Lectionary Commentaries for March 16, 2014
Second Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 3:1-17

Robert Hoch

If Nicodemus comes under cover of darkness, it is darkness disturbed by peculiar light.

According to Gail R. O’Day, Nicodemus comes to Jesus with a set of convictions about what is real, what is possible: “We know that you are a teacher come from God…”

Of course, initially, this strikes us as promising. However, it is precisely what Nicodemus knows that becomes a stumbling block — or a darkness to which he clings — and that knowledge obscures his ability to hear and receive the testimony of the one speaking to him.1

Indeed, Nicodemus is reduced to incredulous outbursts of disbelief and astonishment:

  • “How can anyone be born after having grown old? (4a)
  • “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (4b)
  • “How can these things be?” (9)

Though he comes under cover of night, the deeper darkness of unbelief obscures the vision of Nicodemus.

My first impression of this text was that, somehow, Jesus seemed at once present to Nicodemus and yet oddly removed. While the dialogue starts intimately enough, Jesus’ answers almost detach from the back-and-forth in verses 9-10. Indeed, some scholars speculate that the writer of John intends the material beginning with verse 16 and continuing to verse 21 as commentary on Christ rather than Christ’s response to Nicodemus.

Maybe but probably not, says O’Day: John’s unwavering focus on Jesus the Word made flesh, the one who speaks with you now (4:26), suggests that John intends for readers to hear this as Jesus’ word about himself.2

Leaving that to one side, what are we to make of Nicodemus’ reactions? On the one hand, as many interpreters will suggest, Nicodemus suffers from assigning a too literal significance to Jesus’ words, specifically anothen, which, as O’Day reminds us, can mean both “from above” and “again,” or “anew.”

In a sense, the dialogue around anothen reflects a dispute about whether two meanings or only one can inhere in a single word. The NRSV implies two meanings but prefers one over the other, pushing the “alternative” meaning (physical rebirth) into the footnote. The NRSV accents the symbolic or spiritual aspect of the metaphor of new birth, and thus renders the Greek as “born from above. . . ” (3b). NRSV repeats its preference for “born from above” in verse 7, again offering the alternative translation, “born anew” in the tiny font of a footnote. By contrast, the NIV reverses the preferences, exiling “born from above” to the footnote and awarding primacy to “born again.”

O’Day believes that to understand this text rightly, we will need to hear both meanings rather than either one or the other: “‘To be born anothen’ speaks both of a time of birth (‘again’) and the place from which this new birth is generated (‘from above’).”3

When I shared this text with my daughter, nine years old, the idea of being born from above seemed too abstract. But when I asked her if it was possible for her younger brother, three years old, to return to his mother’s belly in order to be born all over again, she laughed: “Nooooo … he wouldn’t fit and plus he couldn’t see anything!”

We all laughed. And I think that small experiment in reader response criticism might lead me to prefer the more literal translation: it seems to make Nicodemus’ objections recognizable, at least to our nine-year-old.

But I’m not quite prepared to surrender “born from above” to the footnotes. Why? For one, Nicodemus wasn’t amused. He was “astonished” and incredulous, as if taking offense at a solemn promise to be enacted by God: “Impossible!” snaps Nicodemus.

We might remember other instances of laughter in the Old Testament, where God’s promises seemed laughable, if not worthy of cutting derision. Think of Sarah, her body beyond the age of childbirth. When visited the by the three strangers, she overhears the promise, “You will have a son in your old age.” She laughs, guffaws in disbelief.

Or think of another woman too deeply acquainted with the way the world to entertain the improbable way of God’s future through Ruth, a Moabite and historic enemy of Israel. Naomi, her name changed to Bitter. On the way back from Moab. Ruined. An old woman now. No sons. No husband. Two daughters. Moabites.

She says to her daughters-in-law, “Our roads part ways here. You know how it is as well as I do. You’re still young. Find security in your own country, among your own kind, with your own gods.”When her widowed daughters-in-law plead with her, she answers them, “Are there sons in my womb that you may marry them?” Impossible, she sighs. Impossible and even nonsensical.

John Calvin declares that the mind of Nicodemus was “filled with many thorns, choked by many noxious herbs…”4 Thorns of bitter truth which, perhaps, have become so completely normative that any alternative seems bitterly nonsensical.

Many sermons will move too quickly to the final assurance of this text: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” (verse 16). Moving too quickly to this verse, while rightly beloved by the faithful, gives the illusion that our struggle with knowing and believing can be easily reconciled.

What if before going there, we lingered more intentionally and empathetically with Nicodemus, with Naomi, or Sarah? Specifically, with their knowledge of the world and its ways?

Perhaps if we did we would begin to appreciate the real resistance we experience when we hear God’s promises.

What if those promises seem as nonsensical to us as they did to Nicodemus, Naomi, or Sarah? How can we possibly receive those promises if we do not, finally, understand them, not at least in the way the world is accustomed to understanding?

One clue to our question appears in the work of London-based writer, Susanna Howard. She works with dementia patients, people who, in the language of science, are largely defined by irretrievable losses of neurological function: loss of speech, loss of language, loss of identity, loss of mind.

For the past six years, she has been engaged in the art of listening to the words of people who suffer with dementia. She calls the project, Living Words:

It can be extremely hard for words to come and we validate all words and sounds that are uttered [by dementia patients] — words and expressions that seem nonsense can in fact be directly metaphoric, or just need to be said. For example, a person will use words that wouldn’t be used in ordinary conversation: “Everything was all packed up and plopped over with”; “These people, in to the third act”; “Some round here are all embers”; “They don’t say much this tribe.” In not finding the “right” word people might use replacement words without realising.

While others often see only loss, she sees a life to be honored: “I very much believe that this is life and to be embraced — only through engaging in the darkness do we see who we really are and glimpse what this life is.”When she finished her first collection of poems by a woman with advanced dementia, the woman took her hand and said, “Now you know two worlds, the one outside and the one inside in me and you must go and tell all the people.”5

It was a gift, a mission handed to her under cover of that darkness, a darkness disturbed by improbable illumination.


Notes:

Gail R. O’Day, “John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 9: Luke John, ed. Leander E. Keck, et. al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 549-50.

 Ibid., 548.

Ibid., 549.

John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, Vol. 1, trans. William Pringle (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1843), 107.

Stephen Dowling, “Poems Offer Glimpse into Dementia Patients’ Inner Lives” in BBC News, 6 September 2013, http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20130906-poems-offer-glimpse-into-dementia, accessed on 16 November 2013.


First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 12:1-4a

Juliana Claassens

Genesis 12 is a chapter of new beginnings.

Following the introductory chapters of Israel’s Urgeschichte in Genesis 1-11, we meet Abraham in Genesis 12 who will become in subsequent chapters the father of a large nation. But in this chapter, one only sees the uncertain beginnings of a family who find themselves at the threshold of a new tomorrow.

This short pericope begins with God’s command to Abraham to go from his country, from his family, from his father’s house, to the land that God will show him. This divine command implies leaving all that is familiar behind to face an uncertain future.

The call to Abraham though does not come alone. It is important to note that God’s command is accompanied with a fivefold promise presented in five 1st person statements in verses 2-3a: God says: “I will make of you a great nation, I will bless you, I will magnify your name, I will bless those who bless you and I will curse those who curse you.” God says in no unclear terms that there is a future waiting for Abraham and Sarah. And God is making some big promises: land to a landless people, offspring to a barren couple.

God promises Abraham that he would be the father of a large nation — a promise that as we will see in subsequent chapters is rather preposterous given the fact that both Abraham and Sarah are far beyond the years of having a child. Moreover, God will protect them wherever they go, by blessing those that are good to them and cursing those that are not. In verse 3, one finds the additional promise that has ramifications far beyond the little family of Abraham and Sarah. Through Abraham and Sarah all the families of the earth shall be blessed. They will have an impact on people everywhere.

So how does Abraham respond? We read in verse 4 that Abraham (and we could add Sarah) went. Abraham and Sarah believed God’s promise, so Abraham and Sarah went. As Romans 4:18-21 describes this unwavering faith of Abraham (and Sarah): “Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations,’ according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendants be.’

He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”

We that know the rest of the story will realize that many things still would need to happen before this promise will come true. And some of these events in Abraham and Sarah’s future are less than pleasant. Before this story is over, Abraham will almost lose his wife in Egypt (cf. the stories of the endangered matriarch in Genesis 12, 17 and 20 in which the patriarch passes his wife off three times as his sister to the foreign ruler); there will be much pain with Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 16, 21); the barren couple will finally experience the joy of an own son (Genesis 18, 21); they will come close to losing him (Genesis 22), and that is only in their own life time.

We are not even mentioning all the trials and travails that will happen in their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren’s lives, for instance ending up as slaves in Egypt (Exodus 1). A key theme to explore in the book of Genesis and beyond is thus how the promise divulged to Abraham in Genesis 12 is threatened but ultimately realized.

Three further perspectives regarding this text are worth exploring: First, at the heart of Genesis 12 is the theme of journey which will form a central part of Israel’s identity as a people on the move. Samuel Terrien argues that “the figure of Abraham is introduced as the embodiment of a new form of society which deliberately severs its bonds with a static past in order to experiment in time. The nomadic motif of movement through space emerges as a symbol of openness to the future” (The Elusive Presence, p 73). Genesis 12 thus employs the excitement of departing on a journey as being representative of the new possibilities that the future may bring.

Second, God’s promise of presence and protection would prove vital in the early years of Israel’s journey out of Egypt, through the wilderness en route to the Promised Land. In terms of the Pentateuch receiving its final form during the Exile, one could argue that these promises also received new significance during the traumatic years Israel spent in exile. This account addresses the profound questions regarding God’s presence and power that were raised during the exile by reminding Israel of God’s promises to Abraham.

Third, in the blessing to Abraham we already see some poignant reflection on Israel’s often complex relationship with its neighbours. The promise in verse 3 that Abraham and Sarah’s descendants will be a blessing to the nations is picked up again in Isaiah 42:6 when the servant (which may either be understood as an individual or as the people of Israel as a whole) is said to be a light unto the nations. Throughout the biblical traditions, one sees though how the fulfilment of this blessing is more often than not threatened and delayed. However, this promise is responsible for the biblical witness not letting go of the ideal that Israel had a responsibility to its neighbours.

Finally, Genesis 12:1-4 speaks a powerful word today in those instances when we are called to leave all that is known behind; to relinquish all our comforts and securities; to follow God with closed eyes; to depart on a journey without a map. The journey may be long, sometimes much longer than one may have thought. It is a journey with many ups and downs, many joys and sorrows. But it is journey filled with many, many promises — the most important being the promise of God’s presence to show us the way.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 121

Rolf Jacobson

Many readers of Psalm 121 have connected it with life’s journey — or at least with life’s journeys.

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.”1

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 Confession
verses 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-help
my-help from-with YHWH
  maker of-heaven and-earth.

The verse is a chiasm:

A         creation (hills)
B         whence comes my help
B’        my help is from the Lord
A         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.”


Notes:

  1. James Limburg, Psalms for Sojourners, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2002), p. 70. In his full commentary on the psalms, Limburg transfers that title to Psalm 119 and retitles Psalm 121 “On the Road Again” — continuing the view of reading Psalm 121 as a pilgrimage or journey psalm; Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), p. 405.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Israel Kamudzandu

Liturgical scripture readings and preaching have been sacred practices for Christians from the ancient Church to the present.

The reading for this second Sunday in Lent lends itself into the text of Romans 4, where Bible readers and Christian believers encounter Abraham, whom Paul refers to as the “Father of us all,” who have come to walk in the way of faith. A human family with no past, history, and story is bound to disappear with no trace at all.

Christians are one family, one people, and one tribe and have been incredibly blessed to have a recorded faith/spiritual ancestor. In other words, we are privileged and blessed to have a figure in the past who heard the voice and call of God. How do Christians live out this Pauline faith and spiritual declaration?

First, for Christians, the story of Abraham’s journey of faith is a divine drama of salvation available to all peoples, nations, races, and cultures of the global world. Biblically speaking, it is the unfolding drama about salvation of humanity and these verses in Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 that summons people to a place to meditate on a way through which God justifies humanity.

Second, the call is simply an acceptance and belief in faith because God did not see Abraham as capable of securing his own righteousness, but, as a creature, Abraham believed God and it was given to him as righteousness — a righteousness of faith, grace, and trust (see Genesis 15:6). It is an invitation to accept what humanity cannot do for itself. Christians are inescapably grounded and rooted in these heroic faith/spiritual figures from ancient Israel.

Therefore, in Romans 4: 1-25, Paul makes Abraham the “Spiritual — Faith Ancestor of All Christian Believers” and the Church must take a lead in teaching people about spiritual ancestors and spiritual matriarchs and our prayers should not only mention God as the God of Abraham, Jacob, Isaac but Sarah, Ruth, Mary the Mother of Jesus, Elizabeth and other female figures.1 The catalog of people who have been called by God does not lend itself into an ideal, moral, and ethical group of figures; rather, they all had rough edges, yet when God called them, they were willing to believe God’s voice and with that God credited them as righteous (Romans 4:3).

Abraham becomes a model for both Jews and Gentiles. When God instructed Abraham to have all his family circumcised, it was something to be honored as a seal of righteousness, but it never took the place of faith. Faith in this context is not merely a passive process; rather, it is lived out in real life of Christian believing, following God’s faithful purposes (Romans 3:1-3).

The word “credited” is used six times in Romans 4:3-8, which signifies that Paul as a believer resonated with the situation of Abraham and thus, appropriated the faith of the ancestor in his entire faith journey.

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, is indeed an invitation to serious faith reflection, a faith reflection that invokes Christians to have a list of the non-negotiables, especially if one has come to allow Jesus in her/his heart and has come to believe in Jesus as the Lord and savior of life. The non-negotiable is that, believers must come to a point in their faith journey when they can claim Abraham as their faith, spiritual, and theological ancestor. The claim will hopefully lead to Christian formation and grounding (1 Corinthians 15:10).

The Church has not been unwilling to teach and move believers to a point where they claim some theological and spiritual truths. Yet, in Romans 4, Paul affirms and claims the ground of his theology and opens a new window to all seekers, looking for authentic life. Life without God is full of emotions and in many cases it is just as good as a wilderness mirage. But as Romans 4:17b says, God is the “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

This is a mystery to most North American Christians, whose world view has been tainted with false politicians, mass media voices, and an avalanche of best seller literature. On the contrary, Christians in the Global South — that is Africa, Asia, and Latin America — have come to boldly claim Abraham as the harbinger and progenitor of faith.

Abraham was put in a right relationship with God not because he offered a sacrifice or due to some works; instead his recognition of his status as a creature whose dependence is not on self but on God. Nations and peoples of the world require justification — meaning being in a “right relationship” with God because all humanity is under the grip of sin (Romans 3:9) and therefore in need of the gift of reconciliation with God and each other.

Theologically, Paul alludes to Psalm 143:2 and proclaims that “there is no one who is righteous,” and what that entails is that all nations stand in need of reconciliation with God. There is no way one can be right with God simply on the basis of works, but one has to submit to God by faith and allow God to work in and through him or her. Impressing God with works is not the channel but to approach God. This leads us to focus on the fundamental question of what is at stake in Romans 4.

At stake in Paul’s theological worldview is the issue of God as the “Subject,” of everything humanity does. The object of Abraham’s faith was not humanity but God — the giver of new life and the one who calls dead things to life (4:17b). Similarly, Paul calls on Christians to emulate the faith of Abraham, whose firm conviction in the power of God moved him to trust God in spite of obstacles found in this world. The point to be made is that the 21st century global Christian church needs to be confident that God keeps His promises and only Him can raise us from our human predicament (4:18-25).

Preachers, believers, and the Church must draw some lessons from this chapter and the following are some of the lessons we can draw from this reading. First, God calls us to believe in what he did through His Son Jesus Christ and that no human act can impress God. Second, faith is an active act of confidence in God who is always faithful and keeps his promises at all times. Third, Paul calls us to “embody or to actualize” faith in our everyday living, and this can be a move towards becoming what the Bible says. Fourth, Paul calls us to suspend our logical calculations and to trust in God who calls us to venture out into the unknown world.

In other words, faith negates our logical minds and sets us on the path of confidence in God. Salvation is not logical and so is faith and God’s ways are set in a mystery — a mystery that ancient spiritual and faith ancestors believed in and one in which we must emulate in the 21st century Christian world.


Notes:

For a detailed study of ancestors of Faith, see Israel Kamudzandu, Abraham Our Father: Paul and the Ancestors in Postcolonial Africa, Fortress Press, 2013 (83-115); See also 1 Peter 3:6, Galatians 4:28-31, and Hebrews 11:11-12.