First Sunday in Lent

by Crossings

Snake Handling & Wilderness Wandering
Mark 1:9-15
1st Sunday in Lent
Analysis by Robin J Morgan and Ed Schroeder

Dear Folks,
Today I have a couple of things to offer you. The first is a piece Bob Bertram recently sent me. It’s his response to a request from Dave Peters for some themes for midweek Lenten services. The second is a pericope study for Lent 1. I’ve taken Ed’s work of three years ago on Mark 1:9-15 (it’s on the Crossings website) and added my own comments [which will be distinguished from Ed’s by brackets]. This way you get Ed’s more objective style of theology along with my more personal approach. I figured that at this time of year we all need as many ideas as we can get for preaching.
One last note before the theology. I don’t know if you noticed, but my e-mail address has changed. When I upgraded my Compuserve software, my e-mail address automatically changed to <>. All mail sent to <>is supposed to get to me, but if something you send bounces back, you might try the new address instead.
God’s blessings as we begin this Lenten season,

Lent this year has five Wednesdays, not counting Ash Wednesday. So, five Wednesdays, five Gospel lessons.

Overall theme: “Which Snake Is For You?”
Explanation: You’re between two snakes in the desert; both lead to your death; which one do you follow — the one in the weeds, or the one on the stick?

  1. The first snake-in-the-desert is the one which Jesus, the well-pleasing Son, confronts right after his baptism. Only then can Jesus start preaching what even John the Baptizer could not preach, Good News – but not, I repeat, till he had gone this first-round with the snake-in-the-desert. (Mk. 1:9-15, 1.Wk. i. Lent)
  2. Still, it’s not only in deserts where this first snake confronts Jesus, or us. It is even more deadly when it comes through disciples like Peter tempting us with alternatives to the Cross, no-lose alternatives. (Mk. 8:31-38, 2. Wk. i. Lent)
  3. Things get worse. The first snake seems to be winning. Jesus himself gets “consumed.” And of all places, right in church (“Temple”). But then he hints mysteriously about his bouncing back, his being “lifted up.” Like what? Like a snake, hoisted up on a pole? You don’t suppose? Stay tuned. (Jn. 2:13-22, 3. Wk. i. Lent)
  4. Aha, so that’s it. Jesus himself turns out to be a snake-in-the-desert, the second one, the antidote to the first one, the one whom Moses symbolically had hoisted on a pole. Do you want to survive your snakebites from the first snake? Then look to this second one, lifted up (enthroned) on his cross — and resurrected. Look to him and you’ll not perish (at least not terminally) but instead will have the life that lasts. (Jn. 3:14-21, 4. S. i. Lent)
  5. What goes around comes around, back to where we started. In the 1. Wk. i. Lent, at Jesus’ baptism, the Voice from above was for his (Jesus’) sake. This time “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.” To tell us what? Answer: the second snake-in-the-desert, the One who was lifted up on the pole, “will draw all people” to himself. He’s not just for us to stare at, us down here with our snakebites. He’s also the One for us to be raised up with. Some Snake, right? All you Adams and Eves, follow that snake — all the way up the pole. (Jn. 12:20-33, 5. Wk. i. Lent)

Now, if the five services you’re planning are already committed to the theme, “The Lively Function of the Gospel,” how do the five gospel lessons, above, address that theme? That is, how do they — these gospels — function lively? The two snakes-in-the-desert don’t look at all lively but, au contraire, deadly. And right, they both are. But there’s a huge difference between them. The first snake-in-the-desert, Satan, promises life without our having to die. He’s always promised that, ever since Adam and Eve way back in Eden (which has since become desert). Peter fell for that line. I hope Peters doesn’t. Nor, I hope, they don’t try to keep y’all alive, ecclesially, by denying the Cross. But if not by that way, then how? Enter the other snake-in-the-desert, Jesus (It takes one Snake to know the other snake, and to draw the latter’s venom). True, this snake, too, leads to death — beginning with his own, then ours. But his way is a way through death and, beyond death, to life. That, friends, is lively! If and as we die with him, we also get lifted up with him — hoisted, co-hoisted, on his own petard! The view from up there, so I’ve heard, is breath-taking.

So, if these are the five Wednesdays in Lent, what do we do on the previous Wednesday, which kicks them all off, Ash Wednesday? Preach a little prologue for the whole series, just enough teasers to anticipate what’s coming. Or do you remember the little “snakes” we used to buy on July Fourth, which we’d light with a match and they’d slowly burn into a long black ash? Why not do that, as a liturgical action, and then use the ashen snake for The Imposition of Ashes?

Bob Bertram

The Gospel appointed for Lent I is Mark 1:9-15. Five of the verses of this 7-verse text have been in Sunday gospels already in the first weeks of this church year. See the Sabbatheology offerings (#40, 46, 48) for Advent 2, Epiphany 1 and Epiphany 3. Absent in these texts we’ve looked at in the past, but central here are Mark’s two terse verses about Jesus’ temptation. There are merely five little pieces: Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness, forty days there, tempted by Satan, with wild beasts, angels ministered to him. That’s it.

So in Mark’s version we have no hint of what the tempter offered Jesus as we do in Luke’s and Matthew’s version, namely, attractive alternatives with no cross and still to be Messiah. There’s a signal of cross-connection, however, when Mark attaches the report of John being arrested to his two-verse temptation narrative. I don’t know what to make of the wild beasts. Are they “God’s good guys” like the angels mentioned next, or are they part of the tempter’s panoply of persuaders similar to those so often present in paintings of the temptation of St. Anthony?

[I’d like to offer one possible meaning of the wild beasts here. When we visited Kruger National Park in South Africa, I was awed by the enormous power of creation that the animals we saw represented. Watching “Animal Planet” or seeing them in a zoo just doesn’t witness to the power of creation one feels when an elephant suddenly walks out of the trees and stands 10 or 12 feet from the open truck you’re sitting in. It became apparent to me why magic has always been a significant part of most African cultures. Before the advent of modern technology, I can imagine being more than willing to use any means possible to keep from becoming a lion’s dinner.][Creation can be an awe inspiring, but also a fear inspiring place. There seems to be a randomness to the things that happen (who eats whom and when) which is almost impossible to explain or understand by virtue of the events themselves. Power outside of oneself is evident at every turn, but whether it’s malevolent, benevolent or neutral isn’t always easy to discern.]

[It takes the Word of God to make sense of much of what we experience. We live from day-to-day in the midst of circumstances that don’t fit easily or seem to fit at all the law and promise categories which we use here. It’s Jesus Christ, the Word of God, who critiques and then redeems us in our wildernesses.]

An item of importance surely is linking Jesus’ temptation to his baptism by John and the Word from heaven that Jesus receives. Here Mark and Matt. and Luke all agree. Matt. and Luke, you remember, make this Baptismal word from the Father the very target of the tempter’s first onslaught: “If you are the Son of God….” That, by the way, is at the core of all real temptation. Beginning with Eve and Adam it is only believers (children of God) who get tempted in the Scriptures. And the thrust of the tempter is to get the believers to let go of the “Word of God” that they are trusting and living from. It’s not morality vs. hanky-panky that is at stake in temptation. It is faith vs. unfaith.

MARK 1:9-15 — Wilderness Wanderings

Step 1: Jesus joins us in our wilderness
both at his baptism and in the temptation pericope. Wilderness as a Biblical metaphor signals thirsts, hunger, God-empty spaces, the turf of God’s arch-enemy. So what’s the wilderness in people’s lives, believers’ lives too, today?

[Our wildernesses often don’t seem to include clear lines of demarcation between God’s turf and the turf of God’s arch-enemy. In fact, there are times when it seems that the “no people’s land” between the front lines is so large that the cosmic battle isn’t even on the screen. We wander in our wildernesses looking for clues to be able to tell if a battle really is raging and to be able to discover which side we’re on.]

Step 2: Note the double reference to repentance (v. 4 & 15). Ergo, what’s our need for repentance? Worse yet, our unwillingness to repent? What do non-repenters trust, believe in? Surely not the Good News.

[What’s to repent of, turn from, if we don’t see the battle? Am I really a child of God? A little water and a few ritualized words don’t seem substantial enough to qualify me for that particular honor, if it is an honor. If I live most of the week in a world that only acknowledges its own power and those seemingly neutral forces of nature that randomly ebb and flow, how can I know I’m a child of God?]

Step 3: Unrepentant and not believing the Good News while in the wilderness leaves one dying in the wilderness, with no protection from the tempter, no ministration from God’s messengers, thirsts and hungers never satisfied, finally owned, “possessed” by God’s arch-enemy. Call it hell.

[Finally my indecision issues in unfaith which leaves me empty and alone in my wilderness. Separation from God whether wandering in seemingly neutral territory or sitting in the enemy’s lap is still separation from God and from whom I was created to be. No wonder the ache inside never goes away no matter how much I do or have.]



Step 4 (Good news for Step 3): Jesus in our wildernesses.
Baptized into our sinners’ baptism, tempted in our wildernesses, finally also dying in our wilderness. Recall the frequency of demonic-possession pericopes in the first half of Mark, and the fact that the demons recognize Jesus right away for who he really is. These mini-episodes of re-possessing those possessed by the Arch-enemy come to a climax in the grand finale of Jesus’ re-possession of us all in his cross and resurrection.

[Jesus, the Word of God, walks into my wilderness and begins to put shape to, make sense of the seemingly neutral and yet emptying forces that surround and paralyze me. He is baptized and tempted in my wilderness…naming who is really there, what is really going on, how the cosmic battle is really being played out and eventually dying so that even an outsider like me might be brought inside God’s camp.]

Step 5 (Good news for Step 2): Repent and believe this good news of Step 4.

[Through his reclamation project, I am free now to trust that even, or maybe especially, in my wilderness Jesus has brought me home though the landscape around me may not have changed. That splash of water and those ritualized words do, indeed, make all the difference…he promised.]

Step 6 (Good news for Step 1): Living in our own wildernesses by repentance and faith in the Good News about Jesus. Rehabbing the wildernesses around us. Rolling back the wilderness and repossessing (for God) those still stuck there.

[We can now begin to understand our wilderness and even speak to the wildernesses of those around us — sometimes critiquing them, but also pointing to the One who redeems and reclaims even outsiders like us. The landscape may or may not change, but it is our relationship with our Lord and our service to the world in His name that makes our desert bloom.]


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