As we ponder the meaning of the season of Lent and the significance we would like for it to have this year for us and for the people with whom we live, we begin with these Ash Wednesday texts.
We see that in Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 and in Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 the emphasis is on appropriate behavior. In Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 the Lord God commands the people to fast, weep, mourn, repent, and return to the Lord. In Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 the guidelines are to help those who are in need, pray, fast, and to store up your treasures in heaven where they will never be lost. It is obvious that for those who selected these texts for use on Ash Wednesday the behavior commanded in these texts from Joel and from Matthew were very important, especially for the season of Lent. They then selected a portion of one of the best known penitential psalms in the Psalter (Psalm 51) to indicate appropriate prayer to accompany appropriate behavior. Finally, the grace of God was brought into this series of texts with the inclusion of the Apostle Paul’s passive imperative verb katallagete (“be reconciled” to God) in 2 Corinthians 5:20 and in Paul’s entreaty in 2 Corinthians 6:1 not to receive the grace of God in vain. The 2 Corinthians reading provides for us, therefore, a very important addition to the appropriate behavior emphasis of the Joel and Matthew texts. The inclusion of the 2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10 reading suggests that we emphasize the grace of God along with appropriate behavior during Lent each year and perhaps once each three years make it the primary focus….click here for the full installment
THEME OF THE DAY
Sorrow for sin and the way out. The occasion for the day and its assigned lessons serve to stimulate our awareness of sin as well as the need for repentance (its urgency, which relates to Sanctification and Realized Eschatology) and God’s forgiveness (Justification by Grace).
A lament Psalm for healing and moral renewal traditionally ascribed to David after being condemned by Nathan for sexual transgressions with Bathsheba. Of course as we have previously noted, it is unlikely that David is the author of the Psalms attributed to him (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 512). In fact some scholars conclude that references to David in the Psalms may be a way of using him to represent the inner life of all his subjects, and so of all the faithful (Ibid., p. 521). In that sense this lament and plea for healing and renewal is our song….click here for the full installment
God’s gifts of life and free will, humankind’s choice of sin and disobedience, humankind’s need for forgiveness and redemption, and God’s gifts of grace and forgiveness, especially through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ who resisted evil and temptation and was obedient to God — these are the great themes of the texts selected for the First Sunday in Lent, Series A.
Except for the specifically Christian solution in Jesus as the Lord and Savior, these are the great themes within all of the major religions that had their origin in the Ancient Near East (Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam, and their various derivatives). It will be well for us, therefore, on the First Sunday in Lent to look at the big picture that shall be elaborated upon during the entire Lenten season and not become bogged down in minor details on this occasion.
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
If we insist that this group of readings contains a record of precisely what happened in terms of actions and conversations between God, Adam and Eve, and the serpent, we shall have some very serious theological problems. We might even have to say that it appears that God set a trap for these young, innocent, idyllic people, Adam and Eve, using the tree of knowledge of good and evil and, with only slight prodding from the clever serpent, Eve and then Adam fell into the trap that God had set for them. Once this had occurred, God had to condemn them to death as God had threatened to do. Since God must know everything, God must have known that they would fall into sin. If God had been certain that they would sin, why did God set them up in a situation such as this? If this group of readings contains a record of precisely what happened, what kind of God is God?
On the other hand, if we have some awareness of the nature of religious language and of the use of storytelling to convey a theological message, differences in genres, life situations, and so on, we can approach the great subject under consideration here in a much different manner. Then we can see that perceptive early Israelites, believing in God as Creator-Redeemer to whom they were accountable, reflected theologically on the human situation as they saw it, and claiming the inspiration of God to validate their explanations, with inspired creativity developed these stories about the first man and the first woman, of good and evil in pristine form, of the serpent, and of their own struggles and mortality. These stories — so familiar to us now that we can practically visualize every detail, even (thanks to movies and videotapes) of a snake crawling in a tree — express the human condition over against God as the early Israelites and their Jahwistic folk tradition perceived it. The stories that they told to their children and grandchildren were expressed so well that even small children could and still can gain understanding from them. Children then and now can perceive it in the form of a fascinating fable in which there is actual fruit and a snake that talks in Hebrew, English, and/or any other language as needed. Adults can recognize in these stories what these early People of God believed about their origins and their present situations. These stories are true, valid, and even historical in the best sense of compressed history, oral and literary gems in the messages that they convey. Then we ask not, “Why did God set such a trap for that poor, simple, young woman Eve?” but “Is this not the way that it is for me today also?” Then we can say, “God permits me to sin, and I sin. I cannot blame God for that. I can, however, thank God that God provides grace and forgiveness, particularly in Jesus as my Lord and Savior.”…click here for the full installment
THEME OF THE DAY
The focus on Original Sin again makes us sense our own unworthiness and need for God’s forgiving grace (Justification by Grace). In some of the texts the consequences of this grace for daily life are also considered (Sanctification). These emphases emerge from the tradition of commemorating the First Sunday in Lent in relation to its roots as the beginning of a period of religious instruction preparing those who would be baptized on Easter to confess their faith.
A Psalm of thanksgiving for healing attributed to David. It is a Maskil Psalm, which is an artful or didactic song composed with artistic skills, though with didactic elements. Since it is unlikely that David wrote the Psalm or had a role in collecting Psalms attributed to him (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 512), it is difficult to determine the date of the lesson.
The psalmist begins by singing that those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered [kasha], are happy [ashar, which also connotes being blessed, for one cannot be happy apart from the things of God, see Psalm 1] (vv. 1-2). This concept of having sins covered is language most consistent with Pauline thinking, and also is present elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (Psalm 85:2; Jeremiah 23:6, 33:16) teaching that God’s righteousness covers our sin or at least makes salvation happen (Romans 3:21-26, 4:6-8, 5:18-19; 2 Corinthians 5:19-21). Healing seems to be involved in this happiness, as reference is made by the psalmist to his body wasting away and that the Lord’s hand was heavy upon him (vv. 3-4). Disease was commonly regarded as punishment for sin in Old Testament times. The Hebrew word Selah appearing in the text after verse 4 and other verses refers to the introduction of musical interludes at these points.
Following the acknowledgment of sin and forgiveness, it is noted that healing came (v. 5). The Psalm proceeds to observe that all who are faithful offer prayers at a time of distress and will be preserved, for the Lord is a hiding place (vv. 6-7). (The reference to “the rush of mighty waters” in v. 6 is a common Old Testament image for terrible distress that threatens to overwhelm the one suffering.) The Lord’s word is introduced and he assures us that he will teach us the way to go, always with his eye on us (v. 8). We are warned against being like a horse or mule without understanding, for steady love surrounds those who trust in the Lord (vv. 9-10). Consequently we (the righteous [tsaddiq], not just those who are good but those who are in right relation with the Lord [Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 371]) are exhorted to be glad in Yahweh and rejoice (v. 11).
Application: The song affords an occasion to reflect on how sin seems to overwhelm us at times, putting us in the deepest distress. After exploring this kind of empathy with the congregation, the Psalm also encourages opportunities to proclaim the good news that God has forgiven us (Justification by Grace). But we also learn from the song of the happiness that follows from this awareness, for we are surrounded by God’s love (Sanctification). A sermon on the text could also be an occasion to explore how happiness is related to living with and among the things of God (a crucial theme of the book of Psalms) (Sanctification).
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Like all of the first five books of the Bible, Genesis is the product of several distinct oral traditions, all originating between the tenth and sixth centuries BC. This lesson is the account of the story of the fall into sin. This version is probably the work of a tenth/ninth-century BC strand called J because it refers to the Lord as Yahweh….click here for the full installment