Lectionary Commentaries for September 14, 2014
Holy Cross Sunday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 3:13-17

Angela Zimmann

After the bell rang to end the busy school day, a group of elementary students met weekly for “Good News Club”: sugar cookies, fruit punch, songs with funny arm motions, and flannel-graph Bible stories drew us in on those Wednesday afternoons in 1980.

And the prizes! Who could resist a plastic kazoo, a brightly-colored bookmark, a lollipop — the sweet rewards for rote learning of Holy Scripture.

As a seven-year-old child, I dutifully memorized and recited John 3:16, using the best King James language I could muster: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

“Whosoever believeth … should not perish.”

Eighty-four times, in the Gospel of John translated into English, does some variation of the verb “believe” appear. Contrast this with the other three Gospels combined, in which belief/believers appears only thirty-one times. Clearly, the Johannine author seeks to stress the significant concept of belief in the life of a follower of Jesus Christ — not simply in this verse, but throughout the Gospel.

But what is the nature of this “belief” without which we will perish?

Is belief synonymous with strict adherence to thick theological doctrine? Publicly-declared acceptance of a carefully-delineated faith tradition? A warm feeling in the heart, a clear-headed logic in the mind? A decision made of free-will? A gift of the Holy Spirit?

And why is the writer of this Gospel more concerned than the others with foregrounding the importance of belief?

These are not simply theoretical questions meant for dusty library debates. In emergency rooms, at funerals, in the push-and-pull of parish life, the men and women in our pews struggle with these questions, and the nagging doubts: do I believe? Do I believe enough? What about my loved ones who don’t profess belief? Will they perish? The Bible says so, doesn’t it?

Preachers, we might be inclined to skip on ahead to verse seventeen in order to reassure our listeners of the beneficence of God: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).1

But we do a disservice to the Word of God and we are not serious theologians if we do not engage with the text of John 3:16. There are those passages, or portions of passages, that we might wish to avoid. This ubiquitous text demands a compassionate, informed, and nuanced reflection, a careful and thoughtful proclamation of the gospel.

To begin, consider the original meaning of the Greek word translated as “belief” or “believe”: pistis/pisteo.Pisteo” is fully grounded in relationship. To “believe” is not simply a mental exercise, but “an all-embracing relationship, an attitude of love and trust in God.”2 The connection between God and humanity is central to the notion of “pisteo.” The growing relationship between Jesus and the community, the signs and wonders which permeate the Gospel of John (2:1-11, 4:43-54, 5:1-9, 6:1-5, 6:16-25, 9:1-41, 11:1-44), and finally the eschatological event, embolden and enable such belief.

Immediately prior to this lectionary text, the encounter takes place between Jesus and Nicodemus. The relationship of the incarnate God and the man Nicodemus is tenuous at best; not well-developed. And their conversation concludes with Jesus asking a question of Nicodemus, a question that hangs between them, unanswered: “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” (John 3:12). Nicodemus is not grounded in a trusting relationship with Jesus.

We are created for community, as evidenced throughout all of Scripture, beginning with the creation story in Genesis and concluding with the thronging multitudes in Revelation (7:9). Without relationships and community, we are destined to perish. Although our society often trumpets the merits of rugged, meritocratic individualism, none of us survive in isolation.

Our deepest, truest bond is that which we have with God-made-manifest, Jesus Christ. As we grow in that dynamic relationship, as we witness the wonders and miracles, our “belief” grows. In a vacuum, devoid of agape love, we languish. Perish, perhaps.

The homiletical significance here is clear: we need not focus, nor encourage our congregants to focus on a dry, confessional system of rules and beliefs. Instead, the living water, the light of the world, the good shepherd who tends the sheep, beckons us into the most trusting of covenantal relationships. Just as our bodies require water to live, to avoid perishing, so our souls thirst for the living water, the relationship with our Creator.

Indeed, this relationship with God is what gives us salvation; it is not a box into which we must step — rather, we step out of the confining box and in to the freedom of relationship with the Holy.

All too often, John 3:16 is used to bludgeon non-believers. That’s not good, and it is as senseless as running around and threatening human beings that without water, they will die. Of course we will perish without water — and so our good God provides water and, moreover, the thirst which drives us to it.

John 3:16 is not a threat. It is a promise. Preach it as such.


1 Of course, John 3:18 further muddies the waters, but is not included in the lectionary of the day.

2 Palmer, G.E.H; Sherrard; Ware, Kallistos (Timothy). The Philokalia, Vol. 4.

First Reading

Commentary on Numbers 21:4b-9

Elizabeth Webb

The text for today doesn’t seem like altogether good news.1

Trudging through the seemingly never-ending wilderness, with nothing to eat or drink but miserable manna, the people speak against God and Moses. And how does God respond? By afflicting them with venomous snakes. The people beg Moses to intercede, and he does, and God, rather than removing the snakes, sends a cure for snakebite. They’ll still get bitten; that danger doesn’t go away, although God does offer healing if they look in the right direction.

It would be fairly easy to gloss over the aspects of this passage that we find troubling, and focus on God sending healing right where we need it. There’s no doubt that such is a part of the meaning of this text. But it’s not all of it, and it doesn’t recognize the harsh realities that the text holds up for our attention. What’s happening in this passage is that the exodus generation is being weeded out and replaced by a new generation. The book of Numbers is coming to terms with the fact that the old generation will not see God’s promises come to fruition. On this long, dangerous journey, some simply will not reach the destination.

Scholars agree that Numbers has two distinct sections, marked off by two censuses. The first census is in chapter one, in which the descendants of each of the twelve tribes are named, up to the present generation. With the exception of Joshua and Caleb, none of these men will live to inhabit Canaan (14:28-30). The second census, in chapter 26, names the generation that will be poised on the edge of Canaan when the book reaches its end.

Between the two censuses, among stories of battle and ritual regulations, the people repeatedly complain and rebel against Moses. God’s anger is kindled by this rebellion, and God sends a plague (11:33), inflicts Miriam with leprosy (12:10), and more than once asserts that this complaining generation will die out before Canaan is reached (14:20-25 and 28-35; 20:12). It’s as if God is picking off the older generation a little bit at a time; Moses admits as much, when he urges God not to kill them all at once (14:13-19).

The narrative of the snakes in chapter 21 is of a piece with these stories of complaining and rebellion. This time, however, the people speak out not only against Moses but against God as well. There is no water, and the manna which God has provided for them is, as the people say, “miserable.” Earlier the people looked back with rose-colored glasses at the abundant foods they left behind in Egypt (fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, garlic!); now they’re stuck with food that tastes like “cakes baked with oil” (11.9), and they have had enough. The people may sound like spoiled children, but their complaints are not light; they have been in the wilderness of Kadesh for 40 years, and they don’t seem to have made much progress.

Unlike the narrative of the flood, where God is moved by grief, here we can assume, because of previous references in Numbers to God’s anger, it is indeed anger, inspired by the people’s lack of trust that God will provide, that moves God to send poisonous snakes. Many of the Israelites are killed by the snakes, and the people repent and plead with Moses to intercede on their behalf.  Moses does intercede, and God instructs him to make a serpent of bronze and put it on a pole; all who look at the bronze snake are healed. Remember, though, that even those who are healed will not live to reach Canaan.

One of the most difficult questions that this text clearly raises is that of the character of God. What kind of God is this who inflicts death on people for their lack of trust? Recall that the people have been to Sinai; they have received the law and are bound in covenant with God. Their lack of faith is, to the writers of this passage, a violation of the covenant, and therefore worthy of punishment. But God does also provide the remedy. It is notable that God does not remove the snakes, but provides a means for healing in the midst of danger. God brings healing precisely where the sting is the worst.

Another question that this text raises is what to make of the failure of the exodus generation to reach the Promised Land. The narratives of rebellion in which God sends disaster upon some of the people function in large part to give theological meaning to the historical reality of the dying out of the earlier generation. The lack of faith they exhibited in the wilderness, the logic goes, rendered them unfit to inhabit the land. But what I find remarkable about the Israelites is simply the fact that they go on.

How do they do this? In the midst of their desperation at a journey that was even more arduous than they ever would have imagined, how did they go on? How would we, how do we, go on when faced with a similar circumstance? What do we do when something for which we have hoped and prayed and labored recedes farther and farther into the distance? If someone never reaches the financial security he or she has worked so hard for, if another is never able to heal a relationship that is long broken, if I never quite become the person I’ve imagined myself to be — what then?

Again God’s provision of healing in this passage is instructive. Even in our worst failures and disappointments, God provides. God offers healing for our wounds, relationship for our loneliness, and faithfulness for our faithlessness. God doesn’t remove the sources of our suffering, but God makes the journey with us, providing what we most deeply need, if we but look in the right direction.


1. This commentary originally posted for Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 18, 2012.


Commentary on Psalm 78:1-2, 34-38

LarsOlov Eriksson

Psalm 78 is the second longest psalm in the Psalter; only psalm 119 is longer.

The psalm is often called historical, and it is an instruction or meditation in poetic form about how to live a godly life. The theme of the psalm is the relationship between God and his people. It describes the life of the Israelites from the time in Egypt to the election of David as king.

Since the psalm is very long, it is radically abridged in the lectionary. Only the two introductory verses and five verses in the middle of the psalm are chosen for the day.

The story is not told in chronological order, since the aim of the psalmist is not to write history. It is rather to give examples for coming generations how not to act. History is related in order to understand the present. In that sense the psalm is a mirror for the reader/listener. The content of the psalm is built on contrasts.

The beginning of the psalm is unusual in that it is not addressed to God but to “my people,” i. e. to those who listen to the teacher. The wording is remindful of that in the wisdom traditions of the Old Testament.

The teaching is called “parable” and ”dark sayings” (verse 2). The first word suggests something of importance, the second expression can also be translated ”mysteries” or ”riddles.” The intention is to make clear from the beginning that what follows is more than a retelling of history. There is something to learn from history, and that’s what the psalmist wants to stress.

Verses 34–37 are part of the section in the psalm where the Israelites in the desert are in focus. The picture of the people is not a flattering one. Israel on its way to the promised land is a history of constant trouble. The people are disobedient. It is only when God is forced to be harsh and punishes the Israelites that they return to God and ask for his help. The pattern is well-known from other parts of the Old Testament, from both the historical books and the prophetic literature.

The people knew that God was their rock and redeemer (verse 35), but their memory of this was short. Very soon after a conversion they were back to ”normal” again; and normal in their case was disobedience, lies, and an unsteady heart.

In contrast to the people, God is depicted as compassionate, forgiving, and mild (verse 38). The verse is not only the key verse in the psalm, it is also — according to the Masoretes — the center verse of the Psalter.1

In the following God’s reactions and actions are further described, and so are the people’s actions. The contrast between the two — God and the Israelites — is hammered in. The psalmist’s aim is clear: he wants his listeners to have trust in God and to follow God’s commandments. And the wisdom teacher knows that ”Forgiveness because of mercy is what keeps the story och God and human beings going.”2

Preaching the psalm on Holy Cross Sunday could take as a starting point three observations from the psalm.

The first is the introduction where the words ”teaching” (verse 1) and ”mysteries” (verse 2) are central. The word ”teaching” indicates that the psalm should be seen as instruction, which means that the sermon on this day could also take that form. The word ”mysteries” could be a starting point for talking about the greatest mystery of all: the cross of Jesus and what that meant for everybody (Ephesians 2:16; cf. 1 Corinthians 2:1–2).

The second observation from the psalm relates to the content of verses 34–37. Here the people’s disobedience is contrasted to God’s faithfulness. In a sermon these verses could help illustrate the similarities between God’s people then and now. It is a common insight that one of the most important reasons a person starts asking for God is when he or she is in trouble. Without being too moralistic, it is still a truth that trouble can either help us come closer to the Lord or it can alienate us from him.

The third observation comes from what is stated about God in verse 38. Since this is the central verse of the psalm, it could well be so also in the sermon. Here God’s unconditional mercy is stated against the background of his people’s behavior. God could have chosen wrath, but he chose compassion and forgiveness. Theologically speaking he poured out his wrath on the one on the cross, who was made sin (2 Corinthians 5:21) in order that all sinners for all times do not have to take the punishment of their sins. From now on there is always the possibility of forgiveness, of starting all over again, of conversion — or whatever way we choose to express this most central theme of the psalm and Christian faith.

Strightly speaking, what is said about our Lord in verse 38 is our only hope. And the sign of this is the holy cross upon which Jesus died.


1 John Goldingay, Psalms Volume 2: Psalms 42–89 (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2007), 500.

2 James Luther Mays, Psalms (Interpretation; Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox, 1994), 258.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:18-24

Mary Hinkle Shore

The reading begins with a reference to “the message of the cross” (NRSV) or the “word of the cross” (RSV).1

In Greek, the words are ho logos ho tou staurou. Alexandra Brown points out how curious the phrase would sound, both to Jews and Greeks. “For Jews, the logos was the law and Wisdom … For Greeks, the logos signified the reason behind the cosmic order and the advances of philosophy in understanding that order.”2 Brown concludes, “This ‘logos of the cross’ constitutes a contradiction in terms offensive both to the reasoned and to the religious mind.”

This contradiction gets exactly to Paul’s point. The message about the cross is confounding to the wisest of human minds. Yet what appears as foolishness (see 1 Corinthians 1:23) is really “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24).

Still, it is far-fetched. This would be especially true for people like the Corinthians. If Paul’s discussion of knowledge in 1 Corinthians 8 can be taken to represent them more or less fairly, some of them at least were impressed with their own knowledge. Paul knows he cannot win an argument based on who has the more reasonable position, so he speaks of God’s wisdom as only really making sense in an entirely different realm. He contrasts “the wisdom of the world” with “the foolishness of our proclamation,” with the advantage going to God’s foolishness.

At first Paul’s argument sounds like a series of baseless assertions. Paul agrees that the message of the cross is, from any normal human vantage point, foolishness, but nonetheless asserts God’s wisdom in it. The text seems to go around in circles: if you think the cross is foolishness, your conclusion just proves that you are perishing.

After wandering in assertion for a while, Paul makes two publicly accessible arguments. First, Paul directs his readers back to the prophets. This upending of human wisdom on God’s part is not without precedent! In fact, it is arguably in character for God. Through the prophet Isaiah, God had said, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart” (Isaiah 29:14).

A God who used the nations to execute judgment on Israel — and then stopped the nations in their tracks — could certainly use the cross and Paul’s preaching of the same to enact salvation for Jew and Greek alike. In the distant past, God’s wisdom was confounding to conventional human wisdom.

So it is also in the recent past. “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters,” Paul says. This begins the second of his arguments in support of the point that God’s wisdom is not the world’s wisdom.

Though we do not know the precise demographic makeup of the Corinthian church, the scholarly consensus follows Wayne Meeks’s conclusion in The First Urban Christians that Paul’s congregations included a mix of social classes with all except people of the very highest and very lowest social locations likely represented. In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul does not say, “None of you were wise by human standards,” but rather, “Not many of you.”

Perhaps a few people in the congregation were wise, powerful, and/or of noble birth. Maybe a few would actually win the wisdom and power game if played according to the world’s rules. But most of them would not, and quite apart from the question of how God might be at work in Christ, Paul’s observations imply that most of the Corinthian congregation — who have themselves not been all that wise or powerful by the world’s standards — should perhaps ask themselves if they really want to play by those rules. If they were to stay firmly planted in the old aeon and its value structures, would they not be seen as foolish for a whole other set of reasons?

David Lose and others talk about preaching as telling the truth twice: preachers tell us the truth in terms of our distance from God’s vision of life for us, and preachers tell us the truth again of God’s work to bridge that distance and raise us up to that life. There is a great foolishness in the Corinthians putting on airs as they seem to be doing, enthralled with their own importance, their own wisdom, strength, knowledge, and so on. The first truth about them is that they are self-impressed little people. I work with a native of the American South who sometimes describes people who are similarly self-impressed by saying, “He thinks he’s all that and a bag of chips.”

The second truth? “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” (1 Corinthians 1:27). The three sentences about God’s choosing start out sounding like they are about God’s choice of the Corinthians. As they continue, their referent is not so clear. Is the topic God’s choice of the Corinthians, or God’s choice of the cross?

By the last of the sentences that begin, “God chose… ” the cross and Christ’s death on the cross are again Paul’s focus: “God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:28). God’s choices of the Corinthians and of the cross merge until each of them helps to make sense of the other, and both of them look to be in character for God.

God chooses the way God chooses not just to demonstrate the capacity to upend the status quo, as if God were saying by these choices, “I’m bigger than you.” God chooses the foolish/weak/nothing in order to upend the status quo and in order to create life. “[God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus,” Paul says (1 Corinthians 1:30), and then he describes the life we share with Christ in terms of righteousness, sanctification and redemption.

Each of these experiences — righteousness, sanctification, and redemption — is a window on the upside-down foolish wisdom of God. That is to say, not just at the start of our life in Christ when we receive his righteousness, but throughout it as he works holiness in and through our lives, until even our death is redeemed, God is forever confounding conventional wisdom.


1. This commentary originally posted for Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Feb. 2, 2014.

2. “Apocalyptic Transformation in Paul’s Discourse on the Cross,” Word & World 16 [1996]: 432.