Lectionary Commentaries for March 22, 2009
Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year B)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 3:14-21

Sarah Henrich

The central verse in this passage is perhaps the best known Bible verse in the world.

John 3:16 shows up in many public places. Hoisted on posters, etched on jewelry, and isolated from this passage, “For God so loved the world…” has become emblematic of the central message of Christian faith. This centrality is not undeserved. The power of this verse, however, is enhanced when it is read carefully and in context.

The lectionary divides Jesus’ speech to Nicodemus, which begins in 3:11 and extends to 3:21, at verse 14. The passage begins with a play on the word “lift up.” It describes God’s command to Moses to lift up the serpent in the wilderness and the lifting up that is in store for Jesus. The passage makes little sense without the background story from Numbers 21:4-9. In that narrative, the people became “impatient” on their way. Still in the wilderness after their departure from Egypt, and despairing of being able to survive in a land with no food and water, they complained against God and Moses.

Consequently, terrible serpents appeared, bit the people, and killed them. When they repented, the Lord told Moses to make a serpent and set it on a pole so that anyone who had been bitten might look at it and live. The serpent was a mark of God’s anger and God’s mercy. God’s people might be saved by the God of life, if only they would look upon the image of that which would have brought about their death.

To see the Son of Man lifted up calls for “belief” for the sake of eternal life, not simply a restoration of earthly life. God once saved the people by calling upon them to gaze on the serpent. Now, God would save the people by having them gaze in belief upon the Son, lifted up.

Next comes John 3:16, in which the “so” is often misunderstood. The Greek houtos means “so” in the sense of “just so,” or “in this way,” or the more archaic, “thusly.” We could translate the verse as “This is the way God loved the world, with the result that he gave his only Son, in order that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16 is not about how much God loved the world. It is about in what way God loved the world.

The single most important thing to notice about this verse is that God loved the world. God deeply loved the world that God created, and God longs for this creation to live. It is not only God’s own people whom God will save, as in the Numbers story. It is the cosmos that God has loved, precisely by having given the only son,. God loved by having given the son, a non-coercive act that sets in motion real consequences.

Yet God’s action was not disinterested. The purpose of God’s having sent the Son was to save the world, just as the purpose of commanding Moses to erect a serpent on a pole was to save the people from death. The son came to save, to grant eternal life because God loved the world. That was Jesus’ announcement. I’m here because the God who loved you of old, still does. He sent me to tell you, to show you, to gather you up into life with him forever.

Jesus’ coming is like the bringing of a light into a dark space. The contrast of light and dark is intense. Indeed, the coming of the Son into the world leads to numerous pairs of contrasting realities:

  • condemn and save
  • believe and not believe
  • stay in the darkness and come into the light
  • do evil and doing what is true

These opposites express the sharp distinction that is created when our dark cosmos is entered by the light of God. Like the people in the story in Numbers, we have already been bitten or are in imminent danger of being bitten. Death is inevitable. When the bronze serpent is brought into the world, we look and live, or we do not. As Jesus comes into the world, we trust that which bears God’s gracious love, or we do not. We receive eternal life or we continue to live apart from God, condemned.

If this begins to sound like a theology that demands our deciding to believe or not, we have several reminders in the context that help us to hear more deeply what John wants to say.

First, these verses are embedded in a story where Jesus continues to engage, argue, and persuade people who are slowly transformed into believers. In John 3, Nicodemus is the seeker by night who is left in confusion, only to reappear in 19:39 to help care for Jesus’ body. He has emerged from darkness into light over the course of Jesus’ ministry.

So also the Samaritan woman of John 4 whose long conversation with Jesus ends in a tentative belief, far from where she first began. Consider the blind man healed in John 9, whose move from darkness to light happens rather quickly in physiological terms, but more slowly in terms of identifying Jesus. The intense contrast between believing and not believing, darkness and light, and evil and truth are descriptions of realities, but not of the process by which human beings come to recognize truth, light, life, and God’s own son.

Finally, verses 18-21 follow the first and most important contrast, the contrasting ways to depict God’s own goal and longing. God’s way of loving the world was to send the Son to save it. Jesus is God’s expression of love and longing. The light comes to find us, to illuminate our path for our sake, because God wants us. God reaches out through the Son with the sheer purpose of sharing everlasting life with us.

Yes, John tells us there are real consequences in our daily life and our everlasting relationship with God. But he tells us in order to help us see the contrasts, look clearly at our lives, appreciate the gracious gift of God as a gift of love, and live in fearless confidence of that love. Have we ever been so truly and consistently desired by another as we are by God? No indeed. God loved the world in this way that he gave the Son so that we might live forever with God.

First Reading

Commentary on Numbers 21:4-9

Terence E. Fretheim

“You have lacked nothing!” (Deuteronomy 2:7).

Surely this is a late pious endeavor to cover up the realities of that meandering trek through the wilderness. Surely it is a naive attempt to provide a rosy picture of the life of faith. The desert is only painted. Life in the wilderness? Yes, indeed! But always in the wilderness. This story is about a people stuck between promise and fulfillment.

The wilderness wanderings, or at least their length and breadth, were a surprise to Israel. Instead of a land of milk and honey, they get a desert. The promise falls short. Deliverance at the sea leads into the godforsaken wilderness. The Red Sea seems but a point of unreal exhilaration between one kind of trouble and another, only the last is certainly worse than the first. Bondage with security and resources seems preferable to freedom and living from one oasis to another.

And the wilderness seems permanent. Forty years is a long time in the old sandbox. Even that grand mountaintop experience at Sinai looks like a one-time thing. It is out of the wilderness only to be led right back in! It is beginning to look a lot like home.

What does it mean for God to create a people out of those who are no people, the grandest of all creative acts, only to leave the rest of the world he gives them in chaos? Into the jaws of the wilderness, where demons howl and messiahs are tempted, where familiar resources are taken away, and lifelessness is the only order upon which one can depend! It is life beyond redemption, but short of consummation; but the former seems ineffective and the latter only a mirage.

The promise has been spoken, but who can live by words alone? The hope has been proclaimed, but the horizon keeps disappearing in the sandstorms. Trust in God turns to recalcitrance and resentment. Faith erodes with the dunes. And judgment is invited in to share one’s tattered tent.

Snakes! Those ubiquitous fertility symbols found in any sanctuary worthy of the name adorned the regalia of every demigod of the nations around Israel. Meanwhile, in Israel’s own tradition it was the serpent who was the culprit. Eve, first theologian or not, is taken in by ophidian subtleties. But with all this, here we find Moses, with nary a word of censure from a long line of text transmitters, constructing an image of the creature and using it as a medium of divine healing for a poisoned community. And at the command of God!

Furthermore, this bronze reptile is entwined on a pole, carried to the land of promise, and eventually ensconced in the holy of holies, there to remain for 250 years or so. The old serpent ran into trouble at the hands of the reformer Hezekiah, but for much of its life it was no doubt an orthodox fixture in the sanctuary (2 Kings 18:4). And some people still have trouble with guitars!

Snakes again! But here it is God who gives us pause. What kind of a God is it who makes moves like this? Sending poisonous snakes on the rampage into sinner’s tents! We New Testament types much prefer the weeping and gnashing of teeth in the fires of hell. Eternally! It’s a whole lot easier handling hell than snakes. We can somehow transport the gory details off to another world. Then we only have to deal with God’s grace and mercy here and now.

Or, perhaps, we will do somewhat better, and spiritualize judgment  make it all a matter of mental anguish or the stricken conscience. But then we will make the divine healing a totally inward matter, too. Down deep, perhaps we’re all Gnostics.

Or, from another perspective, we may view judgment simply in forensic terms, as if every judgment were due to an explicit divine decision. We may forget that judgment is commonly perceived to have an intrinsic relationship to the sinful deed. But even if we do remember this, we so often become uncomfortable with Israel’s relating God so immediately to the maintenance of such moral orders. We prefer a little dab of deism.

At another point, the entire healing procedure in this text smacks of sympathetic magic, controlling an adversary through manipulation of a replication. All this brings to mind those spooky snake-cults which would charm diseases out of people in the most unorthodox of ways. And that raises the God question for us again – he actually commanded the whole business!

Who is this God who resorts to such quackery in the accomplishment of his purposes? It is almost as bad as Jesus’ use of saliva and clay to open the eyes of the blind! We believe we have somehow got to control the means when it comes to this healing business. Only the marvels of modern medicine will do. And we thereby limit the means God can use and make healing into a relatively modern phenomenon. We forget that God makes use of the means available to him in every context to achieve good purposes. But the means is effective only because of the promise!

Yet even in the wilderness God is responsive to the needs of his complaining people. He provides what the context could not. The protests are answered, the cries are heard, quite undeservedly. There is a gift of healing where the pain experienced is the sharpest. Deliverance comes, not in being removed from the wilderness, but in the very presence of the enemy. The movement from death to life occurs within the very experience of godforsakenness. The death-dealing forces of chaos are nailed to the pole.

But then the pole of life is carried to Jerusalem and ensconced in the Temple. And the serpents are gradually domesticated. The desert is painted. Whitewashed. And so one day the pole must reappear in another godforsaken place, high on a hill, overlooking the holy city. God himself has taken to the pole! Once for all. So that all those who know they are dying in the wilderness can be healed. Look up to him and live… in the wilderness.


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

Robert L. Hubbard, Jr.

Psalm 107:1 will always have a very special place in my heart.

Some years ago, I learned to sing it in Hebrew, and now I teach students in my Old Testament class to do so too. The song captures the simple joy with which the psalm echoes. My reflections yield several suggested Lenten lessons that surface from the text.

To begin, this text carries several intriguing points:

  • It involves a community. An anonymous speaker uses plural verbs to address a group of worshipers within earshot. I imagine a happy crowd scene – people from all walks of life (and from everywhere, too; cf. verse 3) gathered at the temple or some other site with the speaker in front leading it.
  • A backward perspective dominates. The whole psalm walks the crowd through samples of hairy experiences some of them probably had in the past. With each new sample, I picture a segment of the crowd nodding knowingly, as if to say, “Yep, that’s exactly how terrible it was!”
  • Structurally, calls to give thanks (verses 1, 21-22) bracket stories of rescue (vv. 2-3, 17-20). The text clearly links the stories and the calls. The stories mark the reasons for the people to give thanks. They also fuel the people’s passion to do so – without the stories there’d be no reason to thank anyone. The joy of the thanks matches the horrors of the stories.
  • This text is about God, not the worshipers. Verses 1 and 2 each mention “the LORD,” as do verses 19 and 21. They signal that the gathering and the story-telling are in his honor. And it gives specifics about him: he is “good” (tob), shows ever-available “steadfast love” (hesed; verse 1), hears cries of “Help!” (verse 19a), and is above all a rescuer of people in deep trouble (verse 19b).

An unexpected little word, the Hebrew proposition min (“from”), keeps popping up and plays a key role. In most places it means “from” as in “away or separate from” (verses 2, 3 [five times], 19, 20), but once it means “source of” (verse 17). The former sense pictures God’s “rescue” as actual separation from troubles and real relief rather than simply endurance. The latter diagnoses the source of the trouble that demanded rescue. Yikes! How Dumb! Our text singles out one particular story (verses 17-18), one appropriate for Lent, in three short scenes. Scene 1 looks back on people horribly shaking their fists at that “good” and “ever faithful” God, and Scene 2 on a persistent, offensive lifestyle of sin.

Scene 3 plays out the results of that sin and rebellion: those “sources” (min) birth “fools” (awilim). The word describes people blind and deaf to their own clueless, ridiculous behavior (Jeremiah 4:22; Hosea 9:7; Proverbs 29:9). They proudly think themselves as “with-it” – wise, sane, progressive, and sophisticated.

But the psalmist paints them as miserable, afflicted, too sick to eat, and nearing death. This is deadly serious business. Their very life is at stake. They’re starving to death; they’re literally “at death’s door” (verse 18).

Here is where I begin to squirm, as if watching an old video of “the dumbest thing I ever did.” Sinful scenes from my own past come eerily to mind. On Sundays, I see myself piously mouthing “I believe in God the Father Almighty…,” then wandering far from God the rest of the week. The psalm drives me to confess, “Yes, that’s me, too.”

I’m a theologian by profession. Of all people, I know what God’s about! But I’m just another pious “fool” regularly cruising a spiritual Titanic, a “ship of fools.” That’s the first Lenten lesson the psalmist wants me to see: from God’s perspective, I’m just plain stupid.

One Smart Move! But all is not lost! Fool that I am, I am never too far gone to make one “smart move” – to cry out to God for rescue. That’s what the psalmist reports (verse 19), and that’s the text’s second Lenten lesson: even fools have enough sense to dial the Divine 911 to escape trouble. It’s the smartest move we can ever make.

The Divine 911. Above I observed that this text is about God. Here I observe that the sad story of rebellious fools has a Scene 4 – a very happy ending. A distress cry to God yielded a rescue “from” (min) this self-induced trouble.

I am struck by the picture of God behind this scene. It recalls the baby monitor – a kind of walkie-talkie – my friends have. Though elsewhere in the house, the small radio broadcasts any obvious noises their son makes in his crib, like when he cries awaking from a nap. The psalmist pictures God’s ears as constantly tuned to the noises we make. He instantly hears our pained cries for help and responds with rescue.

Perhaps that is no surprise. After all, he is a “good” God (verse 1a) – kind, patient, thoughtful, tender-hearted, and eager to help. At no time is his “steadfast love” (hesed) offline or down. The third Lenten lesson is that, when trouble swamps us, God stands ready to deliver us.

So, with the psalmist’s call (verses 1, 22), we say, “Thanks be to God for his steadfast love!”

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 2:1-10

Richard Carlson

This text presents the immeasurable nature of God’s grace which has totally changed both our reality and conduct forever.

Christian life is examined in terms of a “before and after” contrast resulting from divine intervention. The enactment of divine love and grace has radically altered everything about who we are and whose we are, about how we live, why we live, and even where we live.

As is typical throughout Ephesians, the text is densely packed with clauses heaped upon clauses and prepositional phrases stacked up like cordwood. In the original Greek, verses 1-7 form a single, one hundred twenty four word sentence whose subject does not appear until verse 4 with the main verbs following in verses 5-6. Consequently, it is helpful to examine the text in smaller sections to understand and appreciate the vision of Christian existence which the author displays.1

The text opens with a kaleidoscopic depiction of our former reality and conduct (verses 1-3). Previously we were dead because of our trespasses and sins by which we conducted our lives (verses 1-2a). Such existence was also a matter of utter bondage to malevolent powers, which the text describes variously in verses 2b-3 as “this world,” “the ruler of the power of the air,” and “flesh.”

In the cosmology of Ephesians, “this world” refers to the present age in enmity with God (cf. 1:21). Here “air” is understood to be the zone between earth and the heavens which is inhabited and ruled by antagonistic forces exercising control over the world below. Later in Ephesians, this ruler is labeled the devil (4:27; 6:11). The term “flesh” depicts the human condition so turned in on itself that one’s passions, cravings, and mindset are in total disrepute and disobedience thus marking us as children of wrath (verse 3). While this was the former existence of Christians, it remains the current reality of all non-Christians (verse 2b).

2:4-7 presents God’s intervening actions and the transformation they wrought. Though we were children of wrath, God acted out of the wealth of divine mercy and abundance of love (verse 4). This divine conversion had nothing to do with how loveable we were, but with how incredibly loving God is. Thus, God made us alive with Christ, raised us with Christ, and sat us in the heavenly places where Christ now rules over all powers and dominions (2:5-6 echoing 1:20-21). In the Greek, the three verbs “made alive, raised, and seated” all have a prefix meaning “with,” highlighting how God did to us what God had previously done to Christ. This emphasizes the divinely wrought solidarity shared between Christ and Christians.

In 2:5, 8 the author declares, “You have been saved by grace.” Here the Greek use of a passive, perfect periphrastic participle bears comment. The use of the passive voice underscores how we are totally passive when it comes to being saved. God’s grace has accomplished our salvific reality. The use of the perfect tense and periphrastic participle emphasizes the duration of our being saved. It was accomplished in the past and remains our reality into the coming ages as the ongoing demonstration of the immeasurable riches of divine grace (verse 7).

This reinforces the sheer enormity of God’s mercy, love, grace, and kindness which has brought about such an altered state of existence for Christians. Likewise it also reminds Christians of the stark difference between their ongoing state of salvation and the state of non-Christians who remain dead in their trespasses and under the devil.

2:8-10 elucidates the surpassing riches of God’s grace by making two interrelated points. First, the radical change we have experienced is a pure gift of God’s grace. In verses 8-9 the Greek utilizes emphatically negative parallel phrases (best translated as “not from us” and “not from works”) to drive home the point that our transformation is in no way the result of our activity. Even the reference to faith in 2:8 as the means by which God’s grace has saved us is to be understood not as an action which stems from our own volition but as that component of grace which empowers our faith response.

Second, while the text emphasizes that our salvation is not from works, it also understands works to be an indispensible component of God’s grace. Because we were created in Christ Jesus (i.e., made alive and raised with Christ), we are God’s handiwork with the goal of good works (2:10a). These good works are so vital that God had prepared them ahead of time (2:10b), recalling the claims made in 1:4-5,11-12 about God’s actions and decisions being established before the world’s foundation.

Our works have not saved us, but they are part of the goal God had in mind in saving us. Hence good works are not simply the by-products of our conversion but were pre-planned and pre-prepared by God.

The Greek text closes with a direct contrast to our former life which is not as clear as it could be in most English translations. Just as we had formerly walked (peripateō) in our trespasses and sins (verse 2a), so now the purpose of God’s pre-planned activity is that we would walk (repeating the Greek word, peripate) in good works (verse 10b). Thus our reality and conduct, our being and doing, are intricately and indelibly intertwined, both in our former existence of being dead in trespasses and in our ongoing existence of being made alive with Christ.

1The overwhelming majority of Pauline scholars have concluded that the apostle Paul did not write this letter. Rather, it was most likely written by a disciple of Paul after his death as a sincere attempt to have Paul’s theology continue to speak to the life of the church. While utilizing many of Paul’s core theological concepts, the author of Ephesians has also crafted his/her own distinctive theological visions and claims.