In John 2-4, the evangelist teaches the universal possibility of a journey of believing.
Two signs at Cana in Galilee form the literary frame of an instructional journey on faith. The physical movement between these events mirrors the theological journey through which Jesus brings himself as the Word of God to the world, first in a Jewish then in a non-Jewish, aka “Gentile,” setting. John also begins to portray believing as dynamic and communicative and to identify Jesus’ miracles as “signs.”
Indeed, often when folks think they “have it” and have “arrived,” Jesus challenges them further. To do so, he draws people into dialogue by “wowing” them in order to “point to” the power of God, but the revelation of God in Jesus must be anchored in his word, not the fleeting “wow” of a miraculous experience. Jesus encounters people and challenges them to move beyond comfort and religious preconceptions into a new relationship with God the Father through openness to the Son.
Each one models a believing response: positive, negative, or, like Nicodemus, an attempt to ride the fence of neutrality. Jesus, however, ultimately pushes people to decide. Each encounter also propels the plot as Jesus reveals himself and audiences venture toward his inevitable arrest, passion, and glorification.
At the close of John 2, a comment about knowing and believing leads into a dialogue instigated by Nicodemus, a Jewish leader (John 3:1-21). The hostile encounter in the temple area served to contrast the constructive encounter with Jesus’ mother at the wedding feast, but this meeting shows that all is not lost with Jewish officialdom. Nicodemus’ somewhat earthly questioning provides Jesus opportunity to teach about heavenly things, including God’s loving plan for the world and the role of the Son of Man in that plan.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, attracted to Jesus’ activity, but we’re reminded of the prologue’s assertion of the world’s darkness (John 1:5). That he comes to the Light indicates his openness; however, Nicodemus proves his journey will be long as he takes time to receive Jesus’ word and relinquish preconceived religious categories.
Nicodemus approaches Jesus with what he “knows” about Jesus as “rabbi” and a focus on “signs.” Jesus accepts this, but immediately pushes Nicodemus further. Beginning with his characteristic double-Amen introduction, he teaches the necessity of “being born from above” to “see the kingdom of God” (verse 3). This term “above” comes from the Greek anothen which is also translated as both “anew” and “again.”
Jesus plays this double meaning to challenge Nicodemus to a deeper understanding of God’s work in the world. Nicodemus would be familiar with the notion of God as king, but this challenge to be born from above/again to “see” this kingdom pushes him to expand his notions of God and kingship and “see” Jesus beyond a God-sent teacher and miracle-worker.
Nicodemus shows he hasn’t grasped the spiritual intention of Jesus’ “above” when he asks about the biological possibility of being born “again.” This naive misunderstanding happens time and again across Jesus’ ministry, but allows Jesus opportunity to teach, here about the nature of the Spirit and the need to be Spiritually born to participate in God’s kingdom. The Baptist testified that the one coming baptizes with the Holy Spirit (John 1:29-34). This promise is fulfilled in the Spirit brought by Jesus. Unfortunately, Nicodemus, just beginning his journey, comes no closer to understanding and says as much. Jesus responds by shifting images to heavenly things, not unlike what he did with Nathanael early in his ministry (John 1:50-51).
Jesus teaches that the Son of Man has descended from heaven, speaks to all who listen, and gives all who receive him eternal life in the kingdom of God (verses 11-13). Just as Moses pointed out the signs and wonders of God to the Israelites after the Exodus by “lifting up” the serpent, so must the Son of Man be “lifted up” to bring this promise to fulfillment.
Jesus again makes use of double meaning: now of “lifting up” in the physical sense as Moses lifted the rod and the figurative sense as exaltation and the wonder of God. Jesus is thus able to point metaphorically to his coming crucifixion as a new sign of the power of God to forge relationship (verses 14-15). The cross is both a physical “lifting up” and an “exaltation.” Jesus then utters what encapsulates the entire gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (verse 16).
Another Johannine theme emerges as the immensity of God’s love is integrated with the mystery of salvation. The gift of the Son is the saving power of the new covenant and available to any and all who receive and believe in him: not for condemnation, but to bring light into the world and salvation from its darkness (verses 17-18). Openness to this light and the action of God in the Son is necessary. Referring to this encounter’s introductory verses (John 2:23-25), Jesus notes the darkness in the hearts of some that leads not to light (verses 19-20). He closes, however, with a renewed hope for truth, life, and grounding in the presence of God (verse 21).
As dialogue slips into monologue, Jesus brings into the story world the promises the narrator made about him: Jesus forms new children of God through the gift of truth for all who are open to his word. This encounter concludes without resolution for Nicodemus. In coming to Jesus, he showed necessary openness, but came expecting to have what he “knew” confirmed and, thus, restricted religious categories stifled his progress. Jesus abolishes such categories and challenges those he encounters to full relationship. There is hope for Nicodemus, and audiences often identify with him, even if they sense they shouldn’t! His openness signifies that his believing process has begun but, for the rest of his story, we must press on (John 7:45-52; 19:38-42).
We do not know why this story begins with Abraham (and his family).
But we do know from the context that God chose Abraham for a comprehensive creational purpose, namely, that the human (and nonhuman) creation might be restored and be able to live in harmony with God’s original intention for the world. God’s choice of Abraham is an initially exclusive move for the sake of the future of the entire world.
God’s promise stands at the beginning of Abraham’s story (Genesis 12:2-3): “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing … and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” God’s promises create Abraham’s faith and generate the basic shape of his future and that of his community. God’s promises are decisive for shaping the life and the future of Abraham and his family. What distinguishes Abraham from other characters is a calling to be a blessing to all peoples.
God’s promises are given a central place in this opening call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3) and these promises have an important role to play throughout the stories that follow. The promise of blessing to Abraham (Genesis 12:2) implies an ongoing and active presence of God for this family. We do not know why God chose Abraham rather than another person or family. But we do know that God chose Abraham so that the human and nonhuman creation might be reclaimed and live in harmony with God’s original intention.
Interpreters usually consider the promises of God in Genesis 12:1-3 as the key to the rest of the book, indeed key to the interpretation of the Old Testament as a whole. The divine promises are especially written to link the creation stories of Genesis 1-11 with the ancestral narratives that follow, and to point forward to the later history of Israel, “a great nation.”
These verses constitute a fulcrum text, thoroughly theological in their focus. The promises are centered on nationhood, renown, and blessing for Abraham’s family and for other families in and through them. These promises often have a key role to play in the narratives that follow.
Interestingly, God appears suddenly in the narrative and without introduction, calling Abram to leave (in this order) his country, his clan, and his home. And God calls Abram to begin a journey to a land that God will reveal to him. God calls Abram to “leave home,” his familiar surroundings.
God’s most basic word to Abraham in this context is that God will make Abraham a great nation, bless him and his family, and make his name great. God in essence promises Abraham that he will be established in a new community with a new name and a new standing in his world.
God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3, that God will “bless those who bless you,” brings Abraham into relationship with those outside the chosen community. Those outsiders who treat Israel in life-sustaining ways will receive a response of blessing from God. On the other hand, those who curse Israel (treat Israel in negative ways) will be cursed by God, that is, will be given a negatively-shaped future. God does not introduce this curse, but people reap the consequences of their own words and deeds. They will reap the effects of what they do and say. That is the way in which God has created the world to work. What people do and say have effects.
The final phrase presents the objective of all the previous clauses. God’s choice of Abraham will lead to blessings for all the families of the earth. In other words, God’s choice of Abraham serves as an initially exclusive move for the sake of a maximally inclusive end.
God makes promises and God keeps those promises throughout the generations. Again and again, faced with multiple and harsh realities, God keeps the promises God has made. Genesis 28:15 summarizes the central feature of God’s promises: “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go … I will not leave you.”
A series of promises from God gives basic shape to the story that follows, promises of land and blessing, promises that shape Israel into a great nation with a great name. The focus of the divine blessing, however, is not solely for the benefit of Israel’s future, but for the sake of all the families of the earth. The concern expressed is not simply the shape of Israel’s future, but the future of all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3). The promises move beyond Israel and bring the entire world into view.
The narrative centering on Abraham and his family does not entail a new divine objective for the world. What occurs is a clearer view of God’s strategy for moving toward the fulfilment of God’s purposes for the world. God will now use Abraham’s family as a vehicle in and through which the world will be restored.
The specific language of “blessing” centers this text and appears five times in this text and almost 100 times in the book of Genesis. Blessing stands as a gift of God to the world, mediated through human or nonhuman agents that issue in goodness and well-being in life. It is a metaphor of journey for the life of faith.
God appears in the text suddenly and without introduction. God is the repeated subject and Abraham is the repeated agent in and through whom God works. God’s action on behalf of the world centers the text. God will make Abraham a great nation, bless him, make his name great, and bless those who bless him. God in essence promises a new community with a new name.
The final phrase of the text presents the objective of all the previous clauses—God’s choice of Abraham will lead to blessings for all the families of the earth. The result is familial connections with all the families of the earth. The call of Abraham is God’s response to the dilemma created by sin and evil. God will work in and through this family on behalf of all families.
Finally, it is God’s promises that center this text. God’s promises stand at the beginning of the narrative (Genesis 12:1-3), at the climax (Genesis 22:16-18), and they are repeated at key junctures of the Genesis narrative throughout (Genesis 12:7; 13:14-17; 15:1-7, 18-21; 17:1-21; 18:10-14, 18; 24:7).
Many readers of Psalm 121 have connected it with life’s journey — or at least with life’s journeys.1
A friend of mine always leads his family in reciting Psalm 121 when they depart on a journey. Another friend loves this psalm because it speaks words of promise about God’s providence and protection on life’s journey. Another friend who has written quite a bit about the psalms calls this one, “A Psalm for Sojourners.”2
One reason interpreters have connected this poem with the idea of journey is that it is part of the “psalms of ascent.” These psalms, 120-134, all bear the superscription shir-hamma’alot or shir-lammal’alot translated in the NRSV as “a song of ascents” or “a song of ascent.”
The best guess is that these psalms were collected to be used in conjunction with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. For that reason, Psalm 121 is most commonly understood as a liturgy of blessing for one about to leave on a journey.
The structure of the psalm is elegantly simple:
verses 1-2 A Traveler’s Question and Confessionverses 3-8 A Priestly Blessing
A Traveler’s Question and Confession
1 I lift my eyes to the hills — from where will my help come?2 My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
The psalm begins with a question to which anyone can relate: Where can I get help? Or better, where can I look for help?
[An aside: The Hebrew-savvy preachers among the audience may be ready to fire off an urgent email: “Hey, the opening verse does not have to be translated as a question, does it?” And this is true. Ancient Hebrew had no punctuation, so the only way to signal a question was either through inverted word order or through the use of an interrogative particle such as “where” (‘ayin), “how” (mah), or “why” (lamah). But Hebrew poetry often inverts word order for, well, poetic reasons. And sometimes interrogative particles are used to signal exclamations rather than questions. As in: How cool is that!! Or: Who’s the boss now!! The Hebrew in the second half of verse one reads: me’ayin yabo’ ‘ezriy. Literally, “from where comes my help.” Although the translation, “from where my help will come” is possible (so KJV), the far more common translation, “from whence cometh my help?/from where will my help come?” is more likely (so NRSV, RSV, NIV, NJPS, NAB, NJB, etc).]
As noted above, many interpreters imagine a traveler about to depart on a journey — perhaps a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for a festival, or perhaps any journey. Such a question is a natural — whether one is thinking of a geographic journey through dangerous territory, a lifelong journey through many ups and downs, or a spiritual journey to discovery seeking a homecoming to God.
Life is full of many dangers. The physical: disease, injury, accident, war, infirmity, or natural disasters. The economic: recession, depression, unemployment, outsourcing, downsizing, insolvency, debt, or theft. The spiritual: doubt, sin, evil, corruption, fundamentalism, extremism, or false teaching.
What more natural question to ask than, “From whence shall my help come?”
In fact, consider giving the congregation a minute or two to discuss the greatest fears and threats that they or a loved one faces right now. Send out an email ahead of worship and ask people to reflect on the question, or even to bring written responses that can be collected and set before the altar of God. Or ask them to share a fear with a neighbor.
The psalmist answers his or her own question with a confession of faith: “My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.”
Modern translations obscure the poetic, chiastic structure of the sentence. The word “my-help” is the last word of verse 1 and the first word of verse 2. In this overly literal translation, a hyphen indicates when several English words are translating one Hebrew word:
I-lift my-eyes to-the-hills from-where shall-come my-helpmy-help from-with YHWH maker of-heaven and-earth.
The verse is a chiasm:
A creation (hills)B whence comes my helpB’ my help is from the LordA creation (heaven and earth)
The psalmist does not look to nature for help! Those hills, after all, might be hiding some threat, some predator. The psalmist’s help comes from the very one who made the hills, the heavens and the earth: God! The hills may obscure some threat, but they also by their very existence bear witness to the creator.
A preacher could do worse than to try to render this confession of faith — “my help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth”– available to the congregation. That is often the best way to preach a psalm — to teach and preach about the prayer in order that the congregation may enter into the poem and become the speaker. If you gave people a chance to name the threats and fears they face, invite them to stare those fears down by saying these words out loud: My help comes from the Lord, who make heaven and earth.
The rest of the psalm is a blessing. The pronouns switch now from the first-person “my” and “I” of verses 1-2, to second-person singular “you” and “your.”
Many interpreters imagine a change of speaker, most likely a priestly figure — or at least someone speaking priestly words of blessing. The genre here is benediction. An under-utilized genre in our world.
Verses 3-8 have two parallel “legs.” The key word is keep/keeper — which translates the Hebrew word shamar. Although most English translations obscure this, in the first leg, the benediction uses the masculine, singular participial form: keeper. In the second leg, the form switching to the third, masculine, singular imperfect form: he will keep.
The following translation seeks to show the structure:
3 He will not let your foot be moved; your keeper will not slumber.4 Israel’s keeper will neither slumber nor sleep.5 The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.6 The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.7 The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.8 The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and for evermore.
The logical movement here is from God identity and character to God identifying and characteristic actions.
Who is God? God is a keeper. God’s identity is to protect, shield, watch over, guard, keep. God does this like a watchman keeping guard over a city (130:8) or a bird shielding its young in the shelter of his wings (91:4).
What does God promise to do? God promises to keep you. God will guard you as you go on your journey of life, and as you return home. As you go out and come in. As you face the dangers of the day and of the night.
The list of promises here is not meant to suggest that those who walk in the shelter of God will face no harm or that nothing ill will befall them. The Psalter knows all too well that the wicked are everywhere and that they thrive unjustly.
These promises, however, are meant as characteristic promises — these are the sort of things that the Lord does for those who rely on him. And the words of blessing and promise evoke God’s protection and our awareness of it.
For this reason, it is common for Jewish families to post Psalm 121 in the delivery room, or in baby carriages, or in a child’s room.
As noted above, the genre of blessing is under-utilized in today’s world. But I believe that every child of God should give and receive a blessing every day. In our home, we make the sign of the cross on each other’s forehead and bless each other every night before bed with words borrowed from the baptismal service. A friend of mine and his wife bless their kids every morning as they leave for school, likewise making the sign of the cross on each other and using baptismal words and images.
The words of Psalm 121 make a great blessing. Perhaps close the sermon by asking the congregation to bless each other, making the sign of the cross on each other and saying, “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time on and forevermore.”
Why would a preacher work with these pieces of a complex Pauline argument in her sermon?1
Perhaps because it puts before us a major understanding of what God was up to in Jesus and long before that, in Abraham. This chapter speaks to the very character of God. Granted, the vocabulary and speech patterns are not easy soundbites for contemporary audiences. Granted gospel narratives offer a more direct way into preaching. But this chapter, too, relies on a story that is part of a much bigger one.
The question wrestled with in this text is simply, “how big is Abraham’s family?” The answer Paul offers, derived from his reading of Genesis 15:5, is that Abraham’s family is as big as the numbers of persons who have faith in God. Jews are part of the family to be sure. So are Gentiles who believe that God has rescued them through the obedience (crucifixion and resurrection) of Jesus.
The translation of Romans 4:1 has been much debated. As Richard B. Hays persuasively argues1 4:1 is best rendered in two questions: “What then shall we say? Have we found Abraham to be our forefather according to the flesh?” Paul voices the second question in order to argue against it, a not unusual process for him. Paul believes that the text and order of events in Genesis 15 is crucial to a proper understanding of who is in Abraham’s family.
Paul’s answer to this question is delayed to the very end of our passage. In verses 16-17 Paul insists that humans are part of Abraham’s family through faith rather than physical descent. Christians throughout the New Testament are concerned over and over again to associate themselves with Abraham through this story. To be part of Abraham’s family by faith is to be an inheritor of God’s promises, to be in covenant relationship with God, to be “justified.” All these phrases are in apposition to each other. All of them describe who we are, whose we are.
Paul and other believers needed to establish how Gentiles, most of the folks reading this page, can be part of God’s covenant people without attention to the Torah. If God could simply cast aside all the covenant promises made to Abraham, David, and through the prophets in favor of a new people, it is God who is unreliable, indeed, unfaithful. And if God has been unfaithful to God’s word to the children of Abraham according to the flesh, why should anyone trust that God will be faithful in the future? So, it is really important that God’s promise be understood as from the beginning for a larger group than Abraham’s children according to the flesh. The breadth and depth of God’s promise, God’s fidelity to God’s own promise, and our ability to trust and hope in God are all at stake in this argument.
Paul’s writing in these verses again has the breathless quality of a sketch made in a hurry. It is an abbreviated summons. We can imagine him speaking these words. “So then,” he says, “from faith, so that on grace in order that the promise be firm to all the seed, not to [seed] from the law only, but also to [seed] from the faith of Abraham. It is Abraham’s faith that marks this family, a faith and a “mark” recorded in scripture and connected there explicitly to God’s promised blessing. This God of Abraham is faithful. In fact, it is precisely in sending the Holy Spirit on Abraham’s children NOT according to the flesh, that God fulfills promises made eons ago to Abraham.
This passage is so about why we dare to trust God. The answer is that this God does not create, make promises to and abandon a people. God binds Godself in the promises God makes. This is very good news for us, now in the twenty-first century who continue to long for God’s shalom in this world. It is also very good news for us, although challenging, to think about what other peoples God considers to be part of the family of Abraham by faith. What does faith look like? Surely the faith and faithfulness of the Gentiles would have been surprising to Abraham. What would surprise us, were we suddenly able to see who all is in God’s family?
Finally, a most important point is that this faithful God justifies the ungodly, not waiting for them to shape up first. In verses 5 and 17, God is identified as the one who justifies the ungodly, the one who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. “Once,” says the writer of 1 Peter 2:10, you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.” The meaning of this change is indicated by the next line, “Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” A people has been brought into being that had not existed. Paul identifies the God who has created a new people, a new part of the family through the faithfulness of and faith in Jesus the Messiah. This people participate in the life of God’s covenant family, those who receive mercy.
God did not and does not wait for us to become a people. “While we were yet sinners,” as Paul will say later in this letter, God brought us into relationship, gave us the gift of the Spirit, showed mercy, and in all that acted faithfully to the promises long made and never forgotten.