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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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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