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Lent 2, Cycle A

Hanging around the Lord changes you. This theme meshes with the historic purpose of the Second Sunday in Lent, aiming to call candidates for baptism on Easter to practice purity. The themes of Sin, Justification by Grace, Predestination, and Sanctification are crucial to the assigned texts.

Psalm 121
This is a Song of Ascents (a family of Psalms which may be pilgrim songs by those on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, perhaps [at least in the case of Psalm 126] returning from exile in Babylon after 538 BC) functioning as a liturgy of blessing. The psalmist begins by claiming to lift his eyes to the hills (to the high places where local fertility gods were worshiped [cf. 2 Kings 23:5]), but no help comes from there (v. 1). Having begun with a question of where to find such help, the remainder of the Psalm seems to be in the form of an answer given by a priest, who then concludes in verses 7-8 with a blessing. Such help, the priest contends, comes only from Yahweh, the maker of heaven and earth (v. 2). He proceeds to sing that the one who keeps Israel and its people will not slumber (vv. 3-4). Yahweh is said to be our keeper [shamar], and so the sun and moon will not strike us (vv. 5-6). He will keep the faithful free from all evil, protecting us in our comings and goings (vv. 7-8).

Application: The Psalm affords occasion to remind the congregation that all we have is of God, and our only source of help when times are tough is God (Providence). The idols and false gods in our lives have no power to help.

Genesis 12:1-4a
Again we consider a text from Genesis, which like all the the first five books of the Bible is the product of several distinct oral traditions, all originating between the tenth and sixth centuries BC. This lesson is J’s version of God’s call of Abraham, and so was probably written in the tenth or ninth centuries BC. And of course God is referred to as Yahweh by this strand of Genesis.

The lesson begins with Yahweh instructing Abram to leave his family and travel from his country (in Haran in northwestern Mesopotamia [11:31]) to the land he will direct (v. 1). Apparently none of the earlier life of Abram (later in 17:5 renamed Abraham) is relevant to God’s plan for him. Separation of parent and child is a familiar theme in Genesis (2:24; 22:2; 27:41-45; 37:12-36). The promise made is that Yahweh would make of Abram a great nation [goi gadol] — making his name so great that in him the families of the earth would be blessed (v. 1-3). The use of this concept “nation” rather than “people” [am] may reflect the national consciousness of the early Hebraic monarchy, suggesting that it was in that era that the final form of this story took shape (early in the tenth century BC). In view of Jesus’ Jewish roots, this promise seems fulfilled. Abram proceeds as directed, and his nephew Lot goes with him. His response is immediate and unquestioning. Abraham is reported to have been 75 at the time (v. 4). It is difficult to know what to make of these references to the age of the patriarchs except to recognize that they could serve to underline the miraculous character of Yahweh’s fulfillment of his promises to them or to highlight that the stories are about Israel, not just the patriarchs (in this case Abraham). The message to the primary audience was that Abraham and Sarah represented Israel, and so the nation had been chosen to play a decisive role in God’s historical purpose (Isaiah 19:24; 51:2-3).

Application: The story affords the opportunity to proclaim God’s unmerited love, since nothing prior to God’s call of Abraham mattered to the Lord (Justification by Grace) with the reminder that this is a theme that reflects throughout the Bible, even in the Old Testament. Other options include a consideration of the doctrine of Election/Predestination or a sermon on faith as a willingness (like Abraham) to give everything up, even one’s own family and identity (note Abram’s changed name).

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Continuing to write his letter of introduction between 54 AD and 58 AD to a church which to date he had never visited, Paul reflects on God’s saving work in Christ. In this text he offers his interpretation of the call of Abraham and his true descendants (Genesis 12:1-4a). Paul identifies Abraham as our ancestor according to the flesh (presumably here addressing Jewish Christians in Rome) (v. 1). He adds that if Abraham is justified by works, then he has something about which to boast (v. 2). But scripture says it was reckoned [logizomai] to him as righteousness [dikaiosune] (v. 3).

Last week we reiterated the importance of sorting out the need for righteousness in saving or justifying us. Both terms have a similar Greek root, for justification [dikaiosin] resembles the Greek equivalent of righteousness (see above). You cannot be declared right without “rightness” or “justice.”

And we have previously noted the controversy in New Testament scholarship that exists about what Paul means by the righteousness of God and the righteousness of Christ, a tendency to critique the idea it entails that God declares us righteous. This argument is made on grounds that there are no Old Testament precedents for such an idea. But the concept of righteousness as not having to do with distributive justice but with relationships (with God’s relationship with the faithful and so salvation) is an Old Testament concept (Nehemiah 9:8; Isaiah 57:1; Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 371). And New Testament scholarship tends to understand the concept this way — in terms of a restored relationship (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1, p. 271). Consequently, it seems appropriate in this text (and elsewhere in Paul’s writings) to interpret the righteousness God reckons to the faithful as a restored relationship with God, which God has created through Christ and faith embraces.

Paul then notes that for one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something that is due. But to one who without works trusts [the Greek word pisteuo, meaning faith, is actually used here] God, who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness (vv. 4-5). Subsequently the apostle observes that the promise made to Abraham or his descendants did not come through the law [nomos] but through the righteousness of faith (v.13). If adherents of the law are heirs, faith is null and void, for the law brings wrath (vv. 14-15). For this reason, Paul adds, it depends on faith, so the promise may rest on grace not only for adherents of the law but also to those who shared Abraham’s faith (v. 16). Famed New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann (Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1, pp. 259ff) has pointed out that this understanding of the law is not a Christian diminution of the high Jewish estimate of it (2:20), but simply an awareness that because we are under the power of sin (3:9), the law (or Torah) cannot be fulfilled. The law is then for the purpose of leading us to Christ by showing us our need for his righteousness, and so to claim salvation by works is a denial of faith in Christ.

Application: Not surprisingly, the themes noted in the first sentence of the application for the First Lesson (see above) are appropriate when preaching on this lesson. To this can be added Paul’s insistence that we are not justified by works of the law (by how we live), for the law condemns us. In so doing it makes clear that God is the one who sets the relationship right with us (conferring righteousness on us). In addition, the fact that Gentile Christians are saved in the same manner as Abraham, the father of Judaism and in a sense Islam, reminds us that to believe in salvation by grace entails that who you are or what you do does not matter before God. This word breaks down barriers.

John 3:1-17
John is the last gospel to be written, probably not until late in the first century in a sophisticated literary style (and so not likely the work of the apostle John), probably written for a Jewish Christian community actually expelled from the synagogue and particularly concerned to assert Jesus’ divinity. This story of Jesus’ interactions with official Judaism (especially one of its leaders, a Pharisee named Nicodemus) appears only in this gospel. The focus on Jesus as the object of faith, as well as the polemic with official Judaism in this text, is very Johannine. In fact, Nicodemus may not be intended as an individual but may be a cipher for official Judaism in this account.

The account begins with Nicodemus coming to Jesus in the night, noting that the Lord must be of God for none could do the signs he had done apart from God’s presence (vv. 1-2). Jesus responds, noting that no one can see the kingdom if not born from above (v. 3). The ancient Greek word anothen translated “from above” can also mean “born again.” Nicodemus then asks how one can be born again when he is already old (v. 4). Jesus responds that no one can enter God’s kingdom without being born of water and of the Spirit, that is, born from above [or born again] (vv. 5-7). He adds that just as the wind blows where it will, so it is with the Spirit (v. 8). Jesus then chides Nicodemus for not understanding such things (vv. 9-10).

Jesus proceeds to contend that he speaks of things he has seen, yet the testimony is not received. If hearers have not believed what he teaches about earthly things, how will they believe his testimony on heavenly matters [epourania] (vv. 11-12)? For only the Son of Man has descended from heaven (v. 13). Jesus proceeds to note that as Moses lifted up a serpent in the desert (reported in Numbers 21:9), in order to provide a remedy to those made ill by the bites of poisonous snakes who were sent to punish the Hebrews for their sin, so the Son of Man will be lifted up that whoever believes in him will have eternal life (vv. 14-15). The Cross is here foretold. John’s use of the title “Son of Man” is not like that of the Synoptic Gospels. The gospel’s author seems to understand the title in a Gnostic way that is as a designation for the pre-existent one who became man and must be exalted again, though combined with the earliest Christian meaning of letting Jesus be understood as Messiah, an apocalyptic figure who at the end of time will come down from heaven and hold judgment (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 2, p. 37; Ibid., Vol. 1, p. 49). These Christological themes fit the dichotomy between heaven and earth articulated in earlier verses.

In closing, God’s love for the world in giving his only Son that all who believe may have eternal life is affirmed (vv. 16-17). This famous statement echoes elsewhere in John’s gospel (5:24; 6:40, 47; 11:25-26).

Application: Obviously the text affords the opportunity to proclaim God’s love (Justification by Grace). But since this love is for the world, the text invites an interpretation of it in terms of Single Predestination (God’s Election of All). Other options include a focus on being born again, on how it happens through baptism (water and the Spirit), or on the Johannine meaning of Jesus as Son of Man as the one who descends to earth and will be glorified, who is of heaven yet comes to intermingle with the things of the earth, even the Cross (Christology and Atonement).

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen