Reading Ramblings – February 21, 2021

Date: First Sunday in Lent, February 21, 2021

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

Context: The season of Lent begins. This takes us out of Ordinary Time, and marks the binding of the texts together thematically, something that will continue until June and the season of Pentecost. Lent is the season of self-examination and penance, an anticipation of both the inconceivable sacrifice of the Son of God on Good Friday for our sake, and his glorious vindication on Easter morning. It is the oldest and in many ways deepest season of the Church Year, predating Christmas. We are called in this season, whether we deprive ourselves of meat or some other pleasantry as was once more traditional, to consider our sinfulness that necessitates the blood of Christ to be poured out for us. In some ways this is awkward because Sundays are not technically counted as part of the season of Lent and remain mini-celebrations of Easter. It is awkward also because we live in Christ’s victory over our sin. Our self-examination then is not in uncertainty over whether or not God has forgiven us – He has! Rather it serves as an opportunity to allow the Holy Spirit to lead us away from sinful habits in our lives we might overlook, and to focus our hearts and minds more specifically on what we receive in Christ.

Genesis 22:1-18 – What God did not require Abraham to give – his only son – God the Father does not withhold in his only-begotten Son, Jesus the Christ. The experience of Abraham in this chapter has troubled many people. It’s important to note that we are told immediately this is a test. We are to be under no illusions as to what is going on here or if God truly desired Abraham to sacrifice his son. God is testing Abraham. Translations vary as to how they translate the Hebrew, whether as test, tempt, tried, prove. Perhaps this chapter is valuable as a litmus test for our attitudes towards God. Is He truly the loving father who cares for us, or is He a trickster or a capricious entity? Abraham did not necessarily know at this point, but Abraham likely also did not see God’s request as problematic. Sad, to be sure, but child sacrifice was hardly unknown in that age and area of the world. And, as Luther asserts in his commentary, Abraham demonstrates a strength of faith that trusts God is capable of anything He desires, including restoring Isaac should He require Abraham to sacrifice him. Because of God the Son’s obedient sacrifice on our behalf we need never wonder whether God might as a similar thing of you and I. We are free in his grace and mercy to be advocates of human life from conception through old age.

Psalm 25:1-10 – The Lord must teach us his ways and we must want to learn them constantly as they often contradict worldly wisdom and expectations. Yet faithfulness insists that it is far better to listen to God’s Word than the dictates of human conscience or public opinion. Vindication will come, whether in our lifetime or not until our Lord’s return and all things are revealed for their proper worth (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). We rely on the grace and mercy of God that He continues to remind us of his revealed will. He continues to repeat his Word to us over and over, knowing both our poor memories and the active distortion sin causes whether from within ourselves or from the broken world and people around us. But we can be assured that God’s way is best. Not that it will be the most popular (it won’t be) or the easiest (it won’t be) or that following it might not entail sacrifices large and small. But of all the shifting sands of human ideas and conventions and desires, the Word of God stands as one firm rock we can cling to in confidence.

James 1:12-18 – What caught my eye in this reading are verses 12-15. In particular verse 14 which identifies temptation as an appeal by a person’s own desires. We typically say temptation comes from within, from the world, and from Satan. But the reality is that temptation is only really temptation if it’s something we want. The world or Satan might suggest to me the idea of starting an illegal dog-fighting business, but since I am disgusted by the very idea, it’s not a very real temptation. But if it’s suggested to me by Satan or the world that I do something I already have a desire to do, even though I know it’s wrong? That’s a temptation. Abraham was tested rather than tempted, in part because he had no internal desire to slay his son. God did not appeal to some sinful deficiency or proclivity on Abraham’s part but rather demanded obedience to a command. Thus, by James’ definition, God certainly didn’t tempt Abraham even had James not just asssured us God doesn’t tempt people!

Mark 1:9-15 – Jesus as the Second Adam must demonstrate his willingness and ability – as far as his human nature and will – to remain faithful to the leading of God the Father where Adam failed. His past obedience is affirmed and commended by God the Father’s exclamation of approval at his baptism. But that obedience is only the start – obedience must be maintained, and if perhaps Jesus was shielded from direct Satanic attacks as a young man, now that He prepares to launch his public ministry He must face Satan in the fullness of Jesus’ human weakness. He must face Satan as one of us. Mark does not record the interchange that occurs, and apparently considers even the outcome of that temptation to be so obvious as to not need stating! Matthew 4 and Luke 4 both provide fuller accounts of the nature of the temptations Jesus faced as well as Jesus’ fidelity to his heavenly Father.

If we rely on James’ (and the Holy Spirit’s) insights to temptation, it’s easy to see Satan’s offerings to Jesus find no footing for temptation. What Jesus desires is to be obedient to his father, and perhaps at this early stage of his ministry Jesus is not yet worried about the very real and very painful sacrifice He will be called upon to make. While Jesus may be weaker later on, and find temptation more difficult to resist (Mark 8), here He deflects Satan’s offerings with ease, relying not on angelic protection or some other unique power but rather with the Word of God.

Jesus enters the wilderness in a re-enactment of the Exodus. The Israelites spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness because they were too afraid to enter the Promised Land. Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness, but is faithful and obedient while the Israelites were not. He functions here as a summation of Israel and all the people of God, being faithful and obedient where they and we can not and are not.

In verses 12 and 13 we hear elements of prophecy as well, particularly Isaiah 43:19-20. Jesus is accomplishing already what was prophesied, a restoration of the harmony and peace of the created order. That restoration is very limited for the moment, but reveals what Jesus is about, and what the kingdom of God He proclaims in vs. 14-15 will be like.

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