February 16, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions:
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!
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: Scott Hoezee
As “Bible Stories” go, the story about Noah’s Ark has few peers. Children love this story. Kids enjoy singing all those “fun” songs about the arky-arky. They have a good time playing with the various toys and puzzles that tie in with Noah’s ark. My in-laws, for instance, once had a lovely ark made out of wood with hand-crafted little animals and people. When my kids were younger, they loved to play with that ark. And of course, the sight of a rainbow still reminds children and all of us of this story.
Scholars tell us that just about every ancient culture told some form or another of a flood story. The biblical story in Genesis is about the only such tale that has survived into the modern world such that even today it is fair to say that most people, whether they are particularly religious or not, know the broad outlines of this story. Images of an ark stuffed with animals even crops up now and again in advertisements for insurance companies and the like. And whenever we endure a rainy stretch of days, some people invariably make jokes about “building an ark”.
Given how well-loved this story is, I would probably become quite unpopular if I suggested that most of that misses the main point of this story. But I wasn’t ordained to be popular so I’ll say it: most of that misses the main point of this story! The narrative details about the ark, the animals, the raven, and the rainbow are all important, of course, but in our attention to those elements of the story, we miss the central part of the tale: the heart of God. This story is first and last about what happens inside God’s heart.
It’s about Noah and his family, too, of course, but not centrally. Did you ever notice that Noah never says a single word? Only at the very end of chapter 9 does Noah open his mouth. But otherwise throughout the whole course of the story, Noah doesn’t utter a peep, nor are we given even cursory glimpses into Noah’s thoughts or what may have been going on inside his heart.
Yet over and over again we do get a rare but intimate look into what is happening inside God’s heart. God talks quite a bit in this story. More than that, God’s thought process is described in a quite detailed way. Furthermore, what we see happening inside God’s heart is the core of the whole story. Because listen: God changes. God decides to follow a different path after the flood waters dry up. He says that he will never again send a flood like this one.
Why not? Is the reason because the flood cleansed the earth of all sin? Alas, the answer to that question is “No.” If we need proof that some things have not changed, the very end of Genesis 9 grimly provides it for us. Because the last image we get is of a naked Noah sleeping in his tent on account of his having drunk too much wine. When his son, Ham, tries to help by enlisting the aid of Shem and Japheth, things get ugly fast. At the end of Genesis 9, for the first time, Noah opens his mouth to say something. And guess what: the first thing he says is a curse on his own son! Commentators have scrambled for millennia to figure out what Ham did wrong. Most have concluded that he should have quietly covered up Noah himself and not gossiped about it to his brothers. That may be the case, but Noah’s response seems a bit harsh even so.
The point, however, is that this concluding vignette is almost certainly included to show that things had not changed that much after the flood. Humans were still prone to sin. Families still fell apart. Noah was a good and righteous man whose obedience throughout Genesis 6-9 stands in stark contrast to the evil of the larger world. But he wasn’t perfect, and neither was his family. Sin and evil and temptation would continue after the flood even as they did before.
But we knew that even before end of Genesis 9. God admitted as much in chapter 8:21 when he promised that he would never again send such a flood because one thing had not changed: “every inclination of [mankind’s] heart is evil from childhood.” God himself knew that what was wrong with humanity at a very basic level was still there. So humanity was not so different after the flood. The creation itself was not particularly cleansed of anything after the flood. So what changed? God did.
Indeed, this change of divine heart is nowhere more dramatically evident than in that verse from Genesis 8:2. Because turn back two chapters to Genesis 6:5 and notice that the reason for the flood is stated there: “God saw . . . that every inclination of the thoughts of [mankind’s] heart was only evil all the time.” In the original Hebrew as in the English translation, 6:5 and 8:21 are nearly identical. The inclination of the human heart is evil, from childhood on up. That was true in chapter 6. It was true in chapter 8. The odd thing, however, is that in Genesis 6 this is the reason why God sent the flood yet in Genesis 8 this is the reason God will never send a flood again! But how can our sinful weakness be both the reason for the original flood and the reason there will never again be another flood?
By way of analogy, suppose you heard me tell my teenage daughter on a Thursday evening, “You are grounded this weekend because you always talk back to me!” And so suppose my daughter was grounded, having to skip the Friday night football game and her friends’ sleepover party on Saturday. But then imagine how confused you’d be if on the following Monday you heard me say to my daughter, “Never again will I ground you because I know you will keep on talking back to me anyway.” It’s really not an exaggeration to suggest that this is pretty much what God says in Genesis 6 and 8. God sees the same problem in chapter 8 that he saw in chapter 6. But he reacts differently.
In Genesis 9 when God makes his covenant with Noah and with all the other creatures, he does not say, “I will never again send a flood because I know you have all learned your lesson. Don’t get me riled up, don’t get my divine dander up or else! But since you know that now, I know you will be good people from here on out and so never again will I have any reason to even think about a punishing flood.” No, that’s not what God says. He knows full well they are not going to be perfect people but even so he says he won’t react to this with a flood ever again.
Why not? Maybe the answer has to do with God’s overall attitude in these chapters. Go back with me again to Genesis 6 and note with me what was going on inside of God before he let loose the flood waters. What do we see when the text lifts the lid on God’s heart so that we can peer inside? Wrath? Fury? No, hurt. You can read all four of the Genesis chapters that contain the flood narrative and not once will you find the words “anger,” “wrath,” or “fury.”
God is said to be greatly grieved. God is shown to have the biggest broken heart of all times. He is a wounded parent lamenting a wayward child. Have you ever talked with parents whose son or daughter is rebellious? Most of the time what you detect in such parents is not anger but deep, deep pain and heartache. If parents genuinely love their children, then the response to waywardness is more often tears than tirades. From the outside looking in, sometimes other people speak the language of anger and retribution. Have you ever found yourself saying to someone, “Man, if that were my kid, I’d let him have it!” Yes, but it’s not your kid, and if it were, you’d probably dissolve into tears not lash out in anger.
The creation is not going God’s way in Genesis 6. And it hurts God. These chapters speak of holy sadness, not divine wrath. Tragedy and pathos fill these chapters. So does an unspeakable amount of death. We may have grown up liking the image of all those animals tucked safely into the ark, but there’s a reason no children’s storybook has ever shown dead animals and dead people floating all over the place on the floodwaters. I myself don’t know what to make of that part of the story. Seeing God in the light of grief over against seeing God as a ruthless dispenser of divine fury helps to soften things quite a bit, but it does not remove the scandal of the cataclysm depicted here. This is finally a hard story to grasp.
At the very least we have to see it as yet another indication of how terribly serious human sin and evil are. They bring death. Sin and evil unmake creation. Whatever else we may make of the carnage of this story, it at least means this much: sin is desperately deadly. Sin cannot be wished away. It cannot be waved away. It cannot be chalked up as “no big deal” or something that God can just forget about.
That’s why the flood narrative situates God between grief and grace. Both grief and grace are responses to human sin but at the end, grace speaks the last, best word. God is not going to stop being offended and grieved by sin, of course. But from now on, God says in chapters 8 & 9, grace is going to lead the way. God is going to find a way to see our sin yet without destroying us in that sin. God will find a way, in other words, to forgive. God will find a way, to quote the New Testament, to bring about a new truth: “While we were yet sinners, God loved us and saved us.”
That salvation is still going to involve death, though: it’s just that in the biblical long run the death will be taken up by God himself. These chapters from the very first part of the Bible are like a big red arrow pointing us straight to the cross of Jesus Christ our Lord. Because the cross is ultimately the place where all the grief and grace of God meet in a startling way one dark Friday afternoon on a hill far away.
Grief and grace. Both are responses to our sin, but it is grace that will lead the way in the Bible once Genesis 9 is finished. In a way it was a mini-outburst of grace that saved Noah even before Genesis 8-9. God provided an ark to float on the same waters that brought death to others. Ever since God has been keeping his people safe through perilous waters: Moses in his little reed basket on the Nile River, the Israelites through the Red Sea and then the Jordan River, Jesus through the waters of the Jordan in his own baptism, and ultimately all of us through the waters of our baptisms.
That’s why in a real way the Church is the ark now, bobbing around on this world’s dangerous seas. As you know from your own experience, a common question people ask about this story is, “Do you think this ever really happened?” A good answer is to tell people, “It’s still happening! The storm surge of sin still rises and threatens life.” Most days many people manage to miss seeing those dangerous flood waters all around us.
Once in a while, however, the water rises so quickly that no one can miss it, as has been happening in the midst of the economic crisis that we have been enduring of late. As C.S. Lewis once observed, in times of peace and prosperity, only the truly wise can see that all of human life is lived on the edge of a cliff. But in hard times of war and recession, everyone sees this truth. And most everyone is seeing it right now. When the waters rise, people get really interested in arks of safety and reassurance.
Even though some folks mostly think they can do without an ark, they somehow know where to find it when the waters get rough and deep. It can be a little lonely in the ark sometimes. The prayers we utter in church, the work we try to do in Christ’s name, the vocabulary of gospel hope we nurture and keep alive and proclaim: most of that goes unnoticed much of the time, and it is surely not something for which people seem terribly grateful most days.
If you run into a non-believer on the average Monday morning, he probably won’t thank you for your having gone to church the day before to keep the gospel message of hope and grace alive. Most of the time people are quite content to drive past our churches, not come into them. But those of us who understand the weightiness of God’s grief but also the gravity of God’s grace know that this old world needs the ark of the Church. We need the Church not just for ourselves but for the whole creation–for all those creatures with whom God made his remarkable covenant.
Most Bibles label Genesis 9 something like, “God’s Covenant with Noah.” But look again: it’s not just with Noah but with sea lions and monkeys, with sunflowers and giraffes, too. Salvation has something to do with not just us humans but with all God’s creatures. All will be saved by the grace of God. This world needs the hope we in the church proclaim as God graciously uses us to keep his story alive. And our broken-down, fractured world needs that old, old story.
Years ago I read an article by Princeton Seminary professor Daniel Migliore. Dr. Migliore and his wife, Margaret, do a lot of work with inner-city kids in Trenton, New Jersey. One day in re-telling the Noah story to some of the children of Trenton, Professor Migliore asked the children’s sermon-like question, “Now then, boys and girls, where do you see rainbows?” “In the street!” several replied. Migliore thought they misunderstood the question so he asked them again. “No, where do you see rainbows?” Once again several children replied, “In the street!” Upon further checking, he discovered the truth: about the only place those kids, consigned to asphalt jungles and high-rise tenements, had seen a rainbow was in street puddles that had become slicked with oil from a car with a leaky engine. Their rainbows were these greasy and grimy ones in the burned-over streets and alleys of their urban world.
There’s something sad about that–a cause, you might say, for grief. But there’s maybe something hopeful there, too–an occasion, you might say, for grace. After all, where else do such children need to see the sign of God’s hope than smack in the middle of the world they call home? They don’t need a rainbow soaring over the Rocky Mountains, they need one in the greasy puddles of their everyday lives.
But that’s true for all people. We need grace in the everyday, grace where we are, grace in the midst of our pain. We need to know again and again that the Son of God died in our place so as to open up a fountain of grace that will never run dry, a good floodtide, a flood that saves. Now as much as ever, the world needs the gospel’s rainbow of hope. We, too, grieve over how things go in this world. But even our grieving is done with the knowledge of God’s overarching grace. It’s our privilege as God’s people to let that grace in us shine forth from us, displaying that rainbow of grace so that more and more may be touched by its holy radiance. Amen.
Author: Doug Bratt
Notes and Observations
The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has suggested one helpful approach to preaching and teaching the psalms is to ask what an “anti-psalm” might look like. What, in other words, might be the opposite tone of that expressed by a particular psalm, whether it expresses trust, praise, complaint or something else?
So what might an “anti-Psalm 25” sound like? Might the poet say something like, “I’m on my own in this mess. I have to somehow dig myself out of this trouble. Since I can’t count on anyone else for help, there’s no point in paying any attention to God either. God doesn’t care anyway”?
Such an “anti-Psalm 25,” with its deep resonance within North American culture, might make a helpful entrance into a study of the actual Psalm 25. After all, this psalm alternates between pleas for help and expressions of confidence in God. Of course, this alternation may make it difficult to preach and teach any kind of development or movement within it. Yet its structure reflects the shape of much of human life. After all, because God’s children are confident in God’s good purposes and plans, we dare to plead for God’s help. And when God graciously gives that help, the Spirit fuels our confidence in God’s loving ways.
On top of that, daily life often seems to alternate between reasons for such pleas for help and reasons for expressions of confidence in God’s loving care. So those who preach and teach this psalm may want to give hearers an example of a day and its developments that move back and forth between pleas for help and expressions of confidence. Or they may want to invite hearers to reflect on such a day in their own recent past.
Psalm 25’s author completely depends on the Lord. So we might think of her as a baby bird stretching her hungry mouth toward a feeding mother, a little child pleading for a grandparent’s help or a servant standing at his boss’s pay window. The psalmist, after all, recognizes that only God can give her the help she desperately needs.
Christians are familiar with pleas for such provision. We offer them for things like our daily bread, health and strength, safe travels and protection. We beg God to bless not only ourselves, but also our families, friends, neighbors, co-workers, leaders, various needy people and even enemies. We plead with God to bless our nations and world – all because we recognize that we depend on God for every good thing.
As the psalmist professes in verse 2, “No one whose hope is in [the Lord] will ever be put to shame, but they will be put to shame who are treacherous without excuse.” The psalmist can plead for God’s help because he’s confident that God cares for God’s children. He may even have past experiences of God’s upholding in mind as he recites this psalm. It’s as if he says, says James Mayes, “In the midst of all the troubles of life, I place my hope in you, and you alone, O Lord.”
Yet Psalm 25 stretches our common conception of dependence. We tend to focus on our dependence on and confidence in God to make things better. Yet in verse 1 the psalmist intimates that we completely depend on God for guidance as well. After all, in commenting on the poet’s prayer, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul,” Karl Jacobson notes that the psalms always at least loosely link such “lifting” to the need for teaching and guidance.
So those who preach and teach Psalm 25 may challenge hearers to ask themselves how often they plead for God to lead them. Do we realize just how much we depend on God not just for some kind of deliverance, but also for God’s guidance? We sometimes ask God to guide us as we make hard decisions about family members, friends and jobs. Yet how often do we simply ask God to guide us into faithful daily lives of love, obedience and mercy?
Such pleas for leading certainly pack Psalm 25. “Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths,” the psalmist begs in verse 4. “Guide me in your truth and teach me,” he prays in verse 5. In verses 8 and 9 the psalmist goes on to profess that the Lord “instructs sinners in his ways. He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.”
Such “guidance” imagery is familiar to some climbers and hikers. Psalm 25’s God is like a guide who helps lead novices through unfamiliar territory or up a treacherous mountain. It suggests that Christians are completely dependent on God because we’re lost without God’s loving and expert guidance.
Yet verses 4 and 5 seem to add another dimension to God’s guidance. There the psalmist admits he needs to learn God’s way. To use the guide/hiker imagery, he realizes that he’ll never get to the end of the trail or top of the mountain unless his guide shows him how to get there. However, the psalmist also realizes that he won’t arrive at his destination unless his guide also actively leads him there. It’s as if he knows that he needs God the guide not only to show him the trail map, but also to lead him along that trail.
The psalmist sees God’s instruction as part of God’s saving work. God graciously frees God’s children from slavery to sin, Satan and death. But how will we use that freedom? The psalmist recognizes that we can only live in true freedom if God shows us how to live in the ways for which God creates us.
Yet the psalmist isn’t finished when she professes her dependence on God for deliverance and guidance. She goes on to publicly recognize how much she depends on God to both remember and forget. “Remember, O Lord, your great mercy and love,” she prays in verses 6 and 7. “Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your great love remember me.”
So it’s almost as if as she reflects on her need for God’s teaching and guiding, the psalmist remembers that she hasn’t always followed those ways. As a result, she basically begs God to forget her rebelliousness. However, the psalmist also pleads with God to remember God’s great love and mercy, as well as the psalmist herself. So she pleads for God to exercise what we might call selective memory. After all, even as we beg and depend on God to forget our rebelliousness, we also plead with and rely on God to remember God’s loving care for us.
This God on whom we so completely depend is according to verse 8, “Good and upright.” God is, in other words, characterized by compassion and mercy. All of the ways of this good and upright God are, according to verse 10, “loving and faithful for those who keep the demands of the covenant.” In fact, God is so very good that God instructs not just God’s dependent sons and daughters, but also those who refuse to recognize their dependence, who rebel against God’s good and perfect ways (10).
Psalm 25 is part of the Revised Common Lectionary’s readings for the first Sunday in Lent. The other readings focus largely on baptism. In that context, Jacobson suggests that Psalm 25 addresses both the benefit and importance of the covenant God makes with those who are baptized. It models an attitude and approach to life for those who are baptized.
The July, 1986 Life magazine dubbed the stretch of US Route 50 that crosses the center of Nevada “The Loneliest Road in America.” That particular section of Route 50 spans mostly desolate terrain that’s pockmarked by several large valleys and basins. Life called it lonely because there are long distances between the few small towns on the road and relatively low numbers of people travel on it.
Psalm 25 talks a great deal about God’s “ways” and “paths.” Yet those who seek to travel in faith along those ways sometimes feel like they’re the loneliest highways, not just in America, but also in the whole world. Those who wish to let God teach them about and guide them along God’s ways may feel as though no one is traveling in obedience with them.
Yet those who travel US Route 50 through Nevada from east to west end their lonely journey alongside one of North America’s most dazzling natural wonders, Lake Tahoe. There’s a metaphor that will, with the Holy Spirit’s help, preach and teach.
1 Peter 3:18-22
Author: Stan Mast
Comments, Observations, and Questions
As I move through the lectionary year again and again, I often think that someone needs to revise the Revised Common Lectionary because it can be so repetitive. Take this text as case in point. Just 10 months ago, this was the text for the Fifth Sunday of the Easter season. (You can read my previous comments on this text on this “Center for Excellence in Preaching” website posting for May 19, 2014.) Now it is the text for the first Sunday of Lent. Surely there are enough texts in the Bible related to these magnificent festivals that we don’t need to return to the same ones again and again. That’s what the curmudgeonly preacher in me says.
But then I look at this text not through my bright Easter eyes, but through my tearful Lenten eyes, and I see a very different message. Such in the richness of God’s unchangeable Word and the complexity of a swiftly changing world. It is still a text that speaks to suffering, unjust suffering, suffering that comes upon God’s people not only in spite of their righteousness, but precisely because of their righteousness. Verse 14 says, “even if you should suffer for what is right,” and verse 17 continues, “It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” Some scholars want to apply Peter’s words to any unjust human suffering, but Peter’s words of comfort to those who suffer are so clearly Christian that he must be addressing the problem of the incipient persecution of the church. Perhaps that persecution was a response not to the preaching of the Gospel, as some claim, but rather to the lifestyle of ordinary Christians. They suffered not for their testimony, but for the way they lived, for “doing good,” like taking care of orphans and widows or not participating in idol feasts. Whatever the case, these were Christians who suffered not merely as human beings, but specifically as Christians.
When I wrote on this text 10 months ago, I said that most Christians don’t experience such persecution today, except when they are wounded by the attacks of militant atheists like Richard Dawkins. Looking back on those comments, I can’t imagine where my head was, or where my eyes were looking. Or maybe it’s just that things have gotten that much worse for Christians around the world in the last ten months. How could I have missed the vicious persecution of Middle Eastern Christians by the murderous hordes of ISIS, or the kidnapping and forced conversions of all those girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria? As I began to study this text, the seminary at which I work was holding a service of prayer and lament because of the slaughter of more than 130 children by the Taliban in Pakistan. The service was organized and led by one of our students, a Pakistani pastor who was beaten and threatened and chased from his country by Muslim thugs. According to a recent Pew Forum study, there is persecution of Christians in 131 of the 193 countries in the world. That’s almost 70%.
Much of the persecution mentioned above is inflicted by Islamist extremists. Most Muslims say they abhor such violence, claiming that it doesn’t represent Islam at all. It is, they say, a hateful twisting of a peaceful religion for the sake of political imperialism and personal revenge. I have Christian friends who don’t buy that, who claim that Islam is historically and essentially a religion of violence, and who are convinced that all Muslims hate America. So they hate all Muslims because of the violence done to Christians in the name of Allah.
In our text, Peter counsels a very different response to persecution. Rather than focusing on your persecutors and being overwhelmed by fear and hatred, keep your eyes on Christ. Immediately after saying, “It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil,” Peter gives the reason. “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” Peter isn’t merely offering Jesus as an example of how we should endure unjust suffering, though, of course, Jesus is the perfect example. More than that, Peter is pointing to a greater and higher reality than our suffering, namely, the reality of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. As we work our way through the tangled jungle of this famously difficult text (see my previous comments about that difficulty in the May 19 piece), we need to keep our eyes on those three aspects of the work of Christ.
So, first Peter points to Christ’s death. His words are so familiar that it is easy to glide right over them and not feel the impact they should have on suffering Christians. As I reflected on them, I heard another news report about violence that made the good news about Christ’s death fresh and shocking and comforting again. A self-proclaimed Muslim cleric took 17 hostages in an Australian city on December 16, 2014. A long standoff ensued, as he made demands and police tried to negotiate. But then a shot was fired and the police moved in. They found two hostages and the terrorist dead. Survivors told stories about the heroism of the two slain hostages. One had tried to wrest the gun from the terrorist and was shot in the scuffle, while the other victim had shielded a pregnant friend when the killer started shooting. The newsperson reporting on the story said, “They gave their lives that others might live.”
All Christians heard an echo of the gospel in those words, but there are vast differences between their tragic deaths and Christ’s death. First, they were held hostage unwillingly, while Christ freely chose to be in a situation where he knew he would be killed. Second, their deaths were accidental, random acts of violence, while Christ died on purpose, for sins. Third, while their deaths were heroic acts intended to save others, Christ’s death was “once for all,” meaning that it had a unique value. It was absolutely sufficient for the sins of the human race. Fourth, though they were relatively innocent, at least compared to their murderer, those Australians were still sinners like the rest of humanity. Christ was utterly without sin. He was completely just, and he gave his life for the unjust. Christ didn’t take a bullet for a fellow hostage; he took a bullet for the terrorist. The perfectly innocent one died for the ungodly. And fifth, while those heroic hostages gave their lives so that others could live another day, Jesus gave his life so that we could live forever. Or as Peter put it, he died “to bring you/us to God.”
Those last words are a unique way to summarize the purpose/result of Christ’s death. Peter doesn’t say, Jesus died that “we might live,” or that “our sins might be forgiven,” or that “we might go to heaven,” all of which are biblically true. Rather, he looks back to Eden, where the human race was sent out of the garden and out of the presence of the Lord. He recalls that all humans are “without hope and without God in the world,” as Paul put it in Ephesians 2. But now, because of Christ’s death, sinners can come back to God and live in God’s presence. No matter what happens to us, even unjust suffering, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Because he died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, we have been brought back to God, even if we now live in a world that treats us terribly.
The death of Christ is the heart of Lent, but Peter doesn’t stop with the cross as he comforts suffering Christians. “He was put to death in the body, but made alive by the Spirit.” Clearly, Peter is talking about Christ’s resurrection here, but that’s just about all that’s clear in what follows in verses 19-21. (Again, I refer to my previous piece on May 19 for a fuller treatment of the ferocious difficulty of these verses.) The trouble starts with the phrase “by the Spirit.” That’s how the NIV translates the Greek, but there is good evidence that it really means “in the spirit.” It’s not a reference to the agency of the Holy Spirit in Christ’s resurrection; it’s a reference to his own spirit. Though he was physically dead on that cross and in the grave, he was alive in his spirit. That thought ushers us into the dense forest of the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures in one person, though that probably isn’t what Peter was thinking about.
Peter was pointing to the next words that have produced multiple theological interpretations. He was made alive in the spirit “in which (not “through whom”) he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built….” Though I really like the idea of the “harrowing of hell,” which sees Jesus visiting the realm of the dead, whether it’s called Hades, or Limbo, or hell itself, and freeing the spirits of those who have been held captive there for centuries (he “rifled Satan’s fold,” as a Benjamin Britten carol puts it), I think that the context points us in a different direction—not down, but up.
This interpretation is not mine; it is most clearly stated by J.N.D Kelly in his commentary on I Peter. He points out that “spirits” is never used of human beings in the New Testament; it is always a reference to actual spirits, to angels and demons, or, as Peter puts it in verse 22, “angels, authorities and powers.” The resurrected Christ went to the evil spirits who have been imprisoned in their rebellion for eons and announced to them that their power has finally been broken and their doom is sure. “One little word has felled them.”
What about “the days of Noah?” Kelly points out that just before the story of the flood in Genesis 6 we find the curious account of “the sons of God” marrying the daughters of men and producing a race of giants. Were these angels or evil spirits in the bodies of men? It’s all pretty murky, but it does tie “spirits” to Noah. Those disobedient spirits were at work even in the days of Noah, so that humans were unimaginably wicked and violent. But Christ has now conquered them, and they know it, because he “preached to them.” This is another piece of Good News for suffering Christians. Not only did Christ bring us to God by his death, but also Christ by his resurrection freed us from the violent spirits who work behind the scenes and through the human agents who persecute Christians.
In fact, says Peter in verse 22, all of those spirits are now under Jesus’ feet. After his resurrection, Jesus ascended “into heaven and is at God’s right hand—angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.” Here Peter echoes Paul in Ephesians 1:20-22 and Colossians 2:15. Rather than looking around at the humans who are treating them terribly, these first century Asian Christians and Christians of all times and places should look up at the ascended Christ who rules all things, including the inhuman spirits behind the persecution. Christ has died. Christ had risen. Christ has ascended to the throne at the center of it all. That is Peter’s response to unjust suffering.
So, he says, don’t be afraid (verse 14). And don’t hate. Rather, be confident and assured. You are part of Christ’s victory. You are saved. Your baptism is the visible proof of that. Peter’s words about baptism have caused fierce debate. In what sense does baptism save us? Catholics and Lutherans will disagree with Baptists and with each other. As a Reformed Christian, I think that Peter means that our baptism is a visible sign and seal of our salvation. It doesn’t effect that salvation; it assures us that salvation is only through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, which we appropriate through faith. When you were baptized, says Peter, you pledged to live in this world in a way that would give you a clean conscience. Now, even though you are suffering unjustly, remember your baptism into Christ’s victory and live accordingly.
As Peter wrote these complicated words, I wonder if he was remembering those simple words Jesus spoke to his disciples in that upper room just before they left for the cross. “In the world you will have tribulations, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
How many times have we heard the phrase, “This changes everything?” I recall a commercial for Schlotzsky’s Deli, extolling the virtues of their “hand carved” sandwiches. Having tasted one of those sandwiches, one convinced customer solemnly intones, “This changes everything.” And he begins to hand carve literally everything, from frozen orange juice cans to toothpaste tubes.
The Apple computer company was more serious when it introduced its then revolutionary iPhone 4. Since then, of course, not only Apple, but every smart phone company has produced game changing technology every year. But back in 2010, Apple meant it when it said, “This changes everything.”
Recently, Naomi Klein has received awards for her new book, This Changes Everything, which might be subtitled, “Climate versus Capitalism.” A New York Times review says, “Forget everything you think you know about global warming. The really inconvenient truth is that it’s not about carbon—it’s about capitalism. The convenient truth is that we can seize on this existential crisis to transform our failed economic system and build something radically better.”
Peter’s complicated words in our text today fundamentally make that very claim about the work of Christ. This– the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus– changes everything. Jesus death brings us to God out of our sin-created exile. Jesus resurrection changes the reality of our suffering and mortality. And his ascension is the demonstration of the change in the power structure of our world, since all the “powers” are under his feet.
As we struggle through a difficult world, we must remember the Good News of Jesus. “This changes everything.”