Archive for March, 2014
FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, your Son came into the world to free us all from sin and death. Breathe upon us the power of your Spirit, that we may be raised to new life in Christ and serve you in righteousness all our days, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
I frequently hear stories about how God has answered prayer. I am thankful for these testimonies of faith. I am glad for people who recognize Jesus’ gracious presence in their lives, meeting their deepest needs and giving them guidance. But there are other stories as well that need to be told. These are the stories of unanswered prayers. Sometimes God leaves us in the lurch. At least many of the psalmists seemed to think so. Mary and Martha felt much the same way when Jesus arrived too late to heal their brother Lazarus of his fatal disease. “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” Read under that, “Where the hell were you, Jesus?” Jesus doesn’t seem to have much of an answer. For reasons he never quite explains, Jesus remained a full two days where he was after hearing that Lazarus was deathly ill. That turned out to be two days too late. Of course, we need not dwell overly long on this. We know the ending, after all. Lazarus is raised from death and they all live happily ever after.
Except that they don’t. The way John tells it, the raising of Lazarus turned out to be the last nail in Jesus’ coffin. Alarmed by the following Jesus has gotten through news of this remarkable sign, the religious authorities decide that Jesus must be put to death. It’s a matter of national security. If the leaders of Israel don’t deal with the “Jesus problem,” the Romans will-and it won’t be pretty. Moreover, it turns out that Lazarus will likely be part of the collateral damage. The people are unlikely to forget what Jesus has done as long as Lazarus is walking around. So the authorities decide to take him out as well.
Clearly, there is no happy ending for anyone in this story, but the good news of Jesus Christ is about more than happy endings. It is about the Son sent into the world that the world might be saved. The world must know how deeply the Father loves the Son. Only so will the world come to understand how deeply the Father loves it-enough to send that beloved Son into the heart of its hostility. Jesus deals in life-giving signs-wine to gladden a wedding celebration; health to a crippled body, bread to a hungry crowd, sight to a man born blind and now life to a man in the grip of death. Yet Jesus is met at every turn by death threats and violence. His signs are ignored, resisted and crushed. The cross is just the end result of his obedience to the life giving ways of the Father.
But God will not let death have the last word. God raises Jesus up and the life giving signs just keep coming fast and furious. The Gospel of John concludes by telling us that “there were also many other things that Jesus did; where every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” John 21:25. Like Mary, Martha and Lazarus we are all caught up in this drama of the Son who is sent. We have our parts to play, but we don’t get to write the script. We cannot expect that Jesus will arrive at the most convenient time from our own self-interested perspective. But whenever he comes on the scene, it is the right time, God’s time, time for the unfolding of salvation as the Father’s love for the Son spills over into our lives making of them signs of the glory that is the Father’s passionate love for the world.
This engaging story has helped to inspire hymns, spirituals, folk songs and at least one rip roaring fun camp song I recall from my youth. It begins with the prophet Ezekiel being “brought by the Spirit of the Lord” to a valley (or plain according to some manuscripts) that is full of bones. Vss. 1-2. The bones are dry and, as we will see, disconnected. They are in such a state of scatter that it would have been impossible to recognize any individual form among them. Though described as a vision, the field of dismembered bones could well describe the conditions of any place around Jerusalem a decade after the Babylonian destruction of that city. The battle raged fiercely around the city for some time and the Babylonian troops showed little mercy for the hapless citizens of this troublesome and rebellious little kingdom when its last defenses failed. The scene calls to mind discovery of mass graves throughout the former Yugoslavia following the genocidal wars of the 1990s. Though the significance of the vision is not explained to the prophet until after it is complete, Ezekiel must have known that these were not the bones of strangers.
The Lord addresses the question to Ezekiel: “Can these bones live?” Vs. 3. From a purely human standpoint (the only standpoint Ezekiel can possibly have), the answer is “no.” Death is final. Ezekiel can have no basis for any other response. But the question is not posed by another mortal. This is not a conversation between peers. God is the questioner and Ezekiel knows that God possesses knowledge, power and wisdom far beyond the limits of his own understanding. Thus, while Ezekiel cannot conceive of how the dead bones might live again, he cannot rightly deny this possibility either. So he responds in the only possible way: “O Lord God, thou knowest.” Vs. 3
The prophet is instructed to prophesy to the bones, a seemingly futile task. Yet perhaps it seemed no more daunting to Ezekiel than his original call to preach “to a nation of rebels, who have rebelled against me; they and their fathers have transgressed against me to this day.” Ezekiel 2:3. Speaking to a people unwilling to listen (Ezekiel 3:7) is just about as fruitless as speaking to dead bones. But perhaps that is the point. As we shall see, these “dead bones” are the “whole house of Israel.” Vs. 11. It will be Ezekiel’s job to preach hope into the broken and demoralized Babylonian exiles eking out an existence in the midst of a hostile culture. Compared to this task, preaching to bones might have seemed a welcome diversion.
The Lord makes a remarkable promise to the bones: “I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live.” Vs. 5. There is a playfulness in this message that gets lost in translation. As I have noted before, the Hebrew word for “breath” (ruach) is also the word for “spirit.” This confluence of the speaker, the word and the life giving spirit cannot help but call to mind the opening of the creation story in Genesis 1:1-5 and the creation of Adam in Genesis 2:7. With this allusion, the Lord answers implicitly his own question. “Yes, the bones can live because I speak them into existence and breathe into them my life giving spirit.” It is significant, I think, that God places this life giving word into the mouth of his prophet to speak. Vss. 4-5. The prophet then literally preaches the bones back to life again.
In verses 11-14 the Lord explains the vision to Ezekiel. The “bones” are the exiled people of Judah living in Babylon. They are lamenting their fate saying, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.” Vs. 11. But the Lord says otherwise: “Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you home into the land of Israel.” Vs. 12. Clearly, the “bones” are a metaphor for the exiles and the “grave” is a metaphor for Babylon, the land of captivity. But does Ezekiel mean to say more than this? In verse 13 the prophet goes on to say in the voice of the Lord: “And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people.” This might only be a common case of Hebrew parallelism, repeating in a different word sequence substantially the same thought expressed in a previous sentence. Then again, the prophet might be intimating more. The final chapters of Ezekiel paint a portrait of restoration for Jerusalem, the temple and the land of Israel that clearly stretches the parameters of existence as we know it. See Ezekiel 40-48. The river flowing from the restored temple passes through the land of Israel, turns the oceans from salt water to fresh and brings to life the arid places. Ezekiel 47:1-12. Is it too much of a stretch to expect that people of Israel who have died prior to this glorious new age will be raised up to share in it also?
Of course there is no way of settling this question decisively. I am not convinced that there is enough here to state unequivocally that Ezekiel foresaw a resurrection of the dead. Nonetheless, he believed that Israel’s return to Palestine would inaugurate a sweeping transformation of the land into an Eden like state where God is rightly worshiped. Where creation ceases to rebel against its Creator and allows God to be God, can there be any limitation on God’s power to breathe life into it? Obviously, this profound renewal of the land did not occur upon the Jews’ return from exile. We are therefore forced to conclude either that the prophet’s vision failed, or that it awaits fulfilment at a time and in a manor Ezekiel could not yet see. Naturally, I stand on the latter conclusion. Whatever limits there might have been on Ezekiel’s understanding of the word he proclaimed, it is after all the Lord’s word. Ezekiel would be the first to admit that one’s own necessarily limited understanding of that word cannot contain or limit the word.
This psalm is one of seven “penitential psalms” (the others being Psalm 6; Psalm 32; Psalm 38; Psalm 51; Psalm 102; and Psalm 143) so named by Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, a statesman, writer and scholar of the sixth century. It is characterized by Hebrew Scripture scholars as a “lament” containing all of the essential elements of its type:
- Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-2.
- Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 3-4
- Expression of confidence, vss. 5-6
- Witness of praise to the community, vss. 7-8.
See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. The Hebrew word “mimmaamkym” “From out of the depths” is a term that is equated with “sheol” or the abode of the dead. For the Israelite there was no “after life.” The concept of resurrection from death came only much later in Israel’s thinking. Consequently, death was the end of any meaningful life. To be in sheol was to be separated from the realm of life and therefore from the Lord of Life. There is no praise of Israel’s God in sheol. Consequently, the psalmist must have been in very deep distress, though we cannot tell what his or her specific complaints were.
According to Anderson, supra, the “word ‘depths’ [mimmaamkym] reverberates with mythical overtones of the abyss of watery chaos, the realm of the powers of confusion, darkness and death that are arrayed against the sovereign power of God.” Ibid. Perhaps, but the point seems to be that the psalmist feels as utterly distant from God who is “enthroned upon the cherubim” (Psalm 99:1) as any creature can be. This distance is due, in part at least, to the psalmist’s sin. Though clearly in some sort of deep trouble, the psalmist knows that s/he is in no position to claim God’s help and salvation. Nevertheless, the psalmist is able to “hope in the Lord” and encourages all Israel to do the same because, “there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.” Vs. 4. It is worth repeating here that the New Testament did not invent forgiveness. God has always been and always will be forgiving toward his people Israel and toward his people engrafted into the covenant with Israel through baptism into Jesus Christ. If that were not the case, if God did in fact “mark iniquities” (vs. 3), there would be no point in prayers such as this.
The psalmist is resolved to “wait for the Lord.” Vs. 5. S/he knows that answers to prayer are not instantaneous. Prayer requires a willingness to wait and watch for the answer. Jesus also told his disciples “Ask, and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Matthew 7:7-8. Thus, asking is only the beginning. One must then seek the answer and be willing to knock on what appears to be a closed door.
“My soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen for the morning.” Vs. 6. This is a striking image. In Jerusalem, watchmen took their post after sunset to keep a look out for approaching enemies. They were the ancient world’s equivalent of early warning systems. It was a tedious job on a long winter’s night and one can well imagine the watchman, who had no clock or wrist watch, scrutinizing the horizon for signs of the sunrise signaling that his lonely vigil was finally coming to an end.
In verses 7-8 the focus changes from the psalmist’s personal prayer to an admonition directed to all Israel to hope in the Lord. As we saw in Psalm 51, Israel frequently took ancient prayers of individuals and adapted them for use in public worship as prayers for the whole people. In this case, an Israelite who lived after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem may well have found in this individual’s plea for personal help a reflection of Israel’s post exilic distress. Having lost the line of David, the Temple, and her land, Israel was likewise “crying out from the depths.” Like the individual, Israel turned to the Word of the Lord and God’s promises for comfort and hope, knowing that with her God was forgiveness. Vs. 4.
I am not sure what can be done with this randomly selected section of Paul’s extended argument ripped out of its context and sandwiched in between some very substantial readings for this Sunday. It is worth pointing out, however, that when Paul is speaking of “the flesh” (“sarkos” in the Greek), he is not talking about bodily appetites (i.e., sexual attraction). He is instead speaking of life as lived under bondage to sin. Sin, as I noted in my post of March 9th, is failure to trust God to be God and placing ourselves in the center of existence. Thus, where the self remains center stage, a life of severe asceticism is no less fleshly than a life of hedonistic abandon. In the case of the former, the objective is “self” purification; in the latter, “self” indulgence. Either way, it is all about “self” and that makes it sin.
So, too, life in the Spirit is not to be understood as an escape from bodily existence. Again, “flesh” is not synonymous with “body.” Rather, life in the Spirit is one of knowing the heart of God through one’s relationship with Jesus. When God is known as the one who does not withhold from us the life of his own Son, it is possible to trust God to be God and live joyfully, hopefully and obediently within our creaturely limits.
More could be said here, but not without resort to the context of Paul’s larger argument. That will have to await another day.
This incredible story begins in Galilee where Jesus has gone to escape hostility in Judea. There he receives word from Mary and Martha that their brother, Lazarus, is ill. “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” Vss. 5-6. These two sentences strike the reader as a non sequitur. The New Revised Standard Version attempts to soften these sentences a bit by translating them as follows: “Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” I don’t see any basis for this “softening” in the Greek text. Furthermore, I am convinced that the “harder” reading should stand because it alerts us to the very point to be made through the story, namely, that everything occurring in the gospel happens in order that Jesus might be glorified. So says R. H. Lightfoot and I agree. Lightfoot, R. H., St. John’s Gospel-A Commentary (c. 1956 by Clarendon Press, pub. Oxford University Press) p. 215-220.
From the standpoint of our twenty-first century, ego centric, narcissistic mentality that cannot see any good beyond individual self-fulfillment, it appears inexplicable that Jesus would refrain from taking a short trip to Bethany to save the life of one whom he loved. But Jesus points out that the illness is “not unto death,” but “for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.” Vs. 4. If one accepts the proposition (as John would have us do) that the greatest good for all the world (Mary, Martha and Lazarus included) is the glorification of the Son, then love compels Jesus to remain where he is if that will further such glorification. Whether this decision on Jesus’ part was to allow nature to take its course with Lazarus or whether Jesus’ presence in Galilee was required for some other undisclosed reason is beside the point. Salvation for the whole world is revealed through the unfolding of the Son’s life lived in obedience to the will of his Father. Lazarus is part of all this drama as are Mary and Martha. But the story revolves around Jesus and their stories find meaning and fulfilment only as they are incorporated into his.
After an interval of two days, Jesus’ announces his intention to return to Judea and his disciples are incredulous. Had not Jesus only recently and narrowly escaped death at the hands of his enemies there? Why should he want to return? Jesus points out that he wishes to go to Lazarus who “has fallen asleep.” Vs. 11. The disciples, taking Jesus literally, interpret this to mean that Lazarus is on the way to recovery. In fact, he has died. Vs. 14.
Upon his approach to Bethany, Jesus first encounters Martha who greets Jesus with a seeming reproach: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Vs. 21. But she follows up with a confession of faith: “And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Vs. 22. She further confesses, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.” Vs. 27. Martha does not need the sign of Lazarus’ rising.
Mary is another story. She also reproaches Jesus for his absence in their time of need, but she makes no confession of faith. She and the people who are consoling her simply weep. It is at this point that Jesus “was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” Vs. 33. The Greek word translated as “deeply moved in spirit” can mean either deep grief or anger. Commentators go wild attempting to get into the head of Jesus here. Was Jesus irked or grieved at the obvious failure of Mary and her supporters to grasp, as did Martha, that he is the resurrection and the life? Is this grief or anger directed against death and bereavement generally? Was Jesus simply sharing the sorrow of Mary at this point? On the whole, I believe that the first explanation fits best with the narrative. Jesus is grieved/angered that Mary and her friends do not recognize that he is the resurrection and the life. The sorrow inflicted upon them by this blindness is what induces his weeping, not simply the death of Lazarus. It is for their sake, the sake of these “people standing by” that Jesus performs the “sign” of Lazarus’ raising. Vs. 42. Many of those bystanders did, in fact, believe. Vs. 45.
But the story does not end with the reading. When we read further, we learn that some of the bystanders reported this sign to the religious authorities. Fearing that Jesus’ rising popularity and the expectations surrounding him might provoke aggression from Rome, the authorities determine to kill Jesus. John 11: 46-53. Thus, this life giving sign comes at a great cost to Jesus. Lazarus’ raising from the tomb places Jesus on his trajectory toward the tomb. Throughout John’s gospel Jesus continues to give life through increasingly profound and decisive signs even as he draws ever closer to death. Moreover, plans are made to do away with Lazarus as well. John 12:9-11. The sign, therefore, is not to be taken as a “happy ending.” It is anything but. It further emphasizes the observation made in Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” John 3:19. Though Jesus’ sign cannot deter the gathering darkness nor even benefit Lazarus more than briefly, it nevertheless demonstrates that even death must retreat in the face of Jesus. Though surely not a “resurrection,” Lazarus’ raising points beyond itself to the final triumph over the power of death that Jesus will accomplish.
THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Merciful God, the fountain of living water, you quench our thirst and wash away our sin. Give us this water always. Bring us to drink from the well that flows with the beauty of your truth through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The journey began with excitement and high spirits. The people of Israel had been liberated from Egypt. Their years of slavery and oppression were behind them and the promise of freedom in a new land lay in front of them. Moses, their leader, was seen as a superstar. “Did you see how he stood up to old Pharaoh? Did you see how he led us right through the middle of the sea-just like he’d done it a thousand times! Good thing we have a guy like him at the helm!” But after a few days in the desert the euphoria wears off. The people are hungry, the people are thirsty, the people are tired and afraid. Moses doesn’t seem to know where he is going. Each day’s journey only brings them further into the wilderness. They begin to doubt Moses, question his leadership and wonder whether they should not turn back to Egypt.
Every leader knows how difficult it is to keep people committed to and engaged in long term projects. Americans are famously distractible, impatient and short on attention span. We want our presidents to solve the nation’s problems during the “first hundred days.” We want our Big Mack ready to go by the time we reach the pick-up window at the golden arches. We want results and we want them now. We get our news through sound bites and twitter feeds that fit neatly into a single elevator ride. The last thing we want to hear is that we must wait for answers, live without results or commit to a project we might never see finished. No wonder Moses was on the verge of being stoned to death!
The God we worship, however, wants to slow us down. God allowed the people of Israel to wait four hundred years for deliverance from Egyptian slavery. They had to spend another forty years wandering in the desert before entering into the promised land. Israel waited seventy long years in exile before God brought her home from Babylon. Disciples of Jesus have been waiting two millennia for the revealing of God’s kingdom in all its fullness. As impatient as we might get with all this waiting, God will not be rushed and God does not want us rushing either.
There is good reason for that. Rushing is dangerous. Accidents occur when we are driving frantically from one appointment to the next. Important details are overlooked when complex jobs are rushed in order to meet the all-important deadline. Relationships suffer when they consist only of rushed and abbreviated cell phone calls, texts and tweets. The most important things in life-love, friendship and faith-all require an investment of time. They need long and patient conversations like those Jesus has with the Samaritan woman in this week’s gospel and with Nicodemus last week.
The kingdom of God is also a long term project. It is not God’s will that anyone slip through the fishing net of that kingdom. For that reason, God works slowly, deliberately and persistently drawing each molecule of the universe toward its proper end. God so loved the world that he sent his Son. And through that Son God will continue loving the world until the world has no more rebellious energy left to resist. That might take a lot of time. But God is patient and has all eternity to work with.
God has liberated his people from slavery in Egypt, defeated the Egyptian army at the Red Sea and led Israel to freedom. But freedom brings with it new challenges. The brick making abilities Israel had learned in Egypt are of little use in the wilderness. A whole different skill set is needed for survival in the desert. In desperate need of water for themselves and their animals, the Israelites begin to complain to Moses. They criticize his leadership, question his motives and begin to wonder whether God is truly behind Moses. Have they been duped? Have they followed a mad man on a suicidal quest? The question is summed up in the final verse of our lesson: “Is the Lord with us or not?” Vs. 7.
Moses seems also to have his own doubts about this enterprise and his ability to carry it out. That is understandable. He left Egypt with Israel trusting in God’s promise to be with him. Now he finds himself in the midst of an angry mob of thirsty people asking questions he cannot answer and demanding results he cannot deliver. No wonder Moses is at his wits end. He cries out in all too human frustration, “What shall I do with this people?” Vs 4. Here God demonstrates remarkable patience, instructing Moses to take with him some of the elders of the people to the “rock of Horeb.” He is told to strike this rock with the staff he used to strike the Nile River turning it to blood. See Exodus 7:14-24. Moses does as God instructs and water comes forth from the rock for the people. Vs. 6.
As I have noted previously, the first five books of the Bible are believed by most Hebrew scriptural scholars to be the product of four distinct sources, these being the Jawhist source, the Elowist source, the Deuteronomic source and the Priestly source. For further elaboration, I invite you to revisit my post of March 9th and/or read the online article, Documentary Hypothesis. As it turns out, our lesson for today does not fit neatly into this hypothesis. Old Testament scholars disagree sharply over its source origin. Some have argued that the section is a conglomerate in which two or more sources are blended together, but there is no unanimity on which sources are implicated and where in the text their influence is to be found. Professor Brevard S. Childs is convinced that “th[is] question cannot be decided with any degree of certainty” and I tend to agree. Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, A Critical, Theological Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1974 Brevard S. Childs, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 306.
The mention of “the rock at Horeb” is odd. Horeb is another name for Sinai, the sacred mountain where Moses received the covenant. Israel will not reach that mountain until Exodus 19. It is possible that this is an allusion to God’s initial appearance to Moses on the mountain in the burning bush. It was there that Moses’ staff was first shown to be an instrument of God’s transformative power. Exodus 4:1-9. This narrative would dove tail naturally into the mention of the same staff later used by Moses to turn the Nile’s water into blood. Vs. 5.
This story is remarkably similar to one related in Numbers 20:1-13. Indeed, the commonality of geographic detail, etiology and plot have lead most Hebrew scriptural scholars to conclude that the two accounts are variations on a single story. In the Numbers narrative, matters do not go so well for Moses. Though instructed to speak to the rock and ask it for water, Moses proceeds to throw a tantrum in the presence of the people. He asks them, sarcastically no doubt, “shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” Numbers 20:10. He then strikes the rock with his rod (contrary to God’s specific instruction), but water nevertheless flows forth for the people and their cattle. Moses and Aaron are denied the privilege of bringing Israel into the land of promise as a result of their disobedience. Numbers 20:12-13.
This story of Israel’s rebellion at Massah and Meribah is mentioned in the Psalms. See. Psalm 95:8; Psalm 106:32-33. Paul takes up the image of the water producing rock in this narrative (possibly with some latter rabbinic embellishment) recognizing it as a metaphor (or more?) for Christ’s sacramental presence in the church. I Corinthians 10:1-5. This and other stories from Israel’s time of wandering in the wilderness proved meaningful for the early church struggling to find its way in a world increasingly hostile to its presence. The same stories present a challenge, however, to modern churches that have settled into and become a part of the cultural landscape. Are our sedentary ways compatible with those of a people seeking, but who have not yet arrived at a homeland? See Hebrews 11:13-16.
This is one of about twenty psalms thought to be associated with an enthronement festival for Israel’s God held in the fall, during which time worshipers made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem celebrating God’s triumph over all powers hostile to his rule. Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c. 1983, Bernard W. Anderson, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 175. The festival may have been patterned after rites common among Israel’s neighbors, such as the feast of akitu where the Babylonian creation myth, Enuma elish, was recited and re-enacted. Ibid. 176. However that might be, there is a critical difference between typical near eastern mythology on the one hand which tended to reflect and legitimate the imperial infrastructure, and Israel’s salvation narrative on the other hand acclaiming Yahweh as Lord. The difference is borne out by the fact that Israel’s worship outlasted her dynastic existence whereas the Babylonian and Canaanite religions died along with their empires.
Whatever its origins, Psalm 95 in its present state is obviously composed for use in public worship. It opens with an invitation for all Israel to worship God, not merely as creator, but as the God who is its “rock of salvation.” Vss. 1-2. Verses 3-5 declare that the whole of creation belongs to the Lord who is “a great king above all gods.” This might well be an ancient worship formula from a period of time when Israel acknowledged the existence of other deities, though always subject to Yahweh, her Lord. Nevertheless, its use in later Judaism functioned as a denial of even the existence of such gods. Vss 7b to 11 refer back to the narrative from our Exodus lesson as a warning to Israel. The worshipers must learn from the faithless conduct of their ancestors and its dire consequences not to be rebellious, disobedient and unbelieving.
The psalm is an illustration of just how important the narratives of God’s salvation history with Israel were for her worship and piety. The ancient stories of the wilderness wanderings were not dead history for Israel. They were and continue to be paradigms of covenant life in which Israel is challenged each and every day with God’s invitation to trust his promises and with the temptation to unbelief and rebellion. So, too, as the church enters into Lent and Holy Week, the gospel narrative of Jesus’ obedient life, faithful suffering and sacrificial death inform the real life choices that are ever before us. We see ourselves in the tentative response of Nicodemus to Jesus; Peter’s failure to follow through on his promise to go with Jesus to suffering and death; Judas’ betrayal of Jesus; and the disciples’ abandonment of Jesus. More significantly, we recognize our own new beginning in the resurrected Christ who seeks out his failed disciples and calls them to a new beginning.
This is a pivotal passage in Paul’s argument that we have been following for the last two weeks (in spite of the lectionary’s best efforts to scramble it). Having established that righteousness is measured not in terms of what is achieved by human effort but by trust in what God promises, Paul now sums up the consequences. Trusting in the forgiveness of sin and the promise of sanctification accomplished in Jesus, believers find the peace that always eluded them when they sought righteousness on their own terms. Paul points out that Jesus reconciled us to God while we were yet sinners. This is difficult to grasp because we usually think of reconciliation as a two way process by which two hostile parties somehow resolve their differences and manage to live peaceably going forward. But when it comes to the reconciling work of Christ, reconciliation is a one way street. We are reconciled to God whether we like it or not. The cross is God’s act of unilateral disarmament.
In the face of this bold proclamation, we often hear the inevitable objection: “If Christ has done everything to reconcile us and we cannot add anything to it by way of response, doesn’t that render us mere passive objects? What incentive do we have to be moral if salvation is simply given to us without any preconditions or expectations? Does anything we do make a difference? The answer is both “no” and “yes.” If the question is whether anything can be done to win God’s favor or improve your standing before God, the answer is clearly “no.” On the other hand, if the question is whether reconciliation transforms your life in any way, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Recall that righteousness is defined as faith which, in Paul’s understanding, translates as trust in God’s covenant promises. This faith is not merely intellectual ascent to a doctrinal assertion, i.e., “I believe that Jesus’ death paid the penalty for my sin; therefore, I am saved from the wrath of God.” Faith is confidence in God’s faithfulness to his promise to love and forgive us without limit. True obedience, then, flows not from compliance with legal obligations, but out of thankfulness and praise for all that God has accomplished for us in Christ.
For reasons probably far beyond the grasp of my simple mind, the makers of the lectionary have omitted the first four verses of our reading so that we have no idea how Jesus came to be in the vicinity of the Samaritan town of Sychar. That is unfortunate because these verses indicate to us that Jesus was on his way to Galilee from Judea and that he “had to pass through Samaria.” Vs. 4. Geographically speaking, this is not true. Though the main route from Judea to Galilee appears to have been through Samaria, Jesus could have avoided Samaria altogether if he had wanted by going up the Jordan Valley and into Galilee. The necessity, therefore, is rooted in the plan of God for Jesus’ mission and ministry.
There is no evidence of any town by the name of “Sychar” anywhere near the well that is known to be associated with Jacob. The most probable explanation is that “Sychar” is a corrupted spelling of “Shechem” which was only a short distance from the well. See, Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-X11, The Anchor Bible, (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 169. The well was about one hundred feet deep covered with a stone. Without a bucket and a rope, the well could offer no relief to thirsty travelers like Jesus.
In order to get the full impact of this story, we need to understand a little bit about Samaritans. Samaritans were a Semitic people situated in central Galilee during the first century. They claimed to be descended from the ten tribes of Israel that broke away from the Davidic monarchy in Jerusalem shortly after the death of David’s son, Solomon around 922 B.C.E. After that time, there were two Israelite nations: the kingdom of Judah in the south under the reign of David’s descendants and the kingdom of Israel in the north ruled by several dynasties throughout its existence. Israel eventually established its capital in the city of Samaria under its powerful King Omri in about 880 B.C.E.; hence, the name “Samaritan.” The peoples of this northern kingdom had their own place of worship on Mt. Garizim in Samaria. After the Assyrian conquest of Israel in 722 B.C.E., many people of the land were deported, but many also remained. The Assyrians transplanted populations from other parts of their empire onto Israelite soil and there was evidently some intermarriage between the Israelites and the newcomers. The Samaritans naturally asserted that their worship was the true religion of ancient Israel existing prior to the Babylonian conquest of Judah in 587 in which the upper classes of Judah (Jews) were carried off into exile. The Samaritans maintained that the religion of the Jews practiced in the temple of Jerusalem, rebuilt after the Babylonian Exile, constituted a perversion of Israel’s true faith. Please note that the Samaritans are not extinct. According to the latest census, there are about 750 of them living in the area of Tel Aviv. To this day they maintain their cultural identity and practice their ancient faith.
The Jews, by contrast, maintained that the true faith was preserved through the institution of temple worship in Jerusalem from which the ten tribes broke away. If you have ever wondered why the books of I & II Chronicles; Ezra and Nehemiah are loaded with mind numbing genealogies documenting exactly who was carried away from Judah into Babylon, their descendants born during the exile and who returned from exile, it all has to do with establishing the pedigree of the second temple in Jerusalem erected upon the Jew’s return from Babylonian captivity. The authors wished to establish beyond doubt that worship in this new temple was connected by an unbroken line of priests, singers and artists to the original temple built by Solomon.
According to the book of II Kings, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was completely depopulated when the Assyrians conquered Samaria in about 722 B.C.E. The Assyrians brought in foreigners to settle the land, but when these new comers experienced repeated attacks by lions, the Assyrian Emperor concluded that this must be the result of their failure to worship the gods of the land. To remedy the situation, he brought back from exile some of the priests of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to renew worship at its shrine in Bethel. The authors of II Kings assert that this priesthood began to include foreigners who introduced pagan practices, thereby perverting the true worship of Israel’s God-which had been less than adequate among the northerners to begin with since the break with Judah. II Kings 17:21-34. Obviously, this account is given from the perspective of the Jews.
As you can see, the rivalry between Jews and Samaritans was both ancient and intense. The degree of animosity between them can be seen in the book of Nehemiah where the Samaritans, along with other inhabitants of Palestine, fiercely opposed the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple. The Samaritans also supported the Syrian rulers in their wars against the Jews during which the second temple in Jerusalem was desecrated. The Jews returned this favor in 128 B.C.E. when the high priest in Jerusalem set on fire the Samaritan temple on Mr. Gerizim. This conflict and the memory of its bloody history was very much alive in the first century.
This is important to know because it makes clear just how important the issue of proper worship raised by the Samaritan woman really was. Some witless commentators have focused on the Samaritan woman’s five husbands and the fact that she was living with one who was not her husband as the most significant issue in this encounter. That is wrongheaded for two reasons. First, recall that women in first century Semitic societies were largely considered property. Any woman of standing belonged to somebody. If she was married, a woman belonged to her husband. If unmarried, to her father. Based on what we read in the gospels, divorce (an action available solely to men) was easily obtained for the slightest of reasons. Thus, this woman might have been infertile and so undesirable as a wife to each of the five men who divorced her. The man to whom she now belongs could well be her father, a brother or some other relative willing to take her into the household in exchange for providing domestic services-such as drawing water. Based on what little we know of this woman’s circumstances, we cannot fairly draw the conclusion that she was immoral or promiscuous. In any case, Jesus shows absolutely no interest in discussing sexual morality with this woman.
In the second place, the woman’s question is not polite cocktail party jabber typically used to draw the conversation away from unpleasant disputes over “sensitive” issues. The question about the proper place of worship as between Jews and Samaritans was about as explosive as any you could think to ask. This woman is cutting right to the chase and insisting that Jesus declare himself. Jesus’ response is to strike a blow to the wall of animosity between the two warring peoples. “The hour is coming when neither on this mountain [Gerizim] nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.” Vss. 21-25. The true temple, according to Jesus, is “the temple of his Body.” John 2:21.
The significance of this encounter unfolds when the woman returns to her town and brings her people out to meet Jesus. “The fields are white for harvest.” Vs. 35. The last word in this reading comes to us from the lips of the new Samaritan believers: “for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” The operative words here are “Savior of the world” echoing John 3:16. Just as Jesus drew into his orbit Nicodemus, a member of the hostile Sanhedrin, so now he draws in people of the hostile Samaritan population. In the end, the worldwide scope of the good news is fully revealed when some Greeks seek to see Jesus. John 12:20-26.
Once again, John is playing on words here. “Living water” can be translated as “running water” as opposed to standing water that might be collected from rain in a cistern. Jacob’s well was fed by a deep underground aquifer and so would be considered running water. Hence, the woman’s question: “Sir, you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where do you get that living water?” Vs. 11. She does not yet understand that Jesus is speaking of the Spirit through which true worshipers must worship God. Water and the Spirit run through this story as they did in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus and will continue throughout John’s gospel. Water, of course, is a crucial element essential to life. In an arid region where potable water is scarce and precious, Jesus’ use of this image in speaking of the Spirit was particularly compelling. One who drinks of this living water not only quenches his own thirst, but becomes a fountain of living water welling up for eternal life. Vs. 14.
SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, our leader and guide, in the waters of baptism you bring us to new birth to live as your children. Strengthen our faith in your promises, that by your Spirit we may lift up your life to all the world through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Several years ago I was standing on the sidewalk of Ridgewood Avenue in Ridgewood, New Jersey, the town in which I live, watching the annual Fourth of July parade go by. In addition to several marching bands, troops of war veterans, scouts and political dignitaries, a few churches had their floats in the parade. One such float carried a sign that said: “Read John 3:17.” Though of course I knew John 3:16 by heart, I could not for the life of me recall anything about the verse thereafter. Chastened by my lack of biblical knowledge, I went home and read the verse: “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
I don’t remember which of the churches in our town sponsored that float or what its designers were thinking when they decided to alert the public to that particular verse. But I can think of one very good reason on my own. A lot of religion these days, much of it bearing the stamp of Christianity, seems to be about little else than condemning. My recent visit to a website for an outfit devoted to promoting Christian values informed me that Christians, such as myself, need to be working against, birth control, Obamacare, Obama himself, gun control, pornography, same sex marriage and socialism. OK, I get it. You are against all this stuff, but what are you for? To be fair, the folks out on the right wing are not the only Christians in the business of being against things. My own Lutheran Church has a long list of things we are against, such as global warming, racism, sexism, domestic violence, etc. Hey, I don’t like those things either. But we can’t go on forever defining ourselves by what we are against.
In our gospel lesson for Sunday, we read of an encounter between Jesus and a ruler named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was drawn to Jesus in spite of the fact that his association with Jesus might have landed him in hot water. Meeting with Jesus was a risky proposition, but still Nicodemus came. Jesus is nothing if not interesting. You might love him or you might hate him. But if you take the time to know him, he will never bore you. I doubt that Nicodemus or anyone else in the First Century would have been drawn to Jesus if Jesus had been just one more preachy/screechy demagogue with a long list of axes to grind. As Billy Joel reminds us, nobody wants to be around the “angry young man” who is “fair and he’s true and he’s boring as hell!” Angry Young Man, Billy Joel. People came to Jesus because Jesus is fascinating. They came to him because they saw in his work the vision of God’s kingdom he proclaimed. Jesus was not another reformer out to change the world by regaling it with a lot of new demands. He came to announce a new creation and invite us all to participate in it. Jesus came to make it clear that God does not hate the world for failing to live up to his divine standards. So far from hating the world, God embraces the world with human arms and loves it with a human heart.
In this age when we hear so much carping about how the mainline protestant churches are dying out, it is worth noting that there are some that thrive. I cannot say that I have any statistical data to back me up, but I have forty years of observations in a lot of different congregations. I have seen more than a few thriving congregations. Some of them are more “progressive,” some are more “traditional,” others are outside of those boxes altogether. But the one thing they have in common is a clear vision of what they are for. They understand the shape discipleship with Jesus must take for them in their communities and they are not afraid to put everything on the line for it. They understand what it means to be the Body of Christ for one another and for the world. They don’t need to advertise, design outreach programs or give away free stuff to get people in the doors. People come for the same reason Nicodemus came to Jesus. They just can’t stay away.
Yes, I know that faithfulness to Jesus means we will necessarily stand against evil. But that is not the place from which to start. Hatred only destroys us, even when it is hatred of evil. We will never wind up in the right place as long as we let what we hate define where we stand. Our stand must be firmly with Jesus, the one who comes not to condemn, but to save. Get that right and the rest will fall into place.
These verses mark a critical transition point in the Hebrew Scriptural narrative. Genesis 1-11 constitutes what might be characterized as an “overture” to the drama that will be the story of Israel. These chapters narrate God’s creation of an earth that is in all respects “good.” Yet human rebellion spoils the goodness of God’s earth, polluting it with violence. Human violence finally brings upon the earth the great flood of Noah, a judgment so catastrophic that, but for the triumph of God’s mercy over God’s wrath, it would have destroyed all. The Tower of Babel represents yet another human act of overreaching that ends with the peoples of the world divided by national identity, language and culture. We are left at the end of Genesis 11 with a humanity alienated from God, divided against itself and at war with its natural environment. It is a world under curse.
But now history takes a new turn. The overture has ended, the curtain rises and the drama begins! God calls Abram and gives him a threefold promise: a land, a people and a blessing. We know that the land referred to here is Palestine, the land of Canaan. But from Abram’s standpoint, it could have been little more than an abstraction. He had never been to this promised land, had no idea where it was or how long it would take him to get there. Abram is to become the father of many nations and, in particular, the father of a new people of blessing through which the world now under the curse of sin will find blessing. Through Abram and his offspring, the alienation witnessed in the prior chapters of Genesis will be undone. Curse will be overcome with blessing.
It is helpful to remember that the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs of Genesis, though perhaps ancient in their own right, were woven together into the narrative we now possess by later authors living from the time of the Israelite and Judean monarchies until after the Babylonian Exile. See post from March 9th. Thus, the stories, poems and genealogies preserved in Genesis 12-50 were selected and arranged with an eye toward illustrating their meaning and significance for Israel’s history, beginning with the exodus from Egypt and ending with the return from exile in Babylon.
With all of this in mind, it is possible to see how this ancient tale of a family’s departure from the old country in pursuit of a divine promise has been able to inspire subsequent generations up to the present day. The exiled Jews in Babylon drew from this story encouragement to heed Isaiah’s call to make the long journey home to Palestine knowing that their origin lay in a single family’s decision to put its faith in the summons of its God. As we will see, Paul saw in Abram’s obedient trust in God’s promises the essence of reconciling faith in Jesus. Christian philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, also saw in Abram the paradigm of faithfulness. See Kierkegaard, Soren, Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death, translated by Walter Lowrie (c. 1968 by Princeton University Press). The story strikes a chord for all people in every age who recognize in the choices that lie before them God’s call to a deeper, more profound and significant life along an unfamiliar path filled with risk and uncertainty.
This psalm is part of a collection within the Psalter designated “Songs of Ascent.” (Psalms 120-134) While the precise meaning of this title is unknown, it is probable that these psalms were used on the occasion of pilgrimages to Jerusalem by Diaspora Jews visiting the second temple built following the return from Babylonian Exile. It is important to keep in mind, however, that although these psalms were compiled into this collection following the Babylonian Exile, the psalms themselves or portions of them might well belong to a much earlier period. Psalm 121 is second only to Psalm 23 in popular piety. Though originally an expression of faith in God’s protection for pilgrims making the long and sometimes dangerous journey to Jerusalem from Egypt, Persia and what is now Iraq, the psalm is also a fitting expression of faith for believers in almost any circumstance.
Some scholars have suggested that the psalm was designed to be read antiphonally with verses 1 and 3 being questions addressed to the priest by worshipers at the holy place and verses 2 and 4 constituting the priest’s answers. This would necessitate translating verse 1 as a question: “If I lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence does my help come?” The second verse would need to be translated: “Your help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.” The Hebrew text does not support such a reading, however, as verse 2 continues in the first person rather than transitioning to the second person. Consequently most English translators reject this reading. See Rogerson, J.W and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the English Bible (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) pp. 115-116.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills.” Vs. 1. This might be a reference to the “high places” where the “Ba’als” were worshiped. See, e.g., II Kings 23:5. It is also possible that the expression simply reflects the anxiety a traveler passing through a foreign land might feel looking up at the surrounding hills that could well be concealing gangs of bandits or hostile tribes. In either case, the point to be made is that Israel’s God is the source of all help and protection. Weiser, Arthur, The Psalms, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 746.
“He will not let your foot be moved.” Vs. 3. This might be a metaphorical way of saying that God will not allow the dangers of travel to deter the pilgrim on his or her journey. It may also be taken quite literally. A broken or sprained ankle could be a death sentence for a traveler far from any source of food, water and shelter.
“Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” Vs. 4. Therefore, the pilgrim can sleep soundly and peacefully at the stops along the way of his or her journey. The Lord protects the pilgrim both from the blazing heat of the sun and also from whatever malevolent forces might flow from the moon. Like many other ancient cultures, the Israelites believed that over exposure to moonlight could bring about detrimental effects. In sum, the pilgrim can be assured that the God of Israel will “keep [his or her] going out and  coming in.” That is, God’s protection will attend the pilgrim’s journey to and from the holy city of Jerusalem.
Israel’s recognition of Zion and its temple as the place where God dwells stands in some tension with the recognition that God cannot be contained or confined to any one place, shrine or temple. Professor of Hebrew Scripture, Bernhard W. Anderson, points out that the central sanctuary in Jerusalem is described as God’s “dwelling place,” the Hebrew word for which is “mishkanoth.” The same word is also translated as “tabernacle” or “tent.” Anderson, Bernhard, Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak to us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 197. Thus, the understanding is that God “tents” among his people. John’s gospel picks up on this concept in its prolog where the evangelist declares that the Word of God became flesh and came to “tent” (Greek “eskanosen”) among us. John 1:14. Thus, the confession that God dwells in Zion or is made present in the person of Jesus is not a denial that God is omnipresent. It is rather an affirmation that this God makes his saving presence visible, tangible and approachable to his people.
In last week’s lesson, Paul went to great lengths demonstrating that sin is not the mere breaking of law. Indeed, Paul argues, sin was in the world long before the law was given to Israel. See post of March 9th. Similarly, faith was also at work in the world before the law was given. Paul points out that we know nothing of Abram’s life prior to God’s calling him. We know only that he responded to God’s call in faith trusting in God’s promises. This faith, according to Paul, is the true righteousness. It must be understood that God is not engaging in a fiction here. It is not as though God accepts Abram’s faith in lieu of true obedience to the law-a sort of second best. Faith in God’s promises is not a substitute for true righteousness. Faith is true righteousness. Recall that Paul views sin as an inability to trust God. Whether a person seeks the fulfilment only God can give by indulging in lust and drunkenness (as do the gentiles) or by trying to achieve righteousness through obedience to the letter of the law (as do Paul’ Jewish opponents), it amounts to the same thing: unbelief.
Paul’s argument is based on Genesis 15:6 where we are told that Abram (Abraham by this point) believed God and God reckoned his belief as righteousness. Some scholars maintain that the “he” who reckons faith as righteousness is not God but Abram. The translation should then be something like this: “Abram believed God, reckoning God to be righteous.” This is a plausible translation. If accepted, it might blunt the clarity of Paul’s argument, but it does not undermine Paul’s conclusion in the least. Though Paul focuses on this particular verse in Genesis, he no doubt has in mind the larger narrative in which God promises Abram a land, a people and a blessing. He has the promise of Isaac in view and probably the terrible test Abram will someday face on Mt. Moriah. Genesis 22:1-19. Though the Torah had not yet been given, Abram lived faithfully, trusting in God’s promises. Such trust in God’s faithfulness to God’s covenant promises equates with righteousness.
The backdrop of Genesis 1-11 also comes into play. Abram, it must be recognized, was one of the “ungodly” scattered across the face of the earth in the wake of humanity’s dissolution at the Tower of Babel. He is in many ways the antithesis of Adam, the man placed in the Garden of Eden, surrounded by God’s favor on all sides. By contrast, Abram will live out his days as a wandering nomad at the mercy of hostile governments, plagued by famine and caught in the crossfire between warring kingdoms. So begins God’s history with humanity, choosing as his “light” to the nations the poor, the enslaved, the barren and the vulnerable. The world will not be redeemed from the top down. Salvation will not come through the movements of emperors and kings, but from below by persons who have none but God to save them and so learn that there is no other who can. That is how the righteousness of God is made manifest.
Nicodemus is described as a “ruler of the Jews,” most likely a member of the Sanhedrin, or so says Professor Raymond Brown. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel of John I-XII, The Anchor Bible (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 130. At the time of Jesus, the Sanhedrin was the highest governing body of the Jewish people. It was composed of Sadducees, Pharisees and lay leaders of the aristocracy. This assembly was presided over by the high priest. Ibid. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night to avoid any suggestion that he might be associated with him. Such a concern reflects a much later time in the history of the church during which the church’s chief antagonists were not the priestly Sadducees in charge of the Jerusalem Temple, but the local synagogues that became the center of Jewish life and worship after the temple’s destruction in 70 B.C.E. There is clearly a literary scheme at work here as well. The interplay between darkness and light is a recurring thread throughout John’s gospel. Darkness symbolizes the realm of evil, untruth and ignorance. Just as Judas leaves the disciples to betray Jesus entering into the night (John 13:30), so Nicodemus comes out of the darkness to the light of Jesus.
There are some interesting word plays in verses 3-8 that do not come across so well in the English translation. First, Jesus tells Nicodemus that no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born “from above,” which can also be translated born “anew.” Nicodemus assumes that Jesus is speaking of the second meaning and thus his question: “How can one who is old enter a second time into his mother’s womb?” vs. 4. Jesus is speaking rather of the new birth that comes through water and the Spirit. Vs. 5. It is important to understand here also that the Greek word for “spirit” (pneuma), like the Hebrew word (ruach), can also mean “breath” or “wind.” Thus, Jesus makes the point that, just as the wind cannot be seen or traced or controlled, so the Spirit of God blows where it wills. One born of the Spirit is one who is born into the community of Christ, the church. This dialogue, then, prefigures John’s account of the disciples’ receipt of the Holy Spirit following the resurrection when Jesus “breathed on them, and said ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” John 20:22.
The term “Kingdom of God” is commonly used throughout Matthew, Mark and Luke, but John uses it only twice and only in this chapter (vss 3 and 5). Possibly, the term is part and parcel of older oral or written traditions about Jesus that John has incorporated into his narrative without alteration. Ibid. p. 130. Or perhaps John intentionally makes this rare use of the term because it fits in with the global scope of this particular dialogue. Jesus utters in verse 16 the words we all memorized in Sunday School, namely, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that whosoever believeth in him shall not die, but have everlasting life.” (KJV). It is for the entire world that God sent the Son whose reign for the sake of that world is properly described in kingdom language. Perhaps it is best to read this verse in concert with Jesus’ prayer in John 17 where the life of the church is so beautifully described as a testament to what God wills for his whole creation: that all may see in the disciples’ love for each other the love of the Father for the Son and, in the Son’s sacrifice, the Father’s love for the world.
Nicodemus is an interesting character. His is a Greek name meaning “conqueror” or “ruler of the people.” This has led some commentators to opine that he is not a real person, but only a literary foil created by John to represent the Pharisees. Consequently, we have in this dialogue a conversation not between Jesus and an individual, but between the Johanine Church and the Synagogue. Most commentators reject this view and maintain that John, while certainly speaking to his own contemporary context, is nevertheless making use of traditions received from the early apostolic ministry. As the name Nicodemus was in common use throughout the first century, there is no reason to suppose that its use here is allegorical or figurative. Nicodemus is clearly drawn to Jesus, but is not willing to become Jesus’ disciple. He pops up again in John 7:45-52 where the Sanhedrin lambasts the temple police for failing to arrest Jesus. Nicodemus suggests that Jesus is entitled to a hearing before being judged. He receives a stinging rebuke. We meet Nicodemus one last time in John 19:38-42 when, following Jesus’ crucifixion, he and Joseph of Arimathea (a “secret” disciple of Jesus), go to Pilate for permission to give Jesus a proper burial.
Whether intended or not, there is no little irony in that these “secret” followers of Jesus are the ones who find the courage to approach Pilate on Jesus’ behalf and risk association with Jesus, whereas his open followers remain in hiding. Though John criticizes believers who will not confess their faith for fear of social rejection (John 12:41-43), he does not write them off altogether. Discipleship is, after all, a journey. The seeming coward sometimes finds courage s/he never knew s/he had to do extraordinary things, while those who boast of going to the cross with Jesus fail him when the time of trial comes. John 13:37-38.
FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Lord God, our strength, the struggle between good and evil rages within and around us, and the devil and all the forces that defy you tempt us with empty promises. Keep us steadfast in your word, and when we fall, raise us again and restore us through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Temptation comes in many forms. Mine comes in the shape of a convenience store with a lighted sign publishing the size of the current Powerball pot. I must confess that I am often sorely tempted to buy a ticket. And why not? Spending a dollar or two will not put my family in the poor house. I am under no illusion that my odds of winning are greater than those for everyone else. It’s a long shot, I realize that. But here is the thing. I have absolutely no chance to win it if I’m not in it. For a minimal investment, I can be in it. Even a long shot is better than no shot, isn’t it?
Thus far, I have resisted the siren call. That reflects, in part, my pietistic aversion to games of chance. The churches in which I was raised took a dim view of anything that looked like gambling. We were particularly scornful of our Roman Catholic neighbors with their “chances” and Saturday night bingo. When the men of our church had their “poker night,” they took pains to point out that it was only for match sticks. I never quite understood the moral underpinnings for these strict prohibitions against even the most seemingly innocent games of chance. That, however, did not prevent their becoming engraved on my conscience along with the Ten Commandments. Then, too, I worry that purchasing a ticket might be the first step toward a life of addiction to gambling. Of course, I don’t believe I have any such compulsion. But isn’t that what all addicts say?
I suspect, though, that there is something more at stake here than my childhood piety or even the possibility of my becoming a compulsive gambler. A lottery ticket is touted as “the ticket to a dream.” So what kind of dream am I buying? Obviously, the dream of wealth, and not just the “comfortably well off” sort of wealth. The lottery promises wealth beyond my wildest dreams, life altering wealth. Should I win the Powerball pot, I will never have to check my bank balance again. I will never have to get up any earlier than I want to. I won’t have to answer to anyone about the way I spend my time, where I go or what I do with the rest of my life. Concerns about debt, home repairs and left over college expenses for the kids will belong to the past. Henceforth, my life will be my own.
But something is wrong with this dream. It sounds suspiciously similar to the promise of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. A lottery win would make me autonomous, independent and, in many respects, “like God.” That is the way it seems in my fantasies anyway. The reality, however, is different. Wealth cannot fix a broken marriage or buy back all those hours I never got around to spending with the kids. Money can’t pay off the grim reaper-whose arrival might be a lot sooner than I anticipate. While money might be able to feed my appetites and awaken new cravings I never knew I had, I suspect that once sated, I would discover the same aching emptiness that plagues all of us when we allow life to revolve around ourselves and our appetites. So even in the very remote chance that I were to win the lottery, I would still lose. The serpent’s promise would finally show itself for the lie it is.
Jesus understood that life spent feeding appetites, accumulating power and pursuing the delusion of invulnerability is worse than wasted. He knew the devil had nothing for him; that there was no dream attached to the lottery ticket. That is why he invites us join him in the wilderness this Lenten season. We need to learn that the bread of life comes not from unlimited purchasing power, but from the generous hand of a compassionate Father. We need to understand that power is not the ability to subject others to our will, but the grace to submit ourselves to God’s will and to the service of our neighbor. We must learn that God’s promise of protection is not a grant of immunity from suffering and the cross, but the promise of God’s gracious presence with us as we take up that cross for the sake of the world for which Jesus died. We must come to know that freedom is not autonomy. Freedom is found in submitting to the gentle yolk of Jesus and learning from him. Matthew 11:27-30.
The writer and philosopher James K. A. Smith points out that “we are what we love.” Smith, James K.A., Desiring the Kingdom, (c. 2009 by James K.A. Smith, pub. Baker Publishing Group) p. 37 ff. That is to say, we are shaped by those things that become the focus of our desire. In Sunday’s reading from the letter to the Romans, Paul makes it very clear that loving God and God’s kingdom does not come naturally for us. Our love is turned in upon ourselves and must be redirected to its proper object. We cannot accomplish this redirection on our own. Only the Spirit of God poured into our hearts can work this transformative miracle. Nevertheless, Jesus calls us to the faithful practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Again, these are not works by which we can turn ourselves from sin, but tools through which the Spirit trains our hearts to honor our baptismal vow to “reject the devil and all his empty promises” and “seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness.” Matthew 6:33.
To reiterate what I have said previously about Genesis and the other four books of the “Pentateuch,” namely, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, most scholars are convinced that there are at least four main literary sources for these works, each of which narrates the drama of Israel’s origins. These four sagas were woven together and edited throughout the years of the Davidic dynasty to the period following the Babylonian Exile. In chronological terms, that would stretch from about 950 B.C.E. to 500 B.C.E. The first literary tradition, known as the “Jahwist,” is the earliest source. It probably dates from the years of the Davidic Dynasty, being a product of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Next in chronological order would be the “Elowist” source. This literary tradition tells the story of Israel from the viewpoint of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and was likely brought to Judah by refugees escaping the Assyrian conquest and annexation of that nation around 721 B.C.E. The third contributor, known as the Deuteronomist, consisting of Deuteronomy and extending through the end of II Kings, is credited with joining the Jahwist and Elowist material into a single narrative. The final literary contributors, designated the “Priestly” source, rounded out the final form of the Pentateuch as we have it today incorporating ancient liturgical traditions preserved by the Jerusalem priesthood. This final editing was done sometime during or immediately after the Babylonian Exile ending in 538 B.C.E. For further elaboration, I invite you to read the online article, Documentary Hypothesis.
Our reading from Sunday is attributed in the main to the Jawhist. Unlike the first chapter of Genesis where the Priestly writer testifies to God’s creation of the universe in a poetic hymn building on the six days of creation to the culmination on the Seventh Day when God rests from his labor, the Jawhist spins a simple narrative about the creation. God first creates an “earth creature.” This creature, though human, is not properly speaking a “man.” He is an “adam,” having been taken from the earth (“earth” being “adamah” in Hebrew). Not until God recognizes that it is not good for this “adam” to be alone and creates from his own body a female counterpart can he be called a “man.” The Hebrew word for a male human being is “ish” and that for a female, “ishah.” The term “ish” is not used for the “adam” until the creation of the woman. Genesis 2:23.
Though seemingly primitive, this story is a nuanced account of humanity’s problematic relationship with its Creator. As such, it is less an explanation for how evil came into the world and more a description of the way matters now stand. Though Christian and later Jewish tradition has identified the serpent with the devil, that does not seem to have been the intent either of the Jawhist or the subsequent editors. According to the narrative, the serpent is a creature made by God like all other creatures. It is “subtle,” but not necessarily evil. We are not told why the serpent tempted Eve to eat from the forbidden tree or what he stood to gain from humanity’s disobedience. No explanation is given as to why God would place in the garden inhabited by human beings a tree bearing knowledge God did not want for humans to have. But perhaps we are overthinking this. The point seems to be that human beings are creatures. Though endowed with marvelous potential for learning, love and creativity, they are nevertheless bounded by limits. They are mortal. They are dependent upon the rest of creation for their sustenance. They cannot change the past or control the future. They have only today. Yesterday must be surrendered to the God who made it and tomorrow must be left trustingly in God’s hands. In order to live well, human beings must live faithfully within their limits trusting God for what lies beyond.
The serpent suggests that this need not be so. Humans do not have to accept the limits God has placed upon them. They need not accept God’s determination of what is “good” for them. If God places limits on Adam and Eve, it can only be that God is holding something back. God has goods he doesn’t want to share. The bottom line, as far as the serpent is concerned, is that God cannot be trusted to do right by his creatures. “So,” says the serpent, “don’t believe for one minute that you will die from eating the fruit of the tree. That’s just an empty threat. The tree is the key to being master of your own destiny. Do you want to be a humble little gardener for the rest of your life? Wouldn’t you rather be lord of the garden?”
It is a pity the lectionary does not let the entire story be told. If it were to do so, we would learn that there are betrayals going on at all levels here. Adam and Eve betray the trust invested in them by God. Adam throws Eve under the bus when confronted by God over his disobedience. Genesis 3:12. Eve blames the snake, thereby implicating God who is ultimately responsible for having made such a creature. Genesis 3:13. Harmony between the Creator and his human subjects, harmony in the most intimate of human relationships and harmony between human beings and the earth from which they were taken has all been disrupted. Genesis 3:14-19.
In the end, we are left with a humanity that rages futilely against its limits, running up again and again against God’s firm “no.” The forces of nature we cannot control, our weakness and vulnerability to accident and disease, the looming prospect of death become oppressive burdens when we can no longer recognize on the frontiers of these limiting factors the gracious God who can be trusted to see to our ultimate good. We have seized the unlimited prerogative of God, but as limited mortals we cannot bear it. Psychologist and Philosopher Ernest Becker puts it all quite succinctly in secular language.
“Man is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.” Becker, Ernest, The Denial of Death, (c. 1973 Free Press Paperbacks). That pretty much reflects the terrifying state of human existence in the absence of God’s grace reflected in our reading from Genesis.
This is one of the seven “penitential psalms” so classified in the commentary of Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator written in the 6th century C.E. (These include Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143). Not surprisingly, it was a favorite of Augustine and Luther. The psalmist speaks eloquently about the joy and relief found in forgiveness of sin and the futility of denial and self-justification. The psalmist does not disclose the nature of his or her sins, but indicates that it was some illness that brought him or her to an acknowledgement of sin and the need for confession. There is no question but that guilt induced stress can bring about illness, but it is far more likely in this case that the psalmist’s illness was the catalyst for guilt. Sickness was almost universally understood in ancient cultures as an affliction from God intended to punish sin. As such, its onset naturally drove the psalmist to introspection and self-examination.
In this case, the psalmist’s self-examination led to the discovery of sin that the psalmist had been trying to hide from God and perhaps even from the psalmist’s own self. In the confession and acknowledgement of sin, the psalmist found healing and relief. The psalmist therefore instructs fellow worshipers not take the path of sin and self-deception that leads to illness and misfortune, but to “come clean” with God and cry out for deliverance. Mulish stubbornness will only lead to grief. As Augustine puts it, “much is he scourged, who, confessing not his sins to God, would be his own ruler.” Moreover, “it is right to be subject unto [God], that so you may be placed above all things beside.” Augustine’s Commentary of Psalm 32 published in The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Vol 8, (Erdmans, 1979) p. 71.
The psalmist’s advice is good as far as it goes, but his/her experience, valid and instructive though it may be, must not be elevated to a universal principle. Jesus reminds us that illness and disability are not necessarily related to anyone’s sin. John 9:3. The preacher from Ecclesiastes points out that in many cases justice and right do not prevail and all seems like “vanity.” Ecclesiastes 4:1-7. Sometimes tragedy happens for no apparent reason. There are psalms to address these circumstances as well. See, e.g. Psalm 39. When ministering to the sick and dying, one must always take care to avoid any suggestion that the individual’s suffering is a punishment from God. It is one thing for the sufferer himself/herself to come to an understanding of sin through reflection upon his/her ordeal and discover the healing power of forgiveness. It is quite another for someone else to pronounce a judgment of sin from the outside and expect the sufferer to plead guilty and repent!
That said, sometimes sickness is the result of our sinful lifestyles. It is well known that we are working longer hours these days under more stressful conditions. For many people in our country, this isn’t a choice. When you are at the minimum wage level, you need multiple incomes from two or three jobs just to put food on the table and keep a roof over your family. But for many of us, I believe that our frantic work ethic is more about maintaining a particular lifestyle. I have told the story many times of a fellow attorney who suffered a heart attack at the ripe old age of forty-one telling me, “This is what I get for spending my life doing work I hate to earn money I don’t need to buy stuff I don’t want to impress people I don’t like for reasons that don’t matter.” Chronic anger leads to high blood pressure, heart disease and depression. Our careless and excessive eating habits often lead to obesity and the health problems it creates. Nevertheless, it is dangerous to apply these general observations to instances of individual suffering.
Martin Luther says of Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “The sum and substance of this letter is: to pull down, to pluck up, and to destroy all wisdom and righteousness of the flesh (i.e., of whatever importance they may be in the sight of men and even in our own eyes), no matter how heartily and sincerely they may be practiced, and to affirm, establish, and make large the reality of sin (however unconscious we may be of its existence).” Luther, Martin, Lectures on Romans, The Library of Christian Classics (c. 1962 L. Jenkins, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 3. That certainly describes the way in which Paul begins his letter. In Romans 1 Paul lambasts the gentile culture of Rome for its gross immorality. In chapter two, we discover that this critique of the gentiles was but a sucker punch. The knockout blow comes in Romans 2:1 when Paul turns to his audience, the Roman church, and says, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge are doing the same things.” I suspect that the readers are remarking at this point, “You can’t be serious, Paul! We don’t take part in any of those horrid, immoral practices!”
Paul is serious, though, and he is setting the stage for his argument in the chapters to come that sin is far deeper, more complicated and pervasive than his readers imagine. He is out to demonstrate to them that their supposed righteousness and moral superiority over the gentile culture they excoriate is an illusion. Sin is not a matter of living up to moral standards. It is a matter of the human heart being so hopelessly turned in upon itself and away from God that it cannot possibly obey God. The good news of Jesus Christ is not about reforming sinners. It is about crucifying and raising them up as new people.
In our reading for Sunday, Paul points out that sin came into the world through the disobedience of Adam. As we have seen in our first lesson, Adam’s and Eve’s sin consisted in this: they failed to trust God to see to their good and sought to reach beyond their creaturely limits and determine that good on their own and for themselves. Paul points out that sin was in the world before the law was given to Israel. Sin therefore existed even when there was no law by which to measure it. Paul will go on to point out that, while the law can reveal and expose sin, it cannot be used as a tool for overcoming sin. Romans 7:7-12. At its core, sin is our failure to trust God to be God. Therefore, the remedy for sin is the restoration of our trust or “faith” in God. Unless we can come to the point where we trust God enough to be God, we will never be able to live faithfully within our creaturely limitations. Without faith, we will always be reaching up in a futile effort to take control.
How, then, is our lack of trust overcome? How can the nagging doubt about God’s faithfulness planted in our hearts by the serpent be driven out? For an answer to that question, we need to back track to Romans 5:6-11. There Paul points out that while we were still sinful, faithless and rebelling against God, God showed his faithfulness toward and love for us in Jesus’ death for our sake. Romans 5:8. The death of Jesus demonstrates both the depth of human depravity in rejecting the very best God had to give and the greater depth of God’s love which will simply not take no for an answer. Paul wraps up his argument in Romans 8:31-39. “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, will he not give us all things with him?” Romans 8:32. “For I am sure,” says Paul, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39. It is the preaching of this wonderful good news that ignites trust and confidence in God’s faithfulness, silencing forever the serpent’s lies.
As usual, Matthew employs numerous citations and allusions to people and events in the Hebrew Scripture’s narrative of God’s saving acts for Israel. Jesus’ forty days of fasting echoes Israel’s forty years of wilderness wandering as punishment for unfaithfulness on the verge of Canaan. Deuteronomy 8:2-3. It might also allude to the forty days Moses spent fasting on Mt. Sinai to prepare for confirmation of God’s covenant with Israel. Exodus 24:18; Deuteronomy 9:9. Temptation to turn stones into bread could be an allusion to Moses’ rebellion in striking the stone to bring forth water in Numbers 20:1-13, but I have to say that I think this is a bit of a stretch.
“If you are the son of God…” A first class condition in the Greek, this does not suggest that the devil doubts Jesus’ sonship. It reflects instead a desire to ferret out what sort of son Jesus will be. “Rhma,” is the Greek word used for “word” in Jesus’ scriptural response to the temptation to turn stone into bread. Somewhat broader than the term “logos,” it can include “event,” or “happening.” Just as Israel was made to rely upon the bread “spoken into existence” by the mouth of God while residing in the wilderness, so Jesus relies upon his heavenly Father to provide for his needs in his own wilderness wandering.
The temptation to jump from the pinnacle of the temple follows naturally from Jesus’ response to the last temptation. “Alright, Jesus. So you trust the promises of God to sustain you. Is that it? Well let’s see how much you trust those promises.” The devil is not a flunky when it comes to interpreting scripture. He has the jist of Psalm 91 correct. The psalmist does indeed claim that “because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your habitation, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.” Psalm 91:9-10. As we have seen, a similar conviction is expressed more moderately in this Sunday’s psalm. But as previously noted, these are not the only psalms in the Bible. They represent the life experiences of the individuals who prayed them and they still resonate for many people today-but not all people. Sometimes good conduct is not rewarded. Sometimes justice is not done. Sometimes our prayers meet with seeming silence. Often faith finds itself in circumstances where there is little or no evidence of God’s love and protection. There are psalms dealing with these very circumstances also. See, e.g., Psalm 88. Furthermore, the devil would do well to reflect on Psalm 30 in which arrogant presumption brings discipline and divine rebuke. Psalm 30:6-7.
The devil’s hermeneutic (focusing on a single scriptural voice to the neglect of others) is one of choice for culture warriors seeking biblical sanction for their various agendas. By cherry picking the verses you like and ignoring those you don’t, you can make the Bible say just about anything you want. But such use of the Bible does not honor its authority. Rather, it strips the Bible of all authority and makes the Bible a servant of ideologies, political platforms and social agendas.
The last temptation, to employ the power and glory of empire, is perhaps the most difficult to resist. Political power promises swift results-often good results. The only catch is that you need to worship the devil to get it. So political power is not neutral. To employ political means is not the same as using a spade-which could also be used as a weapon-to till a field. It is to enter into the realm of coercion, threats, moral compromises and always ultimately, violence. The devil would argue that you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. There will inevitably be blood spilled on the way to a better world. Collateral damage cannot be avoided. Some truths must wait to be spoken until a more opportune time-after the election preferably. The ends justify the means.
But we learn from the Sermon on the Mount that it is precisely the other way around for disciples of Jesus. The means determine the end. In fact, one could well say that the means are the only end a disciple is commanded to pursue. This might not appear to be helpful to persons seeking a general ethic for advancing the common good through political means. But Jesus does not seem interested in that. Indeed, the only time he mentions the nations of the world is when he tells his disciples not to be like them. As far as a disciple is concerned, truth must be spoken without any thought given to the effect it will have on the election of a candidate or the passage of a piece of legislation-however beneficial these may be. Violence must not be employed even in the service of justice and peace. The law courts are not to be used by disciples to defend their rights. This is the shape of Kingdom building Jesus chooses over the devil’s imminently more practical alternatives.