Watching part of an "old" 50s movie on television the other day, I heard one of the characters remark, "Mr. Anthony doesn't live in my neighborhood." Almost no one under 60 knows what that comment means. It refers to a popular TV show of the era - The Millionaire - in which a mysterious "Mr. Anthony" gifts certain people with million dollar checks. To really appreciate some movies, play and writing, one must even know what TV shows people were watching when the movie, play or writing was created.
In the same way, to understand writings from the last half of the first Christian century, one must know what books were popular during that period. The Hebrew Scriptures immediately come to mind. Almost all Christians were familiar with them. But another book, not found in the Hebrew Scriptures was also very popular: I Enoch. It's an apocalyptic writing, concerned with this planet's "last days." One part of it describes the rebellious spirits whose successful tempting of humans had brought about the great flood.
The early church heard today's first reading about Yahweh's post-flood covenant with Noah and his descendants from a different perspective than we hear it today. They regarded this covenant as a victory over the sinfulness which caused the flood.
This seems to be what the author of I Peter is speaking about when he mentions, "Jesus went to preach to the spirits in prison who had once been disobedient while God patiently waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved through water."
These particular "spirits" represented evil. By having Jesus "preach to them, the writer is teaching his community that Jesus, the force of good, is far superior to the forces of evil: the spirits.
This reading has been chosen for the First Sunday of Lent - the ideal preparation period for baptism - because it's through baptism that we participate in Jesus' victory over evil. Comparing the water of the flood to the water of baptism, the letter writer reminds his readers, "This prefigures baptism which saves you now."
The struggle between good and evil is a frequent theme in early Christian literature, a theme we often miss. In today's pericope from Mark, for instance, nothing is mentioned about something we frequently associate with Lent: fasting. Jesus spends his 40 days in the desert not abstaining from food, but in being "tempted by Satan." He struggles not with his human appetite for food, but with his human appetite for evil.
As we heard a few weeks ago, one of the reasons Mark writes his gospel springs from his belief that Jesus' followers are constantly expected to get rid of evil in their lives, no matter when, where, or under what form it's encountered.
The evangelist tells us that once Jesus, in his baptism discovers the God-given forces which enable him to defeat Satan, he immediately shares that insight with his disciples. "This is the time of fulfillment," he proclaims. The victory over evil which his fellow Jews had for centuries longed for was now an essential part of their lives. To take part in this victory they simply had to repent: to change their entire value system enough to recognize God powerfully working among them. They had to acknowledge that God's kingdom wasn't just a future dream; it was already in their midst.
If we're often beaten down by evil in our lives, maybe we're not repenting enough to change our frame of mind, to experience a God in our midst who has already conquered evil; the very evil crushing us. Though baptism can't be repeated, the victory over evil which it affects and symbolizes is a battle in which we can engage and triumph every day of our lives.