Archive for March, 2017
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.
“Can these bones live?” God asks the prophet Ezekiel. Wisely, the prophet defers to the Lord. “You know, O Lord.” Who else could possibly answer a question like that? God’s response is to command the prophet to prophesy, to preach to a valley full of dead bones. We all know (or should know) how the story ends. The bones do indeed rise up and live. Now, of course, this is a vision, not an actual event. The “bones” are not metaphors for all who have died. They represent the people of Israel who, though defeated, carried into exile and on the verge of religious and cultural extinction, are very much alive. The word of the Lord is able to give them life. They will yet rise up from the dead end of conquest and exile to live as God’s people once again. Synagogues all over the planet testify to the efficacy of that message and God’s faithfulness to the vision. Some commentators, but by no means all, maintain that this is all there is to the message, that we cannot derive from Ezekiel’s vision any hope for life beyond the grave as this topic was well beyond the scope of the prophet’s oracle. I explain below why, based on a fair reading of the text, I cannot accept such a limited interpretation. More fundamentally, however, I believe that a truncated “this worldly,” modernist reading of the text yields a gospel that for many is simply illusory.
If the new life Ezekiel prophesied for Israel consisted only in the eventual return to the Promised Land, then what about the many who died in exile before the Persian conquest of Babylonia made that return possible? What about the untold number of Hebrews that were born into slavery in the land of Egypt and who died in slavery before the advent of Moses and the Exodus? What about African Americans who came to this land in chains and never lived to see the March on Washington, the passage of the Civil Rights Act or the inauguration of Barak Obama? What of the millions alive today who will never escape oppression, starvation and crushing poverty? What about my grandson whose life expired a mere day after he was born? What to them is a glorious future in which they will never take part?
One of the characters in John Updike’s first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, raises this very question. Updike’s story takes place in a state run home for the destitute elderly overseen by prefect Stephen Conner. Conner is a product of the New Deal. He believes in the inevitability of human progress through social evolution and the perfection of governmental institutions. Conner becomes engaged in a conversation among the residents about the afterlife. He shares his vision of “heaven on earth” formed in a future society where illness is overcome by advanced medicine; pollution eliminated through harnessing atomic power; and oppression defeated through the spread of democracy. Mrs. Mortis, one of the residents, asks him whether this heaven on earth will come soon enough for her to see it. Conner responds: “Not personally perhaps. But for your children, your grandchildren.”
“But not for ourselves?”
“No.” The word hung huge in the living room, the “o” a hole that let in the cold of the void.
“Well, then,” Mrs. Mortis spryly said, “to hell with it.”
Updike, John, The Poor House Fair, (c. 1958 by John Updike, pub. by Random House). I share Mrs. Mortis’ sentiments. If the unsatisfied longings of billions for justice, peace, freedom and life never find fulfillment in God’s future, then for too many that future will have been a cruel hoax.
Many preachers of my generation have been greatly concerned that preoccupation with eternal life will somehow divert us from addressing evils and injustices in the here and now. If we get our pie in the sweet by and by, why concern ourselves with the trials of this passing world? So the argument goes. While I suppose that is a theoretical possibility, I doubt that it is as much a concern as we have made it out to be. The truth is, belief in the imminence of a new age in which the mighty are cast down, the poor exalted and the world judged by one who lived and died as one of the poor has inspired the formation of monastic movements that exercised radical hospitality, forsook arms and built hospitals and orphanages. Belief in eternal life and the saving power of the gospel inspired missionary movements of enormous energy throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The civil rights movement grew out of the African American church, which has always held an unfailing conviction in the hope of the resurrection. In short, the equation of belief in eternal life with quietism and inactivity is one of those assumptions that slipped into our preaching and teaching without much thought. It doesn’t hold up particularly well under critical scrutiny.
I suspect, too, that robust faith in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting has become a casualty of mainline Protestantism’s efforts to make the faith palatable for modernism. Of course, modern science has taught us that we cannot take each line of the scriptures literally. For example, we need to accept evolution as scientific fact and re-examine understandings of the Bible that are inconsistent with what we know. Nevertheless, trying to harmonize the God of the Bible with a worldview that has no need for God has resulted in our proclamation of an unnecessary God. Paring God down to a size sufficient to fit within the cramped confines of a secular universe results in a deity so small and inoffensive and a reign so distant and uninteresting that Mrs. Mortis and just about everyone else turns away in disgust saying, “to hell with it.” What the world in this and every age needs to hear is the bold proclamation that the dead bones will live and that every life poured out for the sake of God’s future will be woven into that future. Nothing less will do.
Here’s a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti that expresses a longing for the “rebirth of wonder” that perhaps captures something of the longing of Mrs. Mortis and all whose lives consist of unsatisfied yearnings, loose ends and unfinished business.
I Am Waiting
I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone
to really discover America
and I am waiting
for the discovery
of a new symbolic western frontier
and I am waiting
for the American Eagle
to really spread its wings
and straighten up and fly right
and I am waiting
for the Age of Anxiety
to drop dead
and I am waiting
for the war to be fought
which will make the world safe
and I am waiting
for the final withering away
of all governments
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder
I am waiting for the Second Coming
and I am waiting
for a religious revival
to sweep thru the state of Arizona
and I am waiting
for the Grapes of Wrath to be stored
and I am waiting
for them to prove
that God is really American
and I am waiting
to see God on television
piped onto church altars
if only they can find
the right channel
to tune in on
and I am waiting
for the Last Supper to be served again
with a strange new appetizer
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder
I am waiting for my number to be called
and I am waiting
for the Salvation Army to take over
and I am waiting
for the meek to be blessed
and inherit the earth
and I am waiting
for forests and animals
to reclaim the earth as theirs
and I am waiting
for a way to be devised
to destroy all nationalisms
without killing anybody
and I am waiting
for linnets and planets to fall like rain
and I am waiting for lovers and weepers
to lie down together again
in a new rebirth of wonder
I am waiting for the Great Divide to be crossed
and I am anxiously waiting
for the secret of eternal life to be discovered
by an obscure general practitioner
and I am waiting
for the storms of life
to be over
and I am waiting
to set sail for happiness
and I am waiting
for a reconstructed Mayflower
to reach America
with its picture story and tv rights
sold in advance to the natives
and I am waiting
for the lost music to sound again
in the Lost Continent
in a new rebirth of wonder
I am waiting for the day
that maketh all things clear
and I am awaiting retribution
for what America did
to Tom Sawyer
and I am waiting
for Alice in Wonderland
to retransmit to me
her total dream of innocence
and I am waiting
for Childe Roland to come
to the final darkest tower
and I am waiting
to grow live arms
at a final disarmament conference
in a new rebirth of wonder
I am waiting
to get some intimations
by recollecting my early childhood
and I am waiting
for the green mornings to come again
youth’s dumb green fields come back again
and I am waiting
for some strains of unpremeditated art
to shake my typewriter
and I am waiting to write
the great indelible poem
and I am waiting
for the last long careless rapture
and I am perpetually waiting
for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn
to catch each other up at last
and I am awaiting
perpetually and forever
a renaissance of wonder
Source: A Coney Island of the Mind. (© 1958 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, pub. by New Directions Publishing Corporation) Lawrence Ferlinghetti is a poet, playwright, publisher and activist. His work helped to inspire the “beat” movement of the 1950s. His poetry consistently challenges the status quo and engages his readers in challenging popular political movements and conventional social norms. Ferlinghetti felt strongly that art should be accessible to all people and not only to “elitists.” Accordingly, his writing frequently reflects and utilizes common American idiom. You can read more about Lawrence Ferlinghetti and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
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. Clearly, the prophet’s focus was on the destiny of Israel in the Promised Land. As I noted above, the return of the Jews to that land constitutes a fulfillment his vision. Nonetheless, Ezekiel also 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 fulfillment at a time and in a manner Ezekiel could not yet see. Naturally, I stand on the latter conclusion. So also does at least one prominent commentator. See Jenson, Robert W., Ezekiel, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2009 by Robert Jenson, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 284. Whatever limits there might have been on Ezekiel’s understanding of the word he proclaimed, it is after all the Lord’s word. I think 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 5, 2017, 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.
FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Bend your ear to our prayers, Lord Christ, and come among us. By your gracious life and death for us, bring light into the darkness of our hearts, and anoint us with your Spirit, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“And don’t call me a racist!” Generally speaking, I have learned that this is exactly what people who are racist frequently say-and often when no one in the room has even suggested to them that they are racist. For some reason they feel the need to defend their lack of racial bias, point out how some of their best friends and co-workers are people of color, that they don’t even see skin color, that they have never discriminated against anyone on the basis of race and so just shut up about it!
I think something of the very same kind is going on when Jesus’ critics in our gospel lesson for this Sunday ask him, “So, are you saying we’re blind?” Of course they know very well what Jesus is driving at. They have been confronted with an event that does not fit into their theology and morality: a sinner, Sabbath breaker, blasphemer has just given sight to a man born blind-something that has never been known to occur before. They have tried every way from hell to breakfast to get around Jesus’ miracle. They tried to discredit the formerly blind man’s story. They question his parents, hoping to disprove his blindness. Then they try intimidating the man into retracting his testimony. When these measures fail, they denigrate the man’s character and expel him from the synagogue. But the stubborn facts remain: the man was born blind; Jesus put clay on his eyes and told him to wash. He now sees. To Jesus’ critics, however, the facts don’t seem to matter. They remain deliberately and stubbornly blind to what is standing right in front of them.
Understandably, then, Jesus’ opponents are a little touchy about his teachings on blindness and specifically his declaration that he has come in order that the blind might see. “Are you calling us blind?” they say in what I suspect was a slightly menacing tone. Jesus responds, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see’ your guilt remains.” John 9:41.
As every recovering addict will tell you, one’s return to sobriety begins with the acknowledgement of one’s addiction. Until that happens, there is virtually no hope for regaining and maintaining sobriety. Nobody had to tell the man born blind that he could not see. His blindness so defined him that we never even learn his actual name from the narrative. Yet he is the only one in the story able to recognize Jesus for who he is. For all their 20/20 vision, moral rigor and theological training, Jesus’ opponents see only a sinner, a blasphemer and a deceiver of the people.
That brings us full circle back to the topic of racism. Like addiction, those of us afflicted with it are the last to recognize it, name it and take responsibility for it. We firmly believe that we are without biased attitudes or behaviors-and yet wonder why our churches continue to be overwhelmingly white. We insist that we are welcoming congregations and we just don’t understand why people of color seldom stick around on those rare occasions that they happen to darken our doors. “What’s wrong with them anyway?” we ask ourselves. As long as we continue to feed the illusion that we are free from the false narratives about race that have been woven into our national historical consciousness; as long as we remain blind to the structural supports for white privilege within our schools, workplaces and churches as well as the ways in which they operate to hurt and dehumanize people of color, we can never hope to see rightly. As long as we continue to insist that our sight is just fine and needs no adjustment, we will continue to stumble blindly into the same destructive and hurtful behaviors that reinforce racial injustice and oppression.
Admittedly, “racist” is a strong word that none but the most deplorable of individuals would ever willingly own. Most of us who identify as white don’t support overt segregation or violence against persons of color. We probably do not harbor any conscious feelings of malice against them. Yet, as I have said previously, all of us have benefited from societal conventions that historically have favored people like us. With all the anxieties that come with a job interview (and I have gone through more than I can count) I have never given a thought to how an interviewer might view my racial identity, my sir-name, my accent, my clothing style or my religious preference. It is easy for me to say that race is not a factor in how I view other people because no one has ever made an issue of my race. I have never had to view the world through the eyes of someone for whom race is an issue-every day, every hour, every minute. I am frequently blind to the effects of systemic racism and the ways in which (knowingly or not) I reinforce them.
So I can’t say with impunity that I am not a racist. At best, I am a recovering racist. That is to say, the stories of racism’s victims, like the clay with which Jesus anointed the eyes of the man born blind, are gradually opening my eyes. I am somewhere between “was blind” and “but now I see.” Or as Saint Paul would say, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Philippians 3:12. That’s about where I find myself.
Here’s a poem by Elizabeth Alexander telling a “story about race” and its inescapable influence on work, socialization and family
Sometimes I think about Great-Uncle Paul who left Tuskegee,
Alabama to become a forester in Oregon and in so doing
became fundamentally white for the rest of his life, except
when he traveled without his white wife to visit his siblings—
now in New York, now in Harlem, USA—just as pale-skinned,
as straight-haired, as blue-eyed as Paul, and black. Paul never told anyone
he was white, he just didn’t say that he was black, and who could imagine,
an Oregon forester in 1930 as anything other than white?
The siblings in Harlem each morning ensured
no one confused them for anything other than what they were, black.
They were black! Brown-skinned spouses reduced confusion.
Many others have told, and not told, this tale.
When Paul came East alone he was as they were, their brother.
The poet invents heroic moments where the pale black ancestor stands up
on behalf of the race. The poet imagines Great-Uncle Paul
in cool, sagey groves counting rings in redwood trunks,
imagines pencil markings in a ledger book, classifications,
imagines a sidelong look from an ivory spouse who is learning
her husband’s caesuras. She can see silent spaces
but not what they signify, graphite markings in a forester’s code.
Many others have told, and not told, this tale.
The one time Great-Uncle Paul brought his wife to New York
he asked his siblings not to bring their spouses,
and that is where the story ends: ivory siblings who would not
see their brother without their telltale spouses.
What a strange thing is “race,” and family, stranger still.
Here a poem tells a story, a story about race.
Source: Antebellum Dream Book (© 2001 by Elizabeth Alexander, pub. by Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minnesota). Elizabeth Alexander was born in Harlem in 1962. She grew up on Washington, D.C., however, where her father, Clifford Alexander, served as United States Secretary of the Army and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chairman. She earned her Ph.D. at University of Pennsylvania. Alexander is chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and a professor of poetry at Yale University. She composed and read her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at President Barak Obama’s inauguration in 2009. You can find out more about Elizabeth Alexander and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Israel was ever ambivalent about the institution of kingship. Samuel anointed Saul as Israel’s first king only reluctantly. He warned the people that their demand for a king to rule over them “like other nations” would come back to bite them one day. I Samuel 8:10-18. In the view of this particular biblical narrative, the election of a king to rule Israel was idolatrous. It amounted to a rejection of God as King. I Samuel 8:7. This, however, is not the only voice in the Hebrew Scriptures speaking to the matter of kingship. Some of the Biblical authors recognize the rise of the Davidic monarchy as another of God’s saving acts on par with the Exodus, God’s leadership throughout the wilderness wanderings and the conquest of Canaan. Psalm 78 is an example of that sentiment. The psalm recites Israel’s repeated failures to live up to its covenant responsibilities and the dire consequences that followed. But it concludes on a triumphant note with the rise of David to be “the shepherd of Jacob.” “With an upright heart he tended them, and guided them with skillful hand.” Psalm 78:70-72.
These two divergent views of the monarchy in Israel are woven together throughout the narratives of I & II Samuel. The pro-monarchy view comes to us from an early source probably compiled during the reign of Solomon, David’s son. This writer regards the establishment of kingship in Israel as divinely ordained for Israel’s salvation. Anyone who lived to see the rise of the Israelite empire from a loose confederacy of divided tribes oppressed by the militarily superior Philistines could not fail to be impressed by David, the architect of this great achievement. For the first time ever Israel lived within secure borders. Trade and commerce flourished under the protection of the new central government. Israel was beginning to be recognized as a power to be reckoned with among the other nations. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that the monarchy was seen as an instrument of God’s blessing and salvation.
The later source was likely composed during the latter days of the Judean monarchy between 750 B.C.E. and 650 B.C.E. This author views Samuel as the true and greatest ruler of Israel. S/He views the monarchy as a sinful rejection of God’s rule over Israel. By this time, Israel had experienced civil war and the succession of ten of its twelve tribes from the house of David. Injustice, corruption and idolatry turned out to be the price of commercial success and military power under monarchy. The prophets gave voice to God’s displeasure with Israel’s kings and to the cries of those crushed under their oppressive yolk. Samuel’s warnings had come true with a vengeance. Nevertheless, this subsequent writer still views David in a positive light in spite of his having been elected to a disfavored institution.
The reading from this Sunday comes from the later anti-monarchy source. God chides Samuel for grieving over God’s rejection of Saul’s kingship and directs Samuel to go to Bethlehem for the anointing of a king God has chosen to replace Saul. Samuel is reluctant to take on this errand, fearing that Saul might find out his purpose and kill him. In order to avoid arousing suspicion, Samuel takes with him a heifer and goes to Bethlehem on the pretext of offering a religious sacrifice. It was probably well known to the people of Bethlehem that there had been a falling out between Saul and Samuel (I Samuel 15); hence, their fear. The last thing these villagers wanted was to get caught in the crossfire between these two powerful personages. Vs. 4.
There seems to be a deliberate contrast between this Sunday’s lesson and the acclimation of Saul as king in I Samuel 10:20-24 (also from the later source). In that narrative, Samuel presents Saul to the people and the writer notes that “when he stood among the people, he was taller than any of the people from his shoulders upwards.” Vs. 23. Samuel declares, “Do you see him whom the Lord has chosen? There is none like him among all the people.” Vs. 24. In Sunday’s lesson, Samuel looks upon Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab, and declares “surely the Lord’s anointed is before him.” Vs. 6. But the Lord rebukes Samuel warning him, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him.” Vs. 7. “[F]or the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Vs. 7. This rebuke to Samuel will become a constant theme throughout the books of I Kings and II Kings where each individual monarch is judged by the degree of his faithfulness to the covenant.
The theme of God’s choosing the younger son over the elder is a persistent one throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g. Jacob over Esau, Genesis 27; Ephraim over Manasseh, Genesis 48:8-22). God’s proclivity for favoring the younger sibling is altogether contrary to the cultural and legal traditions strongly favoring the eldest son. One can perhaps hear an echo of this refrain in Jesus’ parables (i.e., The Prodigal Son; The Two Sons). The greater lesson here is that God seems to delight in irony. God chose Sarah and Abraham, the infertile couple, to be the parents of his people Israel. He chose Moses, the fugitive murderer, to deliver the Ten Commandments. It should come as no surprise, then, that God should choose the runt of Jesse’s litter as Israel’s king. As Moses reminded the people of Israel when they drew near to the promised land: “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love upon you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples; but it was because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 7:7-8. Saint Paul sums it up nicely by pointing out to the Corinthian church that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” I Corinthians 1:27-29.
What can I say about the 23rd Psalm that has not already been said? Professor Walter Brueggeman has said that commenting on the 23rd Psalm is almost pretentious. Nonetheless, this admonishment has not stopped me from trying. Given the frequency with which this psalm appears in the lectionary, I am fairly sure that I have said about everything else I have to say at my posts for Sunday, July 19, 2016, Sunday, April 26, 2015,Sunday, October 12, 2014, Sunday, May 11, 2014, Sunday, March 30, 2014, Sunday, April 21, 2013 andSunday, July 22, 2012. I also encourage you to read the commentary by Kelly J. Murphy, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Central Michigan University, the commentary by James K. Mead, Associate Professor of Religion at Northwestern College, Orange City, IA and the commentary by Joel LeMon, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, all on workingpreacher.org. Finally, Saint Augustine’s profound reflections on this psalm in his commentary are well worth rereading.
Sunday’s lesson from Ephesians is yet another exhibit tending to substantiate my suspicion that the lectionary was put together by chimps with scissors and paste. Not only have they severed the verses in our text from their context, but they have also sliced the very first verse in half! Before reading the lesson proper, one needs to read the introductory verses 1-2 of chapter 5. These sentences are the lens through which the rest of the chapter must be read. We are admonished to be “imitators of God.” How is this done? “By walk[ing] in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” This is what it means to “walk as children of the light.” Vs. 7.
It is critical to understand that the light spoken of here is the “light of Christ.” Not just any light will do. Exposing darkness is not simply muckraking. For example, you don’t necessarily expose the darkness or bring any truth to light by revealing that your neighbor was once convicted of a felony-particularly if you fail to mention that the crime was committed when your neighbor was very young, that she has since made restitution to her victims, become a productive member of society and an example to other people attempting to change their destructive behaviors. Facts that are taken out of context and blown out of all proportion so that they distort the whole truth are no different than lies. Consequently, when exposing the sins of ourselves or others to the light, it must be the Light of Christ that embraces the sinner, forgives the sin and reflects the infinite love of God.
The final verses of our lesson contain what appear to be the lines of an ancient Christian hymn celebrating the resurrection. Sullian, Kathryn, St. Paul’s Epistles to the Philippians, Philemon, Colossians and Ephesians, New Testament Reading Guide (c. 1960 Order of St. Benedict, Inc.) p. 69. It is interesting to note the metaphors of sleep for death; waking for resurrection; Christ for light. Though the resurrection is an event for which the believer hopes and to which s/he looks forward, it is also an event that occurs in the here and now. The proclamation of the good news creates a new reality: life in the light of Christ. It is this light which illuminates and transforms domestic life in the household into opportunities for “imitating God” through walking in love.
There is far too much content to unpack in these verses on a blog such as this. As Saint Augustine observed in one of his homilies on this text: “We have just read the long lesson of the man born blind, whom the Lord Jesus restored to light; but were we to attempt handling the whole of it, and considering, according to our ability, each passage in a way proportionate to its worth, the day would be insufficient.” Homilies on the Gospel of St. John, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo published in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VII, (pub. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 245. Needless to say, if Augustine cannot exhaust these verses in the course of a day, I can hardly expect to make a dent in them with a single post. So my remarks will necessarily be scattershot and incomplete. Still, I hope that they will be somewhat helpful.
What I found compelling in my most recent reading of this text is John’s ingenious use of “darkness” and “light;” “blindness” and “sight.” The story begins with the disciples asking a “when did you stop beating your wife” sort of question. Was a blind beggar’s blindness brought about by his own sins or those of his parents? There is a kind of blindness here on the part of the disciples. They see not a suffering human being, but a theological riddle. Their reaction to the man’s blindness is not compassion, but theoretical speculation. I often think that my church’s years of discussion focused on human sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular ran amuck for the same reason. We find ourselves engrossed in theoretical doctrinal disputes over abstract principles ignoring altogether the real flesh and blood people impacted by these discussions. Jesus looks past the theoretical issues with compassion for the person. He is, after all, the Word made flesh.
Jesus assures his disciples that sin has nothing to do with the beggar’s blindness. The beggar was born blind so that God might be glorified through him. One commentator notes that Jesus’ explanation is no more “acceptable to modern humanitarianism” than the disciples’ attribution to sin. Smith, D. Moody, John, Proclamation Commentaries, (c. 1976 by Fortress Press) p. 34. True, but who gives a flying fruit cake for modern humanitarianism? It has been a peculiar ailment of human nature from the beginning to imagine that we are at the center of the universe and that everything exists to make us content. From such a myopic standpoint, it is impossible to imagine a purpose more important than one’s own personal self-fulfillment. A good part of our blindness to what is true, beautiful and good results from our inability to get ourselves out of the center. So, I believe, St. John would say.
The miracle is performed with the use of clay and spittle. A similar use of spittle is found in the healing of the deaf mute at Mark 7:31-37. Some commentators see in this an echo of Adam’s creation in Genesis 2:7. See, e.g., Marsh, John, Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1968 by John Marsh, pub. Pelican Books Ltd.) p. 378. However that might be, it is also the case that, at least in John’s narrative, these materials are essential to the plot. Jesus is accused specifically of making clay on the Sabbath. He is not charged with healing on the Sabbath precisely because his adversaries maintain that he is not truly responsible for the blind man’s recovery of sight. If they were to accuse him of performing such a miracle on the Sabbath, they would be conceding that Jesus had in fact done something unheard of “since the world began.” Vs. 32. The man is told to wash in the pool of Siloam, meaning “sent.” This is an echo of Jesus’ repeated claim that he has been “sent” by the Father. See e.g., John 3:16. In a larger sense, the blind man is being “sent” to the religious authorities before whom he will give testimony to Jesus.
Upon learning that the blind man has received his sight, the people who know him bring him to the “Pharisees.” Again, it is worth pointing out that the gospel of John was written at least two decades after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The Sadducees and the chief priests who were principally responsible for Jesus’ arrest and deliverance to Pilate are no longer a factor in the life of the church. The principal antagonist in John’s time is not the temple establishment, but the synagogue which replaced the temple as the center of Jewish life and worship. The ferocity of Pharisaic opposition to Jesus in John’s gospel is therefore reflective of this later stage in the church’s history and not so much the time of Jesus’ ministry. It appears that disciples of Jesus were initially participants in the life of the synagogue and all other aspects of the Jewish community. Indeed, they considered themselves to be Jews and understood their discipleship as a movement within rather than against Judaism. By the time John’s gospel was written, however, the relationship between the church and the synagogue had deteriorated to such an extent that followers of Jesus were threatened with being “put out of the synagogue.” Vs. 22. This was tantamount to excommunication. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John, I-XII, The Anchor Bible (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 374. Disciples in John’s faith community were therefore placed in the position of choosing between confessing Jesus and facing formal exclusion from Israel or denying Jesus in order to remain in good standing with the synagogue. As the gospel demonstrates, there were some who sought to have it both ways by keeping their belief in Jesus secret. John 12:42-43.
Throughout the dialogue between the formerly blind man and the religious authorities we see both the growth of sight and deepening blindness. The blind man receives his sight and declares that “the man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes.” Vs. 11. When he is first called to testify before the authorities, he says of Jesus, “he is a prophet.” Vs. 17. In his second appearance before the authorities, he testifies that Jesus is “from God.” Vs. 33. In the end, he worships Jesus as the “Son of man.” Vss. 35-38.
By contrast, the authorities become increasingly blind in the face of this remarkable sign they cannot deny. Though the blindness of the man from birth is attested by his parents, his sight is attested by the people who know him, and the attribution of this sign to Jesus is supported by all of the evidence, still the authorities stubbornly persist in their unbelief. The reader is left with the implied rhetorical question: Who is really blind here? Ironically, it is those who insist that they can see. Vs. 40.
John also employs the interplay between darkness and light. Jesus notes that “We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work.” Vs. 4. The gathering darkness of the cross is foreshadowed here and, more immediately, the growing blindness and opposition of the authorities to the sign that Jesus is about to perform. Yet in the midst of this gathering darkness, Jesus is the light of the world (vs. 5) who is even now banishing the darkness through the miracle of restored sight and, even more, though the faith of the man whose eyes are opened.
Similarly, there is a battle of the “knows” going on. The man whose sight was restored speaks of what he knows: I was blind; Jesus put clay on my eyes and told me to wash; I washed and now I see. The authorities speak insistently of what they know: Jesus does not keep the Sabbath; Jesus is a sinner. There is one thing, however, that the authorities confess they do not know, namely, where Jesus comes from. “[A]s for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” John 9:29. No doubt they intended this inadvertent admission as a slight to Jesus and an insult to the man before them: How can you believe in a self-proclaimed teacher from the back woods of Galilee who has no teaching credentials? Unbeknown to them, they have revealed the fatal flaw in their position: their failure to recognize Jesus as the one “sent” from God. They know the Scriptures, but not the One to whom the Scriptures testify. See John 5:39.
This lesson, about which volumes more could be said, reinforces the central theme of John’s Gospel: that sight, light, knowledge of God, salvation and eternal life all grow out of one’s “abiding” in Jesus. If you take the time to read this marvelous gospel from beginning to end, you discover that all of the themes, images and metaphors used throughout the first twelve chapters of John are woven together in the “farewell discourse” in chapters thirteen to seventeen. These chapters unpack John’s vision of the love between Father and Son spilling out into the world through the Spirit of God poured out upon the disciples and reflected in the disciples love for one another.
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.
In this Sunday’s gospel, Jesus encounters a woman of Samaria. The Samaritans, who shared a common history, common scriptures and a common claim to the land of Israel, were hated precisely because their very existence challenged the Jewish claim to be the only true Israel. The Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim undermined the legitimacy of the one in Jerusalem. The Samaritan’s contrary interpretation of the scriptures undercut the authority of the Rabbis. The Samaritans posed an existential threat to Judaism-or so it seemed. For that reason, “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” For that reason also, the Samaritan woman is shocked that a Jew should expect the kindness of a drink of water from her hand. The disciples are equally surprised to find their Rabbi speaking with a Samaritan who, in addition to being a foreigner, is also an unaccompanied woman. By the simple act of engaging this woman of Samaria in conversation, Jesus violates some very fundamental social, moral and political boundaries. That is exactly what Jesus always does. That, too, is what he expects his church to do.
It is hard not to see the encounter between Jesus the Jewish Rabbi and the woman of Samaria through the lens of xenophobic anger that swept into power an administration that has, in turn, unleashed a campaign of propaganda and exclusion against immigrants and refugees seeking asylum in the United States. The slogan, “America First” has become a thinly disguised cover for normalization of the darkest angels of our country’s nature. The anti-immigrant sentiments we find today are nothing new. To the contrary, they are as old as the republic. Benjamin Franklin said of my own beloved German ancestors in Pennsylvania that they were “the most ignorant stupid sort of their own nation…They begin of late to make their bonds and other legal writings in their own language, which (though I think it ought not to be) are allowed good in our Courts, where the German business so increases that there is continual need of interpreters; and I suppose in a few years they will be also necessary in the Assembly, to tell one half of our Legislators what the other half say….Unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies…they will soon so out number us, that all the advantages we have will not in my opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.” Quoted by Keye, Jeffrey, Moving Millions-How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration, (c. 2010 by Jeffrey Kaye, pub. by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.) p. 24.
Franklin’s concern and that of “alt.right” adherents, such as the president’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is for the preservation of American “culture.” Though that term is largely left undefined, there can be little doubt that it means “white Anglo” culture, the culture of white male privilege. Just as Franklin feared the influx of German immigrants would destabilize government, dilute the country’s language and weaken the position of English speaking whites, so opponents of immigration and refugee resettlement fear that an influx of persons from the Middle East, central America and Africa will bring about a cultural sea change in our own day. That may be so, but it should be of no concern to our republic. As an American, I have to say that ours is a nation founded not on any notion of “culture,” “blood” or religion, but upon ideas of government. Our constitution assumes that culture will change and evolve-and that is a good thing. That is why the constitution goes to great lengths in the Bill of Rights to ensure that government stays out of the culture preservation business. Cultural values, beliefs and traditions-like businesses, religions and political parties-must survive on the strength of their own initiative and persuasiveness. Government should neither stifle them, nor should it attempt to prop them up when they fail. The founders were convinced that the best defense against bad cultural influences was a free and open marketplace of ideas where conflicting visions of America’s identity, government and role in the world can be discussed and debated without government interference or intimidation. They trusted the wisdom of the American people and expected that, in the end, the best ideas would prevail and shape the country for the better. Such a society need not worry that its culture will be diluted by newcomers. The influence of immigrants can only strengthen the fabric of American society. For that reason, I must say that I believe the current hysterical opposition to immigration is destructive to our way of life, unpatriotic and un-American.
My posture of welcome to immigrants and refugees, however, rests on the much deeper conviction that disciples of Jesus are called to demolish walls, not to erect them. Let me be perfectly clear: Jesus was a globalist. God so loved the world that he sent his only Son-not America or any other nation. John 3:16. Jesus sent his disciples to make disciples of all nations. Matthew 28:19. The communion of saints as envisioned by John of Patmos is made up “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues.” Revelation 7:9. hen God called Abraham and Sarah, he promised to make them a blessing such that “all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.” Genesis 12:3. There is but one holy, catholic and apostolic church that transcends all national boundaries and that church must receive with compassion and hospitality all who seek sanctuary within Christ’s Body. No claim of sovereignty by any temporal authority, no national security argument, no order or decree must be permitted to supersede the church’s ministry of welcome to the stranger.
Jesus is the personification of welcome. In today’s gospel we find him in foreign territory offering the water of life to a designated enemy. We see him cracking the religious and social barriers that have separated two peoples for generations. And at the end of the story we witness the wall of separation come tumbling down as the people of Samaria welcome Jesus and hear his gracious words to them. The gospel tells us that those who seek safety behind walls are on the losing side of history. Salvation is global. Deal with it.
Oh, Praise the Gracious Power
Oh, praise the gracious power
That tumbles walls of fear
And gathers in one house of faith
All strangers far and near:
We praise you, Christ!
Your cross has made us one.
Source: Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 651, text by Thomas H. Troeger (c. 1984 by Oxford University Press, Inc.) Professor Thomas H. Troeger was ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church and as a minister in the Presbyterian Church. He has authored twenty books in the fields of preaching, poetry, hymnody and worship. He is a frequent contributor to journals dedicated to these topics and is a monthly columnist for Lectionary Homiletics and The American Organist.
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 12th 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 male 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 and controversial 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.
Someone placed a sticker on one of the traffic signs in front of my church that reads: “Spiritual people inspire me; religious people scare me.” I can’t say whether that missive was directed specifically at us, whether the anonymous poster was directed at churches more generally and ours happened to be in the path of opportunity or whether the sticker was placed without any thought about its surroundings. I take note of it, however, because it presses a distinction between “spirituality” and “religion” that is fast becoming normative. I question the validity of the distinction, however. For the life of me, I cannot imagine how anyone can traffic in spirits of any kind without being religious. Nor can I fathom how one can be religious without some connection to spirit or deity. Definitionally speaking, spiritual people are inescapably religious just as religious people are inherently spiritual. Thus, the term “spiritual but not religious” appears to me an oxymoron.
That said, I have listened to any number of people claiming to be spiritual but not religious (SBNR). However much I might disagree with their chosen terminology, I believe they are saying something coherent that deserves the church’s attention. We are being told that we are at best irrelevant to genuine spirituality; at worst, we are a hindrance to spiritual awareness/experience/growth. Though I cannot identify in their expressions of belief any other single common denominator, a few things I have gleaned from my conversations with SBNRs are worth noting.
- Not all SBNRs are millennials.
When you start saying things like, “when I was a kid,” or “back in my day,” or “kids these days…” you know that you have become an old fart. One of the hazards of being an aging baby boomer is the tendency to blame everything, including declining church attendance, on the millennials. Why not? Our parents did pretty much the same thing to us. But the fact is, disenchantment with the church cuts across the whole generational demographic. There are plenty of folks in the adult (read post 55) apartment complex where I live who do not attend church but consider themselves believers in God, morality and the afterlife. They might not use the term “spiritual but not religious,” but it amounts to the same thing. They have some measure of belief in God and they seek faith and meaning, but not in the church or any religious community structure. So SBNR is not a new phenomenon, nor is it limited to the younger generation.
- Many SBNRs have had bad experiences with the church.
A lot of SBNRs have told me their stories of rejection, insult or condemnation at the hands of “organized religion.” This is frequently the case for divorced persons, single parents and gay, lesbian and transgendered people. We all know that, to our shame, there have been too many people physically and emotionally abused by clergy and other church leaders. These folks are understandably angry at the church and distrustful of its efforts to engage them. I have met a number of people now working in the various sciences whose youthful interest in cosmology, evolutionary biology and astronomy put them on a collision course with the fundamentalist doctrines of their churches. Forced to choose between a suffocating dogma that blocked their curiosity at every turn and the academic freedom offered through a secular education, they chose the latter-though at some level, they still feel a need for worship, mystery and awe.
- SBNRs often tend to distrust institutional authority
We live in an age of suspicion and skepticism about the institutions that traditionally have ordered our lives as a community. The bigger these institutions are, the less we tend to trust them. Big government, big banks, big corporations are all frequently perceived as hostile to the interests of common people. Why should big churches be viewed differently? Just as corporate bosses, politicians and Wall Street investment bankers are excoriated for pursuing wealth and power at the expense of ordinary people, so church leaders are perceived as being more interested in preserving their own institutional structures, power and influence than caring for the people they seek to bring in. Critics of organized religion frequently point to the many examples of fraud, bigotry and abuse of power by church leaders. I am often reminded of the corruption and sexual misconduct among the big name evangelists of the 1980s as well as the systemic concealment of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic hierarchy throughout the 20th Century. Sadly, we Christians have given SBNRs plenty of reasons to be skeptical of our intentions. It is not surprising that they view us with suspicion.
- SBNRs find traditional churches lacking in spiritual depth.
A lot of SBNRs tell me that they “get nothing out of going to church.” That is to say, the church does not satisfy their hunger for meaning, purpose and inspiration. For some of these folks, this is a matter of style. They drop out of more traditional mainline churches only to gravitate toward churches with more contemporary, audio-visual and interactive styles of worship. Others seek a church actively engaged in addressing issues of justice and compassion or exploring in depth the moral and ethical challenges of living in the 21st Century. Instead, they find a closed group of like-minded people whose spirituality is limited to one hour of worship on Sunday, who shy away from controversial and uncomfortable topics and whose activities include only the men’s breakfast, the women’s quilting group and the youth group’s monthly Twister championship in the church basement. They find that people in church are no different from those outside the church except for the fact that-well, they go to church.
- SBNRs are frequently uninformed concerning what the church is actually about.
Let’s face it, ours is a generation grossly ignorant of biblical and ecclesiastical traditions. More and more these days I am running into people who have never been inside of a church before, cannot name even one disciple of Jesus or identify more than three of the Ten Commandments. Much of what some SBNRs actually know about the church and the Bible comes from caricatures they see on TV or in the movies. Frequently, the media uses the term “Christian” when speaking exclusively about the most extreme right wing perversions of Christianity. Consequently, SBNRs who have had little or no actual experience with any particular congregation begin to view the whole church as an intolerant, racist, sexist and homophobic organization that rejects science in favor of simplistic interpretations of the Bible. Sadly, that is true for too much of what is identified as “Christian,” but it is not true of the church as a whole.
6. SBNRs are often spiritually open and curious people
I think it is a mistake to view SBNRs as hostile or approach them in a spirit of argumentation. It does not help to criticize their beliefs (which sometimes border on the nonsensical) or chide them for their lack of understanding or knowledge about all the good things the church does. That only serves to reinforce their perception of the church as a place where people are bullied into faith. SBNRs are generally interested in and open to discussing and learning about Jesus. They share a deep concern for morality and justice. They frequently have a keen sense of awe and wonder they yearn to express. If we can hold in our natural urge to defend the church, get past the SBNRs’ hostility toward the church as they perceive and experience it and instead listen to their concerns, I believe we will discover that we have much in common with them. Recall that many of the folks who followed Jesus were people who did not fit in very well with the religious establishment of their day. If we are patient, opportunities for sharing the good news of Jesus Christ will open up. The best way to receive a SBNR is with a listening ear.
In today’s gospel lesson Jesus receives Nicodemus in just this manner. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, fearful no doubt that his meeting with Jesus will be perceived by his fellow rulers as support for Jesus. Yet Jesus does not judge Nicodemus or accuse him of cowardice. Jesus does not demand that Nicodemus choose between his allegiance to the religious tradition from which he comes and the kingdom of God Jesus proclaims. Instead, Jesus receives Nicodemus and allows him to begin the conversation on his own terms. Their dialogue is honest, yet open ended. Jesus does not seek to silence Nicodemus’ questions with authoritative answers. Rather, he responds to his questions by prompting him to ask better questions. Nicodemus does not come away from the encounter a disciple of Jesus. Nonetheless, we find him speaking up in defense of Jesus when the rest of his colleagues would have Jesus arrested. We meet him again following the crucifixion when he comes forward to give Jesus an honorable burial, whereas Jesus’ own disciples left him to hang dead on the cross.
We never learn the final fate of Nicodemus and perhaps that is intentional on the part of John the Evangelist. Maybe John would have us wonder where Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus finally led him. Perhaps John means for us to ponder the mystery of faith and the unlikely places where it is sometimes found. It may be that John is warning us against dismissing as hostile and resistant people whose spiritual hunger has not yet led them into fellowship with Jesus. I believe we can hear in the story of Nicodemus the echo of Jesus’ words: “I have other sheep that are not of this fold.”
Here’s a poem by Michael Schmidt about faith, skepticism and a church.
When I cannot believe,
The brown herds still move across green fields
Into the tufty hills, and I was born
Higher, where I could watch them as a bird might.
When even memory seems imagined, what
Can I bring to prayer? A pair of knees.
The great faith that built a stair to heaven
As now my memory tries to climb a hill,
Becomes an old stone building, a deaf priest
Whose hand is in the pockets of his parish,
Who longs to buy a bell he’ll never hear.
The water in the font is cold, I trace
A circle on my brow and not a cross.
Source: New and Collected Poems, (c. 2010 by Michael Schmidt, pub. The Sheep Meadow Press). Michael Schmidt was born in Mexico City in 1947. He founded, edited and managed Carcanet Press Limited and served as general editor of the PN Review. He is currently a professor of poetry at the University of Glasgow (UK). You can find out more about Michael Schmidt and read more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
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 5th. 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 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. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 114. 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. Rogerson, J.W and McKay, J.W., supra at 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 the temple in Zion as God’s dwelling place stands in tension over against 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 5th. 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 righteousness/fulfillment 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. Sin is a refusal to trust God to do for us what needs to be done.
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.