Saturday, March 4, 2017

Sunday 12 March 2017 - Lent 2

Theme(s): gospel of grace / inclusiveness of the gospel / Jesus the Beloved Son / the cross of glory and shame / the glory of Christ

Sentence: Lord be gracious to us; we long for you. Be our strength every morning; our salvation in time of distress (Isaiah 33:2)


Almighty God,
your Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness;
give us grace to direct our lives in obedience to your Spirit;
and as you know our weakness
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.


Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Matthew 17:1-9 [or John 3:1-17 but this being the year of Matthew, I will stick with Matthew]


Genesis 12:1-4a

Linked to the epistle reading, here we read of God's promise to Abraham. Without offering any justification such as Abraham being virtuous or virile or very worthy through some attribute such as intelligence, wealth or skill, that is, as a matter of gracious election, God promises to Abraham that he will become:

- a great nation

- a great name

- a blessing (so that God will bless those who bless Abraham, curse those who curse him, and so that through Abraham 'all the families of the earth shall be blessed' (3).)

Here lies the whole future of Israel (the great nation which will be famous for it bears witness to the Lord God as unique among all other claimants to divine status and which will influence the whole course of the world).

Later (e.g. in our epistle reading) those who love God and receive God's revelation will understand this promise to be fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Psalm 121

This psalm is 'A Song of Ascents', a psalm recited by pilgrims to Jerusalem as they drew near to the Temple and this (according to the topography of Jerusalem) climbed up God's holy hill, Zion. Mention of plural 'hills' in verse 1 perhaps implies this psalm is to be recited some way off from Jerusalem when several hills/mountains can be seen by the pilgrim.

As the pilgrim lifts his eyes to the hills, from where does help come?

One answer in those days could have been 'from the gods believed to dwell on the shrines placed on each hill.' To any such thought the answer is a resounding 'No!' The pilgrim's help comes from 'the Lord, who made heaven and earth' - the God, that is, of all the world, not any local god with local concerns. Another answer, focusing on the Temple on Zion, perhaps out of sight at this point in the journey, is that help does not come from here or there or somewhere else but from one source and only one source, from the One who dwells in the Temple, the Lord who made heaven and earth.

This Lord needs no arousal (e.g. through shouted prayers or loud songs) because the Lord 'will neither slumber nor sleep' (4). In the heat of the day, climbing up towards Jerusalem, who keeps, protects and sustains the hot, sweaty and weary pilgrim? The Lord will do so (5-6).

The pilgrim is confident as he or she journeys towards the Temple in the holy city that nevertheless the Lord is at hand.

So too we might have a shared and similar faith in the Lord as our protector and keeper this Lent as we journey with Jesus towards Jerusalem.

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Last week we were in Romans 5 and this week we continue to read Romans ...backwards! However the connections between the two passages are clear: Paul is exploring and expounding the gospel of grace. The connection with our Lenten journey is also clear: as we walk with Jesus to the cross, we walk to the place where God in Christ acts generously that we might be freely forgiven and generously reconciled to God.

In these verses Paul is making a point within the many points of his great argument in this epistle that the gospel is a gospel in which the grace of Jesus Christ trumps the law of Moses, faith in response to that grace saves when obedience to the law does not. The point is captured in these words from v. 13,

'For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or his descendants through the law but through righteousness of faith.'

That is, in the context of arguments between Jews and Christians and between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians about the significance of the law of Moses after the coming of Christ, Paul points out that the great promise of God to Israel made to their father Abraham was made to one who lived apart from the law but was counted righteous by God because of his faith.

Paul is saying that the gospel of grace has its roots in the story of Abraham. As a Jew and Jewish Christian he reaches into the story of Israel in order to assert the superiority of the gospel. His argument rests on going further back into that story than to Moses. He goes to the founding father of Israel himself, Abraham.

There is then a related point which is made and worth noting here. Through verses 16-17 Paul works in the theme of inclusion. If faith in God is more important than works of the law (1-5) then to whom does the promise of God to Abraham apply? Answer: the promise applies 'to all his descendants' but these are not confined to 'adherents of the law' (i.e. Jews) (16). No, the promise applies 'also to those who share the faith of Abraham' (16), that is, to all who believe in Jesus Christ, Jews and Gentiles, Israelites and Romans, Greeks and barbarians.

Matthew 17:1-9

The Transfiguration at first sight is an odd reading for the Season of Lent (why not in the Season of Epiphany?). Yet it is an event in the journey of Jesus to the cross.

(And, as an aside, if we read the alternative gospel, John 3:1-17, then we meet Jesus talking about his heavenly experiences (compare with the "transfiguring" of Jesus into a heavenly kind of figure) and connecting them to the cross).

In particular Jesus says to the disciples at the end of the Matthean passage,

"Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead." 

That is our clue (and cue) to think about how this reading sheds light on the cross and resurrection.

One insight is shared by N.T. (Tom) Wright in Matthew for Everyone (Part 2 Chapters 16-28), pp. 14-15: the transfiguration is the story of Jesus being glorified on a mountain, clothes shining white, between two great figures of Israel, Moses and Elijah and declared God's Son by God himself whereas the cross is the story of Jesus being shamed on a hill, stripped of his clothes, flanked between two bandits and declared God's Son by a Roman centurion.

Wright writes,

'The mountain-top explains the hill-top - and vice versa. Perhaps we only really understand either of them when we see it side by side with te other. Learn to see the glory in the cross; learn to see the cross in the glory; and you will have begun to bring together the laughter and the tears of the God who hides in the cloud, the God who is to be known in the strange person of Jesus himself' (p. 15).

Another insight flows from recognising the parallel between the divine affirmation in 17:5 and the divine affirmation at the baptism of Jesus, Matthew 3:17.

If the death and resurrection of a mortal man mean anything (noting that thousands were crucified by the Romans, and that resurrection from the dead was not unique to Jesus (compare the son of the widow of Nain and Lazarus)) then that is due to a specific, special person within the plan of God being killed and raised to new life.

At both baptism and transfiguration the special status of Jesus is disclosed and confirmed: Jesus is 'my Son, the Beloved' (5). Here in the transfiguration, alongside Moses and Elijah, representing the revelation of God in the law and the prophets respectively, Jesus is declared God's voice for Israel, 'Listen to him' (5) As Moses and Elijah were set apart by God for special purposes in God's plan for the world, so is Jesus. But only Jesus is 'my Son, the Beloved' so one who is greater than Moses or Elijah is present.

Later, down from the mountain, the disciples will enquire further. Their questions about Elijah (an enigmatic figure at that time as expectations ran that Elijah would return to rescue Israel from its imperial oppression) elicit from Jesus an interpretation of John the Baptist: he was Elijah returned. But Jesus goes on to point out that just as John suffered, so also he will suffer.

Thus, unlike Moses and Elijah whom God took to himself (the former at the point of death and the latter without death), Jesus will suffer before rising to God in the resurrection-and-ascension.

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