Saturday, February 29, 2020

Sunday 8 March 2020 - 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 / being born again / being born of water and the Spirit.

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] This not being the year of Matthew, I include commentary on John 3:1-17]


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

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.


This note added, Sunday 8 March 2020:
2020 special insight - I never knew this, but apparently for year A in the three year cycle, A, B, C, the readings for Lent 2, 3, 4, 5 are focused on individual encounters Jesus has (so this week Nicodemus, next week, the Samaritan woman at the well, the week after next week, the man born blind (which in John 9 is a significant encounter with Jesus), then in Lent 5 (Passion Sunday), Jesus and Lazarus. This comment, by Andy Burnham, offers an ancient explanation for these readings: "In Year A the readings shadow the teaching and enlightenment of those to be baptised or confirmed at the Easter Vigil. This set if readings is privileged in the sense that, in the Catholic Church at least, they may be used also in Years B and C"
In other words, as we journey as a congregation through these readings and these weeks building up towards Easter, we are taking an ancient journey that many catechumenates preparing for baptism at the East Vigil have taken through two millennia.

John 3:1-17 Nicodemus meets Jesus

Lots of Christians know John 3:16 by heart, "For God so loved the world that ..." but how many of us know the story within which this verse occurs? That story, featuring a Jewish leader named Nicodemus is intriguing in various ways.

First, Nicodemus is a Pharisee yet Pharisees in many gospel stories are opponents of Jesus. Nicodemus clearly sees something in Jesus which makes him both to personally visit Jesus in order to ask him questions. Noting that he visits "by night" (2), we might surmise that Nicodemus is taking a risk visiting Jesus in the face of antagonism against Jesus by Nicodemus' colleagues.

Secondly, Jesus "plays" with Nicodemus. When Nicodemus begins by flattering Jesus, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God" (2), Jesus responds by talking about a new birth (more of which below) and the impossibility of seeing God's kingdom without it (3). Nicodemus was not expecting that! When Jesus explains more about the new birth (verses 5-8), Nicodemus is reduced to expostulating, "How can these things be?" (9) So Jesus "plays" Nicodemus more: "You are a teacher of Israel and you don't know these things?" [10, CEB] That is not very fair (or "fair") of Jesus because if Nicodemus knew these things he wouldn't be bothering Jesus with his questions; and why should Nicodemus know these things when they were only now being revealed by Jesus?

Thirdly, Jesus' point here is not that Nicodemus is ignorant but that he needs to catch up with what God is doing through Jesus. The miraculous signs (2) which have drawn Nicodemus to speculate that Jesus comes from God are a taste of what God is really up to - lifting Jesus up on the cross, see verse 14-15 - and thus, once again, in John's Gospel, we, the readers, are drawn into facing the mystery of God's work in the One who is the Word made flesh (1:14).

What then is this talk about new birth all about? Let's note what Jesus (and also Nicodemus) says:
- "no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anothen" (3)
- [Nicodemus understands this as: "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" (4)]
- "no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit." (5)
- "What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit" (6)
- "Do not be astonished that I said to you, "You must be born anothen." The wind blows where it chooses, and 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." (8)

The Greek word transliterated here, anothen, has a double meaning and it could best to think of this word as being both things simultaneously rather than choosing one over another:
- anew or again
- from above
Hence the famous "You must be born again" but also, in some translations in the main body of the text rather than in the footnotes, "You must be born from above."

Either way, Jesus is talking about a new beginning (born again/anew) initiated by God (born from above) - a new spiritual birth, "born of the Spirit," into a new life.

Twice here, verses 3 and 5, Jesus talks about the kingdom of God - the new thing God is doing in the world, according to the Synoptic Gospels - and this new spiritual birth is critical and vital to being able "to see the kingdom of God" and to being able to "enter the kingdom of God."

But these are the last times in this gospel that the phrase "the kingdom of God" is used. From now on - see verse 15 - John's Jesus will speak about "eternal life" so, in a significant way, the birth anew or from above is, indeed, a birth into life - the eternal or never ending life of the one in whom God dwells, which will not be defeated by death.

But who can bring knowledge of this new birth and new life to earth? Only the one who has "descended from heaven, the Son of Man" (13). This secret of heaven, in other words, comes from heaven, via One - identified with the man Jesus of Nazareth - who has been dwelling in heaven. In speaking in this way, John's Jesus speaks with words familiar to Jews and Christians in the first century who both read the Book of Daniel and other related books known as "apocalyptic literature." We won't stop here to look further into this.

Finally, we get to verses 16 and 17 which make a lot of sense following on from verse 15 because the key, from the human perspective, about eternal life is that there is belief. Through believing in Jesus we may have eternal life (verses 15 and 16) and be "saved through him" (17).

From a catechumanel perspective, Nicodemus represents the enquirer who is fairly close in current belief and practice to Jesus, but not yet in the kingdom of God; perhaps even coming to Jesus from the shadows of current community and not in full openness. Jesus draws this enquirer to face squarely the need for new, spiritual birth into the kingdom of God which is eternal life.

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