St. John 3:1-17
Background: Ur of the Chaldees
An ancient city dating from ca. 3800 BCE, although there is evidence that it was already inhabited in the 4th century BCE, Ur was the cult center of the moon god, Urim, and the name of the city, indicates that it was the “home of Urim”. Originally it was a coastal city where the River Euphrates flowed into the Persian Gulf. Now it is situated inland, about 16 km from the coast. The city had a Ziggurat (an artificial mountain) that served as the abode of the god. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Ur is called Ur Kasdim, and is known as the birthplace of Abraham, sometime in the 2nd millennium BCE. It is known as Ur of the Chaldees, although the Chaldeans were not evident at Ur until 850 BCE. Biblical references to Ur can be found at Genesis 11:28 and 31, Genesis 15:7, and Nehemiah 9:7.
The Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.
This reading is a cusp between the ancient primeval history and the narratives of the patriarchs and matriarchs. What has been a line of trouble from Adam and Eve down to the Great Flood and the Tower of Babel – what has been a record of curses and difficulties, now becomes a season of blessings. This will be the first of several covenants that God will make with Abraham. Some commentators have noted the tripartite construction of the commands that greet Abraham here, “Go from your country, and your kindred, and your father’s house,” and later at the proposed sacrifice of his son, Isaac, “your son, your only one, whom you love.” God’s demands of Abraham are unremitting in both instances, and involve a sense of risk. There are rewards, however.
“You shall be a blessing.” What is introduced as a difficulty and a challenge soon changes into a promise of happiness. Abraham (and Sarah) are not only called to go out into unfamiliar territory, nor are they only called to be the father and mother of a nation. Here God calls upon them to be a blessing, and they go. What the future will hold for them is unknown, but they, like us, go out on their own “Lenten journey.”
Breaking open Genesis:
- Have you ever done something in your life based only on faith? What was it?
- What have you risked in your life?
- What have you risked in your spiritual life?
Psalm 121 Levavi oculos
I lift up my eyes to the hills; *
from where is my help to come?
My help comes from the LORD, *
the maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved *
and he who watches over you will not fall asleep.
Behold, he who keeps watch over Israel *
shall neither slumber nor sleep;
The LORD himself watches over you; *
the LORD is your shade at your right hand,
So that the sun shall not strike you by day, *
nor the moon by night.
The LORD shall preserve you from all evil; *
it is he who shall keep you safe.
The LORD shall watch over your going out and your coming in, *
from this time forth for evermore.
This so-called “Song of Ascents” has long been thought of as a psalm used by pilgrims making their way up to the heights of Jerusalem. Well it might be, however it also might be a song that could be put into the mouth of both Abraham and Sarah as they follow God’s command. The ancient people who came to be known as the Hebrews moved from the desert plain of Mesopotamia into the hilly region that separated the wasteland from the Mediterranean plain. Mountains might be seen by such a folk as intimidating, but in this psalm they are seen as a sign of hope. These mountains are the traditional homes of the gods, and so it is with Israel as well. God dwells upon Mt. Zion, which becomes a place of safety for those who seek God’s protection. The Hebrew vocable for “guard” appears some six times in the psalm. Its intent to underscore God’s protective nature is demonstrated in simple and poetic language. This God is awake and watching, guarding a people from both physical and psychological (“nor the moon by night”) difficulties. The scope of this protection is indicated in the initial verses of the psalm, “the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth”, thus the beginning of all things, and at the last phrase, “from this time forth forevermore.”
Breaking open Psalm 121:
- What emotions or feelings are stirred up in you at the sight of mountains?
- How has life been a steep climb for you?
- How were you helped in your walking up the mountain of your life?
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations") -- in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
Here is an unusual circumstance when the second lesson actually comments on another of the readings. Abraham is introduced in this reading as an example of faith and righteousness. And thus the first lesson has a connection to both the second reading and the Gospel. Abraham is a person of faith, an example for Nicodemus to contemplate. Earlier in chapter 3, Paul makes reference to the benefits that have accrued to the Jews, and now in these passages he demonstrates that assertion in his profile of Abraham. Abraham is called by God before the covenant with God is demonstrated in his circumcision. Thus it is not only Jews who are engendered in the faith by Abraham, but gentiles as well. Paul describes a community that “shares in the faith of Abraham,” a wide-ranging community that include all of his descendants – a distinction of righteousness and not of blood. Later we will learn that Abraham and Sarah are desperate, since they have no heir. To such as these, the closing verse seems especially appropriate. Their future seem doomed and their posterity dead. So Paul reckons, “God, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” Thus we are all remade new.
Breaking open Romans:
- Why is Paul holding up Abraham as an example of faith?
- What does the word “faith” mean to you?
- How do you share in Abraham’s blessing?
St. John 3:1-17
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
"Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
"Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."
Nicodemus wants to start over in a cynical kind of way – “can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb.” Jesus will take what’s already in place and make additions to it. The first directive, “be born from above,’ is misunderstood by Nicodemus, and hence his comment. Jesus adds other additional aspects that he calls those who would follow him to – “born of the Spirit,” “born of the water and the Spirit,” and “be saved.” Jesus wants us to inherit a new way of being, in the same way that God called Abraham and Sarah to live in a new land. There are two modes of directed action in this pericope. The first is Jesus sense of things coming “from above”. The other is the sense of being “lifted up”. Thus Moses “lifts up” the serpent in the wilderness, just as Jesus will be “lifted up” on the cross. This is an active place, and to be indecisive about either accepting the blessing from above, or offering up and lifting up will mean that we have missed the opportunity. Thus all of us, Nicodemus, we, and the world, are called to make a decision, just as Abraham and Sarah were. Which will it be?
Breaking open the Gospel:
- How does the notion of being “born from above” change your ideas about the usual translation, “born again”?
- In what ways are you like Nicodemus?
- Have you made decisions in your faith? What were they?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.