Lectionary Commentaries for March 11, 2018
Fourth Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 3:14-21

Samuel Cruz

This lectionary passage is probably among the most well known Christian scripture in the world, making it challenging for the preacher to find something “new” to say about the passage.

I am specifically referring to John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” If we are able to move beyond the historical “romanticizing” of this particular verse in this pericope we might find some new fertile and revolutionary ideas laden within it. The romanticizing I am referring to is the somewhat simplistic view that God gave Jesus to come to earth to save it with love and literally by sacrificing his body without attempting to rid the world of evil, but by magically saving people who “believed” in him.

Most likely John did not intend to promote such a simplistic view of the salvific trajectory. It is therefore necessary to ask some pertinent questions of him and/or this gospel lesson: What does believing in him (Jesus) mean? Why did Jesus need to come into the world? Was it because of sin? If indeed Jesus came to the world to save it from sin, what kind of sin? For John, sin seems to be concrete and structural (that is injustice, hate, lack of mercy, etc.) rather than individualistic.

If we read this lectionary passage within the context of the redaction of the gospel of John and consider all seven verses as seriously as John 3:16, we might discover the revolutionary nature of John’s words, rather than what appears to be a historical romantic understanding of God’s salvific act in this well-known passage. In my perspective the key to unravelling the meaning of these verses can be found in verses 19-21. John states:

19This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”

So God loves the world and he sends his child to (magically) save it or to “fix” it. To change the world or save it requires a process that ends hate, injustice, oppression and replaces it with justice, compassion, mercy, love, equality, etc. However, verses 19-21 tell us that some choose hate over light, evil deeds over good deeds, and therefore they reject the light of the son of God. Others, however agree with Jesus’ quest to change or restore the world to its original intent from a world full of evil and injustice to a loving, just and caring world. Therefore, for John, believing in Jesus has more to do with what people believe regarding evil, hate, exploitation, and injustice rather an esoteric “religious” conversion.

Rudolph Bultmann offers a helpful insight into John’s thinking on this matter: “In the decision of faith or unbelief it becomes apparent what man [sic] really is.”1 In other words, for Bultmann one’s disposition to do good reflects a person’s true character, philosophy or belief system, and therefore becomes a factor in determining whether one rejects or accepts (believes in) Jesus. We can conclude that for John, believing in/accepting Jesus’ message had more to do with agreeing with His teachings than with having some sort of change of heart. The challenge posed by the advent of Jesus is that we are called to a stance about whom we are, what we stand for, and what exactly we believe.

As Jose Porfirio Miranda, the late biblical exegete, states: “From the time Christ demonstrated what a person can be, our dissatisfaction with what we are has become torturous.”2 There are quite a few challenges in this reading of the text. The call for Christians to make decisions about the evils of hate, exploitation, and oppression that surround us seems quite obvious and necessary to me as I write these sermon notes.

Can we really stay neutral in the midst of wrongdoing? It seems that John was letting us know that whether or not to believe in Jesus cannot be a neutral decision. Jesus demands a stance, which requires active decision-making. Neutrality and indecisiveness are not an option. To follow Jesus requires the courage to swim upstream against the strong currents that carry society’s brutal and sinful ideologies.


Notes:

  1. Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John a Commentary. (Louisville: Westminster, 1971), 159.
  2. Jose Porfirio Miranda, Being and the Messiah: The message of St. John (Ossining: Orbis Books, 1977), 81.

First Reading

Commentary on Numbers 21:4-9

Cameron B.R. Howard

Nearly everything about this text feels far removed from 21st-century life.1

It chafes against both our theological sensibilities and our scientific good sense. Surely God does not send poisonous snakes to punish human beings for their missteps? Certainly just looking at a bronze snake does not assuage a medical ailment like snakebite. Where is the anti-venom? Where is the splint? And where is the God with whom we feel safe and comfortable?

The Hebrews who wandered through the wilderness did not experience God as a safe and comfortable companion. In the great showdown with Pharaoh in Exodus 1-14, God sends ten vicious plagues to show the superiority of the God of Israel over Egypt’s gods, including Pharaoh, who made his own claims to divinity. On the way out of Egypt, God appears as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of cloud by night, a sight that incites panic in the Egyptians (Exodus 13:21, 14:24). At Sinai, God thunders on the mountain in fire and smoke, terrifying the Israelites (Exodus 19:18, 20:18-1). These are not the images of God that call us to snuggle up in God’s everlasting arms, “safe and secure from all alarms,” as the old hymn goes.

Despite these great displays of God’s power, the Israelites do not have much confidence that God will, in fact, deliver them into the Promised Land. It only takes three verses to move from their songs of triumph (Exodus 15:1-21) to their first grumbling (Exodus 15:24). In this week’s text from Numbers, the peoples’ complaint sounds like something that could be attributed to Yogi Berra: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food (lechem) and no water, and we detest this miserable food (lechem)” (verse 5). In other words, we don’t have any food, and it tastes terrible, too! (The wording of the complaint is also vaguely reminiscent of the wonderful line from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck tries to speak well of a farmer-preacher by proclaiming that he “never charged nothing for his preaching, and it was worth it, too.”)

In the text of Numbers 21, the utterance of the complaint is immediately followed by the statement, “Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died” (verse 6). Neither the narrator nor God ever explicitly says that God sent the snakes because the people complained. That causality does seem to be implied, especially because the people themselves name their “speaking against” God and Moses as the ultimate source of their suffering (verse 7). The narrative specifies that God sends the snakes, but never does either God or the narrator call the snakes a punishment; the people themselves draw that conclusion.

I wonder if the Israelites might have fallen into the old post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy: “after this, therefore because of this.” Maybe God did not send the snakes because of their quarreling after all. Crying out to God in complaint is not usually condemned in Scripture; there is a whole genre of psalms that centers on complaint or lament! Of course, there are times in Scripture when “speaking against” God or God’s messenger does bring catastrophe. When Miriam and Aaron “speak against” Moses’ Cushite wife, Miriam is stricken with a skin disease (Numbers 12:1-16), and God’s anger is clearly described as the cause. Even so, in this week’s reading, we, like the Israelites themselves, are left to draw our own conclusions. Is God punishing the people with the snakes? If God sent the snakes, then surely the people deserved it?! Otherwise there was no discernible reason, and now this God is much less predictable, much less safe, than we ever could have imagined.

The people name their sin and then ask Moses to pray for them. This role as intermediary is what Moses does best: facilitating communication between God and God’s people. In this story, God does not give the people what they ask for. They want Moses to get God to “take away the serpents from us” (Numbers 21:7). But the serpents do not go away, nor do they stop biting. Instead, God instructs Moses on how to heal the people who are bitten; they are still bitten, but they live. Deliverance does not come in the way that they expect.

As 21st-century Christians it may take us out of our comfort zones to imagine God as a dangerous, unpredictable presence in our lives. Yet, if we claim that we’ve got God all figured out, then we have ignored the mystery and divine freedom with which God is characterized throughout much of Scripture. A domesticated, unmoving God does not pull a people out of slavery, through the wilderness, and into the Promised Land; no, we need a God who is, in those oft-repeated words of Don Juel, “on the loose!”

Moses’ serpent-on-a-pole shows up again in the Old Testament, at 2 Kings 18:4: “[Hezekiah] removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.” The Israelites had forgotten the living, free, dangerous God who commanded the construction of the serpent of the wilderness, and they focused instead on a bronzed, domesticated, manufactured idol that they could see and understand. Perhaps it is the task of preaching to break up our bronzed serpents and to turn our attention instead to the God of the wilderness: dangerous, maybe, and unpredictable for sure, but always present, always faithful.


Notes

1 Commentary first published on this site on March 15, 2015.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 107, classified as a community hymn of praise, was most likely a liturgy of thanks offered by worshipers at a festival at the temple in Jerusalem.1

The psalm opens in verses 1-3 with  an instruction to the people to give thanks to God because God, in goodness and steadfast love (hesed), has redeemed them from the hand of the oppressor and gathered them in “from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (verse 3) — from all points of the compass.

These words would have been particularly poignant to the people of Jerusalem in the postexilic period. After fifty years of captivity in Babylon, they had indeed been “gathered in” by God to their ancestral home.

Four groups of people appear in stories, brief vignettes, narrated in verses 4-32 of Psalm 107. Together they represent, perhaps, the “redeemed of the LORD” mentioned in verse 2. Verses 4-9, “from the east,” tell of a group of wanderers, lost in the desert, who finally arrive at their destination. Verses 10-16, “from the west,” relate the story of prisoners who are set free. Verses 17-22, “from the north,” tell of “sick” persons who are healed. And verses 23-32, “from the south,” are about a group of sailors who are saved from shipwreck.  Each vignette follows a precise format:

  • a description of the distress (verses 4-5, 10-12, 17-18, 23-27);
  • a prayer to the Lord (verses 6, 13, 19, 28)
  • details of the delivery (verses 7, 14, 19-20, 29)
  • an expression of thanks (verses 8-9, 15-16, 21-22, 30-32)

In each vignette, the “prayer to the Lord” and the “expression of thanks” are identical

Then they cried aloud (tsa’aq in verses 6, 28; za’aq in verses 13, 19) to the Lord because of their oppression, and from their depths he delivered them (verses 6, 13, 19, 28).

They will give thanks to the Lord for his steadfast love (hesed) for his wondrous works for the children of humanity (verses 8, 15, 21, 31).

The repetition of words in the vignettes provides further evidence that the psalm was most likely used in a liturgical setting, in which groups of worshipers recited the words of Psalm 107 antiphonally with presiding priests.

Are the four vignettes actual accounts of deliverance by the Lord sung in celebration at a festival? Or is the psalm purely a literary composition, with the four groups representing, in the words of James L. Mays, in his 1994 Psalm commentary in the Interpretation series, “all those who have experienced the redemption of the Lord”? Whether the vignettes narrate real events or are metaphoric examples, the words of Psalm 107 are heartfelt words of celebration of divine deliverance. 

Verses 17-22, the focus of this lectionary reading, comprise the third vignette of Psalm 107, narrating the story of those redeemed “from the north.”  The verses speak of ones who were “sick because of their sinful ways, (who) because of their iniquities endured affliction.” The word translated “sick” in the New Revised Standard Version (from the Hebrew root ‘awal) actually means “foolish ones.” The people of the ancient Near East associated sickness with foolishness or sin and understood it as God’s punishment for sin (see Psalms 32:1-5 and 38:3, 5). 

In the books of the prophets, the north, the third direction mentioned in 107:3 — and, thus, the direction from which the affliction originated in the third vignette of Psalm 107, was often depicted as the direction from which the punishment of God came to the ancient Israelites. The prophet Jeremiah saw “a boiling pot, tilted away from the north” of which God said, “out of the north disaster shall break out on all the inhabitants of the land” (1:13-14). In Ezekiel 9, God summons the executioners of Jerusalem and they “came from the direction of the upper gate, which faces north” (9:2).

In the midst of their oppression, the ones who are “sick” cry out the Lord, and the Lord sends comforting words and rescues from the pits. The rescued ones then offer sacrifices of thanks and recount God’s deeds with shouts of joy. When thank sacrifices were offered to God in ancient Israel, the priests and the worshippers shared in a communal meal of gratitude for God’s goodness. Thus those who had abhorred food and arrived at the gates of death taste life-giving nourishment once again.

The Israelites wandering in the wilderness after escaping from Egypt constantly complained of a lack of food and water.  In Numbers 21:5, they say to Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Perennial complaining — we can all identify — resulted in a plague of poisonous snakes. The remedy was an icon, a reminder of their God, who could deliver from any threatening circumstance, whether poisonous snakes or lack of food and water.

We may never find ourselves literally wandering in a desert wasteland (Psalm 107:4-9), forced to dwell in a place of deep darkness (Psalm 107:10-16), sick to the point of death (Psalm 107:17-22), caught in a tumultuous storm at sea (Psalm 107:23-32), or confronted by poisonous creatures who threaten our lives (Numbers 21:6), but each of us have faced or will face those times when we need desperately the redeeming hand of God. 

Psalm 107 gives us insight into how to handle those times: Recognize the situation you are in; cry out to God and tell God what you need; accept the deliverance that God brings; and then give thanks to God. And in the end, remember that God, not any earthly strength or power, can provide a “habitable” place for us and allow us to live the good life that God has given to us.

But what about others? What about those who wander in the wilderness and are sick to the point of death through no fault of their own? What about those who are battered by the storms of life? Yes, we can cry out to God; yes, we can hope in God’s good provisions.

But we must never forget that those of us who have ample resources and strength are called to be the arms and legs, the hands and feet, the voice of God in this world. God will redeem from the east and the west, from the north and from the south; but the redemption of God often takes human form. And isn’t that what Lent is all about?


Notes

1 Commentary first published on this site on March 18, 2012.


Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 2:1-10

Israel Kamudzandu

What is the urgency of reconciliation as the summation of the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Whether Ephesians was authored by Paul or his disciple, the practical theological implications of the letter cannot be doubted. The message of the entire letter revolves around reconciliation of the human family under the authority of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:20-23). In Ephesians 2:1-10, Paul portrays a picture of the old era when Gentiles had not yet known God or their life before Jesus Christ. Paul raises this life before Christ, as a way of opening readers to the theological and faith formation implications of life after resurrection; a life whose focus is on the gospel of salvation which beckons people to inclusion and unity.

The picture for readers is to imagine a building contractor whose responsibility is to clear the area of dirty materials before even laying a foundation for a large house with many office spaces. In this new house constructed by God, Paul invites all people, Jews and Gentiles, to be part of the house in which God, Son, and the Holy Spirit dwells. In this household, humanity is invited to know their best gift, talent, and skill and to apply these skills in such a way that they fully function according to their God given gifts. Knowing one’s gift is a liberating way to live, work, and function alongside others in a way that builds God’s Kingdom here on earth (verse.10). The message of the letter is that peace and harmony is possible when people cease to live in alienation. Reading Ephesians 2:1-10 is like a commentary of Colossians 1:1-20 where the Christ event is believed to be God’s eschatological vision of uniting “all things” in cosmic harmony, of which the “Trinitarian life,” is possible (Ephesians 1:10).

In a world torn apart by violence, HIV/AIDS, terrorism, theological differences, church declining, poverty, hate, hunger, and human sexuality, a rereading and interpretation of Ephesians is urgently needed. The message of this chapter brings into perspective the importance of Christians to remain God’s mission and refuse to allow differences to obstruct them from participating in the vision of the missio dei. Thus, we as readers of this letter are spiritually and faithfully called to discern the right question in the midst of so many global questions. It is not just a question of God’s mission but also to discern the role and function of the church as the physical manifestation of God’s spirit where all believers use their spiritual giftedness in the building of the church of the body of Christ.

The implications of Paul’s message rests on the understanding that God’s greatness is seen in the unity and working together of difference brought together by the power of the resurrection (Ephesians 1:22-23). Thus, Ephesians 2:1-10 lays the theological foundation of the letter because readers are faced with the power that draws them into the heart of God’s love, and consequently into reconciliation with others. The faithful death and resurrection of Jesus comes full circle in this passage as the power of God to reverse human alienation in order to bring about reconciliation and peace between Jews and Gentiles.

The function of the cross was to tear down walls of alienation which divided nations and peoples of the world, and brought into effect a new humanity whose identity is in Christ (Ephesians 2:6-17, see also 2:14-15). The mystery of the passage centers on the formation of a new humanity who are identified as God’s chosen people. In Romans, Paul refers to this new humanity as the “Israel of God,” or a living temple in which God’s spirit dwells.

What this passage reveals is the central role of the cross or the Christ event. Jesus Christ becomes the means through which the unity of “all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth,” are made possible (Ephesians 1:10). The global church is longing for this mysterious cosmic reconciliation of all peoples and nations. If this is the case, we can call Ephesians the letter of reconciliation, whose main focus is to invite the church to exemplify unity in the midst of diversity.

The challenge of hearing Ephesians is that churches in the 21st-century seem to be reversing the message of unity because walls of hostility are being erected around issues of human sexuality, poverty, hunger, and HIV/AIDS. Theologically, the church is challenged to rethink its evolving identity as the people of God where individuals can use their spiritual gifts to build bridges of unity with others. Second, this passage invites people to know and identify their God given place in the ecclesial context and see their function within the entire faith community.

The church can help people know their place in the new creation and empower them to manifest their gifts and talents in the transformation of the world. Each Christian believer has to realize that God has a role for them to play, and if one fails to function in their role, somethings may not be done. In essence, Ephesians calls all people, nations, women, men, youth, and adults to find their place in God’s mission.

The human response is deeply needed at the end of the letter because Paul reminds readers that, “For by grace you have been saved by faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God — not because of works, lest any person should boast.” The intelligence and gifts we have are all from God, but humanity has to know the gifts and be able use the gifts for the sake of God’s mission (Ephesians 2:10).