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Introduction to the Old Testament readings in Lent A

Lent is a time of preparation for the great festival of Easter. It is a time of reflection or contemplation. For some it is a time of fasting or abstinence from some material good or activity. In past times, as in some churches still today, it has been a time of preparation for baptism at Easter for those new to the Christian faith. The Gospel readings set for Lent help prepare us for the events of Good Friday and Easter day.

In most cases in the seasons before Trinity Sunday, the Old Testament readings are selected to support the Gospel reading for the day. That is true of the readings for Lent in Year A. For example, for Lent 1 the reading from Genesis speaks of the temptation in the Garden of Eden and the transgression of the couple in eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The Gospel reading for the day is Matthew 4:1-11, the story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. On Lent 3 the reading from John 4 on the woman at the well is connected to the story of Moses bringing water from the rock for the Israelites. On Lent 5 the vision of the valley of dry bones being brought back to life in Ezekiel 37 is set alongside the story of the raising of Lazarus in John 11. And finally, on Good Friday we hear of the suffering and exultation of the suffering servant from Isaiah, a passage which has been influential throughout Christian history in understanding the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus.

All that seems clear, and we could extend the list above further noting many detailed connections between the Old Testament passages and their Gospel readings. But other intentions also seem evident in the sequence of Old Testament readings. The readings give us a brief framework of the history of Israel according to the biblical story, beginning with the second creation story in Genesis 2-3, then the call of Abram, reference to the exodus in Exodus 17, the selection of David to be king over Israel, then jumping to the exile with reference to the hope of restoration of the people, and finally mentioning Isaiahís suffering servant. This is an overview of Israelís history that takes us to the texts that will help understand Godís work in Jesus.

But these readings also take us on a journey through Lent which shapes our faith and discipleship. It begins on Ash Wednesday with the alternate reading from Isaiah 58 and its redefinition of fasting. While we might normally relate fasting to self-denial in relation to some material good, especially food, and see it in essentially passive terms, i.e. something from which I withdraw, Isaiah speaks about the fast God requires in terms of support for the poor and those in need. This is a much more active view of fasting, wherein we might Ďgive upí some possession by giving it to those who need it more or who do not have the means to acquire it. In modern times this might mean active work for others in giving up our time, talent or other gifts.

We are then given in week 1 of Lent a sense of the nature of sin in the reading from Genesis 2-3. The text from Genesis is not concerned with the trivial matter of disobeying what seems like an arbitrary rule; do not eat from this tree. Rather it speaks more to the very nature of sin as a human desire to move beyond the matter of trust in God to self-assurance and self-determination. In that sense it truly reinforces the story of Jesusí temptation.

The mood then changes somewhat in the second week of Lent with the brief reading from Gen 12:1-4a, the beginning of the account of Abramís call to leave his homeland and go to the place God will show him. There is the matter of journey here which fits the season of Lent, but to get the full impact of this brief reading you have to see it within the larger picture of the whole Book of Genesis. The promises of God given in Genesis 12, namely to become a great nation and to possess the land God will show Abram, are not fulfilled in Genesis, indeed not fully until the books of Exodus and Joshua-Judges. All Abram ever sees of the fulfilment of the promises is one son through whom the promise will be fulfilled and a plot of land in which to bury his dead relatives. The situation does not change greatly over the next couple of generations. There is a point here about faithfulness when the promise we live with is not fulfilled in our own time and experience.

The theme of trust continues in the passage from Exodus 17 around the issue of the provision of water in the wilderness as Israel journey toward the promised land. The grumbling of the people is also an illustration of the nature of rebellion that can arise in such contexts. The story speaks about what can sustain us on such a journey. It is not just about water but about the divine word too.

As the story of Israel continues in week 4 of Lent, we get a glimpse in 1 Samuel 16 of the way in which God is to work out his promises. With the story of the election of David as king in Israel we have the start of the messianic tradition, ultimately concluded in New Testament terms in Jesus. But more than that we begin to see Godís strange economy of action: the election of the one who, in human terms, is least likely to fulfil Godís vision. That is a theme that will lead us into the story of the suffering servant to come in week 6 (Passion/Palm Sunday) and Good Friday. The story in John 9 about the insight of the man born blind undergirds such an economy. He can see more clearly who Jesus is and what is going on in Jesusí ministry than those with Ďgreater sightí.

As we near the end of Lent and look toward Holy Week and the events of Easter we get a glimpse of the possibility of restoration in the story from Ezekiel 37 of the valley of dry bones. While not a story about resurrection itself, it nevertheless hints in that direction especially within the context of our movement toward Easter. It reinforces the message of the story of Lazarus in John 11.

The Lenten journey with the Old Testament passages ends with a focus on the suffering servant from Second Isaiah. We hear of him on Passion/Palm Sunday and he will become the focus of attention in the Old Testament readings set for the days in Holy Week culminating in the reading of the fourth song of the servant, Isaiah 52:13-53:12, on Good Friday. Through this one, despised individual God brings deliverance to his people, a theme echoed in the Gospel story.

We are taken on a number of journeys in our Old Testament readings in Lent. These include a personal journey of faith and response to God; a journey through Israelís history with God; and finally on a journey from the great promises of God to the vulnerable and seemingly foolish way (to quote Paul from our Corinthian readings in Epiphany) God brings those promises to fruition.

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