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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).

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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