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March 12, 2000
First Sunday of Lent

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LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

[ Read the texts at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
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Faith for Troubled Times

The very earliest statement of faith was a simple phrase.

"Jesus Christ is Lord!"

There is an allusion to this confession of faith in Paul's letter to the church at Corinth.  In reminding them of the their conversion from pagan religion to Christianity, he says, "...no one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit." [1 Cor. 12:3]

As we begin our Lenten journey together, perhaps it would be a good thing to link our hearts with every Christian of every age by making this confession of faith together.  Repeat this confession after me:

"Jesus Christ is Lord!"

"Jesus Christ is Lord!"

***

Now... let me ask you a question.

Can you believe that from the very beginning of the Christian faith until our own day, there are places where it can be very costly and even life threatening to say these four words.  "Jesus Christ is Lord."

It was like that for the people in today's scripture reading from First Peter.  These people were scattered all over Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) in small groups, persecuted because of their faith.  Anyone caught professing the Christian faith would be brought before the Roman authorities and asked to deny the Lordship of Christ and profess, "Caesar is Lord."

Those who refused were punished and sometimes executed.  A man who refused to deny Christ might be made to watch the execution of his wife and children.  William Barclay wrote of these early Christians, "... a huge multitude of Christians...  perished in the most sadistic ways..."  

It is to these suffering Christians that the words of our reading are addressed.  In the midst of the most troubling times, they are pointed to the Savior who also suffered, but now is eternally at the right hand of God where the power to make all things right dwells.  Though they now suffer, final victory awaits all those who "keep the faith."

***

You and I will not be forced to deny Christ or pay with our lives.  But...  there are more subtle pressures and circumstances that keep us from being more public with our confession that, "Christ is Lord."  And for certain, all of us will at one time or another endure troubled times.

Troubled times are times that bring us to the basic foundations of our faith.  When things are good and everything is going just fine, we are prone to let the demands of daily living push our relationship with God to the back seat. But when the time of trial comes, we very quickly turn our hearts and minds to the Lord.

And that's not a bad thing.  The Psalmist points out, "The salvation of the righteous is from the LORD; he is their refuge in the time of trouble."  [Psalm 37:39]  A caring parent would never turn away a child who comes running for comfort when they are hurt, so the Lord is a refuge to those who seek help in the midst of trial.

One of the basic foundations of faith that provides hope and help in the midst of testing, trial or trouble is the confession of faith that began almost 2000 years ago.  "Jesus Christ is Lord.!"

The Lordship of Christ is the solid ground of the Christian life when all else is crumbling.  When the events of life are so disturbing that people wonder if anything makes sense, the Lordship of Christ is God's "Yes!" to people of faith.

  • Because Jesus Christ is Lord, the outcome of all things is certain.

  • Because Jesus Christ is Lord, the destiny of all God's children is assured.

  • Because Jesus Christ is Lord, even death can not separate us from the love of God.

***

The scripture reading from 1 Peter contains three foundation truths that provide ground on which persons of faith can stand no matter how difficult the external world may be.  [1] Jesus Christ has also endured the suffering of troubled times and in that suffering bore our sins.  [2] Jesus Christ endured even death, but defeated even death when he was raised from the dead.  [3] Jesus Christ is even now at the right hand of God and will have the absolute last word in history.  (The  victory is certain even if the celebration is delayed!)

[1] Jesus Christ has also endured the suffering of troubled times and in that suffering bore our sins.

How many times have you ever heard the phrase, "You can't understand until you've been there?"  What an amazing, wonderful truth that when we encounter times of extreme trouble, God has been there!   One of the striking things about the Christian Faith is the affirmation, "... and the Word became flesh and lived among us!"   There is no other place on the religious landscape where one can say, "God understands."

The words of one of the most popular hymns of all time contains the words:

"Have we trials and temptations, is there trouble anywhere,
We should never be discouraged, take it too the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful, who will all our sorrows share,
Jesus knows ________________  [let them finish] {our every               weakness}
Take it to the Lord in prayer.

[What a Friend we Have in Jesus - Joseph Scriven]

When those earliest Christians were enduring times of great suffering, these words were of comfort.  "For Christ also suffered..."

But, there was more than the fact that God understands and that Christ also suffered.  The words of First Peter drive us deeper into the depths of our faith.  Christ suffered -- this is true -- but in this case it was a suffering that was really undeserved.  It was a suffering, Peter says of "...the righteous for the unrighteous -- in order to bring you to God."

When the words of the epistle were written, one of the questions that plagued many Christian people was why they were going through such torment when they were simply trying to follow Christ and live exemplary lives.   It was the original "Why do bad things happen to good people?  The response is that of all people, Jesus should not have had to suffer as one who was being punished.

And here it is.  Hang on to your hats.   Jesus suffered for sins -- once for all!  In his suffering, Jesus took upon himself the trouble and trial, the temptation and sin of all who would receive the gift.  Baptism is a sign of that receiving.  Thus the words of another hymn:

"No one understands like Jesus, When you falter on the way,
Tho' you fail him, sadly fail him,  He will pardon you today."

[No One Understands Like Jesus - John W. Peterson]

[2] Jesus Christ endured even death, but defeated even death when he was raised from the dead.

The Christian people who were the recipients of the First Letter of Peter not only endured suffering, they witnessed the execution of many of their friends.  The question must certainly have been raised. "What is the point in following Christ and trying to live exemplary lives if it comes to this?"

Although the circumstances are different for most of us, the questions remain and the fact remains that death is the bottom line of our earthly existence.

Or is it?

The words, "He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit..." were words of encouragement and hope.   Death is not the bottom line for God's children.  We are not abandoned to the powers of death and the whims of mortal rulers.  The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead absolutely, totally turns upside down the last weapon of evil.   The truth that inspired the earliest Christians to "stare down" even death is expressed in the most beautiful way by Paul in First Corinthians with the words:

Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death. [First Corinthians 15:24-26]

[3] Jesus Christ is even now at the right hand of God and will have the absolute last word in history.

What do you say to people who are going through the horrors of persecution for their faith?  How about the issue of comfort for people who have lost someone they deeply loved?  Who can bring words of hope when all hope is lost and no prospect of a good outcome remains?

The message of First Peter can not be improved upon.  Jesus came to dwell in our midst.  He took our sin upon himself in order to bring us to God.  He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit and now...

"...has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him."   [ 3:22]

When we give our lives into the care of Christ, we have linked our souls with the One who stands before and beyond all time.  We entrust our present and our future into the hands of the One who holds every tomorrow and all eternity in his hands.  The book of Revelations puts it this way, "I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty." [Rev. 1:8]

***

As we move through the days of this Lenten Season, may this simple confession of faith fill your heart and your minds and provide strength and encouragement -- in the good times -- and especially in troubled times!

------------------------------------

[ Daily Study Bible, p.177 The Letters of James and Peter]


Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Text

The readings for this Sunday seem to be gathered together on the theme of baptism.  The flood and covenant with Noah, according to 1 Peter, prefigured baptism.  The gospel text then recounts Mark's telling of the baptism of Jesus.

David L. Bartlett comments that, "Using the flood as a type for Christian baptism requires some metaphorical athleticism..." [New Interpreters Bible - Vol. XII, p. 295]  Noah and his family were saved from drowning while Christians choose the water of baptism in obedience to the example and command of Christ.  The essential point is that God is present to save from sin and trial and promises a covenant of peace with all who embrace the divine will.  The rainbow and then baptism are evidences of God's care for us in spite of our sin and rebellion.

Noah believed God, built the ark and was saved.   The texts end with Jesus' call to repent and believe the good news," because the kingdom was near.  The kingdom is ever near to any who will hear the call to look to the Lord.

Genesis 9:8-17

Coming prior to the existence of Israel or the covenant with Abraham, the covenant God makes with Noah is a covenant with all the earth.   The earth will not again be overwhelmed by a flood.  The rainbow, though a part of the natural world, now becomes a sign of God's caring attention to all the earth.

The rainbow often brings a joyous surprise when there is a mixture of rain and sunshine.  While Christian baptism is a sign for the Christian community, the rainbow is a wonderful sign of the fact that God cares for all people verywhere and that "whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved." 

This could be a good reminder that the love of God is not exclusive, but desires to include all persons.  "God is not willing that any should perish, but that all might come to repentance."

Mark 1:9-15

Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark's introduction of Jesus' ministry comes like a shot.  There is no preliminary except for a report of the brief ministry of John the Baptist.  Jesus is baptized, tempted and then the focal point of the Gospel is announced by Jesus himself.

"The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news."

The heart of the story is that Jesus [1] Identifies himself with sinful humanity, and [2] Is empowered by the holy spirit to accomplish the ministry of good news.  (He both announces the good news and accomplishes it)

The beginning of Mark's gospel shines a bright light on the need for repentance.  Baptism is a sign of that repentance and the fact that Jesus presented himself for baptism could be problematic for some. "Why would the Son of God need to repent?"   The question is not dealt with by mark, but is given attention in Matthew.  [See January 10, 1999 for more on Matthew's account]

The unique "Sonship" of Jesus is affirmed in the first verse of Mark's gospel and by the voice of God at Jesus' baptism.  There is no doubt about the who and the what of the gospel.  The gospel is about Jesus Christ and it is "Good News."  There is also no doubt that this message requires a response.  The announcement of the kingdom comes with two imperatives:  [1] Repent and [2] Believe.  The gospel is not something to simply hear -- it is hear and respond.  There is something antithetical to the gospel in our coming together and sitting down in rows on Sunday morning.  That makes us vulnerable to being spectators instead of respondents.

1 Peter 3:18-22

This passage begins with the gospel proclamation of the death burrial and resurrection of Christ.  Simple enough.  Then it takes us into some of the most difficult exigetical material in the New Testament.

Key questions are:  Who are the spirits Jesus went and preached to?  When did he preach to them? and Where did he preach to them? It is unlikely that we will ever know the complete exegetical answer to these questions, but generally three interpretations have arisen.

1. Christ, in the interval between his death and resurrection, descended into the realm of the dead and preached to the spirits who did not obey the will of God in Noah's time.

2. The spirit of Christ (pre-existent Christ) preached (perhaps through Noah) to the sinful people of Noah's time.

3. Christ proclaimed his victory over sin and death to the "fallen angels" -- perhaps during a descent into hell -- or during his exaltation.

The bottom line of this text is the victory of Christ over sin and death.  The One who suffered (as the recipients of this letter suffered) is now at the right hand of God in the place of absolute authority.

This passage is, along with Mark, a set of bookends.   Mark introduces the gospel and 1 Peter concludes  with the victory.

 


Worship Helps

A Call To Worship   (Based on Psalm 25)

Leader:   We lift up our spirits to the Lord our God.
People:  In the Lord alone do we place our trust.
Leader:   We have come to rejoice in the ways of the Lord,
People:  And hear the good news of forgiveness and grace.
Leader:   The Lord leads us in the way we should go,
Unison:  And guides our steps in the ways of peace.

A Prayer of Confession

O holy God, we confess our sinfulness as we gather before your throne. You alone know the extend of our shortcomings and our offences against you.  We have wandered from your ways, forgotten your love for us and wasted the gifts you have given to us.  O have mercy upon us and renew us this day for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ.  By his presence, help us to walk in your ways and to grow more completely into all you would have us be.  Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

O people of the Lord, receive the good news that God will remove our sins from us as far as the East is from the West.  A new and right spirit will be restored for those who confess their sin.  On account of Jesus Christ we are forgiven.  Amen.

Prayer of Thanksgiving

O gracious God of all that is, all that ever was and all that ever shall be -- we rejoice in your presence today.  Our hearts are in such great need of expansion so that they might contain the fullness of who you are for our living.

You are the light that guides us in the dark and frightening places of our journey.  You are the hope that surrounds us when life has delivered it's worst.  In every place that we have failed, you are presence with grace and restoration.  When all seems lost, you are the One who comes with victory over all.

You are the One who speaks in the quientess of our spirits if we will but listen.  Our cups are filled to overflowing with  goodness and bounty wh3en we but lift them up to you.

We praise you today.

We lift us our lives, our families, our brothers and sisters in this church -- indeed -- we lift up this broken world to you as we thank you for all you can accomplish through this family of faith.

Amen.

A Prayer of Dedication

We bring these gifts to you, O loving God, because you are to be revered and praised above all gods.   Our lives are in your hands and we place these gifts into the care of your Church, that all may come to know the hope you alone can give.  Amen.