Reading Ramblings – February 18, 2018

Reading Ramblings

Date: First Sunday in Lent – February 18, 2018

Texts: Genesis 22:1-18; Psalm 25:1-10; James 1:12-18; Mark 1:9-15

Context: Lent comes to us through the Old English word len(c)ten, which meant spring. Eventually it came to be the word used to translate the Latin word quadragesima which means 40 days or 40th day and denoted the period of fasting and self-examination leading up to Easter Sunday. Though some of the Church Fathers dating back to the fifth century considered this pre-Easter time to be of apostolic origin, that viewpoint has been mostly done away with as scholars uncover a variety of observances and customs related to this time of the Church year in the first three centuries of Christianity. Irenaeus is usually quoted here in a letter to Pope Victor indicating disagreements both in when to observe Easter as well as the fast preceding it. Had the apostles instituted a 40-day period of fasting prior to Easter, the assumption is this tradition would have been disseminated and maintained against any alternate ideas resulting in a greater uniformity of practice. Not until the early 4th century is there a mention of a 40-day fasting period, and even there it isn’t necessarily talking about Lent. However by the end of the 4th century there are several references to a 40-day fasting period indicating that the practice had become more widely established and followed. While practices may have evolved gradually, the concept of self-examination and even self-denial in preparation to more properly receive with joy our Lord’s resurrection on Easter morning is a well-established concept. Lenten readings guide us towards these considerations even in traditions where fasting is no longer (or never was) a strong element.

Liturgically the tone changes in Lent as well. The use of Alleluia/Hallelujah is scrubbed from most liturgies. The tone is more subdued both musically as well as visually with the use of purple as the liturgical color for the season. The readings lead us in consideration of sacrifice and the great payment God made through his Son on our behalf. We are no longer in Ordinary Time, so all of the readings should work together towards a theme each Sunday.

Genesis 22:1-18 – One of the most powerful scenes in the Old Testament, and a cause for concern still today for many. Yet God is clear to Moses from the very start of this scene – this is a test. This is not an actual command of God that God intended to have carried out. Our God does not desire the sacrifice of human life – our God is rather committed to the salvation of human life and all of creation. In offering a story of a father called to sacrifice willingly and knowingly his son, a son he has waited 25 years for and receives long after his reasonable hopes of becoming a father have dissipated. What an enormous thing to offer such a thing to God, to respond in faithfulness in acknowledgment of God’s blessings and goodness! For those who consider grace to be cheap or free, it is good to ponder for a moment that God willingly did what He did not require Abraham to do. God willingly sacrificed his Son, a son who, like Isaac probably was, is participative in the sacrifice. It is not just the father’s will but the son’s as well! What an amazing thing! What a powerful thing! What a deeply moving and sorrowful thing! As we sing in a beloved hymn, Oh come to the Father through Jesus the Son, and give him the glory great things He hath done!

Psalm 25:1-10 – If the psalms had been around in Abraham’s day, I can easily imagine him reciting these lines to himself and to his son as they journeyed for three days towards Mt. Moriah. Where is our trust? Is it in ourselves and our plans and our ideas of what is right, or is it in the God who created all things? When we suffer, do we trust that God is with us and beside us? Do we look to him for deliverance? Is there any other source of deliverance? Can anyone else save us from our ancient enemy Satan, who wants to exult over our death and separation from our God (vs.1-3)? As such, it only makes sense that we would seek the Lord’s wisdom in all things and situations (vs.4-5). As we do so we become aware of our sinfulness, our refusal and inability to perfectly seek or carry out his will, and so we pray for his mercy and grace and forgiveness (vs.6-7). And we affirm that this is what God has indeed promised to do! We reassure ourselves with what He says to us – that in Christ, we are forgiven and reconciled (vs.8-10)!

James 1:12-18 – The Epistle lesson frequently comes up in discussion with the reading from Genesis. Wasn’t God tempting Abraham to sin? Hardly. While the Hebrew in Genesis 22:1 can be translated either as test or tempt, we need to remember that from Abraham’s perspective, what God asks of him is not a sin. It was a more or less common practice among some in the Ancient Near East to make human sacrifices and specifically child sacrifices. He wouldn’t have considered a sin, however confused the request might have made him otherwise. And God has no intention of allowing Abraham to carry out the sacrifice. God is not attempting to trick Abraham into sin to convict him, and we should not presume this is God’s intent with us either. Rather, God has given us his Holy Spirit to encourage and strengthen us against temptation and in duress. God desires to give us only his good and best – we have enough sin in us and around us – we need and receive only God’s goodness and grace!

Mark 1:9-15 – Unlike you and I, Jesus’ baptism and divine endorsement are followed specifically with a time of temptation. Is this a contradiction of James 1? Again, no. Jesus must be tempted specifically by God as He is not subject to original sin – the source of sin as per James 1:14. Why must Jesus be tempted? Jesus is the new Adam, without original sin and therefore capable of remaining perfectly obedient to God as no human being has been since Adam and Eve. If Jesus is to be the perfect, spotless atoning sacrifice for sin, He must reject sin himself and be thoroughly without it. So here, before He begins his ministry, He faces temptation specific to the ministry He is called to. Will He be obedient to the Father’s plan, one that will be slow, frustrating, difficult? Or will He choose his own will and way? Will He seek a short-cut? Will He give in to his own human fears and uncertainties of death and aversion to suffering? Only once He has overcome these initial – not final! – temptations can Jesus embark on his public ministry. Had He failed – as Adam and Eve did – there would have been no ministry. God’s plan of salvation would have been thwarted by sin.

Jesus comes not as a moral model or ethical teacher because He accomplishes what we are incapable of – perfect and total obedience to the will of God the Father, up to and including a violent death and burial. Jesus teaches and preaches repentance first and foremost, recognizing our failure to keep God’s will. Only then can we properly believe, desperately, that God indeed offers us what we cannot accomplish on our own – reconciliation. Grace. Forgiveness. Hope. Life. All of this because He himself is the perfect and spotless Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Your sin. My sin. Forever. Much to think about, to reflect on, and ultimately to give thanks for as we begin our Lenten journey to the cross and the empty tomb!

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