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Lent 3, Cycle B (2015)

Look! God doesn’t do things our way. The texts push us to an awareness that the commandments of God and reason alone (our common sense) cannot bring us to a right relationship with God, and that his ways of grace and love are not the ways of the world (Theological Method, Providence, Sin, Justification by Grace, and even Social Ethics).


Psalm 19
The Psalm is a hymn to God as Creator of nature and giver of the law, traditionally attributed to David. Again we are reminded that 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). Many scholars argue that references to David in the psalms like this one may have been a way of using him to represent the inner life of all his subjects and so of all the faithful (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 521). In that sense this song is about how all the faithful and all creation are to praise God and seek to avoid sin. The Psalm begins with a testimony to the fact that the sky and the succession of days praise God (vv. 1-6). The theme affords an opportunity to express ecological sensitivity. The verses that follow verse 6 may be a later addition, praising the revelation of God’s will in the Mosaic Law [torah]. The law is said to be perfect [tamin, whole or complete], reviving the soul [nephesh], and making wise the simple. It is clear, rejoices the heart, and is more to be desired than gold (especially  vv. 7-10). The law warns and reminds those who keep it (v. 11). This is compatible with a Christian understanding of God’s law. The psalmist prays to avoid sin, so that God not let the insolent have dominion over him (vv. 12-13). He concludes with the reminder that only with God’s grace can we keep the law, as he states that only by God’s action will we be innocent/clean/free [naqah]. The Psalm concludes with the famous prayer that our words and meditation may be acceptable/pleasing to God (v. 14).

Application: At least two sermon alternatives emerge from this Psalm. The text invites sermons on the ecological crisis and how the creation proclaims and praises God (Social Ethics or the Cosmological Argument for God’s existence). But sermons on the law, how it is the complete revelation of what God instructs us to do, the complete guide to life (Leo Trepp, Judaism: Development and Life, p. 2), would be appropriate. However inasmuch as we come to realize that the law only warns us (due to our sin), the text drives us to an awareness, contrary to common sense, that it is only possible to live in such guidance because of grace (God’s action — Justification by Grace and Sanctification).


Exodus 20:1-17
We have previously noted that the book is so named for the Greek term referring to the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Its Hebrew name (meaning “These are the names”) refers to the first words of the text’s prologue. Like all five books of the Pentateuch, this book is probably the product of several distinct literary traditions. This one is just comprised of three strands: 1) J, a ninth/tenth-century BC source, so named for its use of the Jahweh or Yahweh (translated “Lord”); 2) E, an eighth-century BC source named for its use of the divine name Elohim; and 3) P or Priestly source, dated from the sixth century BC. The lesson tells the story of the giving of the Ten Commandments (likely the product of a combination of J and E, perhaps by P). The prologue identifying God and what he has done (v. 2) summarizes the previous chapters. In this sense the law and historical narrative are related. We also find this happening in verse 11b, as the sabbath observance finds justification in the Lord resting from creation on the seventh day.
Each commandment is reviewed. The name Yahweh in verse 2 may be significant. It means “I am that I am,” but could also be translated “he lets be” (i.e., creates). The reference to God being jealous [qanna] may be translated “zealous.” This is a gracious [chanan] merciful God, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love [chesed] (34:6-7; 20:6).

Application: Like the Psalm this lesson affords opportunity to understand the Ten Commandments as a guide to lie (as Torah], but which cannot be kept apart from the gracious, loving God. This insight that we are not as good as we think or seem to be, and only by grace can we do good, seems to go against common sense (Sin and Justification by Grace). The dialectical character of faith as challenge to our ordinary perceptions of reality (Theological Method) is another logical theme to develop from the text. But we could also in turn focus on one or more of the commandments which speak to the pressing social issue of the day we would address (poverty, racism, adultery, etc.) (Social Ethics).


1 Corinthians 1:18-25
The lesson is drawn from one of Paul’s authentic letters, written from Ephesus prior to his epistle to the Romans, to a church in Greece he had established (Acts 18:1-11). Relations between him and the church had become strained. The letter aims to address doctrinal and ethical problems disturbing the Corinthian church. In the lesson, having sought to address the divisions in the Corinthian church (vv. 10-17), Paul continues his appeal for unity with a discourse on the cross [stauros] of Christ. He notes that the cross is foolishness [moria] for those perishing but is the power [dunamis] of God for those saved [soz ] (v. 18). Citing Isaiah 29:14 in the Greek translation, reference is made to how the cross destroys the wisdom of the wise (v. 19). God makes foolish the wisdom [sophia] of the world (v. 20).
Paul adds that the world’s wisdom could not know the wisdom of God. Thus God decided to save believers through the foolishness of Paul’s proclamation (v. 21). Jews demand signs [semeion] and Greeks [Hellen] wisdom, but Paul proclaims Christ crucified, which is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (vv. 22-24). God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness [asthenes] stronger than human strength (v. 25).

Application: The text offers an occasion to proclaim the hiddenness of Christian faith (how it confounds reason — Theological Method and Providence) and the lifestyle of rebellion against evil in all its forms (Sanctification) that faith’s hiddenness entails.


John 2:13-22
We have previously noted that this book is the last of the four gospels to be written, probably not composed until the last two decades of the first century. It is very different in style in comparison to the other three (so-called Synoptic) gospels. In fact it is probably based on these earlier gospels. The book has been identified with John the Son of Zebedee, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and this claim was made as long ago as late in the first century by the famed theologian of the early church Irenaeus (Ante-
(Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 414). It is likely that it was written by a disciple of John. Hints of that possibility are offered by the first post-biblical church historian Eusebius of Caesarea who claimed that the book was written on the basis of the external facts made plain in the gospel and so John is a “spiritual gospel” (presumably one not based on eyewitness accounts of the author) (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1, p. 261). Its main agenda was probably to encourage Jewish Christians in conflict with the synagogue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (20:31).

Recently some scholars have suggested an alternative account of the origins of John’s gospel. Appealing to the writings of a late first and early second-century Bishop Papias, who may have implied that John’s gospel was the result of eyewitness origins, such scholars have argued that the book is in fact an authentic historical testimony to Jesus (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, especially pp. 423ff; cf. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, pp. 154-155).
This lesson is the story of the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem. Unlike the parallel Synoptic Gospel accounts of the event (Matthew 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48), John locates this story early in Jesus’ ministry. According to the Johannine author, Jesus has traveled from the wedding at Cana to Capernaum and then to Jerusalem, presumably to spend Passover in the city (vv. 12-13). Seeing people selling animals and money changers, he drives them out of the temple with a whip of cords, then pouring out their coins and overturning their tables (vv. 14-15). He charges them with making his Father’s house a marketplace [house of merchandise] (v. 16). In so doing he seems to identify himself as God’s Son. The disciples recall Psalm 69:9 that “zeal for your house [oikos] will consume/devour [katapsage] me” (v. 17). They recall this after Jesus’ resurrection (v. 22). The Jews ask for a sign [semeion] and Jesus responds that in three days the temple will be destroyed and raised up (vv. 18-20). He was referring to his body’s death and resurrection (v. 21).

Application: The text provides opportunities to condemn commercialism (the buying and selling of goods and services in order to support the church) — the doctrines of Sanctification and Church. Besides urging more generous stewardship, the fact that Jesus and the church do not operate by the usual fund-raising techniques opens the way for sermons on the hidden, surprising ways of the God (Providence and Theological Method). Another possibility might be to point out how the resurrection challenges and even destroys the ways of the world and ordinary religiosity (the temple).

Lent 3, Cycle B

Within Series B of this lectionary, the Gospel account for next Sunday, the Third Sunday in Lent, John 2:13-22, is, in a sense, a sequel to last Sunday’s Mark 8:31-38 passion-resurrection prediction. This John 2:13-22 passion-resurrection prediction of the Johannine Jesus is couched in typical Johannine terms that are much more obscure and symbolic than are those within the Synoptic traditions. Not only is the cleansing of the temple placed near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry rather than at the end where it is in the Synoptics, but also the Johannine writers placed this passion-resurrection prediction near the beginning of their account of Jesus’ public ministry rather than well into the account as was done in Mark, Matthew, and Luke.

Further comparison of the cleansing of the temple accounts indicates that the Johannine tradition made the temple cleansing action of Jesus much more violent than in the Synoptics by having the Johannine Jesus form a whip of thorn bushes and using it to drive from the temple court those who had been selling animals there for use in the temple sacrifices and changing Roman coins into Jewish “tokens” that would be acceptable as temple offerings. Such comparison of texts also reveals that the Johannine tradition used its temple cleansing account as the basis for its passion-resurrection prediction in this John 2:13-22 text. (Note how the play on words in John 2:13-22 is dependent upon the cleansing of the temple account in John 2:13-17.) As with so many other texts, we are impressed by the creativity of the inspired writers of these traditions. We can say that this John 2:13-22 text is basically a product of the inspired Johannine community.

Among the indications that this John 23-22 text is a product of the inspired Johannine community are the following. First, there are the words of the Johannine Jesus in 2:19, “Destroy this temple, and (or If you destroy this temple,) within three days I will raise it up,” and second, there is the use of the words “the Jews” in 2:13, 18, and 20. Let us look more closely at these two factors.

The words of John 2:19 are characteristic of a Divine Sovereign who cannot be limited or removed by death. Even though his temple-body might be destroyed by evil people, he has the power of self-resurrection at whatever time he designates. A human being, on the other hand, cannot accomplish self-resurrection. (Even Egyptian pharaohs who had mammoth pyramids constructed in which their bodies were to be placed could not accomplish self-resurrection.) We see that the words of the Johannine Jesus, here and elsewhere within the Fourth Gospel, are expressions of what the people of the Johannine community believed about Jesus as they perceived him. Their perception bordered on what was later to be called Docetism (that Jesus only seemed to have been human), although they guarded against that somewhat with their “and the Word became flesh in the Johannine Prologue.

The distance between the Jesus of history and this account as we have it here is also portrayed in the use in this text of the expression “the Jews.” By the time and in the place of the full development of this text, the members of the Johannine community were far removed theologically from Jews who remained Jews. They had in effect “forgotten,” or perhaps we should say “chosen to forget” that the Jesus of history had lived and died as a Jew. Because of the way in which they used the expression “the Jews” in this and in many other Johannine texts, most Christians have also “forgotten” or “chosen to forget,” or at least have not realized that Jesus himself was a Jew. As a result, destructive and hateful anti-Semitism became accepted and inherent within the Christian Church and in many Christian people.

Before we take up the practical question of what we shall proclaim next Sunday using this text as our primary biblical basis, let us consider for a moment a few thoughts about the resurrection predictions in John 2:13-22 to supplement our reflections over the passion-resurrection predictions in Mark 8:31-38 last week. We can see and understand how resurrection predictions would be attributed to Jesus after followers of Jesus began to believe that Jesus who had been crucified by the Romans was alive again, raised from the dead by God or even self-resurrected, was in the Spirit of God truly present with them, and uniquely one with God the Father. Resurrection predictions such as these are a natural development ex eventu. They are classic examples of vaticinia ex eventu (predictions made after the event has occurred). Once it was perceived that Jesus was the unique Son of God, soon to be considered to be “God the Son,” It is in no way surprising that followers of Jesus would have believed and taught that Jesus was and is omniscient. Therefore, it was reasoned or at least assumed that Jesus must have known prior to his death precisely when and how he would be killed and when and how he would rise from the dead. Resurrection vaticinia ex eventu were therefore an entirely normal development. After it was proclaimed and taught, however, that Jesus had known and had revealed to his disciples that within three days after his death he would be raised from the dead, it became necessary to emphasize that his followers could not understand and did not remember Jesus’ resurrection predictions until after Jesus’ death and resurrection had occurred. For if his male disciples had believed and remembered Jesus’ resurrection predictions, presumably they would have waited confidently for three days to pass, gathering early in the morning on the third day at the tomb of Jesus to welcome him back from the dead, never doubting that they would soon see him alive again, instead of doubting the word of the women who had experienced and then announced his resurrection to male followers of Jesus.

It is important for us to try to discern Jesus’ own perception of the suffering that he would soon endure in Gethsemane, during the horrible torture by the Roman soldiers of the crucifixion squad during the night, and on the cross. The earlier Gospels, Mark and Matthew, retained an emphasis on Jesus’ agony and suffering by utilizing the first verse of Psalm 22, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” as the only words of Jesus on the cross. On the other hand, the later Gospels, Luke and especially John, portray Jesus as essentially in control of the situation even while he was dying on the cross and as never in despair.

Now let us face the practical question of what we should proclaim based on this text this coming Sunday. We can portray how clever Jesus was, how adamant “the Jews” were, and how slow the disciples were to recognize and to process what Jesus had said. We can marvel at the daring and strength of Jesus as he drove men and animals from the temple court. Or, as a result of a more intense study of this text within the broader context of the Fourth Gospel and of the Synoptics, we can proclaim that this text reveals some of the things that the people of the Johannine community believed about Jesus and wrote about some of the Jews who were contemporary with the Johannine community during the time of the development of the Fourth Gospel. We can demonstrate how the people of the Fourth Gospel community formulated this passion-resurrection prediction as an additional inducement to faith in the Johannine Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. It will be helpful to get back as much as possible into the situation of the people who developed and first used this text. It will be helpful to express our faith as they expressed their faith, but without condemning the Jews. Certainly, we want our proclamation this coming Sunday to be both faith-inducing and edifying.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

It is probable that this text was chosen to be used with John 2:13-22 because, like John 2:13-22, it is an indication that many Jews during the decades after the death of Jesus were asking those who were followers of Jesus for some indication that the human condition and especially their human condition was improved as a result of the death of Jesus and the efforts of Jesus’ followers. From the standpoint of the Jews, there was an expectation that when the Messiah would come, a new age of peace, security, joy, and happiness for all people would occur. They were asking for indications of this sort, not for miracles as such, but for radically changed political, social, and spiritual conditions. If the political, social, and spiritual conditions not only of the Jews but of all people had improved dramatically as a result of Jesus’ life and death, most Jews probably would have accepted Jesus as having been the Messiah.

Most Jews, however, saw little evidence that the human condition had improved dramatically as a result of the life and death of Jesus. Instead, as a result of the attempt by nationalistically minded Jews to attain their autonomy in Galilee and in Judea that had been crushed by the Romans with terrible suffering by the Jews, the condition of Jews had decreased horribly. Pressure from followers of Jesus who were placing the blame for Jesus’ suffering and death on the Jews and were at the same time trying to persuade Jews to become followers of Jesus certainly did not improve the human condition of the Jews. By our becoming aware of this, we as Christians can have a better understanding of why antagonism against the Jews by Christians, why anti-Jewish polemic in the Newer Testament documents and in the Church, and why anti-Semitism by Christians throughout most of the history of the Church have always been so counterproductive for Christians, especially when some of them have continued to try to “convert” Jews to Christianity. It would be helpful if we could explain some of this in our message this coming Sunday.

Paul wrote that the Jews ask for signs and that the Greeks seek wisdom, as apparently many of them did during the first century of the common era. Was not their search valid? Should not our proclamation also be intellectually respectable? Paul’s point here, however, apparently was that his message centered on the crucifixion and on the resurrection of Jesus. So should our message as well. Are we not called in our situation to proclaim that message in ways that are appropriate and helpful where we are, just as Paul was called to do in his situation?

Psalm 19

The reason this text was selected for the Third Sunday in Lent in Series B is probably the connection between Psalm 19:7b, “The testimony of the Lord is sure. It makes even the simple person wise,” and Paul’s insistence in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 that the message of Christ crucified brings the power and the wisdom of God to everyone who will accept this message. Psalm 19:7-14, of course, provides for us an important insight into how Jews traditionally have regarded the Torah. These verses are similar in this respect to the greatly expanded Psalm 119:1-176.

Exodus 20:1-17

Since the Torah has been acclaimed in Psalm 19:7-14, the “heart” of the Torah in the Decalogue in this Exodus 20:1-17 Priestly account is then added as the Older Testament reading. In this connection, see the article, “Commandments in Context: The Function of Torah in Early Israel,” by Paul D. Hanson in the Lutheran Theological Seminary Bulletin, Gettysburg, PA (Summer, 1981), 14-24. Copies are available for a nominal charge for postage and handling from the Business Office, The Bulletin, Lutheran Theological Seminary, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania 17325.

Lent 4, Cycle B (2015)

Rejoice: God saves us by his grace! The texts for this Sunday, in accord with the historic emphasis on rejoicing [Laetare Sunday], testify to God’s love and grace (Justification by Grace).


Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
This lesson is part of a group thanksgiving for pilgrims who have come to Jerusalem for a festival. The Psalm begins with a call for everyone to give thanks. God is praised for his goodness [tob] and love/
mercy [chesed], gathering together his people (vv. 1-3). These verses may have in mind the exiles who have been freed from Babylonian captivity and returned home. Some of the pilgrims were sick due to sin but were saved [yasha, or given safety] or healed by the Lord; God’s love is extolled (vv. 17-21, 1). The correct response is to offer a sacrifice [zebach, a sacrifice of animals] and to tell of God’s deeds with songs of joy (v. 22).

Application: Sermons on this lesson quite obviously lead us to focus on God’s goodness and love in the tough times of life (Justification by Grace). Understanding salvation in terms of safety, as the Hebrews did could entail developing a Social Ethical viewpoint on salvation, how safety from social evil is God’s will. The proper response to God’s love (Sanctification) is another homiletical alternative. If the reference to sacrifice is read prophetically we might speak of the response to God’s love as a life of joyful praise and self-denial.


Numbers 21:4-9
The title of this book is related to the census of people reported in chapters 1-4, 26. We have previously noted that like all five books of the Pentateuch, this Book of Origins is probably the product of several distinct literary traditions. This one is just comprised of three strands: 1) J, a ninth/tenth-century BC source, so named for its use of the Jahweh or Yahweh (translated “Lord”); 2) E, an eighth-century BC source named for its use of the divine name Elohim; and 3) P or Priestly source, dated from the sixth century BC. This lesson is the story of Israel’s faithlessness immediately after defeating the Canaanites at the Battle of Hormah (vv. 1-3). Reference to the Red Sea which the Hebrews pass is “Reed Sea” in Hebrews. The people complain of their situation, speaking against God and Moses (vv. 4-5). God punishes them with a plague of poisonous serpents (v. 6). The people repent, and God has Moses build a bronze serpent which when the people look at it can save them (vv. 7-9). (The phrase “serpent of bronze/copper” [nachash nechosheth] is a pun in Hebrew, both words deriving from the same root.) Also from this root is Nehustan, the bronze serpent King Hezekiah destroys because it had become an object of worship (2 Kings 18:4], a reminder how widespread serpent worship was in the Ancient Near East.)The Hebrew word for “repentance” [nacham] also means “comforted” or “eased.” Thus repentance in this Old Testament context does not so much connote sorrow as joyfully finding oneself at ease in the comforting assurance that comes in a relationship with God.

Application: The text opens the way for sermons to help people appreciate God’s ingenuity in saving and caring for us (Justification by Grace and Providence), often in hidden, surprising ways. Sermons in repentance (understood as comfort or ease) could also be proclaimed (Sanctification).


Ephesians 2:1-10
The lesson is drawn from a circular letter either written by Paul from prison late in his career or by a follower of Paul who had had a hand in assembling the collection of his epistles. These conclusions follow from the fact that the letter includes vocabulary and stylistic characteristic different from the authentic Pauline corpus. It was likely addressed to a younger, later generation of Christians (1:15). The lesson is a discussion of Christ’s benefits. The author notes that we were dead through sins, following the course of the world and Satan (the ruler of the power of the air) (vv. 1-2). He relates the death of sin to passions/lusts [epithumia]of the flesh [sarx] (v. 3). God who is rich in mercy [eleos] is said to out of love have made us alive and by grace [charis] saved [sozo] us and raised up with him (vv. 4-5, 7-8). We are created [ktizo] in Jesus Christ for good works which God prepared beforehand (v. 10).

Application: Several alternatives for sermons emerge from this lesson. The text invites sermons on our bondage to sin, on Christ’s conquest of evil (Classic View of the Atonement), Justification by Grace, or the Spontaneity of Good Works (Sanctification).


John 3:14-21
Again we read from the last of the four gospels to be written, probably not composed until the last two decades of the first century. It is very different in style in comparison to the other three (so-called Synoptic) gospels. In fact it is probably based on these earlier gospels. The book has been identified with John the Son of Zebedee, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and this claim was made as long ago as late in the first century by the famed theologian of the early church Irenaeus (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 414). It is likely that it was written by a disciple of John.

Recently some scholars have suggested an alternative account of the origins of John’s gospel. Appealing to the writings of a late first and early second-century Bishop Papias, who may have implied that John’s gospel was the result of eyewitness origins, such scholars have argued that the book is in fact an authentic historical testimony to Jesus (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, especially pp. 423ff; cf. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, pp. 154-155). Regardless of the circumstances of its composition, there is agreement that the book’s main agenda was probably to encourage Jewish Christians in conflict with the synagogue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (20:31). This lesson is Jesus’ discourse following his dialogue with the Jewish leader Nicodemus (vv. 1-10). This is uniquely Johannine material.

Jesus claims to be discoursing about heavenly things, as only he (the Son of Man — huios to anthropou) has ascended to the Father (vv. 11-13). The use of this title here by John suggests that the title is employed here and in the Synoptic Gospels as a way to describe Jesus’ present ministry on earth. Jesus proceeds to note that as Moses lifted up a serpent in the desert (reported in the First Lesson, Numbers 21:9) in order to provide a remedy to those made ill by the bites of poisonous snakes, which were sent to punish the Hebrews for their sin, so the Son of Man will be lifted up that whoever believe in him will have eternal life (vv. 14-15). The cross is here foretold.

God’s love [agape] for the world [kosmos] in giving his only Son that all who believe may have eternal life is proclaimed (v. 16). This theme echoes elsewhere in the gospel (5:24; 6:40, 47; 11:25-26). God did not send his Son to judge [krpinai] the world, but those not believing are already condemned because they have not believed (vv. 17-18). The judgment is that the light [phos, who is Christ] has come into the world and people loved darkness/evil [skotos] more than light. Those who do evil [poneros] hate the light, rejecting it so their deeds not be exposed (vv. 19-20). Those who do what is truth [aletheia] come to the light, so it is seen that their deeds have been done in God (v. 21).

Application: The text provides occasions to proclaim God’s love and grace for the world (Justification by Grace). But attention may also be given to the implications of this for living the Christian life (Sanctification).

Lent 4, Cycle B

The series of passion-resurrection predictions during these Series B Lenten texts continues here with a third text (John 3:14-21), and it is extended further with a fourth text (John 12:20-33) for the Fifth Sunday in Lent. All three of these Johannine Jesus passion-resurrection predictions (John 2:13-22 on Lent 3, John 3:14-21 on Lent 4, and John 12:20-33 on Lent 5) are expressed in similar Johannine style, obscure and symbolic, in contrast to the straightforward Mark 8:31-32a with which this series of passion-resurrection predictions began in the Gospel account for Lent 2.

John 3:14-21

In typical Fourth Gospel style this passage begins with a setting (in this instance a meeting involving Jesus and Nicodemus) for which is provided an extended dialogue and here eventually changing into a monologue. Nicodemus fades out of the picture somewhere around the place where our 3:14-21 text begins. Within 3:14-21 it is actually the Johannine writers and community who collectively are speaking about Jesus as “the Son of man” being lifted up, as “God’s only-begotten Son,” and as “the Light of the world.” It is virtually impossible to discern where the Johannine Jesus stops speaking here and the Johannine writers and community begin. Red-letter editions of the Newer Testament generally code all of John 3:14-21 as words of Jesus. Actually, throughout the entire Fourth Gospel it is the Johannine writers and community who are speaking. True to the gospel genre, these writers and this community of believers say what they believe about God, about Jesus, and about themselves and others in words of Jesus within a ministry of Jesus vehicle.

What these writers and community have provided for us can become for us to share a three-part message about Jesus as (1) the Son of man being lifted up, (2) God’s only-begotten Son, and (3) the Light of the world. The passion-resurrection prediction about the Son of man being lifted up to provide life for all who believe in him just as Moses was said to have lifted up the serpent in the wilderness to preserve life for all who look at it is largely a vaticinium ex eventu, an interpretation of the significance of the death of Jesus after that death had occurred and an expression of belief that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Is that not what we also do (especially during the Lenten and Easter seasons), i.e., we provide interpretations of the death of Jesus and of the significance of that death for all people, and we proclaim that God raised Jesus from the dead and will raise us also with Jesus into a glorious life? John 3:15-18a (especially John 3:16, which is so important to us) is “gospel” in positive, non-judgmental terminology. John 3:18b-21, however, brings in condemnation of all who do not follow this Johannine “one way.” Which of these shall we emphasize next Sunday? What are we called to proclaim, good news, or condemnation, or both?

Numbers 21:4-9

It is somewhat surprising that this account was incorporated by the Israelites into the Torah, since the serpent was a Canaanite symbol. Perhaps the most satisfactory commentary on this text is provided in Wisdom of Solomon 16:6-12 in the Old Testament Apocrypha, in which the bronze serpent is described as a symbol of salvation, and in which it is said that those who looked at the serpent were saved from the effects of the poisonous snake bites not by the power of the bronze snake but because they were obedient to the word of the Lord given through Moses.

Theologically, the account in Numbers 21:4-9 says that the people had sinned by speaking against God and against Moses. God punished them. The people repented and asked Moses to intercede for them. Moses interceded in behalf of the people. God forgave them and provided a tangible way in which they could now be obedient to God and receive healing benefits from God.

The details of the account were undoubtedly based on experiences with poisonous snakes within the Sinai Peninsula and in the southern Negev region and upon the popular belief that the creature that caused pain and death should also be the creature through which deliverance from pain and death could be accomplished. This is a principle that is similar in some ways to what occurs in medical immunizations.

Ephesians 2:1-10

In this summary of Paul’s message elsewhere, the writer here presents those who will read and hear as already figuratively raised up with Christ by God and caused to sit with Christ Jesus in the heavenly places. What shall we say about this? Was this bordering on Gnostic Christian perceptions? What the writer apparently wanted to stress was the certainty of the salvation that God provides through Christ. In our own ways we too should express this conviction.

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

This psalm of thanksgiving to God for the salvation in this life of deliverance from the devastating effects of serious illnesses is an appropriate complement of the other texts selected for this occasion. Together with the Numbers 21:4-9 text, it places its emphasis on salvation within this life here and now, providing for us a balance against the other-worldly emphases in the John 3:14-21 and Ephesians 2:1-10 texts.

Lent 5, Cycle B

John 12:20-33

In this interesting text that concludes this series of passion-resurrection predictions there are two different symbols used by the Johannine writers and community in describing Jesus’ death and the life that is by faith a result of that death.

The first of these two symbols (in 12:23-25) uses an analogy from life experiences in an agricultural society. Unless a kernel of wheat or of any other grain dies (rots, decays, germinates) after it is placed into the ground, it remains a single kernel. But when it dies (germinates), the sprout that grows from it has the potential to produce many other kernels. The death of the kernel (representing the death of the Jesus of history) is therefore predicted — again ex eventu — as well as declared to be essential if the Jesus of history is going to be used by God to produce life in many other persons. This analogy is particularly interesting, because the “sprout” that resulted in the growth of the early Church did not appear until after the death of the Jesus of history.

The second symbol (in 12:26, 32-33) that was introduced in the John 3:14-21 text that we used last Sunday is more obscure. If Jesus is lifted up from the earth, it is said that he will draw all people to himself. Although this analogy is said in the text to have indicated the nature of Jesus’ death (on a cross “between heaven and earth”), all people are not to be crucified with him. Instead, as the “Lamb of God,” by means of his death he will have the power to take away the sins of all people. The way in which 12:26 is expressed suggests that reference is being made not only to the crucifixion, but also to the return of Jesus to the Father. Anyone who wishes to serve the Johannine Jesus is directed to follow him to the cross and on his return journey to the Father. It is through the passion-resurrection-return of the Johannine Jesus that the Johannine Jesus (here self-designated as the Son of man) is glorified. This text is, therefore, a theological interpretation of the significance of Jesus’ death and physical absence from his followers in the Johannine community.

In comparison to the accounts in Mark and in Matthew, there is relatively little emphasis in the Fourth Gospel on Jesus’ agonizing over his death and of his suffering during his crucifixion. Instances such as John 12:27 and 13:21 are brief and fleeting. The Johannine Jesus is in almost complete control of every situation, even when he is dying on the cross. That is the way, therefore, in which we shall depict the Johannine Jesus if we are going to follow closely the pattern of the Fourth Gospel texts. (This reminds us of a major disadvantage of our current lectionary in which during Series B, the year of Mark, we repeatedly are jumping back and forth between Markan and Johannine texts, making a consistent, coherent pattern of presentation difficult.)

Hebrews 5:5-10

Although this text speaks about Jesus appealing to God and being heard by God just as the Johannine Jesus is depicted as having appealed to God and having been heard by God in John 12:20-33, if we look more closely we see that this Hebrews 5:5-10 text does not fit well with John 12:20-33. Certainly in John 12:20-33 the Johannine Jesus does not bring to God prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears. Such a description hardly fits even the Markan and Matthean accounts of Jesus in Gethsemane and on the cross, much less the Johannine presentations. Our emphasis in our use of this Hebrews text along with John 12:20-33, therefore, should be on Hebrews 5:9 in its proclamation of Jesus as the source of eternal salvation for those who are obedient to him.

Jeremiah 31:31-34

There is little direct connection between this well-known “New Covenant” text and John 12:20-33. We can establish a link, of course, by proclaiming that God forgives the sins of individuals through the death of Jesus as the “Lamb of God” in the Johannine sense. It has been traditional within Christianity to see the Church and the New Testament as the “New Covenant” prophesied in Jeremiah 31. Perhaps if we look at this text in its own context rather than from our Christian perspective, we will be able to see a promise and a hope that is still futuristic, still to be realized fully for us as Christians just as it is still fully to be realized for Jews, for Muslims, for Hindus, and for others.

Psalm 51:1-12

This psalm portion is similar to Jeremiah 31:31-34 in its plea for God “to create a clean heart and a new spirit within me.” In a general sense, that is our prayer during Lent and at all times. Is this not what we are asking in all of these texts, that God would take control of our lives more directly, both now and in the future? This is the emphasis that unites these texts.

Psalm 119:9-16

In this segment of Psalm 119, as in a variety of ways in each segment of this extensive acrostic psalm, the psalmist asks that God take control of the life of the psalmist by guiding the psalmist in the joy of living in accordance with the commandments that God has provided in the Torah. If the psalmist will meditate on God’s commandments, the way that the psalmist will live will be pure and blessed forever.

Passion/Palm Sunday, Cycle B


There is a long tradition on the Sixth Sunday in Lent for many people within Christianity of reading one of the texts each year that portray Jesus riding on an animal into the city of Jerusalem. This “Palm Sunday” tradition can be maintained by reading and by dramatizing Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16 during the Series B year as the Processional Gospel at the beginning of the worship service. The experience will be even more profound if the readings and dramatizations of one of these “Triumphal Entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem texts is preceded by a dramatic reading or dramatization of Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, either with the entire worshiping congregation processing into the church building or with choir members and other liturgists with strong voices beginning outside the entrance to the building and processing in to join the worshiping congregation already seated.

We should take every opportunity to dramatize these texts. They are action texts. Our dramatizations during worship should not be limited to Christmas and Easter. The more services utilizing dramatic action that we have during the Church Year the better and more vibrant our praise and worship of God will be. This also involves more of our people, especially youth, makes our worship services more memorable, and increases attendance at our worship services.

After the processional using the Psalm 118 and Mark 11 or John 12 texts, the reading of texts from the Liturgy of the Passion and a brief interpretative message that applies the texts to our own life situation should follow.

Isaiah 50:4-9a

Most people who participate in Christian worship services and hear this text on the Sunday prior to Good Friday associate the claims of daily direct inspiration of this portion of the third Servant Song of the Isaiah tradition with Jesus, as though Isaiah 50:4-9a was written about Jesus or as prophecies pointing to Jesus. We as Christians can certainly interpret the Older Testament in whatever ways that we choose, and it is helpful for us to visualize Jesus as we read or hear this Isaiah text. It would be appropriate, nevertheless, for us as leaders in Christian worship services to share in some way with our congregations a recognition that the Suffering Servant Songs have a context of their own as a composite expression of the Israelite and Jewish prophetic tradition at its best. For Jews, the Prophetic tradition itself and those who are inspired and courageous leaders among the Israelite and Jewish people have the experiences that we as Christians associate with Jesus. We can gain a greater appreciation for the perspective of Jewish people regarding what we as Christians label as the Suffering Servant Songs (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-11; and 52:13–53:12) if we read the entire Isaiah document, or at least Isaiah 40-66.

Psalm 31:9-16

Our use of this individual lament within a Christian Order of Service clearly indicates that for us also, as for the psalmist, complete deliverance is still to come; it will happen in the future. For us the complete deliverance will be experienced in the Easter appearances of Jesus the Risen Christ, and in our own Easter appearances. Nevertheless, together with the psalmist, we too cry to the Lord God for deliverance here and now.

Philippians 2:5-11

This magnificent poetic expression of faith in Jesus as the Christ has been considered by many, perhaps by most, commentators to have been quoted by Paul from a previously existing source. If, however, Paul was using a beautiful expression of faith of someone else in which much of what is written in Isaiah 45:23 about faith in the Lord God “to whom every knee shall bend and every tongue shall acclaim” is ascribed to Jesus as the Christ, Paul did not introduce it as a quotation. The content of this expression of faith is not unlike what Paul had written elsewhere, in Romans 5:19 for example, and the way in which Philippians 2:5-11 continues without a “wrinkle” what Paul wrote in Philippians 2:1-4 suggests to me that this beautiful expression of faith is Paul’s own composition.

Most commentators also have thought that the words in 2:6 in which it is written that Jesus as the Christ was en morphe Theou is a statement that expressed a belief in the divine pre-existence of Jesus. These words are then considered to be similar in thought to the high Christology of John 1:1-3 and Colossians 1:15. When seen, however, in the context of Paul’s entire letter to the Philippians and of his other letters, Paul was writing in 2:6 that Jesus was a person created by God to be, as indicated in Genesis 1:26-27, “in the form and image of God,” just as Adam, the first man and all of humankind, including everyone of us, was and has been. What was so strikingly different about Jesus, according to Paul in Philippians 2:7-8, was that Jesus, unlike Adam and all of the rest of us in humankind, did not consider divinity as something “to be grasped,” but lived as a servant of God, in his words and deeds a courageous advocate of God and of God’s oppressed people. As a result of the way in which Jesus had lived, willing even to be tortured and crucified by the Romans, God highly exalted Jesus as the Risen Christ, giving to him as the Risen Christ a name that is greater than any other name, etc.

Unlike most other commentators, therefore, I personally consider what we have as Philippians 2:5-11 to have been written by Paul himself and to be consistent with Paul’s Christology elsewhere, which is not pre-existence Christology, but a Christology in which Jesus was made to be the Christ, the Divine Son of God, by God, in and through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Paul, therefore, provides for us on this Sunday of the Passion, a beautiful panorama of the entire Christ event, a most fitting preparation for our reading and hearing of the passion of Jesus texts that were developed after Paul himself had been executed by the Romans, and for the Easter texts that will follow for us one Sunday later.

Mark 14:1–15:47

In vivid detail, and from a theological perspective, the Markan writer and the redactors and other writers of the Gospel traditions who followed him, provided passion of Jesus as the Christ accounts. As we read them, it is very important that we read and hear them in the context of the life situation of those who composed them. We should be aware that although portions of the passion accounts are based on historically verifiable information, providing historical information was not their writers’ primary purpose. From the perspective of an historian, it can be said with certainty that Jesus was seized in the Garden of Gethsemane by a contingent of Caiaphas’ bodyguards, who were obeying orders given by Caiaphas, who reported to Caiaphas later that same night that their mission had been accomplished. Under orders from Caiaphas, his “goons” then delivered Jesus over to the night duty segment of Pontius Pilate’s crucifixion squad, who tortured Jesus during the remainder of the night, along with the two other young men who had been designated for crucifixion the next morning. The men who tortured their three victims were relieved in the morning by the day shift of the crucifixion squad, who also under previously issued orders from Pilate, dragged Jesus and the other two young Jews through the streets of Jerusalem and crucified them. From the perspective of an historian, the “trials” of Jesus are historically verifiable. They occurred during the merciless beatings by the soldiers during the night.

Decades ago, when I was a child and a student at home with my parents, our family attended Lenten services in our congregation every Wednesday evening throughout the Lenten season. From Ash Wednesday until the Wednesday during “Holy Week,” we heard a composite harmonized King James Version of the Passion accounts, with sermons based on the lengthy segment read that evening.

Now, with our three year lectionary and since the early 1990s the Revised Common Lectionary, we are urged to read the entire passion account, and during this year of Series B, this means Mark 14:1–15:47, or perhaps only Mark 15:1-39 (40-47). When I was a child, I heard the portions of the Passion accounts in which the Jews are presented as putting heavy pressure on “poor Pontius Pilate,” practically forcing him to give the order for the crucifixion of Jesus, and I had no questions whatsoever about the historicity of those portions. Later, however, I began to have some questions about what actually may have happened on the night prior to the crucifixion of Jesus. I began to wonder why Jesus’ own people would have been so hateful and almost rabid about wanting Jesus to be killed in such a horribly painful way. I could not understand this, especially since Jesus was such a kind and considerate person, healing and encouraging so many of his fellow Jews.

It was not, however, until I participated in several Lutheran-Jewish consultations in Minnesota and Wisconsin in 1975 and 1976 that I had the opportunity to hear directly from Jewish scholars how they felt about those hateful texts that accused Jews of deicide. As a result, I began a serious study of the Passion accounts and other portions of the Newer Testament in which Jews are condemned as cruel, hateful, and hypocritical. This resulted in the research and writing of my book, Mature Christianity: The Recognition and Repudiation of the Anti-Jewish Polemic of the New Testament (Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna University Press, 1985), which, after additional work, I published as Mature Christianity in the 21st Century: The Recognition and Repudiation of the Anti-Jewish Polemic of the New Testament (New York: Crossword, 1994). My next step in this process was to prepare a new translation of the New Testament that is sensitive to both the anti-Jewish and the sexist materials in these documents. The result was The New Testament: A New Translation and Redaction (Lima, OH: Fairway Press, 2001). In this translation, in addition to being sensitive in my translation of the religiously racist and sexist texts, I placed the segments that are the most viciously anti-Jewish and the most degrading to women in small-print form, in order to make it easier for the reader to respond as each reader wishes.

I have shared all of this in order to suggest that instead of the shorter reading of Mark 14:1–15:47 using only Mark 15:1-39, (40-47) that is suggested as an option in the Revised Common Lectionary, pastors and other worship leaders might wish to read Mark 14:1-54, 66-72, and Mark 15:16-47, passing over Mark 14:55-65 and Mark 15:1-15, the most anti-Jewish portions on this occasion. In addition, by using my translation listed above for this reading, there will be further sensitivity to the faith and commitment of millions of Jews and of women.

If you are interested in more details about my own struggles with these issues, please see my articles, “Appropriate Christian Responses to the ‘Teaching of Contempt’ for Jews in the New Testament,” in Defining New Christian/Jewish Dialogue, ed. by Irvin J. Borowsky, New York: Crossroad, 2004), 15-25, and “Replacing Barriers with Bridges,” in Faith Transformed: Christian Encounters with Jews and Judaism, ed. by John C. Merkle (Collegewille, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003), 71-89. For an analysis of our need for greater sensitivity to the issue of anti-Jewish materials within the New Testament documents as we revise our lectionaries, see “Removing Anti-Jewish Polemic from our Christian Lectionaries: A Proposal,” (also in Spanish).

Advent 3, Cycle B (by Norman Beck — 2008)

How shall we put together a well constructed worship service based upon Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 and Psalm 126 with their liberation theology for Zion, the Magnificat from Luke 1:47-55 with its emphasis on God bringing down those who are mighty and exalting those who are lowly, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 regarding appropriate behavior for the Thessalonians as they wait for the Day of the Lord, and John 1:6-8, 19-28 with its depiction of John the Baptizer as a man sent from God to be a witness to the Light, one who was much less worthy than was Jesus? How shall we do this when in many congregations the children are already presenting their Christmas program, people want to sing the Christmas carols in church because they have been hearing them in the department stores and discount stores since long before Thanksgiving, and many families are getting ready to leave soon so that will be able to travel to other places to be together with their extended families for Christmas? Our task as worship leaders on the Third Sunday in Advent is never easy.

There is obviously a point of contact with the Second Sunday in Advent through the person of John the Baptizer. One week earlier we heard about John from the perspective of the Markan narrative; now we have John from the vantage point of the Fourth Gospel. (Although we are in the Markan cycle in Series B, we shall not see Markan texts again until the First Sunday after the Epiphany, one month away. Our three year lectionary Series B is constructed in this way because in the Markan narrative there is no annunciation to the Virgin Mary, no virgin birth from the Virgin Mary, and Mary as the human mother of Jesus worries about the safety of her son as he becomes a significant political as well as religious leader. In Mark, Jesus was “adopted” by God as the Son of God when the voice of God announced this as Jesus was being baptized by John.) The Fourth Gospel perspective of John the Baptizer is also different from that of the Markan narrative in important aspects. Unlike Mark and its Synoptic parallels, the Fourth Gospel does not emphasize the Baptizer’s role as one who condemns those who come to him for a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of their sins and baptizes Jesus along with many others. Perhaps this is because the Fourth Gospel tradition with its high Christology could not and would not perceive Jesus as participating in a baptism for the forgiveness of sins, even in order “to fulfill all righteousness.” In the Fourth Gospel Jesus is the exalted “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” If we as worship leaders gently maintain the integrity of the Advent season and utilize Advent hymns and texts within an Advent worship service, we can focus the service primarily on the John 1:6-8, 19-28 text and use the other texts chosen for this day in doing this.

One of the ways in which we can utilize these Advent texts is to use the extended comparison “just as.” We see that just as John the Baptizer was “sent from God” (John 1:6), we too are “sent from God.” Just as John the Baptizer came not as the Light but to bear witness to the Light (John 1:7-8), we have not come as the Light but to bear witness to the Light. Just as John the Baptizer was not the Christ, not Elijah, nor “the Prophet” (John 1:19-21), we today are not the Christ, not Elijah, nor “the Prophet.” Just as John the Baptizer is presented as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the ways of the Lord’ ” (John 1:23), we too are voices crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Just as John the Baptizer baptized with water and said that he was not worthy to untie the sandals on Jesus’ feet (John 1:26-27), we today baptize with water and are not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals.

This extended comparison can and should be continued in a similar manner with the other texts chosen for this day in order to construct a cohesive message that will have an impact and be remembered, while being true to the Advent theme. Just as Mary, according to the Magnificat canticle that the inspired Lukan writer skillfully constructed on the Song of Hannah model of 1 Samuel 2:1-10, sang that her soul (her entire being) magnifies the Lord and her Spirit rejoices in God her Savior (Luke 1:47-55), we also should sing that our soul magnifies the Lord and that our Spirit rejoices in God our Savior. Just as a leader within the Isaiah tradition at the end of the Israelite period of exile in Babylon proclaimed that the Spirit of the Lord God was upon that person because the Lord had anointed that person to bring good news to the afflicted (Isaiah 61:1ff.), we too can and should proclaim that the Spirit of the Lord God is upon us. Just as the writer of Psalm 126 rejoiced with shouts of joy, we also should rejoice with shouts of joy on this Third Sunday in Advent. Just as the apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, saying, “Rejoice always, pray, and give thanks as you wait for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24), we can and should say the same.

When we do this, we proclaim the message of these texts, we identify ourselves with the message of these texts, and we demonstrate audibly and visibly that we today are what John the Baptizer, the Lukan writer, Mary, the Isaiah tradition prophet, the Israelite psalmist, and the apostle Paul were in their times, i.e., instruments of God’s grace, bearers of God’s Word, people being used by God, and, just as they were, joyful to be used by God.

It will be especially effective if we use simple drama, or at least dramatic readings of these texts by a variety of people within the congregation, in presenting this message and in showing that both clergy and lay people are bearers of these messages now as in the past. Biblical storytelling in which various persons memorize and tell the stories dramatically will be especially effective. A bit of sweeping dance as the stories are told will add beauty to the Advent presentation.

Advent 4, Cycle B (by Norman Beck — 2008)

If we concentrate on the Luke 1:26-38 Gospel account exclusively or even primarily, we will probably emphasize the person of Mary along with her relationships with God, with the angel Gabriel, and with Elizabeth. On the other hand, if we utilize all of the texts appointed for this day, we will probably in some way apply to our own life situation the Jewish and the Christian “Messianic expectations” regarding the promise of the Lord of an everlasting throne of David, a house, a kingdom that will endure forever.

It would be appropriate to take the latter of these two paths, since we have most likely heard many sermons and homilies, including some of our own, in which Mary’s experiences as developed within the Lukan Gospel’s creative drama were further expounded from the preacher’s own supply of interpersonal relationships, experiences, and inspired imagination. There is, of course, much value in continuing the Lukan Gospel’s process of thorough research of the subject, the gathering of oral and written traditions, and the use of earlier biblical style in the formation of a new literary or homiletical product. The Lukan playwright used effectively the references to the angel figure Gabriel in Daniel 8:15-17 and Daniel 9:21-23 in formulating the scene that we know as Luke 1:26-38, our Gospel text for this occasion. The Lukan writer also used the same type of terminology that is included in the Zoroastrian account of how the “Holy Spirit of God” (Ahura Mazda’s Spirit) had come over the mother of Zoroaster and had caused her to conceive Zoroaster without any interaction with a man. (The concept of the Spirit of God as the agency of conception of the Savior figure was also used in the Matthean tradition. Therefore, both of the Newer Testament traditions that developed a virgin conception explanation of how Jesus could be truly divine and truly human share terminology with the Zoroastrian tradition.)

By using all of the texts appointed for this day, however, we have an opportunity to explore an area with much broader implications for our own faith and lives today than that of the virgin conception accounts and to this we now turn.

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

This text is a very important component of the suspense-filled “Succession Document” or “Court History of David” narrative that extends from 2 Samuel 6 through 1 Kings 2. It contains the delightful pun regarding the “house” that David had wanted to build for the Lord God but instead the Lord God would build for David. The “house” that the Lord God will build for David will be a structure made not with timbers and adornments but with the lives of people, for it will be a dynasty, a Davidic dynasty intended to last forever. This is the “Messianic expectation” within the Succession Document, and it became a dominant theme in much of the Older Testament, as well as later within Judaism where it provided a new phase of the promise of land, people, nationhood, and blessing to the patriarchs that had served its purpose and would be continued by being blended into this new Messianic expectation.

We can perceive a measure of how vitally important and relevant this Messianic expectation of continuity on the “throne of David” must have been for the remnant among the exiles from Jerusalem who remained faithful to the Lord God during many decades of relocation in Babylon where many among them accepted the religion and culture of the Babylonians and worshiped Marduk, the Lord of the Babylonians. We note the importance of this Messianic expectation with its Zionist hopes for Jews who were deprived of basic human rights in country after country throughout the centuries. We see also the related use of this Messianic expectation within the developing traditions of many of the followers of Jesus, as in this Luke 1:32-33 text, and continuing for us as Christians since that time. Jews have intensely wanted continuity as a People of God and have struggled valiantly to maintain their identity as a people and as a culture. The striving for continuity of life within the “kingdom of God” has dominated and shaped oral and written traditions within apocalyptic Judaism and within apocalyptic Christianity. As Christians, we ride upon this Jewish Messianic expectations vehicle within a somewhat modified Christian model. Certainly we shall want to acknowledge with great respect the Israelite-Jewish origins of this Christian vehicle in which we ride in accordance with the Word of God in these texts selected for this day. As the Christmas season approaches, what can be more appropriate than to acknowledge this in order to inform and to sensitize our own people and help them and ourselves to appreciate the heritage that we have received from the Jewish people. If we do this, the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year will be a good time to have Jewish guests within our worship services.

Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26

In this context we concentrate on these few verses of this fascinating psalm. Psalm 89 should be taken seriously in its own setting, with its expectation that the descendants of David will be established forever, the throne of David built for all generations to come. The best of our Christian theology in harmony with the views of the apostle Paul that he expressed in Romans 11:28b-29 has held that the gift and calling of God are irrevocable for Israel and for the church. For the sake of our Christian covenant, we must respect the irrevocable nature of the antecedent Israelite-Jewish covenant. We must realize that if we reject the antecedent Israelite-Jewish covenant, it is only right and just that someday our derivative Christian covenant may also be rejected. For more about this, please see, among others, Norbert Lohfink, The Covenant Never Revoked: Biblical Reflections on Christian-Jewish Dialogue (New York: Paulist, 1991); Mary C. Boys, Has God Only One Blessing? Judaism as a Source of Christian Self-Understanding (New York: Paulist, 2000); and Mary C. Boys, “The Enduring Covenant,” in Seeing Judaism Anew: Christianity’s Sacred Obligation, ed. by Mary C. Boys (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005, 17-25).

Luke 1:46b-55

If this text is used on the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year, the emphasis should be focused on the final summation two verses 54 and 55 of the Magnificat in which the emphasis is on God’s enduring covenant with Israel, an emphasis easily overlooked within Christian Bible studies and worship services. With the texts selected for the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent in Series B, the emphasis is on the enduring covenants of God, which, while they may and indeed often are broken by us as people, are according to these texts, never revoked by God. Our Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, at their best, are always fully aware of this and find comfort in this. What better way than this can we as Christians prepare to celebrate during the coming Christmas season!

Romans 16:25-27

May this beautiful benediction with which the apostle Paul concluded his momentous letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome be ours also, together with the entire People of God! And with this benediction, shall we not let God define the extent of “God’s People”?

Luke 1:26-38

As followers of Jesus, we have every right to claim that the Lord God has given to Jesus the “throne” of David, so long as we realize that this is a theological throne and not a political or physical throne. Other necessary qualifications are that we understand the process by which some of the followers of Jesus made this theological claim, and that we openly recognize and continue to acknowledge the continuing validity of Jewish spirituality, Jewish life and faith, and of Jewish Messianic expectations. We know that we as Christians have taken the Jewish Messianic expectations into a new extended phase and in doing this we have given to them a somewhat different Christian Messianic expectation meaning through the Christian claim that Jesus in his life fulfilled the Messianic “prophecies” of the Older Testament. But what we have done is alongside the Jewish use of these expectations and in no way replaces or excludes the ongoing and dynamic Jewish use for which Jews have the primary claim. What we as Christians have done and are doing with these Messianic expectations must be seen as in a sense secondary to the Jewish use and in continuity with and congruent to the ongoing Jewish hope and expectations. It would be most appropriate for us as Christians to remember this and to acknowledge it at all times and especially here at the conclusion of our Advent season. Then perhaps we could invite Jews to be our guests in our Christian worship services and to hear our understanding of the Messianic expectations that we share, even as we are invited to be their guests and to hear their understanding of their Messianic expectations. When we have done all of this, we are truly “ready” for Christmas, prepared to celebrate the Nativity of the Lord.

Transfiguration Sunday, Cycle B

2 Kings 2:1-12

This account is evidence that there was a tendency in the direction of the deification of Elijah within some Israelite traditions, just as there may have been with regard to Moses (Deuteronomy 34:1-12) and earlier within some Semitic traditions with respect to Enoch (Genesis 5:22-24). The accounts of the ascension of Jesus within the Luke-Acts corpus provide the most extensive biblical evidence of the more complete theological development of this nature among early Christians with regard to Jesus.

As we look at 2 Kings 2:1-12, we see that according to this account after a certain point in time Elijah was seen no more, but that he was perceived to be alive with God. This was the basis, of course, for the expectation that developed among some of the Israelites — an expectation that is still evident within the Passover liturgy for Jews — that Elijah would return to the earth in a visible form some day. This expectation was used by early followers of Jesus with respect to the person and function of John the Baptizer and it was certainly used in the development of the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus that is the dominating text among the four that are selected for our use on this day.

In 2 Kings 2:1-12 the whirlwind and the chariot of fire were the means of transportation in lifting Elijah from the earth and its gravitational force. In the Luke-Acts account Jesus was taken up within a cloud. A cloud was also the setting for the voice from the cloud in the Markan Transfiguration account.

Psalm 50:1-6

Reference to God as speaking and summoning the earth, reference to a devouring fire, and most of all reference to the words, “Gather to me my faithful ones!” link this portion of Psalm 50 to the 2 Kings 2:1-12 text.

2 Corinthians 4:3-6

For Paul, the face of Christ was apparently seen more vividly in the good news of the crucified Jesus being raised by God from the dead as Lord and Savior than in the face of the Jesus of history whom Paul had not seen. That is to say that for Paul the Risen Christ was in a sense transfigured perpetually. Paul saw the glory of God in the face of the Christ. This was for Paul the light that shines unceasingly out of the darkness of death. The face of the Christ was seen, however, only by those who would believe. We who live more than nineteen centuries later are basically in the same position as Paul was. For us also Jesus is in a sense perpetually transfigured.

Mark 9:2-9

This Transfiguration story, along with its parallels in Matthew and in Luke, is considered by the great majority of Christians to be a record of an event that occurred just as it is recorded here. It is likely, however, that much more is involved in these texts than simply a record of an event. If these are simply records of an important, spectacular event that occurred during the public ministry of Jesus, we may wonder why there is no mention of such an astonishing occurrence within the Fourth Gospel. According to popular understanding, the Fourth Gospel was written by John, and John is said to have been present with Jesus on the mountain at the time of this event. How could the writer of the Fourth Gospel have forgotten this profound experience of seeing and hearing men who had lived and died hundreds of years earlier and who remained prominent in Jewish thought?

Although the Fourth Gospel has no mention of this event, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, who are nowhere said to have been present on the mountain, all include this story.

With our understanding of biblical symbolism, we can see that in these Synoptic Gospel Transfiguration stories Moses and Elijah function as symbols for the Torah and for the Prophetic Traditions respectively. The Torah and the Prophets together constituted the sacred Scriptures for most Jews and for the earliest Christians during the time in which the Synoptic Gospels were written. Symbolically, these Transfiguration stories may have been intended to proclaim that Jesus is in the “same league” with Moses and Elijah. By means of these stories Jesus and the words of Jesus are validated as on the same level of authority as the sacred Scriptures as the Scriptures were known at that time. (The so-called Writings had not yet been canonized.) From the standpoint of those who first heard or read the Transfiguration account in Mark, Jesus’ words and Jesus as a person were validated within these accounts by God God’s self by means of the very impressive voice from the cloud saying, “This is my Beloved Son! Listen to him!” In the story after the cloud moved away, the three awe-stricken disciples are said to have seen no one there except Jesus. Moses and Elijah were gone.

Symbolically, therefore, both the Torah and the Prophetic traditions were also no longer to be seen nor heard. At this point the message intended almost certainly was to indicate vividly that Jesus and the words of Jesus have replaced the Torah and the Prophets as sacred authorities for followers of Jesus. The Transfiguration account in Mark 9:2-9, therefore, served to validate the entire “Gospel of Jesus Christ (Mark) much as the “Burning Bush” account in Exodus served as a validation of the entire book of Exodus or even of the entire Torah. When the Matthean and Lukan redactors included the Markan Transfiguration account in their expanded Gospels, the Transfiguration accounts served the same purpose in those documents as validation stories for those documents.

The writers of the Fourth Gospel chose to validate their account also, but not by using the Markan Transfiguration account. Instead, they validated the Fourth Gospel by their use of the great “I Am” statements that they have the Johannine Jesus express in key places in their document.

Thus we have the Four Gospels validated as “words of Jesus” and actually as “Word of God” that God God’s self directly and indirectly is said to have commanded us to hear as we transition from the Epiphany season to Ash Wednesday and to the Lenten season.

Proper 18 / Pentecost 13 / Ordinary Time 23, Cycle A

God keeps us together. The texts for this Sunday are about how in all God does he aims to keep us in communion with each other and with him (Justification by Grace, Sanctification, Church).

Psalm 149
This is a hymn to accompany a festival dance. It directs that the Lord is to be praised [tehillah] in a new song in the assembly (v. 1). It also directs Israel to be glad in its maker and the children of Zion [the oldest and highest part of Jerusalem, a term poetically used to connote the whole city] to rejoice in their king (v. 2). We are to praise his name with dancing (v. 3). Yahweh is said to take pleasure in his people, ordaining the humble/afflicted [anav] with victory [yeshua, literally safety or salvation] (v. 4). The faithful are exhorted to exult in glory and sing for joy on couches (perhaps a ritual action that was part of the festival) (v. 5). High praises of God should be in their throats with swords in hand to execute vengeance on the nations, bringing their kings and nobles, executing them on the judgment decreed (vv. 6-9a). The dance that accompanied the music and lyrics may have been war-like in character. All this is said to be glory for the faithful. Yahweh is to be praised (v. 9b).

Application: A sermon on this text will link with its original theme of celebrating how God takes those in need with their afflictions and who know their needs and brings them to safety (Justification by Grace and Atonement). But insofar as the celebration is communal and dancing which is tied to the Psalm is communal, God’s salvation that is celebrated is communal, for God is said to take pleasure in his people (Social Ethics, and if read prophetically, this could refer to the Church).


Psalm 119:33-40
The Psalm is acrostic, with each stanza of eight lines beginning with the same Hebrew letter. The 22 stanzas use all the letters of the alphabet in turn (accounting for the significant length of the hymn). Almost every line contains the word “law” or a synonym. These verses are part of a meditation on the law, specifically a prayer to understand the law.

The psalmist pleads to be taught the way of Yahweh’s Law [torah] and pledges to observe it to the end (vv. 33-34). Petitions are offered to be led in the path of the commandments/statutes [mitzvah], for in them is delight [chaphets] (vv. 35-36). They give life (v. 37). We need to remind ourselves here that references to the law in the Hebraic faith of the Old Testament should be construed in terms of the Hebraic concept of torah, which is not intended as a judgmental, condemnatory decree, but regards the law as instruction or a guide for life (Leo Trepp, Judaism: Development and Life, p. 2).

Pleas are made that Yahweh’s promise [dabar, literally word] for these who fear him [in the sense of devotion] be confirmed (v. 38). His ordinances are said to be good [tob], and pleas are offered to turn away disgrace. The psalmist notes a longing for the law, so that in God’s righteousness [tsedaqah] he would receive life (vv. 39-40). We note again that in the Hebrew Bible righteousness does not connote judgmentalism on God’s part but is about right relationship or deliverance [Psalm 71:2] (Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 371ff). This is made clear in this song as the psalmist claims that God’s righteousness gives life (v. 40), a theme most reminiscent of Romans 3:21-25.

Application: Although the devotion of the psalmist to the law could be taken as an occasion to point out how a life lived under the law leads to despair (Sin), a sermon more in line with the original intention of the Psalm will talk about how good life is when we are guided by God, in right relationship with him, but that he is the one who delivers us into this right relationship (Justification by Grace and Sanctification).

Exodus 12:1-14
This book is so named for the Greek term referring to the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Its Hebrew name (meaning “These are the names”) refers to the first words of the text’s prologue. Like Genesis, the book is a compilation of three distinct oral traditions. This lesson is the version of the Passover from the Priestly oral tradition (the P strand of the Pentateuch, probably composed in the sixth century BC). It follows the account of the final plague the Lord worked against Pharaoh, which does not succeed in liberating the people (chapter 11).

The month of Nissan (March-April) is designated the beginning of the year (v. 2). On the tenth of the month, each family is to take a lamb or share a lamb with its closest neighbor and divide the lamb (vv. 3-4). The lamb is to be one year old and without blemish [tamim] (v. 5). Instructions are given to put the blood [dam] of the lamb on the doorposts and the lintel [mashqoph, or upper doorpost] of the houses of the people (these were the holy places of a house). The lamb is to be eaten the night it is killed, and instructions are given on how it is to be prepared and what is to be eaten (vv. 7-9). The lamb is to be entirely consumed, except for the remains to be burned the next morning (v. 10).

Instructions are given on the attire one is to have when eating the lamb, which should be consumed hurriedly (v. 11). The hurry with which to eat the meal is in commemoration of Israel’s hasty exodus. Passover is explained, how Yahweh would strike down the firstborn of all living things in Egypt, but the blood on the doorposts would be a sign for him to pass over [abar] the house so the plague would not destroy them. The gods of Egypt will also be judged (vv. 12-14). Henceforth the day is to be one of remembrance/memorial [zikkaron], a celebration of perpetual observance (v. 14).

Application: This lesson is a story of freedom, how God set the people of Israel free and so sets us free today (Justification by Grace and Social Ethics). It is crucial to note that the people as a whole, the community, are saved, not just individuals (an opportunity to highlight the importance of the Church). Or the Passover event might be interpreted Christologically, that as the lamb’s blood sets the people free, so Christ’s blood makes our exodus possible (Atonement).


Ezekiel 33:7-11
The Complementary First Lesson appears in a book attributed to a sixth century BC prophet from a priestly family whose ministry was to his fellow exiles during the Babylonian Captivity. Some oracles pre-date the fall of Jerusalem. This lesson is part of a series of Oracles of Restoration. The verses pertain to God’s charge to the prophet regarding his responsibility. First Ezekiel is reminded that he is a sentinel [tsaphah, literally watchman] for Israel, that whenever he hears a word [dabar, can also mean thing] from the Lord he is to give Israel warning (v. 7). Not to proclaim God’s judgment of death on the people entails that they will die in their sin and their blood [dam] will be required at Ezekiel’s hand (v. 8). But if warned and they do not turn [shub] from their ways, they will die (v. 9). Thus he is to condemn them for their sins but assure the people that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked and wants the wicked to turn from their ways and live [chayah] (vv. 10-11).

Application: Several options for preaching emerge from this text. The call to turn back from sin is an opportunity to develop the theme of repentance, made possible by the God of love who has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. A focus on prophecy, its character as a critic of society, properly emerges from this text and from this point a sermon condemning problematic local or national social trends might be developed. This theme of condemning sin might be related to the theme of the Power of the Keys which emerges in the Gospel Lesson.

Romans 13:8-14
Paul begins to terminate his letter of introduction to the Roman church with a discussion of love fulfilling the law and the imminence of Christ’s second coming. The apostle first urges the Romans to owe nothing to anyone except for love [agapao] to one another, for whoever loves fulfills the law [nomos] (v. 8). The commandments, it is said, are fulfilled by love (vv. 9-10). Now is the time to awake, for salvation [soteria, also meaning safety] is near [egguteron], Paul proclaims (vv. 11-12a). The faithful are urged to lay aside works of darkness, putting on the armor of light [phos], living honorably and not in sin (vv. 12b-13). He urges the faithful to put on [enduo, literally "clothe"] Christ, making no provisions for the flesh (v. 14). Clearly Paul here indicates belief that the Esachaton (or Christ’s second coming) is near at hand.

Application: This text also opens the way for a number of possible sermons. Concern about nurturing community through love is an option in line with the Theme of the Day (Church and Sanctification). But this is only possible when we are clothed in Christ (Justification by Grace construed as being united with Christ, as per Galatians 2:19-20). Other themes (which might be linked to those just noted) include Realized Eschatology (the urgency of acting because Christ’s coming into our lives is on the immediate horizon) or condemning sin (that the Law of God is not fulfilled unless we practice selfless love).

Matthew 18:15-20
We continue to consider the most Jewish-oriented of all the gospels, addressing an original audience that was probably Jewish Christians no longer in full communion with Judaism (see 24:20). This is an account of Jesus’ discussion of discipline among followers. Except for verse 15 the account is unique to Matthew. This is not surprising, for of the gospel writers Matthew alone concerns himself with matters of the church and how Christians are to live together.

The lesson begins with Jesus claiming that if another member of the church sins against a believer the aggrieved is to go and point out the fault to the offender in solitude. If this succeeds, this one has been regained (v. 15). If there is no reconciliation, then one or two other Christians should accompany the one offended in order that there be confirmation of what transpires by witnesses (v. 16; cf. Deuteronomy 19:15). If this fails, the church [ekklesia] should be told, and if the offender still refuses to listen he or she is to be treated as a non-member (a Gentile or tax collector) (v. 17). Jesus awards the Power of Keys to all the disciples (whatever they bind or loose is bound or loosed in heaven) (v. 18; cf. 16:19). If two agree on earth about anything requested, Jesus promises it will be done by the Father in heaven (v. 19). Where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name he agrees to be present to them (v. 20). This point suggests the vicarious presence of the risen Christ (28:20).

Application: The most obvious sermon emerging from this text is to proclaim forgiveness, how Christ has granted us the Power of the Keys, and the virtues of his mode of discipline — the virtues of private confrontation with those in the wrong before public reprimand (Sanctification). The fact that when we are in communion with each other Christ is present provides an excellent occasion to reflect on the church. And the promise of Christ’s presence among us is also a comforting word to proclaim.

Lent 5, Cycle B (2015)

With God you get more than what you asked for. All the lessons, in anticipation of the surprising character of God’s saving work on the cross, are about God’s surprising ways which exceed our expectations (Justification by Grace and Providence), leading us to spontaneous expressions of gratitude (Sanctification).


Psalm 51:1-12

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.

The psalmist urges God to have mercy [chanon] and cleanse [taher] our sin (vv. 1-4, 7, 9). Reference to being purged with hyssop in verse 7 suggests a ceremony of sprinkling such as those reported in Exodus 12:22 and Leviticus 14:51. God has no interest in sacrifice, the psalmist notes (vv. 16-17). He adds that sin is only sin if committed against God (v. 4). Presumably ordinary guilt is not sin. A reference is made to being born in sin (suggesting the Christian doctrine of Original Sin) (v. 5) and also to being rejected by the Holy Spirit (v. 11). The psalmist proceeds to note that God desires inward truth/steadfastness [emeth] and wisdom (v. 6). After reiterating the plea for deliverance and mercy (even from physical distress), the psalmist pleads for joy and gladness [sason] and salvation/safety or ease [yesha] (vv. 7-9; cf. v. 12). This leads to hope for transformation that the forgiven sinner be given a new and right heart [leb] and a willing spirit [ruach]. Reference to the Holy Spirit [ruach qodesh] given to the believer seems to be a reference even in this Old Testament context to God’s sustaining presence (vv. 10-11).

Application: The Psalm drives preachers to a consideration of Original Sin. But another option is to focus more on what God has done for us in his mercy, how he purifies us through the baptismal ceremony of sprinkling (Justification by Grace) or to concentrate on how the Spirit gives us new life in face of suffering and sin, a life which (because we have been made to will it) is full of spontaneous joy (Sanctification).


Psalm 119:9-17

This alternative Psalm is a meditation on the law of God, but in the mode of a lament. The Psalm is in the style of acrostic poem (each line beginning with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet). The verses assigned as a whole speak of the psalmist’s desire to learn and delight in God’s precepts/law [mitzvah; torah](vv. 10, 12, 14-16), that God would deal bountifully with us so that we might live and observe/heed [shamar ] his word [dabar] (v. 17). This is a way for youth to keep pure (v. 9) and Yahweh is petitioned not to let us stray (v. 10). It is good to be reminded of the Hebraic understanding of torah. The law is not a legalistic command but guidance by God (Leo Trepp, Judaism: Development and Life, p. 2).

Application: This Psalm provides another occasion to preach on the Jewish understanding of the law as guidance, that this is how the law functions for Christians when God deals bountifully with us (that Justification by Grace leads to Sanctification). (This theme could be related to the First Lesson.) Delighting in the word (Sanctification) could also be a sermon emerging from the text.


Jeremiah 31:31-34

This lesson is drawn from a book of prophecies of a late seventh-early sixth century BC prophet of Judah, dictated to his aide Baruch from the reigns of Josiah, Jehoiakim, and Zedekiah through the era of the Babylonian Captivity. Some of the prophet’s criticism of the house of David and the temple, giving instead more attention to the Sinai covenant, may relate to his being an ancestor of one of David’s high priests, Abiathar, who lost control of the temple and was finally banished.

The assigned verses are part of the so-called Hopeful Scroll (see 30:1-3). It was probably a promise directed to Israel as a whole. But as prophecies have been loosened in editing from their original historical context, these prophecies of hope become new for every successive generation. The Lord is prophesied as in the future establishing a new [chadish] covenant [berith] with Israel [the old Hebraic phrase “cut a covenant” is used]. It will replace the one at Sinai that had been broken (vv. 31-32). This new covenant will involve putting the law [torah] in the hearts [leb] of people and renewing Israel’s status as God’s people (v. 33). All will know him and the people’s sin will be forgiven [salach, sent away] (v. 34). A hymn follows (vv. 35-37).

Application: A sermon on this text read prophetically as pointing to the work of Christ might be used to help interpret the favorable assessments of the law in the assigned Psalm. A related approach might be proclaim that the New Covenant established through Christ “sends away” all our sins, replaces the Ten Commandments in favor of a spontaneous, joyful commitment to doing good (Justification by Grace and Sanctification).


Hebrews 5:5-10

This is an anonymous treatise which, given its argument for the superiority of Christ’s sacrifice to those of the Levitical priests, was likely written prior to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. Remarks in 2:3-4 suggest it was written by a member of a generation of Christians after the apostles.

In ancient times Eusebius of Caesarea opened this discussion, contending that the epistle was a work of Paul but that Luke translated it for the Greeks (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1, p. 261). He cited Origen’s opinion that the book was written by a follower of Paul based on the apostle’s teachings (Ibid., p. 273). The book is not in the format of a traditional Hellenistic epistle. Modern scholars are more inclined to regard it as a sermon, possibly modified after it was delivered to include travel plans, greetings, and a closing (13:20-25). Christians addressed are thought to have been in danger of falling away from their confession (3:1; 4:14; 10:23); they had endured persecution (10:32-36).

The assigned verses are a continuing exposition of Jesus as high priest. The office of high priest is not a self-glorification of Jesus, but he was appointed by God who calls him his Son [huios], having begotten [gegenneka] him. Psalm 2:7 is quoted (v. 5). Psalm 110:4 is then cited, designating Jesus as high priest [hierus] after the order of the priest-king Melchizedek of Canaan (described in Genesis 14:17-20) (v. 6). Jesus, like Melchizedek, is both a king and high priest. While in the flesh, it is noted, Jesus offered prayers with loud cries to God who could save him. Though he was a Son, he learned obedience/submissiveness [hupakoe] through suffering [pascho] (vv. 7-8). The prayer Jesus offered in Gethsemane is suggested (Mark 14:32-42). Learning through what one has suffered was an ancient Greek proverb.

Having been made perfect/complete [teleiotheis ], Jesus became the source of eternal salvation [soteria, also translated safety or soundness] for all who obey/hearken submissively to [hupakoe] him (v. 9; cf. 2:17-18). Again his designation by God as high priest after the order of Melchizedek is noted (v. 10).

Application: The lesson provides opportunity to reflect with parishioners on the implications of Christology (especially the suffering of Jesus) for their faith in order better to appreciate the preciousness of God’s love (Justification by Grace). Christ’s role as high priest could also be explored (Atonement).


John 12:20-33

We have previously noted that this book is the last of the four gospels to be written, probably not composed until the last two decades of the first century. It is very different in style in comparison to the other three (so-called Synoptic) gospels. In fact it is probably based on these earlier gospels. The book has been identified with John the Son of Zebedee, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and this claim was made as long ago as late in the first century by the famed theologian of the early church Irenaeus (Ante-

(Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 414). It is likely that it was written by a disciple of John. Hints of that possibility are offered by the first post-biblical church historian Eusebius of Caesarea who claimed that the book was written on the basis of the external facts made plain in the gospel and so John is a “spiritual gospel” (presumably one not based on eyewitness accounts of the author) (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1, p. 261). Its main agenda was probably to encourage Jewish Christians in conflict with the synagogue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (20:31).

As we have noted, however, recently some scholars have suggested an alternative account of the origins of John’s gospel. Appealing to the writings of a late first-early second century Bishop Papias, who may have implied that John’s gospel was the result of eyewitness origins, such scholars have argued that the book is in fact an authentic historical testimony to Jesus (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, especially pp. 423ff; cf. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, pp. 154-155).

This lesson recounts part of the final stages of Jesus’ public ministry between Psalm Sunday and the Last Supper. This is the last of his pubic dialogues reported in this gospel. John has Jesus offer a prophecy of his suffering and death which is unique to this gospel. Some Greeks who wish to see Jesus approach Philip (who with a Greek name was probably best able to communicate with them) about the possibility (vv. 20-21). With Andrew (also likely of Greek background), Philip approaches Jesus about the possibility of the Greeks seeing him (v. 22). Jesus answers with a reference to the hour [hora] of the Son of Man’s glorification [doxazo] to have come (his full manifestation) (v. 23). He proceeds to note the need for death and sacrifice (to hate one’s life) to gain life, for the grain to die if there is to be a wheat harvest (vv. 24-25). Those who would serve Jesus must follow him (v. 26).

Our Lord then refers to his troubled soul. But he resolves not to beg to be saved from the Passion, since he has come from that hour (v. 27). While Jesus calls on God the Father to glorify the Father’s name, a voice [phone] from heaven speaks of it being glorified (v. 28). The crowd confuses this voice with thunder of the angels [aggelos, literally “messenger”]. Jesus says that the voice has come for them (vv. 29-30). Jesus notes his death will judge [krino] the world [kosmos], driving away the prince of this world [Satan]. He will be lifted [hupsotho] from earth, drawing [helkuo] all people (vv. 31-32). John notes that this is a prophecy, signifying the kind of death Jesus would die (v. 33).

Application: The text provides another opportunity to celebrate God’s hidden ways, working for our good in ways that surprise us (especially through suffering) (Providence and Christology). Another possible sermon direction is to focus on the dynamic of the Atonement , how Christ drives away forces of evil and how his death leads to a harvest. In speaking of Jesus’ death as a judgment of the cosmos, it is good to be reminded of the Hebraic sense of the concept judgment [mishpat]. It can refer to a sense of comfort, not just to punishment [Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 358].

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Author of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen

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