The Second Sunday in Lent begins a four week digression from the Gospel for Year A, Matthew, with sequential readings from the Gospel of John.
As the Fourth Gospel does not have its own lectionary year, these Sundays provide an opportunity for the preacher to draw out the distinctive theological claims of the Fourth Evangelist. All four of these extended narratives, Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, the healing of the man blind from birth, and the raising of Lazarus, are unique to the Gospel of John and epitomize key themes for this Gospel.
John 3:1-17 narrates the encounter between Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews, and Jesus. The first issue that the preacher must address is whether or not to extend the lectionary text through 3:21. There are several reasons to reconsider the parameters of the text set out by the lectionary. First, 3:22 marks a distinctive shift in the narrative action, “After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside.” Second, Jesus does not stop talking after verse 17, so we need to ask whether or not we should be shutting Jesus up before his intended conclusion. A third reason to include 3:18-21 in the Sunday lectionary reading is theological. In verses 19-21 Jesus discloses a major theme for the Gospel of John, light and darkness. For this Gospel, light represents the realm of belief and darkness the realm of unbelief. Either one is able to recognize that Jesus is the Word made flesh, the begotten God, or not–there is no gray area. When Jesus says to Nicodemus, “This is the judgment, that the light has come into world and people loved darkness more than the light” (3:19), these words send the reader back to the beginning of chapter 3–that Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Jesus’ words are aimed directly at Nicodemus, “will you continue in darkness or will you come to the light?” The moment of judgment, the moment of crisis, and in fact, the moment of decision for Nicodemus, and for the reader, is in this encounter with Jesus.
We are left to wonder what happens to Nicodemus. His last words to Jesus are “How can these things be?” (3:9) and in his conversation with Jesus he does not make much progress. He interprets Jesus’ words on a literal level, although Jesus does appear to be deliberately ambiguous. Anothen (3:3) can be translated three different ways–again, anew, or from above. Nicodemus hears only the first option. He is not able to recognize what Jesus offers, and more importantly, who Jesus is. How can this be, indeed? After Nicodemus’s incredulous question, he seems simply to disappear from the scene, and we are left with Jesus. All of a sudden, Jesus’ words are directed to us. In 3:11, the “you” in “yet you do not receive our testimony” switches to second person plural from the second person singular that began the verse, “Truly, truly, I say to you.” How will we fair? Do we really think that we could have understood Jesus any better than this well-versed, well-educated Pharisee? And if we do, what makes us think so? What makes us so sure? Because we have two thousand years of Christianity under our belts? Because we have more theological insight? Because we have more faith?
And what about Nicodemus? He does show up two other times in the Gospel of John. In chapter 7 (7:50-52) he appears to come to Jesus’ defense in the midst of the intense conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities that sets off chapters 7 and 8, but his question to the Pharisees gives the impression of lukewarm advocacy for Jesus. Nicodemus’s last appearance in the Gospel is to help Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple of Jesus, with the burial of Jesus’ body (19:38-42). But we are reminded that Nicodemus first came to Jesus by night (19:39). Moreover, he brings an extraordinary amount of burial spices for the preparation of the body. Again, we are left to wonder, does this last appearance of Nicodemus finally represent his coming to the light? Or, is he still in the dark, weighing down Jesus’ body with so many spices that consequently there will be no doubt that Jesus will remain in the tomb?
Given this complicated character and his ambiguous status in the Gospel of John, preaching Nicodemus should go about highlighting these complications and not smoothing them out. Nicodemus does not ask from or require of us his rescue. His encounter with Jesus and his recurring role in the narrative suggest that believing in Jesus is indeed an ambiguous effort. What does it mean that faith is ambiguous? Perhaps it has to do with how belief is played out in the Fourth Gospel. We tend to talk about “our faith” or “having faith,” assuming that it is a done deal, that believing is as simple as acquiring faith. But the Gospel of John never refers to faith as a noun. Faith is not a possession, not something that one gets, not something that one has–it is something that one does. Believing for the characters in the Fourth Gospel is a verb. And as a verb, believing is subject to all of the ambiguity, the uncertainty, and the indecisiveness of being human. We need to ask more often than we are willing to admit, “how can these things be?” We need to take seriously what faith looks like when it is active, living, permeable, and dynamic. We need to consider earnestly that having an incarnated God may require an incarnational faith — that believing is just as complicated as it is to be human.
Something that all the cultures of the world share is ancestor stories.
Some within the United States can trace their ancestry back to those who came originally from England. For others, including me, family ties go back to ancestry with roots in parts of the world such as Asia, Africa, or Latin America. Stories of how our ancestors struggled, survived, and overcame make up the core of our personal and communal histories. In the biblical text, the traditions of the ancestors depict how the mothers and fathers of Israel formed what would eventually emerge as the tribes of Israel. Throughout these stories, the biblical narrators recount how God blesses these family lines and in the process extends that blessing to the peoples of the earth.
The calling of Abram/Abraham is a fulcrum text, serving as a transitional point between what comes before it with what follows. Genesis 1–11, also known as the Primeval History, recounts the beginnings of the world. Two dominant themes emerge in these stories: 1) the tendency for human beings to rebel against their Creator and the consequences of judgment that follow; and 2) the continued blessing of God that seeks to address humanity in spite of divine judgment. The first theme finds expression in stories such as the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge (Genesis 3), Cain’s killing of his brother Abel (Genesis 4), violence filling the earth prior to the flood (Genesis 6:1–7), and the erecting of a tower to the heavens in the story of Babel (Genesis 11). In each of these texts, God’s judgment follows. Divine punishment, however, does not have the final word. The Lord continually finds a way to bless humanity, addressing them in their cursed condition through the covering of their nakedness (Genesis 3:21), the marking of Cain to protect him from further retribution (Genesis 4:15), and the establishing of a covenant with Noah after the flood (9:1–17). The conclusion to the Tower of Babel story, however, does not have an immediate blessing that balances the divine judgment. The people are left scattered over the face of the earth at the end of Genesis 11. The calling of Abram seeks to bring blessing to all the people of the earth, and hence addresses the effects of judgment after Babel. The Lord accomplishes this through the promises made to Abram and his descendents, through whom “all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3b).
In Genesis 12:1–4, the narrator’s focus moves from the broad landscape of world history in Genesis 1–11 to the particularities of one family’s story. Genesis 12–50 recounts the stories of Israel’s mothers and fathers: Abraham/Sarah, Isaac/Rebekah, and Jacob/Leah and Rachel. The divine blessing given to Abram is comprised of at least three features: 1) land (v. 1b); 2) making Abram a great nation and making his name great (v. 2); and 3) through Abram all the families of the earth shall be blessed (v. 3). This blessing takes the form of a divine charter or land grant. In the ancient Near East, this type of treaty was a gift that a god would bestow on a favored subject or king. They were unilateral, meaning that the blessing flowed in one direction from the giver to the recipient. They were also unconditional. That is, such grants were based primarily in the benevolence of the deity and were not dependent on the previous actions of the subject. Other forms of divine charter in the Hebrew Bible can be seen in the Lord’s promises to David (cf. 2 Samuel 7:8–16).
In Genesis 12:1, the Lord commands Abram to leave his country, kindred, and his father’s house, to the land that the Lord will show him. Thus, v. 1 emphasizes in great detail what Abram must leave behind in order to obtain the promises that God intends for him and his family. The promise of place, at least in this initial encounter, is vague, pointing to a land that the Lord will show Abram at some future point. The promise of land becomes more detailed in later chapters. In Genesis 12, however, the inexact nature of the Abram’s destination is set in contrast to the specific details of what he must leave behind.
The second aspect of the blessing–the promise of becoming a great nation (v. 2)–highlights a prominent plot element in the Abraham cycle. In Genesis 11:30, the reader hears that Sarai is barren. This seemingly small detail in the genealogy of Chapter Eleven becomes a point of narrative tension in Genesis 12, when the Lord promises that Abram and his descendents will become a great nation. In order for Abram to become a great nation, he and Sarai will first have to have a child. Most of the drama that develops from this point forward in the plot focuses on how the characters–Abraham/Abram, Sarai/Sarah, God, and others–seek to bring this aspect of the promise to fulfillment.
The final part of the Lord’s promise states that the families of the earth will be blessed through Abram (12:3b). This suggests that God seeks to bless the many peoples of the world through a single family. God’s benevolence is not only intended solely for the advantage of one chosen family. God makes promises to Abram and his descendents with the result that all of the peoples of the earth will benefit.
In Lent, a season usually marked by repentance and humility, we are reminded this week of God’s unconditional promises that are directed to us not through our own merit. God blesses us with the remarkable gift of life, even when our present circumstances point to states of barrenness. God’s blessing is specific enough to address our particular conditions and universal enough to extend to all peoples of the earth. Like Abraham, all that is required of us is to “go” (Genesis 1:4a) as the Lord asks.
Why would a preacher work with these pieces of a complex Pauline argument in her sermon?
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.
1Richard B. Hays, “‘Have We Found Abraham to be Our Forefather According to the Flesh?’ A Reconsideration of Rom. 4:1.” Novum Testamentum 27 (1985) 76-98.