SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT
Romans 4:1–5, 13–17
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.