The Second Sunday in Lent, 12 March 2017

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Saint John 3:1-17

Background: The Movement of Hebrews

The temptation of approaching the texts concerning Abraham, most especially the reading for today – his call to leave “country, kindred, and father’s house” – is to think that we can associate this story with a greater movement of peoples in the ancient near east. That there were great migrations from the west and north, the Sea Peoples, and from the east, nomads from the Mesopotamian cities and regions, is certainly evident. To find the “Hebrews” in this history is a difficult, if not impossible task. Donald Redford[1] shows us the difficulties of making these associations with the patriarchal history of the Bible, and the actual documented history of Egypt, who ruled the Levant for most of this period, and the Canaanites and Philistines, which have their own history and archaeology. There is another purpose to the preservation of these stories other than that of documenting a people. Claus Westermann[2] in his commentary on Genesis makes clear the other purposes that are evident in the text, connection with families in a culture which does not yet understand the individual, dealing with the issues of life and death and its impact on the destiny of a tribe or family, and finally the theological theme of promise. There is a great deal of literature on the origin of the Hebrews, and the migration of peoples. It is, unfortunately, not helpful in opening up the Abraham story for us. We need to approach it from a literary and theological perspective.

First Reading: Genesis 12:1-4a

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.

The initiation of this great saga immediately sets a tone of promise that we will need to keep at the back of our minds as we read not only this episode, but all the episodes that will follow in the life of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham is called here to lead a family into a new set of circumstances, but in the midst of all that to be a blessing, “I will bless you…so that you will be a blessing.” The relationship here, of God and Abraham, holds the promise of blessing for an ever-expanding horizon of people. The reality of this call, however, is not the certainty that all is known or anticipated within it, but rather that it is the unknown experience and destination that beckons. This is precisely where we can begin to talk about faith, specifically the faith and trust that Abraham exhibits.

The presence of curses here, “and the one who curses you I will curse,” lends another aspect to this incident. The use of blessings and curses always accompanies an agreement between two parties. Here it is one of several covenants that will be made between Abraham and God. So there are several trajectories that emerge from this story, each that allow us to talk about our relationship not only with the family of Abraham, but God as well.

Breaking open Genesis:
1.          What is Abraham putting his trust in?
2.          What or who do you trust in your life?
3.         How has this trust been tested?

Psalm 121 Levavi oculos

     I lift up my eyes to the hills; *
from where is my help to come?
2      My help comes from the Lord, *
the maker of heaven and earth.
3      He will not let your foot be moved *
and he who watches over you will not fall asleep.
4      Behold, he who keeps watch over Israel *
shall neither slumber nor sleep;
5      The Lord himself watches over you; *
the Lord is your shade at your right hand,
6      So that the sun shall not strike you by day, *
nor the moon by night.
7      The Lord shall preserve you from all evil; *
it is he who shall keep you safe.
8      The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, *
from this time forth for evermore.

The tradition that surrounds this particular psalm as well as a couple of others (122. Etc.) is that they are pilgrim psalms, sung as one ascended from the plain up to Jerusalem, the holy city. That fits well with the Abraham story in the first reading, but really with all of us as pilgrims as well. If Lent is such a journey, then the psalm assures us of what accompanies us as we make the pilgrimage as well. The psalm appears to be something of a dialogue spoken by two different parties as the journey progresses. The word that sizes up the theme of the psalm is found in the word, “guard,” although in our translation other words take its place, “watches”, and “preserve”. In the same way that the Abraham story implies a conversation about faith, this psalm assumes the trust that God’s people have, as God watches over them in life.

Breaking open the Psalm 121:
1.         In what ways have you been a pilgrim?
2.         How do you know that God is watching over you?
3.        What does trust in God make possible for you?

The Second Reading: 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.

Paul begins a Midrash on the Abraham story and what it means for those who follow Jesus. In the first section of our reading, Paul discusses the role of works and righteousness. In the latter part of this pericope he will talk about the role of circumcision. Paul proposes questions about Abraham’s righteousness, and as a good teacher would do provides for a response. But all is not just words here. By lifting up the image of Abraham, Paul provides for his reader an example of what he wants to see in a Christian’s faith and trust. To look at the Law as a means for attaining righteousness is for Paul not possible. Abraham’s trust is in God alone, just as later arguments will be offered that for Christians it is Christ alone who offers the ability to attain righteousness.

Paul continues his commentary, but this time it expands to include all those who are descendants of Abraham. Now the discussion will center on the promise that is given Abraham. Paul’s argument fleshes out the connection between the promise and the gift of faith that is available to all. Whatever is meted out to Abraham is exceeded in the gifts given to his sons and daughters. It is God who “calls into existence the things that do not exist.” All is made new in the faith that Paul proposes, and all is made new in our trust in Christ.

Breaking open Romans
  1. What does “righteousness” mean to you?
  2. In what ways are you righteous?
  3. What drives your life as a righteous person?

The Gospel: 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.”

Now Jesus is the Rabbi as he conducts his discourse with Nicodemus on being born again. It functions not so much as a record of a specific event with a specific individual as it does introducing a central theme in John’s revelation of the Gospel of Jesus. What is fascinating here is Raymond Brown’s notion that the discourse of Nicodemus and Jesus is a reworking and resetting of sayings known in the other Gospels. Here, however, it is a well-organized argument, proceeding from point to point. Here are the principal ideas: 1) Being born of the Spirit is necessary for entrance into the Kingdom (3:2-8) and 2) Jesus’ ascension to the Father allows for this being born again (3:9-21). This is a discussion between two teachers, for Nicodemus acknowledges Jesus as a “teacher who comes from God,” and Jesus recalls Nicodemus’ own status as a “teacher of Israel.” Thus we have a conversation between what has been knowledge of God, and the new revelation in Jesus. The final verse in our reading makes a final assertion about belief in Jesus. That is the necessary component that follows several examples (“just as Moses…”) of how Jesus completes an old expectation. Here it is not only Nicodemus who is called into a new kind of existence (think about the final verse of the Second Reading) but also all who would follow Jesus.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     Why does Nicodemus come at night? Is this a symbol in John?
2.     What do you understand by the words “born again”?
3.    How is Jesus your Rabbi?

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2017, Michael T. Hiller

[1]Redford, D. (1992) Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 488 pages.
[2]Westermann, C (1995) Genesis 12-36, Fortress Press, Minneapolis.


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