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Lent 4, Cycle C (2016)

Rejoice: God saves us by his grace! This Sunday, which was historically a time for celebration in Lent, invites sermons especially on Justification by Grace and Providence.

Psalm 32
We note again that Psalms is a collection of prayers and songs composed throughout Israel’s history. It is organized into five collections of books, perhaps an analogy to the five books of the Torah. The authors of each of the Psalms are largely unknown, as in this case. This loosening of them from their historical origins entails the validity of their use today in very different contexts from their origins (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 523). The actual title of the book is derived from a Greek term meaning “song” [psalmos]. The Hebrew title of the book, Tehillim, means “hymns” or “songs of praise.”

We consider here a personal psalm of praise for healing and forgiveness, attributed to David. 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 psalm can be understood as a reminder that all are to praise the Lord for the healings and forgiveness experienced in their lives. It is a Maskil, that is, an artful song.

The psalm begins with an assertion that those whose transgression is forgiven [nasa, lifted away] are happy (vv. 1-2). Since disease was regarded as punishment for sin, healing was regarded as testimony to forgiveness. The psalmist describes his experience, construing his illness as God’s work (vv. 3-4). References to Selah in the psalm after verses are liturgical directions, perhaps calling for instrumental interludes.

The healing seems to have begun after the acknowledgement of the sin (v. 5). The psalmist then commends a similar faith to the congregation. God is said to be a hiding place [sether], preserving us from trouble. We should offer prayer for the Lord when in distress, we sing. The wicked are said to be tormented but steadfast love/mercy [chesed] surrounds those who trust in the Lord (vv. 6-10). We are to be glad [sameach] and righteous [tsaddiq] (v. 11). It is good to remind ourselves again that the concept of “righteousness” even in an Old Testament context is not to imply that the believer lives in faultless conformity to some moral law. It has to do with living in right relationship with God (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 370-371).

Application: This Psalm invites sermons praising God for his care and forgiving love. Since the doctrine of Justification is a central theme, the sermon might elaborate God’s role as a hiding place from evil (which could lead to reflections on Atonement or Providence) or provide explanations of the Judeo-Christian concept of righteousness.

Joshua 5:9-12
This is one of the so-called post-Pentateuch history books. Joshua tells the story of Israel’s

successful victory in Canaan. It shares the theological perspective of Deuteronomy, and so may be a product of the seventh century BC reforms of King Josiah, though it clearly has roots in the oral local traditions before the settlement of the Hebrews in Israel. It posits with the Deuteronomistic Reform a tension between Yahweh’s mercy or election and a conditional view of salvation being dependent on what Israel does.

This lesson is an account of the first Passover spent by the Hebrews in the Promised Land. Yahweh is reported to have said to Joshua that on that day [the first Passover] he rolled away from the Hebrews the disgrace of Egypt (v. 9). Commemoration of the Passover [pesach] in the Holy Land is described (v. 10). Apparently they had begun to farm the land and when that happened, the manna [man, a sweet gum or resin] from heaven that had fed them stopped (vv. 11-12).

Application: Sermons on this text will proclaim God’s concern for freedom and liberation for the oppressed (Justification by Grace and Social Ethics).

2 Corinthians 5:16-21
This lesson is taken from one of Paul’s authentic Letters, written as relations had further deteriorated between Paul and the Corinthian church in the period since writing 1 Corinthians. Chapters 10-13 of the book are so different in style and tone from its first chapters as to lead many scholars to conclude that they may be the “severe letter” mentioned in 2:4. Like the first letter, this Epistle aims to address doctrinal and ethical problems disturbing the Corinthian church. This particular lesson is a further discourse by Paul on the ministry of reconciliation.

The apostle urges that from now on we regard no one from a human point of view; through we once knew Christ only from such a point of view, no longer will we know him that way (v. 16). Reference here seems to be to knowing Christ as risen and not as the one put to death. Paul adds that anyone in Christ is a new creation; the old has passed away (v. 17). He speaks of the newness coming from God who reconciled us to him and given us the ministry of reconciliation [katallage, a thorough change] (v. 18). In Christ, he adds, God was reconciling the world [kosmos] to himself and not counting trespasses against us and entrusting the ministry of reconciliation to us (v. 19). This makes us ambassadors [presbeuo, literally to be an elder or senior] for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us. Thus Paul entreats readers to be reconciled to God on behalf of Christ (v. 20); for our sake, God made Christ to be sin [hamartia] (took on a sinful human nature) so that we might become the righteousness [dikaiosune] of God (v. 21). Justification and righteousness [dikaiosune] are here woven together. They have a similar Greek root, for Justification [dikaioma] resembles the Greek equivalent for the term righteousness. You cannot be declared right without “rightness” or “justice.” Last month we noted that there is much controversy in New Testament scholarship about what Paul means by “righteousness of God,” 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 God’s righteousness in terms of his faithfulness to his relationship with his people, that it is his righteousness which restores the relationship (Psalm 71:2; von Rad, p. 373).

Application: Sermons on this lesson might proclaim the fresh start that grace makes in our lives (Justification by Grace and Realized Eschatology, including its implications for Sanctification). Our sinful condition might also be given attention, as well as an exploration of Paul’s concept of righteousness.

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
We are again reminded that this gospel is the first installment of a two-part history of the Church traditionally attributed to Luke, a physician and Gentile associate of Paul (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). Along with Acts, the author’s intention was to stress the universal mission of the Church (Acts 1:8). Addressed to Theophilus (1:1), it is not clear if this means that the work was written for a recent convert or for a Roman official from whom the Church sought tolerance. But since Theophilus means “lover of God” it is possible that the author addressed all the faithful.

This lesson recounts Jesus’ famed parable of the prodigal son, an account unique to Luke. Jesus is said to have been surrounded by tax collectors and sinners. Tax collectors were under suspicion among Jews, not only for collaborating with the Roman government, but also for dishonesty in the actual collection processes. He is then criticized by the Pharisees for the company he kept (vv. 1-2). He then unfolds the story of the man with two sons, the younger receiving his share of the father’s property who then departs and squanders all the wealth (vv. 11-13). In need, working as a field hand feeding pigs (a shameful impure undertaking for a Jew), he resolves to return to his father to seek forgiveness (vv. 14-20a). His father sees him and welcomes him home (v. 20b). The son apologizes, saying that he is no longer worthy to be the father’s son, but the father initiates a celebration on grounds that his “dead” son is alive (vv. 21-24).

The elder son is reported to have heard all this and learned his brother had returned and that his father had initiated a celebration (vv. 25-27). He is angered and refuses to join the celebration (v. 28). The dutiful son confronts the father, reminding him that he had worked like a slave for him and never disobeyed, yet his father had never held a celebration for him and his friends (v. 29). His father responds that his eldest always had been with him and that all that he has is the son’s. A celebration was in order because the eldest son’s brother who was dead has now come to life again [anazao] (vv. 31-32).

Application: This parable invites sermons on God’s grace, a love that precedes all we can do for him or for others (Justification by Grace). The implications for Sanctification (the spontaneity of good woks) might also be proclaimed.

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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