Lectionary Commentaries for March 20, 2011
Second Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 3:1-17

David Lose

The obvious challenge in preaching this reading may seem to be how to say anything fresh, meaningful, and new about the world’s most famous Bible verse.

The less obvious, but I would argue more important, challenge is not allowing the world’s most famous Bible verse to cloud the significant and even scandalous message of Jesus that a close reading of the larger passage yields.

Setting the Scene
John is a master of dramatic settings, symbolism and imagery and so it is valuable to note that Nicodemus, a Pharisee and Jewish leader, arrives at night, a time of unbelief, ignorance, and temptation in the Fourth Gospel. He comes ostensibly to learn more about this young rabbi, but perhaps does not want his colleagues to know of his interest. He has, if not faith, at least faithful curiosity.

In typical Johannine fashion, Jesus engages Nicodemus in what seems like a non sequitur: Nicodemus praises Jesus as one who comes from God and Jesus, in return, asserts that no one can see the kingdom without being born from anaothen, which can be translated as again, anew, or from above. Nicodemus clearly takes Jesus to mean the first of these three possibilities, and his confusion invites a discourse from Jesus about the difference between Spirit and flesh.

Nicodemus, still confused, asks how this can be, to which Jesus again responds, this time orienting him — and presumably us, as Nicodemus fades from the gaze of the narrator and the language of “you” shifts from the singular to the plural — to his death on the cross. This death does not signify defeat but rather is the moment of God’s glorious triumph and, like the serpent Moses raised on the pole to heal the Israelites (Numbers 21:9), it will save all those who look to Jesus and believe that he is the one sent from God.

While the appointed lectionary ends at verse 17, the dramatic unit continues to verse 21 and it would be well worth extending the pericope. In these last verses, the Evangelist — it is difficult to tell if Jesus is still speaking or John is narrating — introduces a major theme of the Fourth Gospel: Jesus always creates a crisis (literally, krisis in Greek, which we normally translate as “judgment”) for those he encounters by calling forth from them one of two responses: either belief or unbelief.

Believers, represented by light, recognize in Jesus God’s decisive action for the world and move toward him. Unbelievers, symbolized by darkness, flee God’s revelation as they would prefer to remain in darkness. Jesus, then, has no need to condemn, as the involuntary reaction of those encountered by Jesus reveal their disposition to God’s redemption.

Signs and Wonders
There are several fruitful preaching possibilities in this dense passage, though each will require some careful teaching so that the kerygmatic impulse of the sermon can be understood and heard. The first deals with the matter of “signs.” A potent and persistent theme in John, Jesus’ actions are understood not as miracles but as signs, pointers to God’s mysterious and redemptive work. In this passage, Nicodemus comes praising Jesus’ signs (3:2), yet misunderstands them. Jesus isn’t simply a great teacher, but the one who reveals God’s essential character of love for the whole world (3:16).

Similarly, the Evangelist recounts that Moses lifted the serpent on a “sign” (often rendered “pole,” it derives from the same root). Jesus, like the serpent, will similarly be lifted up (gloried), and this sign can also easily be misunderstood as a mark of the defeat of this rabbi rather than perceived as the place where Jesus accomplishes the mission entrusted him by God (19:30). Only those who can look beyond the material referent of the sign (flesh) will perceive and participate in God’s redemptive work (Spirit). At this early juncture in Lent, we might therefore look ahead to the cross and, with John, herald it as the place where we see God’s love and mercy made most manifest.

A second possibility will be to focus on Nicodemus. At this point in the narrative, he is not portrayed with great sympathy. He comes at night, perhaps fearful of the opinions of his peers. He misunderstands Jesus because he takes his words literally and is therefore regularly confused about what Jesus says. And he disappears from sight having shown no signs of greater comprehension or faith. Yet he will reappear at two later points in the narrative. In chapter 7 (45-52), he offers a somewhat hesitant defense of Jesus, and in chapter 19 (38-42) he accompanies Joseph of Arimathea, named a secret believer, with an exorbitant amount of spices for Jesus’ burial.

Has Nicodemus come out of the darkness and into the light at this late moment in the gospel? It is not entirely clear, but it may be that John recognizes that while some — the Samaritan woman in the following chapter, for instance — come to faith quickly, others take more time. Perhaps John is inviting some of those — then or now — who have difficulty believing that the cross is the moment of God’s victory to come along for the ride or, in more traditionally Johannine language, to “come and see.” Faith, in John’s gospel, is always a verb, and believing may take some longer than others.

A third possibility is to focus on the matter of being born “from above.” Because of the “born again” movement, this can be somewhat challenging. The preacher’s task is neither to critique Evangelical experience nor endorse a less-than-helpful reading of a conversion episode as necessary to justifying faith. Faith, as we just saw, is not a once-and-done action of the believer but rather is an ongoing work of the Spirit who, as Jesus says, blows where it chooses (3:8). For some the coming of the Spirit and faith will be a dramatic event; for others it will move more slowly. Whichever the case, John would shift attention away from our specific actions – the crisis that Jesus creates makes plain the disposition of the heart more than calls for a particular decision — and instead invites us to witness the powerful and unpredictable activity of the Spirit. Believers therefore should pray and give thanks for God’s Spirit, eager and ready to testify to God’s ongoing activity in their lives.

A fourth possibility involves in a careful unpacking of verse 16. It holds a special place in the hearts of countless Christians for good reason, as it lays bare God’s love for the whole world. Interestingly, because world (kosmos in Greek) normally signifies that entity that is hostile to God’s will (see 16:33, 17:9-19), one might capture the force and scope of God’s unfathomable love by translating the verse, “For God so loved the God-hating world…!” Indeed, God’s love is not only unfathomable but also somewhat offensive.

Notice that God does not ask the world if it wishes to be the recipient of God’s love. God just goes ahead and loves, and not only loves but gives the world God’s only beloved Son over to death. The one who dies for you clearly has a significant claim on you, and John makes that clear. God’s love — surprising, all encompassing, unasked for and undeserved — is also given unconditionally. God loves us, that is, whether we like it or not. In the face of that kind of love, we will likely either yield to God’s love or run away screaming, for no one can remain neutral to such extravagance.

Either way, God’s judgment is revealed: God loves this world, even the God-hating world that crucified the Lord of glory. At this place in our Lenten journey, we would do well to pray that by the gift of the untamed Spirit we might perceive in Jesus’ cross God’s redemptive act and in this way be drawn into fellowship with all who dare believe in Jesus and, indeed, the whole world that God loves so much!


First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 12:1-4a

Dennis Olson

The promise to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12:1-4 marks one of the most dramatic transitions in the entire story of the Old Testament.

The Transition from Genesis 1-11 to Genesis 12:  Deep Background 
In Genesis 1-11, God struggled with a repeatedly rebellious, violent, and corrupt humanity as a whole (Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, the tower of Babel).  As a result, God resolves to try a new strategy by focusing on one particular family among all the families of the earth.  However, as God often does, God decides to work through a most unlikely pair:  old Abram and Sarai (later “Abraham” and “Sarah”–Genesis 17:5, 15). 

God chooses them for a long term project of blessing the world even though Sarai is “barren” and unable to have children (Genesis 11:30).  God’s project seems doomed to fail from the start. Yet God speaks a powerful and promising word into a barren family and a barren and conflicted world of humanity.  The same powerful and divine word that created the world out of chaos at the beginning (Genesis 1:3) may well now create a new hope and possibility yet again.

A Command Fueled by a Lavish Set of Promises 
God’s word to Abram begins with a command, “Go from your country and your kindred and our father’s house.” God commands Abram to sever his ties to his larger nation, his ties to his larger kinship group, and finally even his ties to his immediate family or father’s house (12:1).  God calls Abram to a loyalty and commitment that transcends even his family ties, the most important of all relationships in the ancient world.  But this command comes with a powerful promise. 

First of all, God promises Abram a “land that I will show you.” Secondly, God promises to make of Abram’s offspring a great nation with the implication of a long line of descendants.  The note about Sarai’s barrenness gives the reader pause at this point; how can this be?  Thirdly, God promises to “bless” Abram.  Blessing involves fertility, life, success, well being, and a good name. 

Part of this blessing is that God promises Abram to “make your name great.” Interestingly, the tower builders in Genesis 11:1-9 had built their tower with the purpose of making a name for themselves (verse 4).  Their self-centered and heaven-storming strategy led only to confusion and scattering.  But God now promises to give Abram a great name as a gift with the purpose that “you will be a blessing” (verse 3).  Abraham’s friends will be blessed, and his enemies will be cursed. 

God’s Ultimate Purpose in Sending Abram and Sarai 
Most importantly, God promises to Abram and Sarai that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” We now realize that this selection of one particular family and people out of all the peoples of the earth does not entail God’s abandonment of concern for other nations.  Rather, God’s election of Abram is a new strategy to address the evil and violence of all humanity. 

God’s chosen people never exist in isolation.  They are called to a wider mission than just self-preservation.  They are never allowed to claim an exclusive hold on God’s concern.  God remains committed to all creation and all humanity.  Abraham embodies such blessing and help to other nations within his own lifetime through his assistance to his nephew Lot (the eponymous ancestor of the nations of Moab and Ammon-Genesis 13-14; 19:36-38) and his bold intercession on behalf of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:22-33) and his covenant with King Abimelech (Genesis 21:22-34). 

Some of Abraham’s interactions with other peoples and nations are more complex and problematic (Genesis 12:10-20; 20:1-18).  This is particularly true of Abraham and Sarah’s treatment of their Egyptain maid, Hagar, whose bears a son Ishmael to Abraham.  On one hand, Sarah oppresses Hagar and they eventually send Hagar and her child off into the wilderness.  But God reassures Abraham.  God will extend virtually the same blessing on Ishmael as is given to Isaac: Ishmael will become the father of a great nation (see Genesis 21:12-13, 17-18).  

In response to these promises and this command to “Go..,” Abram responds in obedience: “So Abram went, as the LORD had told him.” Thus, we have here at the very beginning of the Abraham-Sarah cycle an important theme for the Abraham-Sarah cycle, the interplay between human obedience and divine promise.  A complex relationship between these two aspects, God’s promises and Abraham’s obedience, will weave its way throughout Genesis 12-23, the two most important texts being Genesis 15 and Genesis 22.

Theological Reflections on Genesis 12:1-4
1) God’s election of the family of Abraham and Sarah as a chosen and special vehicle of God’s blessing affirms God’s continuing commitment to humans and the world in spite of their rebellion, violence and evil.  God will not let go of God’s creation.

2) God’s selection of a barren husband and wife to be a blessing to others emphasizes that it is first and foremost God’s power and initiative that will accomplish God’s purposes.  Of course, human obedience is from the very beginning involved–God says, “Go…” and “Abram went.” But Abraham’s trust in God’s commitment to fulfill the promises made provide the energy and will to follow God’s commands.

3) God’s focus on one particular family was from the beginning designed to be the funnel for God’s blessing to all the families of the earth.  God’s people may be tempted to turn inward, to worry only about their own survival, to consider themselves as God’s only concern, or to ignore the wider community in which they live.  Both in its words concerning all the families of the earth as well as its literary setting at the end of Genesis 1-11 which deals with all humanity, Genesis 12 reminds us that
The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it (Psalm 24:1).

4) The text in Genesis 12 draws Abraham and Sarah into a journey that leaves behind an old life and looks forward to a future not yet seen.  The season of Lent is a season that helps us to let go of old commitments and burdens and sets us free to journey into new territories, new promises, new hopes, and new lives.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 121

Jerome Creach

Psalm 121 is identified by its title as “A Song of Ascents.”

The significance of the term “ascents” is not certain. The same root in Psalm 122:4, however, refers to a ritual journey to Jerusalem (see also Ezra 7:9; Psalm 24:3).  Therefore, the heading of Psalm 121 may indicate that the psalm was used by pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem for one of the three yearly festivals (Deuteronomy 16:16). The psalm is located in a group of psalms (Psalms 120-134) placed together for that purpose. In the lectionary Psalm 121 is paired appropriately with texts that recall and comment on Abraham’s journey from his home and family to the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17). Like Abraham, the psalmist expresses trust in the protection and care of God on the journey.

Psalm 121 is liturgical in character, as indicated by the shift in voices throughout the psalm. Verses 1-2, and possibly verse 4, seem to be voiced by a pilgrim, who perhaps represents the whole company of travelers.  The remainder of the psalm may be the response of a priest if the setting is departure from the temple. Or the response may be the words of a travel leader, or one who is remaining at home, if the setting is the initial departure for Jerusalem.  Regardless of the exact orientation of the travelers, the main issue in the psalm is the safety God provides through constant attention to the faithful pilgrims.

The psalm begins with a declaration in verse 1a (“I lift up my eyes to the hills”) that introduces the central concern of the poem in the form of a question in verse 1b (“from where will my help come?”). The answer appears clearly in verse 2a, “My help comes from the Lord.” If the “hills” connote the hilltops around Jerusalem where shrines of other gods were located, the affirmation is intended to distinguish the Lord from other deities. 

Along with the profession, “My help comes from the Lord” (Psalm 121:2a), is the qualifying title, “Maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:2b).  This description appears only once in this psalm, but its importance cannot be captured in numerical occurrences. The same label occurs two other times in the “Songs of Ascent” (Psalms 124:8; 134:3). The last occurrence appears to be an editorial addition placed on a psalm that acts as conclusion to the collection (Psalms 120-134).  Hence, it is possible that an editor understands “Maker of heaven and earth” to be a central tenet of faith in the Songs of Ascent.  Even if on a short journey to Jerusalem, the traveler surely observed worship sites devoted to other deities (on “the hills”), gods perhaps believed by their adherents to have ordered the cosmos.  Thus, to confess that Yahweh was “Maker of heaven and earth” was to declare these other deities in effectual. The significance of this label for God in the Church is clarified by its use in the Apostles’ Creed.

Verses 3-4 continue the comparison of Yahweh to other deities with the declaration that Israel’s God “does not sleep or slumber.” The contrast between Israel’s guardian and the gods of other people obviously relies on the common belief among Israel’s neighbors that their gods “slept” (or died) during winter months and were revived in seasons of growth and harvest. But the Lord did not sleep and therefore could keep constant watch over Israel and its pilgrims. The point is emphasized by the six occurrences of the word “keep” or “keeper” to describe what Yahweh does and who Yahweh is.

The final four verses of the psalm are spoken again by a “leader” and take the form of a “blessing”; that is, they are confessional, but since they are spoken on behalf of the pilgrims they have the tone of wish and assurance.  Verse 5 is a general word about the character of the protector of the pilgrims.  A new label, “your shade” is introduced there.  This description of God is appropriate in a psalm of pilgrimage since shade was at a premium for travelers in the Palestinian countryside.  However, the metaphor has other associations that should not be missed.  In other passages (i.e., Psalms 36:8, 61:5) Yahweh’s “shade” is equated with the safety of the temple.  This makes clear that the figure of “shade” is part of a larger portrayal of Yahweh as king (see Judges 9:7-15).

Verse 6 lists the range of possible difficulties for the pilgrim: the sun by day, the moon by night.  Although mention of the moon here may seem odd to the modern reader it should be remembered that ancient people believed the moon to be a cause of lunacy (hence, our term “lunatic” from the Latin word for “moon”).  More is involved than just the threat of two luminaries, however.  Both the sun and the moon were thought to represent deities: for example, the Egyptian god, Ra (the sun god) and the Mesopotamian, Nanna (the moon god). Verse 7 offers a final summary of Yahweh’s protection “from all evil” with a line that can be taken either as a wish (“may he keep you”) or a statement of what is typical (“he will keep you”).  The psalm ends (verse 8) with final reference to Yahweh’s “keeping” vigil over future pilgrimage to the holy city (“coming in” and “going out”).

Psalm 121 is well-suited for the joy of “pilgrimage” through Advent on the way to Easter. Such a journey should be made in full recognition of false gods all around who compete for our devotion. Psalm 121 highlights a point made many other places in Scripture, that the Lord is “Maker of heaven and earth,” the only one who gives and sustains life. The Lord is therefore the only one worthy of devotion.


Second Reading

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

Lucy Lind Hogan

The epistle that Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome was a letter he intended to be sent, not to one, but to a number of church communities scattered throughout the city.

Therefore, he knew that he was writing to diverse audiences that did not always agree with one another. He also knew that he was, if you will, coming in on the middle of a conversation. These Christians were not blank slates. They had been living their lives in a variety of cultures both political and religious. Some had been raised as Roman citizens, required to sacrifice to the empire’s gods. Others had been raised in the synagogue, telling the stories of Moses and the children of Israel, following a prescribed set of laws. How do you think that these people, Gentiles or Jews, reacted when told by Paul that none of what they had done would make them right with God? It is not easy to give up old habits.

Look Right
An important part of the Lenten journey is learning to reject old patterns and old ways of being that keep us from accepting God’s gift of grace and new life.  But before we reflect on one such challenge, Paul’s challenge to the law, let us first think about how difficult and challenging it is to change something more mundane; something like crossing the street.

If one was raised in North America one learned, as a child, to cross the street looking first to the left, and then to the right. Why? In North America cars, by law, drive on the right hand side of the road. So, when we travel to the British Isles, something that is second nature to us — crossing, can become dangerous and life threatening. When stepping off the curb we must first look to our right lest we are hit by oncoming traffic. In London they recognize this is a major problem for foreign visitors. If you look down while standing at an intersection you will often see stenciled, in large white letters, the admonition “LOOK RIGHT.”

The old way of thinking about Abraham, Paul tells us, is to think that Abraham was honored and praised by God by his works. Paul wanted people to look in a different direction. Look not to the works of the law, but look to faith.

Father Abraham
Abraham was claimed as the father of the children of Israel. However, there was always a problem with Abraham. He had lived before the giving of the Torah, the law, to Moses. How, then, could they say that Abraham had been honored by God for observing the law? For the author of Ecclesiasticus, Sirach, it was not a problem. He simply ignored this reality and declared “Abraham was the great father of a multitude of nations, and no one has been found like him in glory. He kept the law of the Most High” (Sirach 44:20). Likewise, for Paul, this was not a problem. He saw in Abraham a father, but not a father in the law but rather a father in the faith. It was crucial for Paul that he recast Abraham and challenge Christians to see, in Abraham, a model of a faithful servant of God.

I suspect that there were times that many of the Jewish Christians felt as though they were foreign visitors needing a “LOOK RIGHT” reminder. Here is Paul telling them that Abraham was not justified by his works. What’s more, he declares that the law brings wrath. How can this be? Likewise, how can Gentile Christians claim Abraham as their father?

Abraham was the father of many nations; but Abraham was righteous in the eyes of God, not because he had followed the law (which of course had not been given), nor because he had earned that righteousness (that, after all, is impossible.) No Abraham, Paul observes, was made right with God through God’s gracious gift and because Abraham believed God. We are justified by grace through faith.

Things that Do Not Exist 
Paul had experienced God’s amazing, unbelievable, overflowing love and forgiveness. How could God, in Jesus Christ, have forgiven him for all the evil that he had done? How could God accept the one who had sought to murder the disciples of Jesus? Because that is who our God is. For Paul, justification by grace was a theological concept only after it had been a life changing, throw-you-to-the-ground, awe-filled experience. God had offered him new life, and he had believed.

Paul had been raised to think that if he worked hard enough and followed the law, he would find himself right before God. In his letter to the church in Philippi, he records that he had every reason to boast. I was “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to seal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:5-6). Paul came to understand that he had viewed all of this as “wages.” With God as his master, he was working to earn salvation.  But when he met Jesus on that Damascus road he saw that God is not that kind of master. We do not earn our salvation. Rather, salvation is a gift. “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ” (Philippians 3:7).

In Abraham Paul saw the story of another person who had met God on the road; someone who had had those throw-you-to-the-ground, awe-filled experiences. God told Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation” (Genesis 12:1-2a). And Abram went. Paul knew, Abraham knew that they believed in a God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17b).
Lent is a time to “LOOK RIGHT”. It is a time to look for the amazing “things that do not exist” in our lives; those throw-you-to-the-ground, awe-filled moments that God is offering us every day.