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The First Sunday in Lent

Readings: Gen. 9:8–17, 1 Pet. 3:18–22 & Mk. 1:9–15.

Did anyone pick up on what the common theme was in all three of our readings this morning?

Each of the readings spoke in their own way, about spiritual cleansing associated with water. The other thing they all touched on, but which wasn’t quite as obvious as the water theme, was the theme of sacrifice.

In the passage from the reading from Genesis, we learned that the Flood cleansed the earth of the sinfulness of humankind, and that God renewed His covenant with humankind, that is, with Noah and his family. And having survived the flood, Noah importantly built an altar to God and made a sacrificial offering which was pleasing to God, which was a factor in God’s renewal of the covenant with humankind.

In the passage from the First Letter of Peter, Peter tells his readers that Noah and his were saved “through” water, when the earth was washed clean of sin through the waters of the Flood. And now Peter’s message for the early Christians is that they are also saved “through” water – in their case, by the waters of baptism. Their sins are washed away by the waters of baptism because they are baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection. What he was saying is that the sins of humanity are washed away by His death and resurrection. For just as Noah made a sacrificial offering to God, in this case Jesus IS the sacrificial offering.

And we heard in the reading from Mark’s Gospel that Jesus was baptised in the Jordan River by John. Jesus hadn’t committed any sin, so why did He need to be baptised? Perhaps by His baptism, the sins of the world were washed clean? As we heard in Genesis, the sinfulness of the world was washed clean in the waters of the Flood, and then Noah offered a sacrifice to God. In the case of Jesus, the sinfulness of the world was washed clean in the waters of His baptism, and then He offered Himself as a sacrifice to God.

Kim and I are very fortunate because we had the opportunity on our pilgrimage to visit the site of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan. Until recently this site had been used by the Israeli army as a military base, but in 2011 it was opened to the public as a pilgrimage destination for Christians. It is considered by many people to be the third most sacred Christian location in the world, after the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Jewish tradition claims that the site is also the location where the Israelites crossed the Jordan into the Holy Land after their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.

In addition to describing the baptism of Jesus by John, today’s gospel passage also tells us that immediately after His baptism, Jesus was driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness for forty days, during which time he was tempted by Satan. As you could probably tell from those few photos we just looked at, the Judean wilderness is not a particularly hospitable place, and was perhaps even less so during the time of Jesus. This is perhaps best attested to by the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” which, as we know, is referenced in Psalm 23. Temperatures in the wilderness hover around 40 degrees celsius during the summer months (June, July and August) and there is zero rainfall in those months.

It is possible, based on later indicators in Mark’s Gospel, that Jesus was in the Judean wilderness in the month of May, when temperatures during the daytime would have been in the mid-thirties, and there was next to no rainfall. If we imagine Jesus spending forty days there at that time of the year, in those conditions, it must have been an incredibly difficult and testing time for him.

The Season of Lent is of course associated with the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. As we enter into the forty days of “fasting” leading up to Holy Week, we are encouraged to spend time in reflection. Reflecting both on the temptation of Jesus, and the testing time he spent in the wilderness, but also on His ministry as it evolved and unfolded during the time that lead up to His final week in Jerusalem. A number of us in the parish will of course spend time in reflection as we being our Lenten Bible Study next Thursday. Others may wish to join me for Spiritual Cafe at North and Eight on Monday mornings during Lent, as we explore the spiritual aspect of this time in the church year. Or you may wish to talk with me separately about how you might maintain your own Lenten spiritual discipline during this time.

Whatever you choose to do, and however you choose to do it, the one thing I encourage you all to do during Lent, is to devote time to reflect on your own spiritual life and journey.

The Lord be with you.

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