are often in error but never in doubt. That’s because they cannot be taught. Wise are those believers who look to God’s instruction—and yes, to the Spirit’s incessant reminding of us—every day as part of a faithful life lived to the glory of God.
In this time of Lenten repentance, our every confession of sin immediately translates into a more ardent desire to live into the words of something like Psalm 25, asking God to guide us so that next time, we’ll do what we already know to be the right thing.
Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our 2021 Lent and Easter page.
Sometimes it seems that for all the appeal it has on the surface—and for all the things about it that really are correct—the “What Would Jesus Do?” mantra needs almost as often as not to be replaced with—or at least supplemented by—another question: What Would Jesus NOT Do? What would Jesus NOT say? It sometimes feels like a lot of ugly things that also Christians say and do—sometimes to even fellow Christians on Facebook much less to people who do not share the Christian faith—would be avoided if we wondered what Jesus would not do or say.
Jesus would not fire off an email in anger. He would not sneer at another person on Facebook in sarcasm over even some post Jesus himself disagreed with. Jesus would not assign libelous or mean-spirited labels to people of different political viewpoints on certain hot button issues of the day. None of that is to say Jesus would be silent or would fail to address anything he deemed important. But how would he do it? A lot of the time the Gospel indicates he would most assuredly not do it the way too many of us do.
And let’s be honest: even if it is genuinely not always easy to answer the question “What Would Jesus Do?”, if we eliminated up front all the things Jesus would NOT do, our lives and the world in general would be a much better place.
1 Peter 3:18-22
Author: Doug Bratt
It seems as though Peter nearly always returns to the cross. He constantly reminds readers that willingness to suffer for Jesus’ sake is based on the wonder of Christ’s willingness to suffer death on the cross for our sakes. So as the Church enters the season of Lent, it’s important to study I Peter 3. Here, after all, the apostle reminds Jesus’ followers that the suffering Christ is also the victorious Christ.
In this week’s Epistolary Lesson Peter reminds readers that the Spirit made the Christ who suffered and died on the cross alive again. This risen Jesus has ascended into heaven and is now at God’s right hand. He is the victor over sin, Satan and death.
Jesus’ adopted siblings share in that victory, by God’s grace. After all, the Spirit who made Christ alive again has also made us alive. He has given Christians victory over sin and Satan by raising us to an obedient life. However, Christ’s Spirit has also given us victory over death because his resurrection guarantees that he will someday resurrect us to eternal life in his glorious presence.
In verse 18 the apostle insists Christ’s saving work was complete, writing “Christ died for sins once for all.” In fact, if Jesus’ sacrifice weren’t somehow complete and final, he’d have to offer it again, like people repeatedly offered Old Testament sacrifices. He offered the complete and final sacrifice not of animals’ blood, but of his own.
Christ let the Romans sacrifice him, Peter reminds his readers in verse 18, to fully pay the price for the “sins” of God’s people. He who lived perfectly died in the place of God’s beloved but imperfect adopted children. Christ absorbed the full weight of God’s eternal wrath against all of the sins of all of God’s people.
Thankfully, however, Christ didn’t stay dead. The Spirit, says Peter in verse 18, “made him alive.” On the first Easter morning, the resurrected Jesus walked out of his tomb. Christ did all of this, we also read in verse 18, “to bring us close to God.”
By nature, both this Lesson’s proclaimers and hearers are God’s enemies who are spiritually distant from the Lord. We’re naturally prodigal children who repeatedly and persistently dash off to the spiritual far country, rebelling against and separating ourselves from God.
Now, however, Christ has graciously brought us near to God. Because he sacrificed himself on the cross, his adopted siblings dare to approach the God who has claimed us as God’s own in fellowship and worship. For Jesus’ sake, we even dare to call our heavenly Father by the intimate term, “daddy.”
In this context Peter writes the highly mysterious words about Christ’s preaching to the spirits in prison. While his original audience probably understood what this means, we have a far harder time doing so.
To try to help our hearers understand this passage that seems so strange to us, its proclaimers must try to answer a couple of questions. First, when did Christ preach to the spirits in prison? Was it before his life on earth or after his death, but somehow before his resurrection? Or did Christ preach to the spirits in prison after his resurrection?
The interpretive key may be found in what Peter refers to in verse 18 as Christ being “made alive by the Spirit.” He doesn’t seem to mean that while Christ’s body lay dead in the tomb, his alive Spirit somehow preached to the disobedient. For then Peter wouldn’t be able teach that the Spirit made Christ alive.
What Peter may mean is that the Spirit raised Christ to a new kind of existence that was no longer limited by time and space. After his resurrection, after all, Christ mysteriously appeared and disappeared in ways that showed that his resurrected body was now a spiritual rather than physical body.
So might Peter be saying that Christ appeared to the spirits in prison after his resurrection but before he appeared to the women at the tomb? That he somehow spent those hours proclaiming the gospel to the spirits of sinful people who have died?
Scripture also allows us to interpret this to mean that Christ, as the second Person of the Trinity, preached through Noah. That Noah’s actions proclaimed the gospel to a world that was already dying before God flooded it.
A bigger question is, “to whom did Christ preach?” Taken by itself, verse 19 might answer the “fallen angels.” However, it’s hard to describe fallen angels as those who “disobeyed long ago . . . in the time of Noah.”
So it may be more likely that Peter means that the resurrected Christ’s Spirit proclaimed his resurrection victory and their doom to those who sinned during Noah’s generation. Those sinners, who are now in hell’s “prison,” are those who were disobedient when Christ’s Spirit preached to them through Noah.
Yet however we understand this difficult passage, we recognize that it’s part of Peter’s reassurance of Christians who are suffering for Jesus’ sake. He’s insisting that Christ has won the victory over Satan, sin and death by his resurrection’s power.
So while the devil may still stalk Jesus’ followers like a roaring lion stalking a wounded gazelle, he can’t destroy us. After all, the devil and his human henchmen stalked God’s people during the time before the flood. But the favor Noah found before God shows that they couldn’t completely overcome God’s dearly beloved people.
We sometimes think things in our world are worse now than they’ve ever been. Fewer and fewer of our co-workers, neighbors and even family members seem to care about God. Morality seems to be at an all-time low. Americans in particular seem more divided than at any time since perhaps the Civil War.
Yet the power of evil was at least as great in Noah’s time as it is now. After all, Genesis 6:5 reports that “the Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of his heart was only evil all the time.” It’s a grim picture of radical and universal willful disobedience.
What’s more, the number of God’s people sometimes seems to have been proportionately even tinier in Noah’s time than it is now. After all, Genesis 6:9 reports that “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time.” While it also mentions Noah’s sons, it says nothing about even their righteousness.
Yet even in Noah’s time, God was in full control. God withheld God’s judgment, much as God does now, to give people time to receive God’s grace with their obedient faith. Yet God’s judgment did come in God’s judging flood from which rescued only righteous Noah and his family.
So those today who reject Christ and his gospel still endanger themselves of the judgment that will come when Christ returns. In our text, however, Peter reminds us that those who receive God’s grace with their faith are saved from that judgment. God graciously gives us full and final salvation.
God guarantees that full and final salvation through the “baptism” to which Peter refers in verse 21. Of course, the apostle can’t be here referring to the sacrament of “baptism” that the church offers. After all, the water with which pastors baptize doesn’t itself save us. Only “Jesus Christ’s blood and the Holy Spirit cleanse us from all sins,” as Reformed Christians confess in the Heidelberg Catechisms.
So the “baptism that now saves” us to which Peter refers in verse 21 is this cleansing from our sins by Jesus’ blood and the Holy Spirit. Christ’s blood and Spirit alone wash away sins. Yet God uses this water of baptism to remind God’s adopted sons and daughters that the spiritual washing away of our sins is as real as physical washing with water.
This baptism by Christ’s blood and Spirit is what verse 21 calls “the pledge of a good conscience toward God.” This seems to refer to Christians’ response to our baptism in Christ’s blood. For those whom Christ’s Spirit has baptized pledge a life of “good conscience,” of faithful obedience to the God who in Christ saved us.
In that “pledge” God’s dearly beloved people agree with God’s judgment on sin and on our own sinful nature. We also acknowledge that to turn back from that assent toward persistent disobedience would bring on ourselves God’s just judgment. For Christ’s has died for our sins, once for all, to bring us not to disobedience, but “to God.”
Christ is now “at God’s right hand,” ruling over all of God’s creation. The angels, authorities and powers of which verse 22 speaks must submit, though they often do so involuntarily, to Christ. That means that they must finally do God’s will, whether they really wish to or not.
The submission Christians offer to King Jesus is quite different. We willingly and joyfully submit to the One who died for our sins. After all, we see our faithful and submissive obedience as simply part of our thanks to God for his amazing grace and wonderful salvation.
However, all of creation, including the angels, authorities and powers, will someday have to fully recognize Jesus’ authority. So Jesus’ adopted siblings don’t have to be afraid. We belong, after all, in body and in soul, in life and in death, to the victorious Lord of glory.
In a 2001 public lecture at the Beeson Divinity School, Ralph Wood described Karl Barth’s concept of godliness. My colleague Neal Plantinga summarizes the lecture’s content this way: “Wood … suggests American Evangelicals take heed. Godlessness for Barth is refusing to be scandalized by the gospel.
“Trying to fit the gospel on a bumper sticker or a hallmark card. In fact the gospel is always strange, other, scandalous. It is never obvious. Regarding God as the champ of pop piety. Speaking of God by speaking of man in a loud voice. Believing that we have a direct and unmediated relation to God. Having no need of Israel or of Jesus.
“Where do we find such Godlessness? In fundamentalist/evangelical churches, where Jesus is a body-builder who carries the sins of the world. “His blood’s for you” [This Bud’s for you]. Cross with a note on it: ‘Back Soon.’ Puppets singing, ‘I found my thrill on Golgotha Hill.’
“In A Far Glory, Peter Berger tells us that these things reveal a religion in which nothing extraordinary is going on, in which nobody is falling to their knees. And we applaud pop singers of hymns that are prayers – as if their audience were not God.”
Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might take some time to explore the contrast between its wonder of the cross and this popular godlessness. It’s, frankly, hard to even put what Woods said into the same Sermon Starter as Peter’s stirring words about Jesus’ magnificent sacrifice.