The Second Sunday in Lent, 8 March 2020

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
St. Matthew 4:1-11


During this Lententide, I shall devote this segment of the blog to quotations that might give depth and a reflective quality for the readings for this day.

If there is any topic that is at the top of all political agenda it is that of migration. The movement of peoples from ancient times until now has changed culture and demography throughout the world. The first reading on this day is an account of a migration, that of Abraham and Sarah out of the ancient city of Ur over to Haran and later into the Levant proper. In his article in Theology of Migration in the Abrahamic Religions, Dale T. Irvin, President of the New York Theological Serminary, has this to say about Abraham’s journey.

“The figure of Abraham is significant in the religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The scriptures of all three remember Abraham and his family as having migrated in response to instructions from God. The earliest form of the story is found in the Tanakh, the book that Christians call the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, in which Terah took his son, Abram (before his name was changed to Abraham), Lot, who was the nephew of Abram, and Sarai, the wife of Abram, and migrated from the city of Ur, in what is now south- ern Iraq, to settle in Haran, in what is now Turkey, where Terah died (Genesis 11:27–32). Settling in Haran proved to be profitable for the remaining members of the group, for Genesis 12:5b tells us that they amassed a significant amount of wealth, presumably in the form of livestock as well as other material goods, and acquired a number of “persons” (nephesh in Hebrew, often translated as “souls” in English), perhaps slaves they had purchased, or others from the city who attached themselves freely to the clan. 

At some point, however, according to Genesis 12:1, God spoke directly to Abram and instructed him to leave his land, relatives, and patriarchal household in order to go to a new land that God would show him. The instruction to migrate was accompanied by a promise of blessing: “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” (Genesis 12:2–3).”[1]

The author goes on to talk about the continuing migration into Egypt and then out again. The exile into Babylon and the subsequent return of some becomes grist for his mill as well. Another source for discussions on migration is James C. Scott’s Against the Grain – A Deep History of the Earliest States. He debunks the theory that settled places. especially in Mesopotamia, were not static, as settled agrarian peoples moved out of the cities and back into the hunter-gatherer mode. It seems as though Abraham is an example of this with the Exodus providing another example. Such articles, books, and studies can enrich our understanding of early people, and their religious tradition. It might also inform us as we deal with on-going migration in our own time. Should you like to explore more, a brief bibliography is included below.

Brief Bibliography

Padilla, E. and Phan, P. ed. (2014), Theology of Migration in the Abrahamic Religions, Palgrave MacMillan, New York.

Scott, J. (2017), Against the Grain – A Deep History of the Earliest States, Yale University Press, New Haven.

Smith, M. (2019), Cities, the First 6,000 Years, Viking, New York.

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 question comes to us in this reading it is a question as to purpose. Is this a story of an individual and his encounter with God, or is this much larger, a national story, indicating origins and the land of the fathers and mothers? Most likely it is both, providing both history, and stories of faith. The story is very specific – “your country and your kindred and your father’s house.” Robert Alter suggests that a more proper translation of “kindred” should be “birthplace”, making the focus more distinct as it moves through the triplet. The name of Abraham will become a blessing, as this patriarchal history leaves behind the curses of the past. What is left are indication of the covenant that is to come with the blessings of Abraham, and the curses that accompany those who curse.

Breaking open Genesis:

1.        When have you taken a journey of faith?
2.        What led you to do it?
3.        How did it change your 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.

Perhaps it is the last verses that commended this psalm to the framers of the lectionary – the coming in and going out of Abraham, Sarah, and all peoples.  This psalm, with others like it, have bas been linked to the pilgrims who moved up to Jerusalem, making their pilgrimage. It might be, however, that this psalm is a prayer for all who travel, who make their way from what was their home to a new place. This God of Israel is ubiquitous – present wherever the pilgrim is and wherever the pilgrim is moving. The fact that God guards over the people is mentioned six times in the psalm. The danger of sunstroke is here, but also lunacy as well, “nor the moon by night.” The Creator continues to bless and make for safety for the people of God’s making.

Breaking open Psalm 121:
  1. In your life’s journey, who has helped you?
  2. Whom have you helped?
  3. Where are you going?

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.

Again we meet Abraham, as Paul lifts him up as an example of faith and of trust. It was not what Abraham did but rather his act of faith. He quotes the ancient story, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” It is this principle, faith, that leads to the other blessings. It is not the works, Paul thinks, but rather the trust given in the relationship with God. Paul expands the notion of Abraham’s (and Sarah’s) family – it is all of us for whom they are father and mother. The foundation is laid, as far as Paul is concerned, and it is made of faith. 

Breaking open Romans:
  1. What do you understand by the word “faith”?
  2. In what do you place your faith?
  3. Who trusts you with their life?

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.”

Nicodemus is a son of Abraham and Sarah, and is also a fellow traveler. He comes to meet with Jesus, and to move in his understanding of Jesus. He comes at night because he still needs to be convinced. Or does he come at night in order to see the light more clearly? It is difficult, as Jesu speaks in spiritual terms and Nicodemus thinks in earthly terms. Born again? Nicodemus pushes to the logical conclusion and finds the idea unbelievable. Jesus supplies more details: water and the Spirit – Baptism. That is the entry into the kingdom of which Jesus speaks. John signals to us what is to come, the acts that Jesus will have to endure, the lifting up of the Son of Man, as Moses lifted up the Serpent in the wilderness. We can understand Nicodemus’ lack of clarity, for indeed the Spirit does blow where she wills. We often, like him, find it difficult to comprehend. We and Nicodemus need to understand Jesus’ presence – not to condemn the world but to save it.

Breaking open Gospel:
1.     How do you give alms?
2.     What holy things do you do in secret?
3.     How have you been rewarded?

General Idea:              Journeys

Example 1:                  A simple journey of trust and faith (First Reading)

Example 2:                  A journey protected (Psalm)

Example 3:                  The results of faith – righteousness (Second Reading)

Example 4:                  A Journey of Questions (Gospel)

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.

All questions and commentary copyright © 2020, Michael T. Hiller

[1]     Irvin, D. (2014), Theology, Migration, and the Homecoming, Theology of Migration in the Abrahamic Religions, Palgrave MacMillan, New York, page 9.


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